A nice casserole

An Arab food festival in Haifa showcases the cuisine of the Levant, but also highlights that even cooking can be contentious

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel translates ‘a pinch’ of this and ‘a handful’ of that to more precise measurements (photo credit: EHAB SHUKA)
Nof Atamna-Ismaeel translates ‘a pinch’ of this and ‘a handful’ of that to more precise measurements
(photo credit: EHAB SHUKA)
IT TOOK Nomi Rapaport, of the landmark Haifa bakery Spira, best known for its apple strudel, pink meringue poodles and other Polish baked goods, just one minute of deliberation to decide to take part in Haifa’s first four-day Arab food festival A-Sham, which, this year, was part of the city’s wellknown December Holiday of Holidays Festival.
“We come from the Polish kitchen, what do we have in common with the Arab kitchen?” she relates to The Jerusalem Report.
“But within one minute I said, yes, of course we want to be a part of this, to learn, to do something new, something different.”
Spira was among the 25 Haifa restaurants and chefs in the downtown area near the port that were paired with an Israeli Arab chef to create a dish from the Levantine – known as A-Sham in Arabic – kitchen Emphasis was placed on traditional dishes which are not made so often these days, either because they are labor intensive – such as a carob juice sweetened black and white pudding called habisa – or because they are associated with the “poor” kitchen, such as the haroumanieh green lentil dish, which is cooked with eggplant in pomegranate juice.
The festival was organized under the creative direction of 2014 Israel Master Chef winner Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel from the northern Arab town of Baka al-Gharbiya, who had already amassed several dozen of the old recipes on her own, and artistic director Arieh Rosen.
“People don’t make these recipes so much anymore not because they are not good but because it is a lot easier to make schnitzels from a bag than to go pick hubezah [mallow] from the field,” says Atamna-Ismaeel. Traditional Arab food actually fits right into the current popular trend of using fresh, local produce and eating vegan, she said.
Using her background in biochemistry, she helped record and transform the ingredients of the recipes from “a pinch” of this and “a handful” of that to more precise measurements to ensure the exact preservation of the recipes.
“We wanted to tell the story of this kitchen, but we also wanted to bring in a new angle,” says Rosen. “To allow them to hear about the food and learn about it... like the dish prepared at the end of the olive harvest at the end of the day, using olive oil from last year.” The dish of baked chicken with onions, sumac, browned almonds and olive oil, called m’sahen, is placed on a thick pita drenched in olive oil.
The word A-sham in Arabic refers to the geographic area known as the Levant, with its famous Arab cuisi ne, which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jorda n and Israel. The festival focused on the interesting cultural context of the Levantine kitchen, looking at culinary interpretations of special lifestyle moments – for example, cookies made with hale (fenugreek seeds) for the nursing mother to improve the quality of her milk.
In addition to the food, the festival included a cookie-making workshop, evening music, and panels and discussions in Hebrew and Arabic on issues relating to the Arab kitchen, including the role of the Arab woman in the kitchen.
The founder of the Arab Women in the Center organization in Lod, Salah Salaamed Egbariya, examined how the glory of food, a central component in Arab culture that is mainly prepared by women, has been handed over to the men. “The Hummus Wars” was moderated by food journalist Ronit Vered, who raised questions about food identity, the origins of hummus, and relating to the other via the culinary prism. “The New Arab Kitchen,” moderated by food journalist Hila Alpert, looked at whether the implementation of new techniques and technologies threaten traditional Arab cuisine.
Rapaport says she lucked out when the original chef she was meant to work with bowed out of the festival and Atamna- Ismaeel stepped in in his place at the last minute to create two sweet dishes for the bakery, the hilbe cookies and a pudding topped with crushed pistachios called madluka.
“There are different tastes we are not used to,” says Rapaport. “It was an amazing experience.
It brought good energies.”
Taking a break from photo requests from fans and the prep work for a new batch of madluka, Atamna-Ismaeel sat down at a window table at the Spira café and looked around. For two days, she had not heard the news or opened a newspaper. Though the festival had been planned before the ongoing wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence began, the timing turned out to be right, she tells The Report. The eagerness of Rapaport and the other Jewish chefs to learn about and use new ingredients was encouraging.
“There was a lot of acceptance,” says Atamna-Ismaeel. “To live with a person is to understand their culture, to know where they come from. It is to feed and care for one another. For a few days here, there is a sharing of identity, of acceptance of identity and a connection with the other. This is the power food has.
