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For some in the Gaza Strip, summer tastes like a baby watermelon cooked over flames

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What does summer taste like around the world? For a lot of us, it's watermelon. And in the Gaza Strip, there's a watermelon delicacy that NPR's Daniel Estrin wanted to try. He sent us this postcard.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: There's an aura of intrigue surrounding this dish. I visited a family that cooks it on a fire next to their house.

It is nighttime and, oh, my gosh, there is this plate of little...

MOHAMMED QUDAIH: Ajer.

ESTRIN: Ajer - little, baby unripe watermelons.

It's made only for a short time in summer in the southern part of Gaza, traditionally associated with Bedouin desert culture. Palestinians from around Gaza take field trips here to see how it's done. So did food legend Anthony Bourdain. And we took our own pilgrimage. Mohammed Qudaih is tending the fire and speaks through an interpreter.

M QUDAIH: (Through interpreter) It's truly, like, representing the simplicity of, like, having some veggies. It's very simple, and to make it for a delicacy.

ESTRIN: This vegetarian dish goes by many names - fatet ajer, laseema, qursa. But the main ingredient is tiny, little watermelons about the size of oranges, grown in the sandy soil and picked early, before they turn sweet and red.

Wow, you just cracked open that baby watermelon with your bare hands, like a karate chop. It smells like a pumpkin. It's completely white.

You roast them whole over an open fire, along with eggplants, then wash off the charcoaled outsides to get to the fleshy insides.

OK, what's going on over here on this side of the house? We've got an enormous, enormous clay pot, completely full of hot peppers, tomatoes, garlic, cucumber, dehydrated sheep milk. And they're grinding all of that into a pulp. The flesh of those baby watermelons are being thrown into that mush.

This dish takes a village, from the little kids to a dozen male cousins and neighbors. Family elder Yousef Qudaih sits in his plastic chair, wearing an embroidered gray gown and a Nike baseball hat.

YOUSEF QUDAIH: I want to tell you about our land before, how the land - our land is pure.

ESTRIN: This dish reminds him of the old days when people subsisted off the natural bounty of the land before modern diets brought diabetes, before a new road was paved right here through his open field, before Gaza became crowded, squeezed into tight borders.

Y QUDAIH: And the people coming, coming, coming, coming, coming.

ESTRIN: The population is growing.

Y QUDAIH: It's - we lose the land.

ESTRIN: Meanwhile, the fire has died down. I can see the Big Dipper. And now he's covering the dough with the embers.

The last step - baking flat, round bread, then tearing it up into the veggie mush with a healthy pour of olive oil. And then we grab spoons and circle around a large dish.

That's lovely. It's like a big, chunky mix of baba ghanoush, a little spicy kick and that watery, kind of juicy feeling of that baby watermelon.

It was only when we left that I learned that the 20 unripe watermelons that they had just roasted for us were the last of their homegrown stock. They'd been saving them for a special occasion.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZAKIR HUSSAIN'S "ENCORE: MAKING MUSIC REVISITED (LIVE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.