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In Israel, Arab chefs carve out a distinct cuisine as they break out of Israeli shadow

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, Israelis enjoy a meal during an Arab Food Festival in Haifa, Israel. The festival featured about two dozen chefs from around Israel and east Jerusalem.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Dan Balilty
December 13, 2015 - 1:00 PM

HAIFA, Israel - Palestinian chef Johnny Goric has cooked for President Barack Obama and served as a judge on the Palestinian version of Masterchef, a reality TV cooking show. In July, he put out his first cookbook — but rather than publish in his native Arabic or in English, Goric's debut recipes are in Hebrew.

His book highlights something unexpected about the rising class of Palestinian and Israeli Arab chefs, who are breaking out of the shadow of Israel's bustling food scene with new restaurants, cookbooks and culinary schools: their best clients are often Israelis.

In the past two decades, the Israeli cuisine has flourished on the international scene. Last year the gourmet food and wine publication, Saveur Magazine, named Tel Aviv an "outstanding" food destination. The local edition of Masterchef is popular among Israelis and a homegrown cooking show, Game of Chefs, was recently remade for German television.

Although it relies on the same local ingredients, Palestinian cooking has received much less international attention — until now.

This week, two dozen Arab chefs and a handful of Jewish ones descended on the northern port city of Haifa for four days of celebrating Arab cuisine. The festival was founded by the Arab Israeli chef Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, who shot to national acclaim when she won Israeli Masterchef in 2014 and regularly appears on food programs in the country.

At the Haifa festival, curious crowds milled around a restaurant kitchen while Jewish Israeli celebrity chef Meir Adoni prepared hummus dishes alongside the Arab Israeli restaurateur Hussam Abbas.

"Jews and Arabs can learn about each other's cooking traditions," said Atamna-Ismaeel, who wants to use the festival as a pilot for a culinary school she plans to open in her hometown of Baqa al-Gharbiya in northern Israel.

Around a fifth of Israel's population is Arab. Arab citizens of Israel have equal legal rights but face discrimination in government budgets, employment and housing. Poverty rates are higher among Arabs than among the country's Jewish population.

For years, the income gap stifled a gourmet scene. In recent years Arab citizens have reached new heights in areas like music, acting, sports, journalism — and culinary arts.

A major challenge to Arab chefs has been breaking out of narrow expectations of Israeli customers, said Abbas, owner of El Babur, a chain of three restaurants in northern Israel. He said when he opened his first restaurant in 1979, Israeli customers just "wanted hummus, french fries and salad." Now they are embracing his use of local ingredients such as arugula, wild spinach, asparagus and chicory.

Younger Arab chefs are pushing the bar, opening a tapas restaurant in the northern city of Acre and revisiting ancient Syrian recipes in Haifa.

Yet the political environment remains a challenge for this new generation of chefs. The festival took place amid a three-month outbreak of violence. Since mid-September, Palestinians have killed 19 Israelis in shootings, stabbings and attacks using cars. At least 109 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire in the same period; 73 of them are said by Israel to be attackers.

Abbas said his restaurants have suffered heavy losses as Jewish Israeli clients hesitate to enter Arab towns for dinner.

At the same time, the doors that are opening to Arab Israelis remain mostly closed to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, largely cut off from Israeli customers and publishers, and limited by Israeli restrictions on travel.

There is no Palestinian TV food network. A magazine devoted to Palestinian cuisine began in Ramallah in 2012 but ceased publication within months, and Palestinian Masterchef folded after one season for lack of budget. A rare exception to the anonymity of Palestinian food was "The Gaza Kitchen," a cookbook published in 2013 via crowdfunding to celebrate the food of the coastal enclave.

Peter Nasir, a restaurant owner in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said his Palestinian clients are reluctant to "gamble" their limited incomes on new dishes and often ask for old-fashioned classics such as chicken cordon bleu.

"Israelis are more willing to try something new. Here you put some pomegranates in a salad and people start flipping out," Nasir said. He said he would not rush to collaborate with Israeli chefs "who at some point will put on a uniform and point a gun at you."

At the Haifa food festival, the warm relations between Arab and Jewish chefs offered a rare bright spot amid a gloomy period in the region.

Israeli chef Adoni, who traces his roots to Morocco, spooned a rich stew of lamb, chicken and Jerusalem artichoke over creamy hummus.

"The signature you can get in my plates is the mix between these two influences: one is the Jewish grandmother's dishes and the second is the Arabs' influence," Adoni said. He added that while young Arab chefs are now pursuing molecular cooking, Jewish chefs are delving into the roots of Palestinian cuisine.

In September, the Palestinian chef Goric opened a cooking school in Ramallah.

"My vision is to lift up the level of hospitality," he said. "It's like being in a box. We need to get out of this box and discover culinary arts."

News from © The Associated Press, 2015
The Associated Press

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