“The Israeli kitchen can’t develop on the basis of the Chinese or Japanese kitchen.
Here there is hubezah, not sushi. This is not politics. It is food. We don’t have just one kitchen in the world. We can be enriched from other places.
“I only see people in the streets listening to music and eating,” she says. “Yesterday, Jews and Arabs sat and ate together [at the festival]. I think people are thirsting for something like this. They want to enjoy themselves away from politics. Food is the strongest connecting thing in the world.”
Orly Agami, 50, of Beersheba, rolled up her shirtsleeves with her sons Eitan, 9, and Ido, 8, who attend the Hagar bilingual school, as they molded the special stuffed semolina ma’amul Christmas cookies at the cookie workshop led by the women of the Christian Orthodox Arab women’s collective from Rameh village. Especially in these troubled times, she said, a festival celebrating the Arab kitchen is important.
“WE CAME here to make people happy and give them tasty food, especially when everyone is afraid. We came to show them that something else is possible, too. Through food, we can also make people happy and also help them connect,” says Acre chef Nashat Abbas of the Al Babour restaurant, who worked together with Amos Ostreich, of Jacko’s Seafood restaurant, to create a dish of filet of sea bream on a bed of green frikeh wheat.
For Ostreich, it was also an opportunity to learn to cook with ingredients different from those he is used to. “I have never worked with frikeh, and I would never have thought of using it. It tastes smoky, and now it has entered my memory bank,” Ostreich says. The experience included going to Abbas’s restaurant in Acre and visiting with his family, which enriched his understanding of the food traditions, as well as the professional relationship, he adds.
But, as with everything having to do with Israelis and Palestinians, there are two sides to the story. And while food can be a uniting force, it also can be a source of contention – especially when it comes to a Middle Eastern staple such as hummus.
While Atamna-Ismaeel envisions taking the simple street food to a different level, to share it and present it on the culinary scene as a gourmet dish, panel moderator Egbariya cannot but define Israel’s adoption of the chickpea puree as a national dish as yet another usurpation of Palestinian patrimony.
“It is as if the Jews are trying to steal our Arab food,” she says. “I think Palestinians are just feeling as if the Jews don’t leave us anything. They stole our land, they stole falafel, maklubeh, majadra – a ll n ational Palestinian foods, which now is part of Israeli culture. Arabs know how to eat. Arab food is the best food in the world. They also took the food from Mizrachi Jews, now Israelis have discovered Moroccan food and made it ‘gourmet.’” Indeed, journalist Vered noted in her talk that hummus has become a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that for a time there was a competition between Lebanon and Israel to see who could make the biggest plate of hummus in order to claim the dish as their own. But it also has become a source of cultural identity for Jewish Israelis, who have very strong opinions of what constitutes the best hummus.
But, she says, hummus was created before there were any borders and was eaten by all the inhabitants in the region of “A-Sham” – by Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“The whole issue with the Israeli kitchen is very complex,” Vered says. “It is a very young kitchen… with immigrants from a lot of countries that don’t have anything in common except for hamin [or cholent, the traditional Shabbat stew] and challa [braided bread eaten on Shabbat]. They start to adapt to the local food.”
But they also adapt the local food to their traditions, she says, noting the example that in some hummus joints a plate of the stuff is served with an egg, which is not part of the local custom.
Under normal circumstances, Egbariya tells The Report, the idea of an Arab food festival would have been wonderful, and she welcomed the initiative, investment and respect given to the food, and Rosen’s visit to Lod to learn about the local food and help with selling their cookies; but the situation is not “normal,” neither between Palestinians and Jews, nor in Syria and Iraq that are being torn apart by Islamic State militants. Ironically in Arabic, Islamic State includes the name A-Sham (Levant) as part of its title.
“It is the A-Sham festival, but A-Sham, which includes Syria, is bleeding. It would have done the festival well to relate, in some way, to that situation,” she says.
In a quirky mistranslation, the original invitation to the festival described A-Sham as the “Greater Land of Israel,” a term used by the extreme right. The organizers apologized and corrected the mistake, but it nevertheless caused some consternation among the Arabs.
“Inside, there was the festival where people ate and enjoyed the food – that is a victory in the end. It is a very nice ‘casserole,’ but we did all these things in a divided country. The pot cooks slowly,” concludes Egbariya.