A Bulgarian-Palestinian Culinary Heaven in Northern Israel

The Doha family restaurant in Rama serves Palestinian-Balkan food inspired by Ottoman cuisine, as well as its own wine and arak

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Local cuisine made with fresh vegetables at Rai restaurant in Rama. A family affair.
Local cuisine made with fresh vegetables at Rai restaurant in Rama. A family affair. Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

“Rama is a village of olives,” says Nabil Doha, gazing out through the large windows of the new family restaurant, Rai, at a vista of olive groves. “Olives were the traditional source of income for the villagers, and thanks to the reputation of Rama olives, it was a very good income. In the autumn they harvested the olives and pressed them and made oil, and they spent the rest of the year telling stories. In Rama there were always many poets and storytellers, because it was known that the villagers had a lot of spare time.”

The olive groves and other crops were planted at the base of the hills, between the village houses above and the flat fields, on terraces built into the rocky earth. The people of Rama also planted vineyards and orchards of figs, carobs and pomegranates. In time, as the population grew and the agricultural area shrank, some of the fruit trees disappeared, but the Doha brothers’ restaurant and winery are located on the family property on this strip of land.

They built the beautiful three-level stone house themselves over the past three years. On the first floor, built into the mountain, is the winery and distillery; on the second floor is the kitchen and a spacious restaurant. On the surrounding land they replanted vineyards to supply the winery, and will soon plant a vegetable garden to supply the restaurant.

“This place is Adib’s dream,” says Nabil, 56, referring to his younger brother. Nabil is an architect and interior designer who worked for years as a set designer, and from 2005-15 was a director of the Arab Theater in Acre. Since then he has dedicated himself to helping his brother realize his dream and to learning the processes of fermentation and distillation.

Adib and Nabil Doha.
Adib and Nabil Doha.Credit: Dan Perez

The similarities between Middle Eastern-Palestinian and Balkan-Bulgarian food culture became the basis for the menu of the new restaurant. “I was surprised to see how much of a connection there was,” says Adib. “When I lived in Bulgaria, I noticed hundreds of words that were derived from Arabic and Turkish, and also dozens of dishes that have a common source or a very strong similarity.”

The menu of the new restaurant, which opened just three months ago, aims to combine local and Bulgarian cuisine. Bacon-wrapped pork fillet is one of the most popular dishes among local Christians. Bulgarian kebab, served with freekeh (green wheat), is a favorite of Muslim and Jewish customers, as are a selection of meat and vegetarian stews called kavarma.

Adib, who continues to work as a physical therapist at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, arrives at the restaurant in the late afternoon. He was born in Rama in 1967. In the late Eighties, he went to Bulgaria to study physical therapy and lived there for close to seven years. “I was one of the students who mixed with the Bulgarians, I didn’t only stick with the students from Israel. That’s where I met my wife, Milka,” he says. “We traveled around to a lot of the small villages in northern Bulgaria, the area where she is from, and at harvest time we went to her parents to help them. When we came back to them at Christmas, the young wine they like to drink was ready. At every restaurant in the area they make their own rakiya, a distillate of fermented grapes, and each one takes great pride in their rakiya and thinks it’s the best in the world.”

Adib also saw similarities between the alcoholic drinks of the Balkans and those that once existed in his home village and in the Lebanese mountains. “My grandfather, like all the other villagers, would make his own wine and arak. When my wife and I returned to Israel in 1996 I questioned the old people about how they used to make these drinks before ‘48, and I started making wine and rakiya [a fruit brandy] and arak myself. They learned by trial and error; one time you’d get wine and another time you’d get vinegar, based on knowledge passed down from father to son. Unlike them, I also used books to understand the scientific process. For the past 20 years I’ve made different types of alcoholic drinks for my family’s own personal consumption; I was one of the few of my generation to do that.”

Adib, who comes from a family that loves food and excels at cooking, opened a restaurant in 2000 called Tzel Hazayit, at the foot of Rama’s olive groves. His sister Leila and her husband Ibrahim Shiban, owners of a small local bakery that supplied eucharistic bread to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, were also partners in that restaurant. “It was a wonderful place,” says Nabil, “as simple and preliminary as it was, and without a lot of investment. It was going well in the first months, but then came the events of October 2000 and people stopped coming and a few months later the restaurant had to close down.”

Cheese kavarma at Rai restaurant in Rama.
Cheese kavarma at Rai restaurant in Rama. Credit: Dan Perez

The Ottoman connection

Two and a half years ago, Adib and Nabil, along with other members of their extended family, began working to open another restaurant – this time based on Palestinian traditions and knowledge acquired in Bulgaria, including a winery and distillery. The family wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes that comes from a vineyard in Metulla. Like the owners of the Askhar Winery in Kafr Yasif and the Taybeh Winery in the PA, the Doha family is trying to revive the Christian-Arab tradition of alcoholic drinks.

Hundreds of years under Ottoman rule meant that the cuisines of the Middle East and the Balkans have much in common. “A technique for preserving meat in its own fat reminded me of the way my grandmother used fat from sheep she raised in the yard,” says Adib. “The eggplant dishes my grandmother used to make are very similar to the ones that Milka’s grandmother made, and the techniques for stuffing lamb or pickling vegetables are nearly identical.”

The new restaurant is called Rai (“paradise” in Bulgarian and “opinion” in Arabic), after Adib’s eldest son. The Doha brothers’ young nephew, Murab Shiban, who apprenticed at Yosef “Zuzu” Hana’s Magdalena restaurant, among others, is the chef. But the whole extended family is involved. The extensive menu (perhaps a bit too broad for a place that’s not on the main road and aims to promote local cuisine made with fresh ingredients) is meant to appeal to local villagers looking for something different, as well as to the Jewish clientele, who want traditional dishes.

The meze includes excellent roasted peppers and Bulgarian-style pickles; Bulgarian salads alongside tabouleh; and a marvelous dip of labaneh, olive spread and paprika. On weekends, Nabil and Adib’s sisters cook shishbarak (meat dumplings with yogurt); terrific stuffed grape leaves; and kubbeh niya (a dish originally made with raw ground meat and bulgur and now made only with bulgur); another dish of strips of beef with olive oil, pine nuts and onion, and a similar dish with potatoes instead of meat, inspired by days on the Christian calendar when meat is forbidden. All this is accompanied by the alcoholic beverages produced on the lower floor of the building - the house wine, rakiya (essentially an excellent grappa), and arak with Syrian anise that comes to Israel via the Palestinian Authority.

Bottles of rakiya.
Bottles of rakiya.Credit: Dan Perez

Rai restaurant, distillery and winery, Rama, 054-745-3734