A tasty look at coexistence

The third annual A-Sham Arabic Food Festival in Haifa creates dialogue through food.

DR. NOF ATAMNA-ISMAEEL, the founder and creative director of A-Sham. (photo credit: EHAB SHUKHA)
DR. NOF ATAMNA-ISMAEEL, the founder and creative director of A-Sham.
(photo credit: EHAB SHUKHA)
The A-Sham Food Festival – a celebration of regional Arabic cuisine, finds a good home in Haifa. It is a city known for its effortless coexistence and collaboration between Jews, Christians and Muslims. This year marks the festival’s third year running, and is rumored to be the most elaborate to date.
“A-Sham” is the Arabic term for the Levant region of the modern Middle East, which includes Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Politics aside, it is this region’s cuisine that has come together with many other influences to create the modern Israeli and Palestinian culinary experience.
The festival will take place this December 13-15, in Haifa’s newly renovated downtown core, and will include collaborations between over 70 Arab and Jewish chefs in more than a dozen of the area’s restaurants and bars.
This year’s theme is a focus on dishes indigenous to the region, which are associated with life cycle events, holidays and the celebration of local products and produce of the winter season. It is an event that draws famous chefs from across the country, such as Acre’s Uri Yirmias of the legendary Uri Buri Restaurant, and the chefs of the Machneyuda Group, which runs seven Jerusalem area bars and restaurants.
Each participating restaurant will feature one Arabic-inspired dish of special significance on their menu, made by the guest chef, which will cost NIS 35. Dishes of note to be featured this year range from octopus makluba (a one-pot rice dish created by chef Osama Delal of Maiar Restaurant in Tel Aviv, for Hamarat Talpiot restaurant), to kubbeh samak med (a crispy bulgur wheat-encrusted spicy fish dish created by chef Aala Musa of El Marsa Restaurant, for Venya Bistro.)
Aside from restaurant dishes, the festival will also feature live Arabic musical performances; a Levantine street food fair comprised of nine food trucks; pop-ups such as a holiday cookie workshop put on by The Rama Village Women’s Collective and a fair-trade Galilean shop offering lessons in basket weaving and spice mixing; as well as informative cooking workshops set to take place every hour on the hour.
Prepared dishes will range from street food to more upscale fare. The latter, for example, will be found at Rola Levantine Cuisine Restaurant, that will offer an exclusive collaborative tasting menu of roughly 10 dishes made by the restaurant’s chef, Moin Halaby, and chef Zuzu of Magdalena Restaurant in the Galilee. This special menu will exceed the dates of the festival, running between December 12-19 (reservations must be made in advance for two dinner seatings each evening).
About more than just good eats, the festival has an undeniable touch of tangible humanity, that both participating chefs and guests look forward to each year.
“It’s very important, not just for restaurants, but for businesses in every sector, to cooperate across cultures and to know their neighbors. In order to make peace, we need to learn each other’s culture, food and history, and get to know each other,” explains chef Amos Sion.
His restaurant, Helena, in Caesarea’s swanky port, offers a modern menu which includes locally sourced and foraged Arabic ingredients that Sion receives from his patrons who reside in the surrounding Arab villages.
In explaining his contribution to the festival, he notes, “The dish [we will be making at Lahza Restaurant for the festival] is called araise [a pita topped with ground meat, tahini, pomegranate molasses and tomatoes, then cooked in a tabun oven], which means ‘groom’ in Arabic. It’s a wonderful dish... a classic in the Arabic kitchen that is traditionally served at weddings, so it’s a very special, happy dish. We also serve a version of it at Helena.”
But perhaps most impressed by the festival’s open dialogue is Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel herself. She is a former Israeli Master Chef winner, and the organizer of the festival, which is put on in partnership with the Downtown Haifa Administration, a sector of the Haifa Municipality.
“I am most excited this year to see the largest turnout we have ever expected for the festival,” Nof says smiling. “This year we also have the cooking workshops which are an opportunity for people of all cooking levels to go one step beyond just exploring Arabic cuisine through tasting, by learning how to make the authentic recipes of the many different cultures of this one area, themselves. This and other aspects of the festival allow people of all types to come together, interact, and literally rub elbows, and this is something very special.”
For more information about the dishes and events of the A-Sham festival, visit: http://downtown.co.il/asham.