Pursuits: In Israel, a New Passion for Palestinian Cuisine
An Arabic dessert had been crowned the best in Israel? We could make room. After a few bites of the sweet, which consists of kadaif cheese rolled into tangy semolina pancakes and dressed with pistachios and honey, it was abundantly clear: Palestinian cuisine in Israel, which for decades has been relegated to tourist traps and quick-fare family restaurants, is having its moment.
“When I opened Magdalena, a lot of people said to me, ‘What are you doing? You are an Arab. You need to protect the authenticity of our cuisine,’ ” said Yousef Hanna, Magdalena’s owner and chef, the next morning as we sipped espresso on the restaurant’s back patio. In daylight, Magdalena’s location, which offers sweeping views of lush Mount Arbel and the Sea of Galilee, makes much more sense. “But I told them, ‘It’s not a mistake, it’s an upgrade.’ ”
Mr. Hanna opened Magdalena in 2013, after starting three successful but conventional Arabic restaurants, where the long-held traditions of a dozen salads to begin the meal and simple grilled meats were menu mainstays. At Magdalena, he has thrown that rule book out the window, reaching instead for the childhood recipes he remembers his mother sourcing from their home garden and pairing them with techniques he picked up from Jewish chefs in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.
His food is elevated, but it is also grounded in history. “This is the idea of my restaurant — to take the roots of Galilee cuisine, and bring them to the new world of cooking,” he said.
Over the course of a month, I traveled across northern Israel to meet a handful of young Palestinian chefs, all born in Israel with the dual languages of Arabic and Hebrew, and the dual culinary heritages of family home cooking and Israel’s far-reaching global cuisine.
Drawing as much from their grandmother’s kitchens as they do from nose-to-tail, farm-to-table trends, these men and women are creating a new epicurean movement in Israel, one whose roots come not from the Ashkenazi Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe or the North African kitchens of Sephardic Jewry, but from the hills and farms of ancient Palestine.
A few weeks after our feast at Magdalena, Hudy and I found ourselves at yet another nondescript strip mall, this time in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Ata. Pulling into an enormous parking lot, we found Ale Gefen, Hebrew for “grape leaves,” a pretty restaurant of pale wood and rustic touches that felt out of place wedged between a toy store and a gym.
The chef and owner, Omar Alelam, opened his doors last year with the goal of merging molecular gastronomy with the flavors his Syrian-born grandmother taught him growing up in Ein Mahil, an Arab village near Nazareth.
“Arab food in the north was stuck with a stigma that it’s hummus, meat and salad,” Mr. Alelam told us after we worked our way through a bright, fire-roasted eggplant starter, an impossibly buttery lamb neck sous-vide for 72 hours, and a surprising crème brûlée in which tahini had been used in place of the traditional egg. “I know there’s more modern, innovative Palestinian food, and I wanted to be the one who brought it.”
Mr. Alelam, big and burly, is well known to Israeli foodies after appearing on the first season of the cooking competition “Game of Chefs.” Arab food in Israel is modernizing, he said, because the Arab community is modernizing, its once-insular towns and villages slowly expanding toward the Jewish-majority cities that surround them.
As for how to categorize his cuisine, however, Mr. Alelam had less to say. “I don’t involve politics with my food. It’s not Palestinian or Syrian, it’s modern Arab food,” he said. “It’s a problem for me, trying to define it, because it’s updated but still very old. I’m still debating with myself how to call it.”
Just weeks after Mr. Alelam appeared on “Game of Chefs,” an Arab microbiologist stunned Israeli audiences by winning its competitor cooking program “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a mother of three from the northern town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, wowed the judges in 2014 by creating what she calls “modern Arabic cuisine,” leaning heavily on her Ph.D. in molecular biology to create precise dishes like a caviar of juiced tomatoes and striped red mullet fish with almond cream.
“So many cuisines are evolving and adding modern techniques to their street food and home-cooked food, and I thought, if it happened with Italian and Thai, why can’t it happen with my cuisine?” Ms. Atamna-Ismaeel said. I met her on a Friday morning at Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, where she was running Maadanir, a Kosher-certified delicatessen serving prepared Arabic foods to an almost exclusively Jewish clientele (she has since left Maadanir, and is now collaborating with Marks & Spencer on a line of food products to be sold in Britain). Ms. Atamna-Ismaeel is a bona fide celebrity since her win, and several customers interrupt our conversation to shake her hand or ask her to accept a Facebook friend request on their smartphone.
Like Mr. Hanna, Ms. Atamna-Ismaeel says she was initially hesitant to push the boundaries of the Arab kitchen.
“It takes guts, because food is a reflection of society,” she said. “You have to be brave to say, O.K., I’m twisting the rules, but I’m not erasing Arabic flavors. This food still has identity.”
Classifying that identity, however, is a challenge. “The historical division between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine is so recent, you can’t really draw a line between the cuisines,” she said. “You can’t say hummus is Syrian or Lebanese, and you can’t say tabbouleh is Palestinian. So the Arabic cuisine I cook, I call it ‘Food from the Levant.’ ”
In Arabic, the Levant — the landmass that today is carved into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories — is called A-Sham. So in December 2015, when Ms. Atamna-Ismaeel launched the first Arab food festival in Israel, A-Sham felt like the right name to choose.
