Jerusalem, Between a Fork and Knife

Two chefs embark on a journey and uncover the nuances of their own land.

Time And Space

In Jerusalem, time and space have no meaning. While many will cross oceans to embrace each either and meet in Jerusalem, it is possible for residents to go years living as neighbors, a wall standing between them, and never meet. Historians cannot tell its story and geography books cannot describe Jerusalem because each source paints a diffferent picture. Every language tells a varying story and under each brushstroke lies a different view.

Here, for example, 3,876 meters separate the childhood homes of chefs Assaf Granit and Kamel Hashlamon in Jerusalem. Both were born in the late 1970s and grew up in the same city, under the same sky; and both of them let their taste buds and special aptidute for fire and frying pans write their destinies. Assaf was born to a European Jewish family and grew up in a modest apartment building in an established West Jerusalem neighborhood while Kamel grew up in an ancient stone house on the Mount of Olives, in a Muslim Palestinian family from East Jerusalem, whose forebearers came from across the Jordan Valley and the Galilee.

The distance between the city’s two families is almost unnoticeable on a map, by address, or by area code. However, the languages of the two neighborhoods, the sounds coming out of the radios in their homes, and the smells wafting from the kitchens into the streets, turn this short distance into either an abyss or a bridge; dividing continents or uniting families.

Assaf and Kamel grew up as neighbors in one city without ever meeting, and still, they were both drawn to the sounds of silverware on plates, the smell of lemon blossoms, and the fire leaping from the Tabun oven in the kitchen. Assaf learned the secrets of cooking on his own, from his grandmother and from the trips he took around the world. He opened restaurants in the western part of Jerusalem that shined like jewels on the neck of the city. He even opened restaurants in London and Paris, where his name became well known. Kamel learned the kitchen sorcery in culinary school and paid his dues at acclaimed restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jordan, until coming back to our city and conquering it with his restaurant “Turkiz”, the diamond in the crown of the eastern part of Jerusalem. After that, he brought honor to other restaurants until he acquired a millstone from Syria and started to make tahini by hand that attracted pilgrims from all around the country and beyond.

If not for Jerusalem’s Season of Culture, a creative organization in Jerusalem and for Jerusalem, that uses the power of art to break down barriers, Assaf and Kamel would probably have never met. The people of Season of Culture busy themselves with spearheading meetings, connections, and interviews that would otherwise be impossible, and that’s how they created the Auto-Ochel (Food Truck) with Chef Granit in 2013. It was a 24-day journey during a summer where they cooked up a storm for Jerusalem in the food truck created for that very purpose, each day in a different place and with a different person, weaving a Jerusalemite fabric of tastes and fragrances through pots and pans. On one of the nights of Ramadan, Chef Granit met Chef Hashlamon when he came to make smoked freekeh and lemon chicken in Teddy Park, below the walls of the Old City. Both of them cast their shared dishes onto plates and together served them to the city’s residents, Jewish and Arab, men and women, natives of the city and tourists. We, for our part, stood with and observed them both and immediately realized that this single meeting, as is always the case in Jerusalem, was an act of coincidence that could determine destiny.

The Journey

For the subsequent festival, which took place in 2014, the festival’s director, Naomi Bloch Fortis, and its artistic director, Itay Mautner, wanted to melt the city’s borders with Assaf and Kamel’s stoves and hot ovens, to bridge the distance with plates filled with milk and honey and to cool down the flames with dripping glasses of Arak and almond juice.

The two didn’t hesitate for a moment and devoted themselves to this event. Those who spend their lives in kitchens understand in their hearts that there is nothing like a feast at a large table to bring people that would otherwise be distant, together.

For the sake of the meal, we embarked on a shared, year-long journey during which the two chefs would try to get closer to the sources of their inspiration; to deepen their shared and different backgrounds; to decipher the personal make-up of each of their identities and the expression that comes out in their kitchens and in the meals they serve. We named the journey 3,876, after the distance that both separates and connects. As often times happens with art, we only knew where our journey would begin and who the participants were. We left the outcome to be discovered at the end, through artistic expression, hoping that the path itself would reveal its purpose.

