“My goal is to expose as many people as possible to Arabic Galilean cuisine. There is so much potential in these recipes,” exclaims Chef Nashat Abbas, the founder and manager of Sahara Palace restaurant, located at the entrance of Kfar Nin on Road 65 between Afula and Kfar Tavor, not far from Kibbutz Dovrat.
“At Sahara Palace, we put tremendous emphasis on the purity of Arabic Galilean cuisine, which we prepare using modern techniques,” continues Abbas, 54, a veteran restaurateur who lives in Kafr Kana in the Galilee. “This is the cuisine that is familiar to Arabs who live here in the Galilee in Israel, as well as Arabs living in Lebanon and Syria. It is distinct from Arab cuisine found in Egypt, Yemen and Iraq.”
Abbas made his first foray into the kitchen at the young age of 12, when he prepared a banana shish kabob. “It came out really yummy, and everybody tried it,” Abbas recalls. “We are five brothers in my family, and we all work in the restaurant business. We all absolutely love this field.”
The family’s connection with the restaurant industry began back when Abbas’s father was working in renovations in Jaffa. Every day his father would bring with him to work food commonly found in Arabic Galilean cuisine that his wife had prepared, and the family’s name soon became synonymous with quality Arabic Galilean cuisine all over the country. Immediately upon graduating from high school, Nashat began working at his family’s eponymous restaurant in Jaffa, just next to Bloomfield Stadium. For 14 years, he worked as the manager at Abbas restaurant, which became a magnet for people who love authentic Arabic cuisine.
In each of the next stations of his career, Abbas continued to leave his mark and create new dishes with roots in his family’s traditional fare. Abbas worked at Altabon Restaurant in Nazareth for five years, then another 11 years at Albabor restaurant in Wadi Ara and Yokneam. “People would flock to Albabor so they could taste authentic Arabic cuisine for the first time,” Abbas explains. Abbas then moved on to Albabor and the Sea, located on the promenade in Old Akko. It was at this point in time that covid hit Israel, and the restaurant closed its doors.
After the pandemic, Abbas set his sights on creating his own path. “Sahara Palace is the first restaurant I opened all on my own,” Abbas clarifies. “I realized that the time had come for me to break out of my comfort zone. My family had grown, and each of my siblings and I had gone in our own direction. We are all still great friends, and love swapping recipes at family events. I don’t think that’ll ever change. We held the grand opening of Sahara Palace in early September, following renovations that really turned the space into an authentic Arabic Galilean cultural dining experience. It truly does look like a palace now. Sahara can accommodate 180 diners inside, and another 180 outside. Our guests include Muslims, Christians and Jews. We are extremely proud of our multicultural clientele and the fact that diners of all faiths and cultures feel welcome here.”
Abbas proudly proclaims that all of the olives, vegetables, lemons and oranges used in dishes prepared at Sahara Palace are grown in groves and fields located in the Galilee. “Moreover, we even source our beef and milk locally,” he adds. “There’s only one item that I don’t buy in the Galilee, and that’s tahini, since the highest quality tahini is made in Shechem. We prepare our beef dishes in a number of ways: in pits in the ground, on a taboun, in the oven, grilled over charcoal or in a smoker.
Abbas is proud of the recipes he’s created over his many years of working as a chef. “Our menu is rich and contains 40 different dishes – starters, salads, meats and desserts. There are also special dishes that are perfect for serving at family celebrations.” Abbas also tells me about a unique dessert he came up that has garnered great reviews. “I created a new dessert: knaffeh on a skewer stick. It’s a bit complicated to prepare, but is totally worth it.”
Abbas gets offended when customers come in and ask if they can have a pita with humous and kebab for takeaway. “We’re a gourmet restaurant. Would anyone ever dream of walking into a fancy restaurant in Tel Aviv and making such a request?” Abbas asks. He also explains that their menu includes an item they call ‘A meal fit for a sultan’. It costs NIS 200 and includes a miniature version of 20 different dishes from Arabic Galilean cuisine. In an effort to introduce Israelis to Arabic Galilean cuisine, Abbas is planning to offer cooking workshops.
Abbas admits that it doesn’t look like any of his kids are interested in continuing the family tradition. “I have four kids. One is a doctor, one is a nurse and another a lawyer. My youngest daughter is only 12 and she loves cooking, and is really good at it. I still have my hopes that she’ll choose to carry on the family tradition. My wife is in charge of the kitchen at home, and I admit I have learned so much about Arabic Galilean cuisine from her, too. None of us ever stop learning.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.