The four-day street celebration of Arabic cuisine took place in downtown Haifa as part of that city’s annual holiday festivities. Twenty-five Israeli chefs, of both Palestinian and Jewish origins, descended on downtown Haifa to showcase their take on Levantine cuisine. A-Sham will return this year from Dec. 7 to 9, with a larger roster of chefs and more local businesses involved.
Like all conversations about origin in Israel, the name created controversy. Critics accused Ms. Atamna-Ismaeel of avoiding calling it a Palestinian food festival in a bid not to offend Israelis. “You can’t escape politics when talking about Arabic food. If you say ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine,’ it’s immediately political. We’re not Switzerland,” she said with a smile.
And even among chefs confident that their cuisine falls within the Palestinian lexicon, there are vast differences in taste.
Osama Dalal grew up in Acre, a 5,000-year-old port city in northern Israel, and loved to spend afternoons with his grandmother, whose house sat within the sea-battered Crusader-era walls of Acre’s Old City. Her kitchen window jutted directly over the sea, which meant that for Mr. Dalal, going fishing for clams and local cigali lobsters required little more than grabbing a basket and angling his body over the waves just so.
Cooking with his grandmother, Mr. Dalal says, was his version of culinary school. The 25-year-old chef and restaurateur has no formal training in the kitchen. But his Palestinian family, whose roots in Acre trace back 300 years, regularly gathered for meals made by his grandmother, and by 16 Mr. Dalal was helping her prepare them: muhammar, a Palestinian chicken dish wrapped in pastry baked with onions and sumac; kubbe, an Arabic spin on the meatball; and maqluba, in which careful layers of meat, rice and vegetables are cooked in a pot and then flipped upside down before serving.
There was just one twist to everything they made, however: In true Acre tradition, meat is swapped out for seafood, so the Dalal family feasted on muhammar of wrapped sardines, kubbe balls formed from chopped grouper fish, and maqluba with thick chunks of octopus glistening among the cauliflower, eggplant and potatoes.
Not only do most Israelis see Palestinian cuisine as simple street food, they also don’t grasp its regional differences, Mr. Dalal said. So two years ago he opened Dalal, a Palestinian tapas joint in a postage-stamp-size space inside Acre’s old Turkish bazaar, where he reworked his family’s recipes as creative small plates. It was a hit, except for one glitch — the locals never showed. Ninety percent of his customers, he soon realized, were day-tripping foodies from Tel Aviv.
“Arab chefs are changing their food, but Arab customers are still not quite going for it,” Mr. Dalal admitted. “In our culture, people still prefer to eat traditional food, at home with their family.”
Banking on the Tel Aviv palate being more receptive, last year Mr. Dalal handed the restaurant off to his business partner, Adnan Daher, and opened a new spot, Maiar, inside Tel Aviv’s upscale Alma Hotel this summer.
Mr. Daher, meanwhile, has rechristened Dalal as Maadali, an Arabic term for a beloved woman, which he says is a nod to his own grandmother. Today the little dining spot is Mr. Daher’s one-man show, where on a recent visit he handled both the kitchen and the front of the house while serving a salad of raw green almonds with bright pomegranate seeds and yogurt, as well as sinia — a baked Palestinian casserole of meat and tahini that he upgrades, Acre-style, with a flaky white fish.
“Tastes develop slowly [in the Arab community],” Mr. Daher told me, “but in general our food is moving in a more gourmet direction. Now in even smaller Arab villages you can find fine dining.”
Ms. Atamna-Ismaeel calls the upgrade in Israel’s Arab food a “revolution,” and says that in a few years, she believes it will spread beyond the country’s borders.
“Right now, we’re seeing it in Israeli-Arab areas, but soon I think Palestinians [in the West Bank and Gaza Strip] will also be influenced, and from there it will spread to different parts of the world,” she told me.
Asked what the movement would be called, she hesitated. “Israeli-Arab cuisine, or Palestinian-Israeli cuisine, maybe. It’s political, and it’s complicated,” she said.
We were walking through Maadanir, and she was proudly showing me the mix of dishes on offer, like Ashkenazi Jewish chopped liver, Arabic stuffed grape leaves, and that Middle Eastern dessert staple, sticky-sweet baklava doused in honey.
“But complicated politics are good. The dishes here are a combination, like me,” she said. “I have Palestinian origins but I am also Israeli. What can I do? This is how you create complex food. It’s all delicious.”
If You Go
Magdalena, Migdal Junction, Tiberias; magdalena.co.il. Entrees from 68 shekels, about $17.75.
Ale Gefen, HaHistradrut 271, Haifa (inside I-Way complex, Kiryat Ata); alegefen.co.il. Entrees from 72 shekels.
Maadanir, Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu; maadanir.co.il. Dishes from 20 shekels (no table service).
Maiar, Alma Hotel and Lounge, Yavne Street 23, Tel Aviv. Entrees from 68 shekels; facebook.com/pages/MAIAR/1758329101100349.
Maadali, Inside the Turkish Bazaar, Weizmann 1, Acre Old City; facebook.com/maadali.local.kitchen. Entrees from 35 shekels.
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