In most of the world, dealing with food, as well as with the preservation of culinary traditions, methods, dishes, and ingredients, begins with geography. The place where a shared kitchen exists becomes a window into the homeland of its residents. In Israel, on the other hand, the point of origin is actually different. The primary characteristics of the kitchens are the ethnicities of the families, their religion, language and the national identity of the people cooking. It seems that on many occasions, this relatively young country, made up of immigrants from the four corners of the world, still can’t let its residents truly leave the framework from which they came. The food made in Israel possesses a common denominator that is further removed and historical, one that follows an old language over new ingredients.

When the people of Season of Culture invited me to lead this journey and facilitate the introduction between Kamel and Assaf, I immediately knew that we wouldn’t start from the past nor from the obvious. Rather, we would try to create a shared gastronomic space, a terroir, carrying on its shoulders the earth and all of its flora and fauna, the farmers working it, the rain that falls on it, and all that it does to the soul of man.

Maybe, I hoped, we’d eventually be able to write a chapter in our shared future here, one that would come from this place we call our homeland.

A Kitchen That’s Part Of The Landscape

We began the trip at the farm where I live, located in the heart of the country, in the Elah Valley, which for generations constituted the agricultural heartland of Jerusalem and its surroundings. That morning, we set the table as usual, but this time we placed many examples of local raw ingredients, organized by where they were grown and their botanic or zoologic affiliation, in front of us. We sampled them and called them by their names in both Arabic and Hebrew. On the wall of the living room, we projected a map of the city and found the homes of Kamel and Assaf and marked the distance between them. Then, we tried to identify the origins of the ingredients on the table. During this process, we were forced to leave the boundaries of Jerusalem and broaden the map to the point that the distance between the homes was almost nonexistent and even the fruits and vegetables, the milk, meat and fish that were in front of us wandered the Fertile Crescent, to Africa, to the shores of Portugal and to the Amazon rainforest. Food travels around the world with people, and even Jerusalem, which can seem to us at times like the end of the line and the place where all paths meet, became just a point on the map between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Desert, between Turkey and the Sinai Desert, between Europe and Africa. That really put things into perspective.

At the end of the day, we climbed up to the Ethri Ruins, which lie next to our farm. Ethri was a Hebrew village that was destroyed 2,000 years ago but still contains within its crumbling walls ancient wine presses that were used to produce wine to be sent to the Roman palaces, oil presses for olive oil that were used in the Temple and millstones that ground the wheat of the area. From the hilltop, we looked at the modern vineyards, olive groves and the green fields of wheat. As the sun set, we really began to feel that this land is the source of everything, before language and religion and history, the land itself holds the voices of the grass and the earth.

In the weeks and months that followed, we began traveling near and far, trying to explain to each other what we really mean when we say “land” or “home”. We went to vist the Abu Alheija family that live in the village of Ein Hawd, on top of Mount Carmel, as well as the home of Yaub Khayat, who lives with his family in the village of Rameh in the Galilee. The two families were uprooted from their homes during the Israeli War of Independence and were never allowed to go back, even after the fighting ceased. Though their former homes wound up in the hands of strangers, they insisted on building new homes nearby and held onto their homeland through their cuisine. The Abu Alheija family started a restaurant in the living room of their home, where members of the family serve various dishes from the local Palestinian repertoire. For many years, their unrecognized village was not connected to water or power lines and therefore the food had to be cooked by traditional means in a wood-burning Tabun oven and without any type of refrigeration. The ingredients were taken from the surrounding vicinity, either handpicked or locally grown. The Abu Alheija family set before us a table filled with roasted lamb, chicken, and rabbit, along with fish straight from the nearby Mediterranean Sea, stuffed pastries, as well as a variety of grains, vegetables, and herbs of kinds we had never tasted before. Muhammad, the patriarch, smiled with satisfaction. Just a few years ago, their village was finally connected to the power grid and was officially recognized by the state, 60 years after its establishment. Abu Alheija attributes their success in accomplishing this to frequent visits to the restaurant by residents who lived in the area and knew the local cuisine. He said that whoever eats from our plates cannot say that our history is not tied to this place.

