The 3rd annual A-Sham Arab Food Festival took place in Haifa, Israel, over three days in December — right on the heels of Donald Trump’s announcement about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Somehow, the news of the festival glided by without a bleep, right under the international media’s radar. There was a conspicuous spirit of collaboration among the participants — approximately 70 chefs, both Jewish and Arab (Muslim and Christian).
A-Sham in Arabic is the name for the geographic area in the Middle East historically known as the Levant At the helm of the festival, an initiative of the City of Haifa, which is the 3rd largest city in Israel, is its creative visionary and mastermind, Chef Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 37. Atamna-Ismaeel, a charismatic mother of three, is a microbiologist by training (with multiple post doctorate degrees), and Israel’s “Master Chef” Season 4 winner. Atamna-Ismaeel hails from, as she put it, “The Triangle” — the moniker for an area west of the green line in Israel, where there’s a large number of Arab villages and towns.
In a sit-down interview with Atamna-Ismaeel during the festival, she explained that the 2017 A-Sham Arab Food Festival was concurrently running several intermingling, yet cohesive, themes. “It celebrates the richness of traditional recipes for the holidays and life cycles — weddings, births and deaths,” she said. “The festival also introduces obscure recipes, due to the political climate and travel restrictions, to certain regions of the Levant.”
“A-Sham revives disappearing Arab recipes of the Levant that were considered poor man’s foods, that with the gain of economic standings were abandoned in favor of more luxurious recipes and ingredients,” she said, later illustrating this point with some examples.
The first stop at the festival was an iconic Eastern European restaurant, the Beer Fountain (מעיין הבירה), where two elderly ladies make kreplach (Eastern European dumplings) daily at the back of the kitchen. The Beer Fountain hosted the über talented 28-year-old sous chef Ali Hatib, from Magdalena, a modern Galilean Arab restaurant by the Sea of Galilee, which is an hour and a half drive from Haifa, on the Mediterranean.
Hatib brought to the festival a Syrian family recipe from the village of Ghajar (pronounced Rajar), on the Lebanese border in the Golan Heights, where he was born. Kishk (or kashk) is a tangy soup, and was one of the highlights of the festival, made with yogurt, burghul (bulghur wheat) and anise seeds fermented together then salted and dried. The fermented, dried powder or paste is used as a starchy soup thickener in the winter months. “Kishk is a classic vegetarian dish,” said Hatib — but at the festival, to his mom’s dismay, he added a lamb twist.
Atamna-Ismaeel wrote a fascinating article (in Hebrew) about the kishk and “The Forgotten Dishes of Ghajar Village” published just before the event. The village has a complex geo-political history: The majority of the villagers are Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam that is also Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s religious affiliation and background. Prior to 1967 (the Six Day War), Ghajar was a Syrian village, but today half of the village is in Lebanon and half in Israel. (The Golan Heights law that annexed the Golan Heights to Israel in 1981 is disputed by the International community and the U.N.). Geographically, the village was declared a sensitive militarized zone in the year 2000 and access to it by visitors is now only available with special permits.
A recent episode of “The Wonderful Journey of Aharoni and Gidi,” a culinary travel show with Chef Yisrael Aharoni — a pioneering culinary force in Israel, featured a Palestinian fermented and salted yogurt, shaped into cones and dried. In her article, Atamna-Ismaeel writes that the Palestinian kishk (kashk) is different in ingredients and process from its northern (Syrian and Lebanese) counterpart. The Syrian kishk is shaped into balls, but when dried it loses its shape and looks more like discs. The Bedouin, Jordanians and Hebronites make kishk that is similar to the Palestinian version, but it is called afig (afik) and jamid.
At a nearby Levantine Arab restaurant called Rola, both the local chef and Magdalena’s owner and head chef Yusuf (Zuzu) Hana developed a special, reservation only, tasting menu. Hana drew from his Christian background, incorporating into the menu a Sunday Sacramental bread served with a dish of seasonal locally foraged greens with fresh goat’s yogurt.
At the Anchor restaurant, Rola’s chef shared sarsiso (salsiccia or salshicho), a unique Christmas sausage in baharat (allspice, cloves and other spices mix) that is soaked in wine. The pork or beef sausage is then seared in a pan and served alongside garlicky, lemony mashed potatoes. Countries including Italy, Spain, Cyprus and China have similar dishes, but in “The Curious Case of the Wine-soaked Italian Sausage in Nazareth,” the author explores salsiccia’s origin and how unusual this dish is in a region where many Arab Muslims live — Christian culture next to a Muslim one where both alcohol and pork are prohibited.
