Spicing up Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts

Tapping into Israel's growing foodie culture, a tour operator is bringing Israelis and tourists into Arab homes in northern Israel to teach them about the distinctive Galilean cuisine.

Joshua Mitnick
Nawal Darawshah shows Ofra Makover how to prepare a zucchini to be stuffed with rice in Arabeh, Israel, May 12, 2014.

The guests, four Israeli teachers from an affluent Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, make polite introductions over Turkish coffee in an Arab village as they prepare for a cooking extravaganza. To break the ice, Mazal Cohen jokes, "Did you buy Kosher food?"

Today is Ms. Cohen, Ofra Makover, Ariella Shragai, and Osnat Zilberman's first time in an Arab Muslim home. They came to this northern Israel village to learn the secrets of Palestinian Galilean cooking from host, Nawal Darawshah, or Umm Saleh, has an unconcealed pride in her culinary talents.

"I love our heritage. I’m a good cook," she says. "All of my kids and grandchildren love to eat my food. They only ask for my food."

On the menu: rice-stuffed grape leaves and zucchini, lamb kebab cooked in tahini sauce, majadara (a Middle Eastern mix of bulgur and lentils), and a grain salad called tabouleh

The culinary tourism venture, which matches Israelis and visitors with Muslim, Druze, and Christian Arab hosts, taps into a rising interest in Palestinian cuisine – some of which is already widely popular as "Middle Eastern" food – and aims to bridge the cultural divide between Israel’s Jews and Arabs, who live in largely segregated communities.

The idea for the cooking seminar was hatched by Paul Nirens, an Australian tourism operator living in northern Israel, who wanted to teach Israeli Jews and foreign tourists about Galilean food. The visitors get a chopping block view of a centuries-old culinary tradition, while hosts like Ms. Darawshah earn extra money and get to show off their talents and traditions.

The project comes amid a growing foodie culture. Israelis are increasingly embracing Palestinian cuisine beyond the familiar hummus, falafel, and chopped salads, which they have come to claim as their own national dishes. In January, Israel’s reality TV cooking show, Masterchef, crowned Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a microbiologist from the Arab town of Baka al-Gharbiya, for his Arab cuisine with a contemporary twist. Arab restaurants are increasingly serving lesser known dishes, such as shishbarak (meat dumplings in yogurt stew), in addition to the standard meat kebabs.

Galilean food is defined by its use of seasonal herbs native to the mountainous region of northern Israel and has links to Lebanese and Syrian cuisine. Many of the herbs for Darawshah’s dishes come from plants near her house. Culinary experts can detect the difference between dishes from this area and those cooked by Palestinians in the West Bank and central Israel and the Bedouins in southern Israel. 

"The food is a means for them to learn about the Arab speaking culture of the Galilee," says Mr. Nirens. "When you are cooking with someone, and you’re being instructed, you have to be open to learning about the way they are."

The women tie on aprons and get to work. The stuffed vegetables turn out to be intricate and labor intensive. Darawshah urges Ms. Zilberman to go easy on the stuffing and roll tightly "or else the rice will fall out when it cooks." Across the table, Ms. Makover looks for guidance on carving out zucchini for stuffing. "Umm Saleh, tell me if I’m doing this right," she asks.

Darawshah brings out baharat, a fragrant spice mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg that is used to season both rice, bulgur, and meat. Her Hebrew is not fluent and she apologizes to her guests. Mazal, an Arabic teacher, tries to offer some support: "It reminds me of the way I speak Arabic – with difficulty."

Palestinian nationalism is strong in the Arab village of Arabeh, and a Palestinian flag even flies over a public memorial at a main traffic circle. The village is known to Jewish Israelis as a hotbed of anti-government demonstrations.

"Fear is part of our lives from the day we were born," says Zilberman, one of the Israeli guests. "We had to think twice before coming to this area, but our desire to learn about the tradition and culture overcame it."

Food is a less contentious starting point than most. "I’m not saying in any way that I’m bringing peace to the Middle East. I’m showing a different side of the Galilee,’’ says Nirens. "For the Israelis: I call it de-demonization: Suddenly you’re bringing people from Tel Aviv into the home of an Arab Muslim in Arabeh, and they see they don’t have horns."

Darawshah’s husband, Awad, has a picture of himself with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but it was removed from display to avoid offending the Jewish guests. "We are the same people as the people in Ramallah," he says. "But in the territories they are different than us… We know we have [to] live together with the Jews. I call myself a Palestinian-Israeli."

In the kitchen, while Zilberman takes the liberty of adding onion generously to the lamb kebab for extra taste, a debate breaks out between Ms. Shragai and Darawshah, who drowns one of the dishes in olive oil before cooking. "I love to put a lot," she proclaims. "It’s like a medicine."

Looking queasy, Shragai pleads, "I know it’s healthy, but not so much."

When the dishes are ready, the cooks gather around the kitchen table, set underneath portraits of the family’s children. Eating commences. There is silence, then raving.

"Refined,’’ declares Cohen. Shragai gushes, "Finally, I have eaten the best majadarah!’’

Zilberman says she is grateful for a relaxed experience that fosters co-existence on her first visit to a Muslim house. 

"We live together. Why shouldn't we eat together?" is Darawshah's straightforward response. 

Paul Nevins venture can be found at Galileat.

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