Yaub Khayat and his family from Rameh were uprooted from the village of Eiqrit, which was on the border with Lebanon, during the 1948 war. The village residents were dispersed throughout the Galilee and despite repeated promises, they were not allowed to return to their land. Khayat was educated in a Catholic home in which he grew up, completed high levels of education in the field of social work, and became director of a unit in the biggest hospital in the Galilee. Nevertheless, his longing never dissipated and he kept going back to the ruins of his village until one day he quit his job and started his own restaurant on the ground floor of his home. It is called Sharabic, named for a rocky plot of land that was adjacent to his beloved village, where even though the land was poor and uncultivated, in his opinion, it was still preferable to any other alternative that has since been presented to him. We met with Yaub just before dawn and went with him on a tour of the neighboring mountain in order to pick wild herbs that have been used for generations in local Galillean cuisine. Khayat is an unofficial expert in the local vegetation and works wonders in his kitchen. When we brought our baskets of herbs to the stove, Khayat showed us how to cook the leaves, stems, and thorns we had collected and sprinkled the sweet Judas Tree flowers over the Akoub and Jirjir salad, to the point where we felt that he was serving us the bittersweet memories of the very herbs that he collected.

An Acquired Taste

During a different week, we went to visit Shmil Holland in his Jerusalem kitchen. Shmil is a chef who specializes in traditional Eastern European Jewish cuisine. He is thought of as a treasure trove of traditions that have been forgotten in the generations following the annihilation of European Jewry during the Holocaust. In Jerusalem, there has been a Jewish community of Ashkenazi immigrants for many centuries, that maintained their traditional mode of dress and food. Shmil set the forgotten foods of his people on the long table before us, which included seasoned duck, stew with cabbage and cherries, beef casserole with dried fruits, as well as many gleaming glasses of vodka. Assaf and I were already familiar with the aromas from our own upbringing. For Kamel, however, the food was completely new and unique, even though it was being cooked for generations in the homes of his neighbors with their strange outfits. It was after this meal that he desired to understand the Hassidim, Ultra Orthodox Jews, why they dress in such a way, why they never gave up their old Eastern European appearance and why they insist on eating chicken soup in the middle of boiling hot Jerusalem summers. Kamel’s innocent questions made us feel as though we were missing out on something, even though we each grew up with our own types of traditional foods.

The next month we went to the Arava. In the most arid desert in Israel, beginning in the 1950s, Israeli agricultural communities were established and began to flourish, growing most of Israel’s produce and even exporting their products overseas. In contrast to Jerusalem or the Galilee, full of history and memories, people never lived in the mountains of the Arava, except for soldiers and copper miners throughout history. As a result, agriculture was never set up, nor was a gastronomic history of any sort. Thanks to their strengths and talents, the people of our generation that settled the Arava merited to be real pioneers and to create a new terroir, free of traces of memories and emotional burdens. We sat around a table in the vegetable greenhouse of Ronit and Moti Elazari. In the greenhouse, enmeshed with irrigation pipes, they grow vegetables from all over the world and use them to create salads, baked goods, and other simple but delicious dishes. We were all impressed by the ability to harvest whatever they could find in the desert and to create a desirable cuisine so far removed from all other human existence in history. Maybe this is a way to solve all the old disputes, holy wars, and history — to simply leave everything behind and start anew?

Istanbul As An Example

We ate our way through Jerusalem and the rest of the country, meeting with immigrants who assimilated and locals who emigrated; in the fields and in the vineyards; in the booths packed with fruit; in luxurious kitchens and on simple stoves in an alley, until we packed our bags and went to Istanbul. Thanks to the new perspectives that we gleaned from our journey, we wanted to see the eye of the storm, which births the waves and ripples we sail. We wanted to visit what has been the culinary umbilicus of the world for thousands of years. The march down İstiklal Avenue, the ferry on the Bosphorous from the European side of the city to the Asian side, the wandering through seemingly never-ending markets: it seemed to us that it was like a giant kitchen that wasn’t missing a single thing. When we were with Chef Musa at his restaurant Çiya, we began to understand that cuisine never stops influencing or being influenced, that a kitchen doesn’t have roots but is part of a journey. We saw a city where the sum of its residents is greater than the whole. The variety and bounty, the cooking methods and ingredients all living together in pots in simple harmony, all despite the great distance of the dishes’ origins in time and space. Perhaps this should be a summary of our own personal journeys. Maybe this is how the meal that we will prepare should look: a meal in which Jerusalem does not seclude nor separate itself. One that has no groups or disagreements but rather is cooked together for a long time until it becomes one single dish, rich with a variety of flavors, yet still one.

