Chef Stefan Frouat Deveaux, who was featured on the TV program "Knife Fight" (Krav Sakinim), visited Israel at the end of August and spent a large part of his visit touring the markets of Nazareth and seized the opportunity of meeting with restaurateur Hussam Abbas of the al-Babour restaurant in Wadi Ara. "Every time he comes to Israel he buys quantities of frika (green wheat), which undergoes a process of smoking so it will be preserved, and he does all kinds of experiments with it," says Abbas."He likes to play also with kadif, roasted eggplant and roasted pepper. Stefan is simply in love with Arab cuisine. He bought NIS 2,000 worth of spices."
Abbas, a veteran restaurateur, views the admiration of the past two years for Palestinian Arab food with a certain surprise. It seems a little ridiculous to him. "We have been cooking wild herbs and everything that grows in our garden for years, but this cuisine has become fashionable only now that Stefan comes from France and cooks frika," he says. "We spice our salads with arugula, and now American cuisine has discovered arugula. Everything is under our noses."
Arab cuisine has begun to reveal its many-faceted face to Israelis who thought what it had to offer could be summed up by meat on skewers, hummus and the meze served in the restaurants at gas stations. But spices, components and cooking methods characteristic of Arab cuisine are gaining prominence on the menus of Israeli chefs; the spirit of cooking what's in season and local produce suit this cuisine, and it's updated in fusion cuisine and gourmet dishes. Pomegranate seeds and the leaves of hubeiza (mallow) and mustard have spiced local dishes for centuries but the renewed interest places them in a respected spot alongside entrecote and creme brulee.
Liora Gevion, who studied Arab cuisine in Israel, describes in her book, "Be'gova Habeten" (published by Carmel), the numerous barriers that have prevented Arab cuisine from being accepted by the Jewish public. She believes much of the uniqueness of Palestinian cuisine stems from its being only in the hands of women, and that also largely explains why it did not spread. "From the numerous family events that we participated in, we learned quite a bit," says Abbas, adding that he learned to cook from the women in his family.
Does the enthusiasm for Arab cuisine indicate the partitions between the two peoples have fallen or is it more Israeli snobbism toward the Arabs? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Chef Dorit Ohana has of late being offering seasonal and organic catering under the name Vegedora in which the influences of Palestinian cuisine can be seen. Her menu, which includes cubes of baladi (literally, homegrown) eggplant, cauliflower and tofu balls, vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs and whole wheat pasta, changes daily. A few times a year, Ohana holds cooking workshops with prominent representatives of Palestinian cuisine such as Habib Daud of the Ezba restaurant in Kafr Rama in Upper Galilee. On September 7, a workshop will be held with the chef Uda Abu el-Haweh from East Jerusalem. El-Haweh specializes in dishes passed down in families, "which Israelis have yet to discover. After all, this is food that grows right here," she says. "This is the most correct cuisine for the region in which we live, and that is why I am so interested in it."
Hamudi Shabani has spent almost two decades following the changes in Arab cuisine in Israel and agrees that the past two years has seen a new trend develop. Shabani and his wife, Leila, operate Bayit Mispar 3 (House No. 3) in Jaffa's Amiad Street. The couple bought the deserted house 18 years ago and renovated it slowly, intending to keep its original character. "We both grew up in Jaffa, with traditional family cooking," says Shabani, the chief surgical male nurse at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital, who has turned his hobby of cooking into a profession. For 15 years, he and his wife have been hosting dinners in their home for groups, cooking based on local cuisine, with the interpretation of the Shabanis.
Fusion predominates in the couple's spacious home in Jaffa. The entrance hall contains a wall crowded with wine bottles, followed by rows of white plates, and on the right is the children's room and then the living room with its Foof chairs for guests, while on the roof is a garden in which the meals are served in the summer. "When I was a child, there were vegetables and fruit that only Arab farmers grew," Shabani says. "Let's not kid ourselves, it's still the same today. For example, purple carrots that originate from Gaza and which are more sour than the regular carrots. They can be found today only at some of the Nazareth greengrocers, and not just anywhere."
In addition to purple carrots, he believes hubeiza, silan (date honey) and fish kebabs do not receive the appreciation they deserve." The combination of tehina and silan is called dibas, an old Arab dish. Only now are they starting to serve desserts with silan and tehina in all kinds of restaurants, and the message is starting to spread," Shabani says. "But that is the ABC of Arab food and its becoming popular only now testifies mainly to a certain late awakening. Hubeiza is a simple food. You boil the leaves, add lemon and mix it with rice. Chefs like Ezra Kedem and Erez Komarovsky gave it a real push."
When the Shabanis opened their home to hosting groups, there was only limited openness to Arab cuisine. As the interest in local cuisine increased, Hamudi developed fusion dishes that became identified with the place. He mentions among these seviche of fish wrapped in hubeiza and lemon, a salad of smoked salmon, nuts and frika, pomegranate concentrate and tamarind, as well as masbaha that includes roasted and mashed eggplant.
The fusion dishes expose the Jewish public to Arab cuisine and also encourage Arab cooks to search for innovations. Chef Nabil Ahu, who heads the Notre Dame cooking school in East Jerusalem, notices this trend every day. The school, which has some 200 students, moved two months ago to a new location. Plasma screens were hung over the stainless-steel counters, and vacuums and other equipment for molecular cooking were brought in. "The students want to add and to change things all the time," says Ahu. "One of my students did an experiment and filled falafel balls with French cheese and sumac. They experiment to give a new face to the food they know from home. That is the real challenge of every chef who loves to cook."