Across the street from the Beer Fountain, at Lahaza, a popular street stand was set up (grill and all) to offer arayes: grilled pita with ground meat in pomegranate syrup, tahini and tomatoes. Arayes translates to brides, but according to the festival’s program the connection between the dish and brides is unclear. No wedding in the Levant is celebrated without mansaf, an elaborate, celebratory dish that was served at Steak Bar and consists of aromatic rice, meat, spices and nuts, with thin pitas, and yogurt soup. (The yogurt soup is often made with kishk.)
The most surprising dish of the festival was a rustic, wintery recipe prepared by Chef Omar Alwan and served at the Italian restaurant Donatella. It consisted of wide wheat noodles tinged a stunning yellow (turmeric, perhaps?), perfectly cooked al-dente, with lentils in cumin, garlic, fried onions and a touch of lemon. Pasta in the Arab kitchen?! The Silk Road brought noodles into the Arab Levant kitchen from China — a little known slice of culinary history shared by Atamna-Ismaeel.
Lentils and noodles also starred in a light and fresh dish dubbed “Scorched Fingers,” cooked by food personality Hila Alpert. This dish of lentils, noodles, pomegranate, garlic, onion, cilantro, fried onion and lemon is so mouthwatering that one scorches one’s fingers dipping into the bubbling pot, impatiently.
Legumes and burghul were poor man’s foods, super cheap and accessible, Atamna-Ismaeel said. They were partially abandoned in favor of more luxurious and expensive ingredients, such as rice, once the population rose into a sort of middle class. The trend today is to go back to the roots and bring back those disappearing (and healthier to begin with) dishes and ingredients.
Contrary to widespread belief, the Levant kitchen isn’t heavy and meaty. It used to be mostly vegetarian. Meat, chicken and eggs were expensive commodities and weren’t consumed in the Arab Levantine households on a daily basis. They were prepared only for special occasions. Atamna-Ismaeel notes that much of the Arab culinary history and recipes of the Levant have gone mostly undocumented.
As the interview with Atamna-Ismaeel was wrapping up, the question of the current environment given Trump’s Jerusalem announcement — and whether this has affected the festival in any way — came up. Although Atamna-Ismaeel was exasperated with questions about politics (she said she wished for once not to be asked about it), she still addressed the contentious subject.
“The strong friendships and bonds that I formed with Jewish, Christian and others cannot be broken or frayed by politics,” were her exact words. Any way you slice it, Trump’s announcement had no bearing on the festival whatsoever.
Haifa has a population of 279,600, with approximately 11% being Arab Israeli, according to the city’s 2016 census. On an annual basis, the city puts on several cultural programs celebrating the diversity of the city and its people. A-Sham drew both Arab and Jewish audiences to celebrate the food of the Levant. There were culinary discussion panels, with topics including the identity of Arab food, spices in the medicine cabinet and aromas and flavors of local cuisine. There were hands-on Arab cooking workshops, Arab music performances and pop-up shops. The pop-ups included an Arab and Jewish women’s cooperative for equal opportunity trade of olive oil, and an Arab women’s collective selling cookies for the holidays, which raised funds for families in need.
The very essence of the A-Sham Arab Food Festival is an exchange of culture and food: Jews, Muslims and Christians cooking together in the kitchen — where, to paraphrase Atamna-Ismaeel, you don’t know where one begins and the other ends. She clearly has no qualms about Jewish chefs cooking Arab foods. Exchange, adaptation and adoption of foods and ideas has been going on for centuries throughout the world, but given the tense and complex political climate in the region, she says, “the issue should be approached and handled with extra sensitivity and care, and if you cook the food of the other, credit should be given where credit is due.”
A-Sham befittingly took place in this mixed Arab and Jewish neighborhood in lower Haifa — a neighborhood where Christmas carols continuously played, on a loop, in the background in a humble burekas shop called Turkish Burekas from Izmir. The shop owner’s family brought over Israeli jelly doughnuts, candles and a Menorah to celebrate Hanukkah, while burekas of za’atar (made with hyssop) and jibneh (soft Middle Eastern cheese) — believed to be the first Arab burekas — were being served to diners on the festival food crawl.
“Go and walk the streets here In lower Haifa” Atamna-Ismaeel encouraged. “You’ll see that, just like in other places throughout Israel, not only Arab and Jews live side by side here, but also many are mixed Arab-Jewish families.”
In the lower city district of Haifa, co-existence isn’t a bumper sticker slogan. Here, co-existence is just ordinary, everyday life.