At Majda, in the Israeli-Arab village of Ein Rafa, eating is a time for thought and meditation. On the tables scattered around the restaurant's garden, whole meals sing the praises of the land and the season.
Yakub planted the orchard around it, created the furniture that decorates it, and forages the wild plants and fruits from which Michal creates food that moves everyone who tastes it, because it embodies the couple's clear vision of the simple life. Michal is Jewish, born in a Tripolitan home in Netanya, and Yakub is Muslim, the youngest of 10 children of the Barhum family from Ein Rafa: love transcends boundaries even here, it seems. In a war-torn area with territories that live every day under the violent cloud of border disputes, there are ordinary people, cooking and eating remarkable food.
As a chef, restaurateur and former soldier, I've travelled to Israel and Palestine to hear some of their stories, and to discover their attitudes towards each other, and to food and to the role it plays in their lives.
All the while I'll have a camera in my face, as a documentary crew – organised by 'fixers' who've spent months making things happen – follow me around, which isn't made any easier by the virulent man flu I’m suffering from when I land in Tel Aviv. Think Fanny Cradock does Ross Kemp, with a head cold…
We begin with a quick tour around the old city of Jerusalem; divided into four uneven quarters, going counter-clockwise from the north-eastern corner, into the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Armenian quarter and the Jewish quarter. We visit all four areas, including Damascus Gate, located in the wall on the city's northwest side and connecting to a highway leading out to Nablus. Tooled-up IDF soldiers are so common here that no one pays them any attention, but they are so casual with their weaponry I find the whole scene somewhat alarming.
Tooled-up IDF soldiers are so common here that no one pays them any attention
Leaving Jerusalem behind, and stopping at farms and wineries en-route, it's a 30-minute drive to the Israeli settlement of Eli in the West Bank – a landlocked territory between the two countries that's largely under Israeli control – which houses a military academy that attracts students from all over the country. The town has cultivated gardens, breathtaking mountain views, the welcome shade of olive trees, and a well-kept regional sports centre with multi-purpose playing fields, tennis court, work-out facility and swimming pool.
The international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law, but the Israeli government disputes this. Some of the settlers move there for religious reasons, some because they want to claim the West Bank territory as Israeli land, and some because the housing there tends to be cheap and subsidised. Settlements are generally considered to be a major impediment to peace.
We move on to Gush Etzion Junction, where three boys were once kidnapped; it's been a conflict hotspot for years. The core group of settlements includes four Jewish agricultural villages that were founded in 1940-1947 on property purchased in the 1920s and 1930s, and then destroyed by the Arab Legion before the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israel war. These settlements were rebuilt after the 1967 six-day war, along with new communities that have expanded the area of the Etzion Bloc.
All of the people I talk to here – Israelis and Muslims alike – have the same resigned attitude towards the situation; they live it every day, they don't like it, but no one seems to have answers.
On day two of filming we head to the Nablus, a hub for Palestinian food, as well as constant unrest and military activity. Indeed, the pictures of suicide bombers are turned into posters and pinned to the walls; here they are looked upon as celebrities, even in death. We explore until evening when we dine at the mayor’s house; a specially prepared Palestinian dinner where we meet the local dignitaries (or the PLO).
The local chefs have prepared a banquet and, in the manner of Arabic culture, there is more food than anyone could possibly eat. The table is eight metres long and groaning under the weight of it all.
Palestinian food understandably bears similarities to Israeli food, with hummus and falafel both represented and vegetables in abundance, but because of the borders and the wall, the produce is perhaps not as good. The local dignitaries egg me on to try every dish until I’m close to bursting, asking my opinion on each thing I taste. I leave with better feedback on their cuisine than on their current political situation.
After a brief stop in Bethlehem, where many popular restaurants were famously (and literally) split in half by the separation wall, we return to Jerusalem to see my old friend Uri Navon at Machneyuda.
in the manner of Arabic culture, there is more food than anyone could possibly eat
Uri co-runs this seasonal Mediterranean restaurant – named for the nearby Machane Yehuda market, where all ingredients are sourced – with two other talented chefs, Yossi Elad and Assaf Granit. These days, Machneyuda is one of the most popular restaurants in Israel, with an open kitchen that gives you a front-row seat for the action.
The slightly madcap vibes are unique, although the restaurant was the inspiration for the Palomar and the Barbary back in London, to which Layo and Zoe Paskin have exported this 'Machneyuda' genre of energetic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine with much aplomb and to much acclaim.
I meet up with Uri in the morning for our tour of 'hip Jerusalem'. Over a breakfast of shakshuka – that delicious tomato and pepper stew with eggs – he explains the history of the conflict and how it influences modern Jerusalemites. The team lunches in the market and then we all have dinner together at Machneyuda. This is followed by an exploration of Jerusalem’s night life with the restaurant staff, and culminates in a late-night/early-morning shopping trip back at Machane Yehuda market, where Uri and I drunkenly cook up a Jerusalem Fry. According to legend, this delicious and popular street-food dish was created in the 1970s by two guys at Raiders Steakhouse in Jerusalem. Now it’s everywhere, and Uri gives me a masterclass.
We combine turmeric, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg in a pestle and mortar, pound to a fine powder and set aside. We then dice chicken breast, chop chicken hearts, livers and what Uri tells me is chicken spleen. We heat a little local olive oil on the restaurant's plancha, and add the chopped chicken breast and cook, flipping once, until browned but not cooked through, then the chicken hearts, and repeat with the chicken livers and spleen. Returning the plancha to medium heat, we add more oil, then the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally until onions are soft and slightly charred.
Next we add the reserved spices and chicken mixture, season with salt and cook for a couple more minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through. We open out pittas and spread the inside with garlic paste, fill with chicken mixture, top each sandwich with some amba (a spiced mango pickle) and pickled peppers, then we spoon over a yoghurt and tahini mixture.
It's absolutely delicious, and though the setting is wildly different from Yakub and Michal's garden in Ein Rafa, there are parallels to be drawn between their cooking and Uri's. This is simple, soul-stirring food made by passionate and talented cooks, with an impossibly complicated backdrop.
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