Connecting roots with Arab cuisine

When the pandemic first hit, Israel's most famous Arab chef found herself out of work. Looking back, it's made her more influential than ever

By Nathan Jeffay

Published: Thu 28 Jan 2021, 4:30 PM

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel was catapulted to the public eye when she won Israel's MasterChef in 2014. She captured the hearts of Jewish and Arab viewers alike - and their taste buds too, as people started imitating her recipes. Her food fuses flavours from the diverse ethnic traditions of Israeli citizens: everything from Palestinian to Jewish to European.

"There's no single thing that is Israeli cuisine," she said. "Rather, it's a mosaic of people with a mosaic of recipes - you have Palestinian cuisine, Yemenite, Moroccan and so many others. In my eyes, it's a very positive thing to have such a mixture of viewpoints and ingredients."

In this respect, she noticed recently when she visited Dubai and had mind-blowing taste experiences, there is a striking similarity to food in the UAE.

After winning Masterchef, Atamna-Ismaeel became a household name, she quit her job as a microbiologist, and started a range of food-related projects, including coaching, consultancy, recipe development for companies, and an annual Arab food festival in the city of Haifa, which she produces, celebrating Arab food and its contribution to Israeli cuisine.

She is now regularly on television, and her latest project, currently being shot, is a documentary on Palestinians who are preserving traditional ingredients. She was asked to join the board of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and in this capacity visited Dubai in December for a series of meetings, and to visit the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition. "One of the best parts of my trip was going to different restaurants, and finding the scene is similar to Israel in the sense that there are culinary influences from many different places," she said. And while Israel has a limited number of restaurants offering different Arab cuisines in pure form, to her delight in Dubai she found many.

"I was able to go to Iraqi, Persian, Yemenite, and many Syrian restaurants, which was mind-blowing. I can't travel to these places, but in Dubai, I could go to restaurants offering the food in its pure form."

When the coronavirus crisis struck, almost all of Atamna-Ismaeel's work ground to a halt. The self-described restless PhD-holding mom-of-three who was always on the go was largely confined by Covid-19 rules to her home in a northern Israel Arab town, and she didn't know how to fill her time.

"The first few days of lockdown were very nice, but then it became boring as I'm very active," recalled Atamna-Ismaeel. "I decided I really missed teaching students cooking. So, I started cooking recipes at home and posting about them on Instagram." She includes text in Arabic and Hebrew, videos of the cooking process with Arabic music in the background, and pictures of the final product.

Her Instagram following quickly grew tenfold, to 122,000 people, and every recipe attracted comments and responses with her followers cooking their own versions and sharing them. She started making more and more recipes, and her three children found themselves busier than ever. "They help me you see - by eating the food," she laughed.

One of the highlights of her culinary journey has been to enthuse Jewish Israelis about Arabic cuisine. But even her past successes, including scenes from her Haifa Food Festival, where she sees huge numbers of Jewish people trying Palestinian delicacies, prepared her for what was about to happen.

Around half of Israelis come from families that moved to the country from Arab states, and her posts became a channel for these Jewish people to get in touch with the cuisine of their ancestors.

Atamna-Ismaeel said, "At first, the followers were mostly Israelis and Palestinians interested in learning classic Palestinian cuisine, but I've since expanded to also teach recipes from different places in the Arab world. Now, I post dishes from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Iraq. I have recipes from South Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen. I choose the best dishes from each Arabic country and teach them. People cook them and share their results back."

"And what is amazing is that as I made my platform broader I got so many Jewish followers, who are finding a way back to the food of their grandmothers' through me. When I post a Moroccan dish, Jewish people say 'my family used to make this, thank you so much for posting it,' and people say the same for dishes from other countries where Jewish Israelis come from.

"I help them to connect to their roots and give them a link to their heritage, which is a great feeling."

She engages followers with insights on the food she is presenting and personal anecdotes. The recent picture of her simit - circular Turkish bread - was accompanied by a few lines that painted a vivid picture of a vacation to Turkey when she saw the bread.

She shows her quirky sense of humour too. She cooked Persian meatballs, koofteh berenji. Observing their shape, she informed followers that their likeness to the Covid-19 virus - something a microbiologist like her couldn't fail to notice - was merely coincidental.

As Israel rolls out vaccinations and hopes that life will return to a semblance of normality, Atamna-Ismaeel is excited to restart teaching and other parts of her life that have been on hold. But she will continue her Instagram posts and is grateful that lockdown opened her up to this online world.

"I started it just so I'd have something to wake up for; it was mainly to maintain my health, but I get messages from people saying it's the best thing that has come out during this time, and this feels great to see," she smiled.

Instagram: @nofatamna


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