We sat next to the grill at a restaurant called Zübeyir and let the master of coals feed us using skewers for an entire evening. Underneath the large copper chimney was a little bit of salt, pepper, accuracy and a hand that never missed a spin of the grill: All that was needed to make sure that we wouldn’t get up from the table for the entire evening, a complete contrast to Musa’s restaurant which was chock full of different flavors and strict work. The meal was comprised of an excellent raw material, meat or vegetable, heat and then patience. The meal at Zübeyir was a back-to-basics approach to dining. Perhaps we too should engage with this type of cooking in order to find what unifies and connects us.

For days, we wandered around Istanbul and its kitchens like dreamers, meeting masters for which their expertise in making Baklava and Kanafeh, or slicing Shawarma have no match; admiring their single, undivided devotion to a task that has no kind of new creativity and whose entire job is to preserve previous traditions. They have the confidence of one who senses no passage of time and who never feels that their past will be lost if it is not preserved in the pots. In the morning, these proud craftsmen don their outfits as they go to work, reflecting the great seriousness of their field, and faithfully create their art.

The Meal

I remember one afternoon, after we returned from Istanbul, when the summer was already in full swing, we needed to finally decide how we would present the picture of our journey, what would be the artistic expression that we would present it to all the festival-goers in Jerusalem.

We sat in the stone pool at the farm, drinking wine and beginning to decide which dishes we would serve.

The meal would take place in an ancient house on Mount Zion, right between the homes of Assaf and Kamel. We would serve the food on tables covered with old maps with every ingredient in its place. Afterward, we would put out long rolls of paper and bake an abundance of baked goods that carry within them the entire journey. We would then hold a discussion between the chefs through frying pans, in which each one would present whatever flowed from his heart, while the other would respond, and continue like this until the night was almost through. At the end of the meal, we would spread out all sorts of the country’s sweet and juicy things on the tables and in the center put real ice cream, made from locally-sourced mastic, between blocks of ice so that everyone could eat to their heart’s content.

We carefully planned how Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians, old timers and new immigrants would all sit next to each other. We created the map, and on it the journey. We felt that at any moment, at the end of summer and at the height of the festival, we would cook up peace in Jerusalem.

A month before the stoves were supposed to be lit on Mount Zion, and the bread and salt were supposed to welcome all those who came with blessings, war broke out in Gaza. The war was brought upon by acts of terror carried out from both sides. Pretty soon, suspicion and violence spread to the rest of Israel and Jerusalem was caught in the eye of the storm. At night, we convened in a home in Jerusalem and our hearts knew nothing but pain. We realized that the die was cast and this meal would not be able to take place that summer. It’s impossible to drink and and be merry in the heart of the city while it’s going up in flames. The things that we knew between us could not be served to neighbors when they are hurt, afraid and filled with worry. At the end of the night, we hugged for a long time and cried over the journey that would not come to fruition. Not this time. The project would be shelved, and in its place, the festival displayed the faces of the many Jerusalemites who stayed together and who refused to lose hope.

Kamel, Assaf and the rest of the crew remained close friends and we have eaten many meals together since that bitter, hasty summer. We had almost forgotten that cancelled meal. This was, for what it’s worth, the first time that I have told the story in writing. It seems that the meal will never be cooked but Kamel and Assaf continue to tell their story and the story of our city through its cuisine. The sons and daughters of our city have returned to the tables and the Season of Culture continues to promote art in Jerusalem, increasing the love and light in our city.

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