The Israeli Arab Baker Whose Crowning Glory Is Challah

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Sourdough bread with raisins at the Reef Bakery in Kafr Kara.
Sourdough bread with raisins at the Reef Bakery in Kafr Kara.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

“This bakery is the gamble of my life,” says Amer Masalha about the spacious and impeccably designed Reef Bakery he opened three months ago in his hometown of Kafr Kara. “I sold everything I had in order to build it. Everything you see here had been rolling around in my mind for several years, but everybody told me it wouldn’t work. ‘Start with pitas and rolls, like everybody does,’ they told me. In our village, like other Arab villages, there aren’t very many professional bakers and bakeries. Most bakeries in the village sell only fresh pitas and rolls, and most were started by retirees.”

Masalha, 30, was attracted to kitchen work from a young age. “As a kid, I started working in restaurants in the village as a dishwasher. At 17, I went to work at Black restaurant in Tel Aviv. That’s where I discovered the world of pastry and baking.”

When he was 18, he began studying at the Tadmor Culinary School. “Zohar Blas, the pastry chef who was my mentor, sent me to do an apprenticeship at a boutique bakery in Herzliya. I remember the shock I felt when I saw sourdough breads for the first time. Up to then, I had no idea what bread really was.”

Sourdough bread with raisins at the Reef Bakery in Kafr Kara.Credit: Dan Perez

In 2009, he traveled to Weinheim, Germany, to study bread-baking for eight months. “You learn technique and technology, but also theory and the chemistry of bread, and the differences between sourdough and yeast. A whole new world suddenly opened up to me. You’re not just kneading dough anymore, you’re understanding it, too. I brought back a century-old sourdough starter. It’s a living thing. There’s a real sense of romance. Bread is not just flour, water and salt. It’s the touch of the baker and the dough, and the result always differs from one baker to another, even if the ingredients and the recipe are the same.”

After returning to Israel, Masalha worked with Uri Scheft at his Lehamim bakery and at Lahmanina, among other places. Then he moved to Arad to work at a bakery belonging to the Elis chain, and began to grow frustrated.

Amer Masalha.Credit: Dan Perez

“There are a lot of people who work in baking here, but few true bakers, for one thing because of the way the pay has eroded over the years. I dreamed of opening my own bakery. It takes a lot of guts to do what I did, but a lot of desperation too. Finally, without telling anyone, and despite everyone’s discouragement – who’s going to buy sourdough breads in the village, everyone asked – I sold a small property I owned and just informed my family once it was done. I went to the owner of the building where the bakery is now located. At the time, it wasn’t even fully built, and I didn’t have a shekel to my name, and I told him: I’m going to rent here and open my bakery here.”

Amer Masalha at the Reef Bakery.Credit: Dan Perez

Starring the challah

It’s early morning at the Reef (meaning countryside) Bakery in Kafr Kara. The big table in the middle of the shop and the baskets on the wooden shelves brim with tantalizing baked goods: crusty breads made with fine flour imported from Germany, buttery croissants, cheese-flavored sourdough rye breadsticks, anise and raisin rolls, foccacia and manakish, whole wheat and white pita, pita with fresh za’atar, and huge sandwiches bursting with sausage and cheeses.

More and more tempting items keep emerging from the kitchen at the back of the shop, where 10 white-clad bakers are at work. “Too bad you didn’t come on Friday,” says Masalha. “On Fridays we have twice the selection, and the biggest stars are the challahs. As soon as I opened, people from the older generation were asking for challah. The supermarkets used to stock them on Fridays and people got used to them and loved the taste.”

Sourdough pitas in the making.Credit: Dan Perez

The beautifully designed shop is crowded with customers all morning long: men and women, young and old, in both traditional and modern garb. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Masalha says. “There is awareness. You start explaining to people about bread and they know what sourdough is and what healthy bread is. They ask me to bake spelt bread.

“I opened a bakery that offers the traditional along with the modern. People who just want fresh pita and rolls every day can find them here, but there are also more complex sourdough breads that will last for a few days.” Most of the customers come from the village and from nearby towns like Umm al Fahm, Ara, Arara and Jatt, he says. “We’ve also started to draw a few customers from Givat Ada and Pardes Hanna. When they hear the price, 16.90 shekels for a whole-wheat sourdough loaf, they start to fill up bags. I can afford to charge a relatively low price because the rent and the wages I have to pay here in the village are lower.”

Reef Bakery is not the first boutique bakery in Israel’s Arab community. The Good Bread Bakery in Maalot-Tarshiha has been around for three and a half years. Its talented owner, Shaheen Shaheen, only bakes a small amount of sourdough bread and classic European pastries, and a large proportion of his customers are Jewish. Masalha’s enterprise is on a much larger scale: More than 1.2 million shekels were invested in the business, which has more than 10 employees. The Reef Bakery combines European-inspired baked goods with traditional local items that are also prepared the old-fashioned way, with a sourdough basis. Reef’s regular pitas are made nearly completely on a sourdough basis with just a tiny amount of yeast; there are also pitas that are 100-percent sourdough, which take three days to make). One of the most delicious breads sold here contains tomatoes, black and green olives, nigella and sesame. With some olive oil to dip it in, before you know it, you’ll have easily polished off a whole loaf of this marvelous combo of East and West.

The shelves at the Reef Bakery in Kafr Kara.Credit: Dan Perez

“It might be too soon to speak of a trend of boutique bakeries in Arab society,” says baker Amir Zalel of Kishorit Bakery in the Western Galilee, “but there is definitely an awakening. Another boutique bakery is due to open in Usfiya soon and a lot of talented young Arabs have been coming to me lately to learn about baking sourdough breads and pizza.”

Masalha, who exudes authority despite his easygoing manner, doesn’t rest for a moment. His bakery is open seven days a week, from the early morning until 11 at night. The dedicated baker, who has barely left his establishment since the day it opened, occasionally catches a few winks on a little cot set up in the office. His plans for the future include opening a pastry shop together with pastry chef Alon Goldman on the second floor of the bakery, and opening more boutique bakeries in other Arab towns.

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