Upscale Arabic Restaurants Gain a Wider Audience Among Israel Foodies
Forget cheap hummus shops. Arabic cuisine is coming into its own in Israel, as fine dining for Arabs and Jews alike.
The restaurant El-Babur, located in northern Israel near Umm el Fahm on Highway 65 at the Ein Ibrahim junction, has been serving authentic Galilee-style Palestinian food for 15 years—to Arabs, who frequent it during the week, and to Jews, who make it a point to eat there on weekends. Six years ago, chefs Husam and Nashat Abbas—the brothers who own El-Babur, considered by many the best Arabic restaurant in Israel—opened a second branch in northern Israel in Yokneam, catering mainly to Jews. And last month, on the coastal promenade in Akko, they opened their third restaurant, which, considering the population in the area, is expected to cater to Jews and Arabs alike.
When visiting Akko, it is clear that the new El-Babur is already as much an attraction for visitors as the city’s old Turkish bazaar, built in the late 18th century and recently revived. These days the city is enjoying a resurgence of domestic tourism, and the Abbas brothers are there to provide visitors with an Arabic fine-dining experience that can be enjoyed while looking out the window at the waves that splash in the Mediterranean below.
Husam and Nashat are two of five brothers from Kafr Kanna, an Arab town in the Galilee. Between all the brothers, they own nine restaurants in the north of Israel. The family can proudly claim to be part of the pioneers of increasingly popular Palestinian cuisine in Israel.
Husam Abbas, who greeted me at the entrance of the new restaurant in Akko, explained how Jewish Israelis understand his restaurants: “Israeli Jews started to get exposed to Palestinian cuisine thanks to the fact that I’ve been on TV and that there were articles about me in the papers,” he said. “Calling it Palestinian cuisine might sound too political, so you can also call it Galilee-style Arabic food. This is nothing I invented. This cuisine exists for 300 to 400 years, and it’s all made with indigenous products. Like I always say: A cuisine isn’t something that forms from day to day; it is something that forms from generation to generation.” But before one can understand Palestinian cuisine, one has to abandon a misconception about Arabic food in Israel. What most Israeli Jews called “Arabic food” for many years wasn’t Arabic at all, even though it was served in Arab-owned restaurants.
“Until a few years ago what Israelis called Arabic food was in fact Mizrahi food,” said Avi Efrati, restaurant and wine critic at Walla!, referring to pseudo-Arabic shipudiot—restaurants that specialize in meat-on-a-skewer dishes and serve a multitude of cheap miniature-salads at the beginning of each meal—and other adaptations that Arab restaurateurs made to their cuisine to please the Israeli public. “This gave Arabic food a bad name. Today these kinds of places that serve shashlik, kebab, french fries, and salads made with canned sweet corn and canned mushrooms, instead of wild plants, are still very popular, but luckily today this is not all there is. Today there are a few very good real Arabic restaurants as well that only a small portion of the population frequents.”
Eran Levy-Zaks, a consultant at Blender PR who represents El-Babur, agrees with Efrati’s distinction between Arabic restaurants and Mizrahi restaurants: “If you don’t count the Mizrahi restaurants and the hummusiot—places that serve only hummus—you are left with two kinds of more upscale Arabic restaurants: the more traditional ones and the modern Arabic-fusion restaurants.”
El-Babur belongs to the first kind, as do Diana in Nazareth and Albeet in Ein Hawd, for example. Some of their dishes might have a slight modern twist, but they are deeply rooted in Galilee tradition. For instance, El-Babur serves kebab cooked in fresh tomato sauce that is then wrapped in pita dough and then baked in a tabun; the kebab is traditional, as is baking bread in a tabun, but mixing the two is a new twist. Another El-Babur favorite is stuffed lamb’s neck: Traditionally, the whole lamb is stuffed, but the Abbas brothers choose to stuff only the neck because it is the tenderest part. Other dishes at El-Babur stay true to their original form, like the fattoush salad or okra in tomato sauce.
“Restaurants like El-Babur and Diana taught Israeli Jews that there is much more to Arabic cooking than hummus,” said Levy-Zaks. “These restaurants use local ingredients that Jews didn’t know until a few years ago, like freekeh, okra, cowpea, khubeza, wild chicory, and all kinds of wild plants and herbs. They introduced us to knafeh (see recipe) and taught us that there’s more to Arabic desserts than baklava and malabi. They are also responsible for introducing the term baladi, which today is a popular buzzword that’s printed on any supermarket hummus. Baladi means indigenous, and it also means produce that is watered only by rainwater, not by man.”
