Dishing it up for everyone

A lecture series on the culinary arts at the Museum of Islamic Art aims to gather us all around the table.

Dr. Nof Atman Ismaeel will have some kitchen secrets to spill (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Nof Atman Ismaeel will have some kitchen secrets to spill
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s nothing like food to bring people together.
Then again, dietary habits and what goes into the creation of some dish or other can spark fierce debate. In the Israeli jazz community in the US, for example, it is said that there is a running battle between New York-resident bass player Omer Avital and Boston-based flutist Amir Milstein over who has the best recipe for hummus.
Naturally, gastronomic differences of opinion are just that, and no one has yet been physically hurt as the result of a food feud.
Dr. Nof Ataman Ismaeel certainly goes along with the idea of people of all ethnic, cultural and political stripes sitting around a table and tucking in together. She will impart that ethos and, no doubt, some kitchen secrets to her audience at the Museum of Islamic Art on November 19.
The gathering is part of a slew of lecture events arranged by the museum, which kicked off last week with an intriguing talk by Smadar Peri. During the course of her long career, veteran journalist Peri has roamed far and wide around the Middle East, interviewing Egyptian leaders Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and King Hussein of Jordan. At last week’s session, Peri talked about the place of women in the Arab Spring, and whether their standing in Arab society has improved or deteriorated as a result of the dramatic events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Ataman Ismaeel’s talk, like the Peri gathering, forms part of a four-slot series called “Between the Folds of Their Identity,” which looks at current social and geopolitical issues in the Mediterranean region through the lives of Arab women. There is also a fascinating program that examines the mysteries of folk magic and faith in the Middle East and the Maghreb region of north and northwest Africa.
“It is important to bring Jews and Arabs together, particularly at this time,” says museum director Nadim Shiban. “We have an important role to play in that, and that is why we have organized these lecture series events.
It is only by getting to know others, people from different cultures, that you bridge gaps.”
The museum puts out that word 365 days a year, and one of the exhibitions currently running there, “Tiraz: Local Embroidery,” which incorporates a wide variety of attire designed and largely handmade by Arab and Beduin women from different parts of the country, was incorporated into the Peri session.
As far as Ataman Ismaeel is concerned, no one has a monopoly on good food, nor on where we live, hummus warfare notwithstanding.
“No one understands that, just as no one has ownership of the land, no one has exclusive ownership of food,” says the University of Haifa marine microbiology lecturer. “At least when people argue over food, no one gets hurt. In the worst-case scenario you might catch a bit of mayonnaise on the head,” she laughs.
The cuisine-based session will convey Ataman Ismaeel’s story. It is a multi-stratified tale of disparate gastronomic schools of thought, and contrasting approaches to life and the issue of the woman’s place in the home and society in general. “I will tell my personal story, which includes the stories of my grandmothers, of my mother and of myself,” says the mother of three. “But I will tell those stories through the prism of the kitchen.”
Ataman Ismaeel was born in Baka al-Gharbiya, east of Hadera.
Her grandmothers came from very different backgrounds and brought highly differing social baggage and outlooks to the home and the kitchen. “One grandmother came from the city, from Haifa, and the other came from a village,” the biologist continues.
“Their cuisines were very different.” That left its imprint both on the lecturer’s mother and on Ataman Ismaeel herself. “My urban grandmother’s kitchen was very modern, and that enabled her to gain a sense of independence.” That was a sensibility she was keen to pass on, in an effort to better her daughter’s lot.
“She kept my mother out of the kitchen because she wanted her to gain an education, which is something she never managed. She saw the kitchen as a sort of symbol of repression of women.”
But, what goes around often comes around – in a positive sense too – and Ataman Ismaeel’s maternal grandmother’s wish to give her a daughter a better start to life boomeranged in the best possible way. “My mother actually considered the kitchen, and making food, as something that liberated her,” says the lecturer.
“When I came along, it was clear that, as the daughter of an educated mother, I was also going to get a good education. But my mother, as the next generation, didn’t view the kitchen as a symbol of repression. She did allow me into the kitchen and she allowed me freedom.”
Ataman Ismaeel went for the culinary arts big time, and her expertise was brought to the attention of the nation last year when she landed first prize in the MasterChef TV reality show. She manages to juggle motherhood and her university career, as well as her kitchen exploits. When not at home or on campus, Ataman Ismaeel spends time running culinary workshops for Jews and Arabs alike around the country.
The cultural-ethnic-social gap-bridging element is a recurrent theme in our chat, and Ataman Ismaeel feels that finding common ground through food and its preparation is all the more important in these troubled times.
While Ataman Ismaeel is grateful she had the chance to gain a good education and take on a profession, she warns against eschewing the wonders of food preparation entirely. “The generation of women, say, somewhere between my generation and my mother’s, they are the generation of “instant” food, and there is a danger that the skills that Arab women have practiced over the centuries will be lost. A lot of young Arab women and girls aren’t interested in cooking. They want to get on with their lives.”
The TV contest winner feels that young women are losing our bond with Mother Nature. “There is the art of going out to the fields and gathering edible herbs. How can you learn what is good and what is poisonous if you don’t go out with someone experienced and learn from them? My grandmother, for example, recognizes about 50 types of wild herbs; my mother recognizes 30, and I know about 20. I gave a workshop to a bunch of 17- to 18-year-old girls and I held up a herb and asked if they recognized it. Only two knew. The tradition is being lost.”
There is also abundant social profit to be had from making food. “If my grandmother, from the village, only had lentils in the house, she could create a wonderful dish and we wouldn’t feel that she had made it because there was nothing else around,” recalls Ataman Ismaeel, adding that good neighborliness also helped to ensure that she and her siblings enjoyed varied offerings. “My grandmother would ask me or one of the other kids to take some of the lentil dish over to a couple of other women in the village and they, in return, would give us something from what they’d cooked. So we’d end up with all kinds of things to eat – and all from the lentils my grandmother had in the house at the time.”
The basic desire to have something delicious to eat, says Ataman Ismaeel, not only helps to strengthen ties between neighbors in an Arab village, it also neatly spans all manner of political and security considerations.
“Just the other day I gave a workshop at Kfar Haroeh, which is a religious place. Men with kippot and religious women came to learn about Arab cuisine, at this crazy time! It was such fun. People started to crack jokes. One of them said: ‘look – we all have knives and no one is stabbing anyone!’ I have never encountered anything as powerful as food.”
For more information about the lecture series: (02) 566-1291 and