Anyone walking through downtown Haifa this past weekend could be forgiven for thinking that he had somehow been miraculously transported to Turkey.
From pop-up shops selling Turkish sweets and spices to imported housewares to dozens of restaurants offering Turkish dishes, Ottoman cuisine was the star of the fourth Al-Sham culinary festival, the brainchild of 2014 MasterChef winner Nof Atamna-Ismaeel.
“Hearing the news [we see] that the relationship between Israel and Turkey is not great,” said Atamna-Ismaeel, sitting sandwiched between two chefs visiting from Turkey. “We want them to go back to normal. We want true peace and to just live together. People to people we get along really well, and [at this festival] we’re giving a lot of focus on the food but also on the people and the culture.”
Atamna-Ismaeel is used to breaking barriers. She has a PhD in microbiology and was the first Arab to win MasterChef, which she did in 2014. Her previous Al-Sham festivals have focused on Arab-Jewish coexistence, pairing Arab and Jewish chefs together for cooking.
This time she turned to Turkey, and invited two Turkish chefs to Israel. The idea was to showcase Turkish and Ottoman cuisine, which dominated the region, including what is today Israel, for 600 years. Sitting between chef Kemal Demirasal, a self-taught chef and former champion windsurfer, and Maksut Askar, the talk turned to baklava, the sweet dessert of honey-drenched filo dough.
“I’m making my baklava,” Demirasal said when asked which Turkish dishes he would cook for a gourmet meal at Hanamal 24. The meal will be cooked by Demirasal, along with Atamna-Ismaeel and Jewish celebrity chef Haim Cohen, who has Turkish roots.
“I’m making my baklava too,” said Askar, who cooked in Rola with celebrity chef Moin Halaby.
“I’ll be the judge in the baklava contest,” Atamna-Ismaeel said with a grin. “It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.”
She said that the meal at Hanamal was a way to celebrate everyone’s roots in the region.
“The meal, like the festival itself, offers a bridge between cultures, a blend of tradition and modernity,” she said.
More than 30 restaurants in Haifa offered special dishes for the festival, priced at just 40 shekels each. Restaurants in Haifa hosted guest chefs from restaurants around Israel. At Jacko’s Seafood, guest chef Salah Kurdi made a lahmajoun – a Turkish pizza usually made with meat – with minced fish instead in thin pastry leaves with sumac and onions.
Most of the participating restaurants are not kosher, but kosher diners did have one option at the Donatella restaurant. Guest chef Jallal Salaam made baklali inginar, a traditional Turkish dish of green fava bean puree and artichoke sashimi. He topped it with sheep yogurt and a vegan kibbeh (known as kubbeh in much of the Middle East).
The Turkish chefs seemed happy to be in Israel. Askar, who has visited Israel three times previously, said he brought 36 kilos of spices and food with him from Turkey. Demirasal is the founder of the award-winning Alancha restaurant, which specializes in Anatolian cuisine. It is ranked among the world’s top 50 restaurants.
Kubbeh, or kibbeh as it is called in Lebanon and Syria, is usually made with meat and burghul, but in Armenia, where there is a large proportion of Christians, it is often made with potatoes, since Christians don’t eat meat on Fridays.
Chef Askar said the two most famous regions in Turkey as far as cuisine are Gazientep, near the border with Syria, and Antakya, in southern Turkey. Both were satellites of Aleppo, which has been almost destroyed in the Syrian civil war.
“That means that Aleppo can be accepted as one of the gastronomic capitals of the Middle East,” he said. “Aleppo has influenced many cuisines around it.”
In Aleppo, added Atamna-Ismaeel, there are more than 60 different recipes for kubbeh and as you move away from Aleppo there are fewer and fewer types.
The festival is called Al-Sham after the region we now refer to as the Levant, which is the area that includes Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Atamna-Ismaeel launched the festival four years ago, and each year has a different focus.
The visitors seemed culinary adventurous and excited about trying the new dishes. Many of the guest chefs have restaurants in other parts of Israel.
There were also several special opportunities for visitors to indulge their sweet cravings.
The first was a Turkish ice cream cart. Chef Itai Rogozinski from Vaniglia made two original flavors that were inspired by the world of Turkish desserts. The first, called salep dondurma, is based on orchid roots and gum tree granules and is more elastic than regular ice cream. The second is pistiji, an ice cream made from young pistachios harvested in July, which festival organizers said has never been served in Israel.
The famous Zalatimo family, which has been making sweets in Jerusalem’s Old City for more than 200 years, also came to Haifa. They served two traditional dishes, a Turkish katmar and a Turkish-style baklava filled with pistachios.
There were also musical performances by musicians from Israel and Turkey, including Turkish singer Bahar Turkan, and Karadnis, a trio playing music from the Black Sea.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>