NY Times Article On “Palestinian Cuisine” Serves Up Food For Thought

palestinian-food1A New York Times article entitled In Israel, a New Passion for Palestinian Cuisine is actually a great reminder that the issue of a distinct palestinian identity is 1) not clear and 2) a relatively modern thing.

For instance, in the article, the words “Arab” and “Palestinian” are used interchangeably.

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.

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.

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.

Not only do these words seem to be used interchangeably when it comes to speaking about the cuisine, but also the people, with what seems like Israeli Arabs referred to as palestinians – even though they are Israel citizens!

At the same time, the author seems to be adopting the narrative of an ancient “Palestinian” culture, with the Jews being the foreigners.

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.

I should at this point mention that the region known as ancient Palestine was really an area encompassing parts of today’s Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in addition to Israel – and not just the area of modern Israel as the palestinians would like us to believe. And interestingly enough, this article get into that issue to a certain extent.

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.

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.”

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.

Another thing of note in this article: how it shows the coexistence between Arab and Jew in Israel.

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.

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.

This all reminds me the book Palestine on a Plate, written by “Palestinian-British restaurateur Joudie Kalla.” Like the New York Times article, the book – while speaking about “palestinian” cuisine – also provides some inconvenient (to palestinians) truths about the history of this region. Israellycool friend and reader Rachel had the foresight to take the following photos from the book:



And why is any of this important? Because those now known as palestinians, their supporters, and even people who should know better, have disseminated a narrative they are a distinct, ancient people, who are the indigenous people of this land. This article about “palestinian’ cuisine seems to have adopted this narrative, although has perhaps inadvertently shown this is not the case.


David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media