The second kind of upscale Arabic restaurant that Levy-Zaks referred to are the ones headed by young Arab-Israeli chefs who were born and grew up here and then traveled to study abroad and returned to Israel to create a fusion-kitchen that integrates Arabic cuisine with foreign methods. “For instance, they use local ingredients and cook them with butter and cream, like the French do,” he explained. “In recent years young Arab-Israeli chefs have been going to a very similar process that Jewish-Israeli chefs went through in the 1990s. One example of a restaurant like this is Tishreen in Nazareth.”
While the Arab-fusion restaurants cater more to Arab customers who want to feel they are connected to modern, global culinary trends, Jewish foodies have become enamored with the more traditional Galilee-style Arab food. “There are two kinds of Palestinian food,” explained Efrati. “The Northern Palestinian cooking is from the Galilee region. That’s the kind of Arabic food that the good restaurants make, and it’s closest to Syrian and Lebanese cuisine. Then there’s the Southern Palestinian cooking, from the Triangle area to the south. That cooking is much poorer because of the geography. Southern Palestinian cooking is mainly home cooking, and there aren’t any good restaurants that represent that genre.”
Efrati describes Galilee-style Arabic cuisine as “food that’s made out of materials that are close to the earth, that are connected to the seasons, that are very fresh and not industrialized in any way. And these materials are treated in a very delicate way. The Arab seasoning is very delicate, and the Arab style of cooking is more about the deep wisdom of combining different ingredients than it is about food-processing or sauce-making.”
But although today many Israelis appreciate Galilee-style Arab food, and are willing to travel up north to taste it, it wasn’t always like this. “The beginning of El-Babur, 15 years ago, was very difficult,” admitted Levy-Zaks. “Husam and Nashat had to teach Israeli Jews what this food was because nobody knew it. There were a few food writers and critics who wrote about the restaurant and it started to gain popularity.”
While Arab restaurants helped the Jewish population of Israel get acquainted with the fruit of their land, mainstream Jewish restaurants and cafés all over the country embarked on a process of “Arabization.” “In the last four or five years, butter started to be substituted by olive oil, and cream started to be substituted by yogurt or tahini,” said Levy-Zaks. “The health-food and vegan trends of the last year or two added many Arab greens like common purslane and khubeza to Tel Avivian menus. Arab cuisine has a lot of respect for meat in general, and lamb in particular, but it also has many wonderful vegetarian and vegan dishes.”
And while Israeli-Arab food is known for its meat, vegetables, and herbs, it isn’t known for fish and seafood. This is something Husam and Nashat Abbas intend to change in their new establishment in Akko. Although the restaurant serves many of the same dishes as the other two El-Baburs, it is different in that it specializes in seafood, too.
Akko, like Haifa and Jaffa, is one of the few Israeli cities with large Arab populations that are located on the coast, and although Israeli-Arab cuisine doesn’t usually contain a lot of fish and seafood (because most Arab villages aren’t located near the sea), the Abbas brothers wanted the menu in Akko to reflect its location.
One of the most interesting dishes on the menu is calamari-mashawshe. Mashawshe is the Galilee version of Msabbaha, and in this case it is served with calamari heads on top, instead of chickpeas. “The connection between Palestinian food and the sea isn’t a natural one, and in this respect I feel I am inventing something new,” said Husam. “Thirty years from now people will be talking about this. In the new restaurant in Akko, I’m trying out many new combinations that mix land and sea, to see what works. I serve things like okra with sea bream, tumble thistle with sea bass, wild spinach with calamari, and I see what people like and what they respond to.”
When asking him if he ever considered opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Husam laughs and responds with a very categorical “never.” “I have received many offers during the years,” he said. “I’ve eaten in all the restaurants in Tel Aviv, and their owners are friends of mine, but I’ll never open a restaurant in Tel Aviv. First of all, I don’t have the materials that I need in Tel Aviv. I use vegetables that are grown in small private fields in Arab villages. They aren’t cultured and aren’t artificially watered. And second of all, Tel Aviv is just too far away from home.”
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