RAMALLAH, West Bank – At a time of simmering Mideast tensions and rising malaise, a group of French chefs recently visited the West Bank to bring a little joie de vivre to Palestinian kitchens.
The eight chefs visited restaurants in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus and east Jerusalem in a weeklong event earlier this month sponsored by the French government, which prides itself on culinary diplomacy and has held similar events in Japan, Brazil, India, Morocco and elsewhere.
A parallel festival began four years ago and ran concurrently in Israel. Many Israeli chefs train in Europe, and in the last 20 years, a cosmopolitan Israeli cuisine has emerged, incorporating techniques and flavors from across the Jewish diaspora -- everything from Moroccan couscous and Libyan fish stews to German potato pancakes and Austrian-inspired chicken schnitzel.
By contrast, Palestinian cooking has remained steeped in local and Middle Eastern recipes, thanks to a strong agrarian tradition and a shortage of clientele with disposable income. Dishes lean on chickpeas, lentils and rice, often spiced with cumin, drizzled in olive oil and accompanied by sides like hummus, tabbouleh and yogurt. Palestinian food also draws on Levantine flavors like zaatar -- a thyme-like herb -- as well as sumac and pomegranate molasses.
Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority, has seen dozens of new restaurants and cafes open in recent years, serving Palestinian, Lebanese, Mexican, Japanese and Italian fare. But most cooks learn on the job.
"Someone wanted to work for us after he came from a construction site. Another one dropped out of high school," said Jamal Nimer, owner of the Caesar Hotel in Ramallah, which opened five years ago. "You have to teach the people how to work."
That's where the French come in.
One of the chefs gave lessons in baking bread, cakes and macaron cookies to the 32 students at the Caesar Hospitality College in Ramallah, which Nimer opened earlier this year to train staff.
At the Orjuwan restaurant nearby, co-owner Saleem Sakakini said visiting chef Alex Dreyer helped his staff master basic techniques as they prepared a special menu featuring salmon in hollandaise sauce, a lamb rack served over herb-infused mashed potatoes and an apple tarte tatin.
"I liked the Palestinian food, because I think it's a very specific flavor that anyone can enjoy," said Dreyer, who works as a chef in Paris. "The flavor is so bold and beautiful."
Sakakini said he was grateful his dozen kitchen staff could get a master class in using the "sous vide" appliance, which cooks meat or vegetables uniformly via a hot water bath. He also relished the small touches Dreyer introduced. "He poached sliced garlic in milk for two hours, then dried it and then deep fried it," Sakakini said. "And then used it as a garnish. They looked phenomenal. I never tried this before."
In the southern West Bank town of Hebron, Mahmoud Halaika worked with Vincent Lucas -- who cooks in a Michelin-starred restaurant in southwestern France. The two prepared steak in a creamy mushroom sauce alongside lamb neck stuffed with aromatic rice and served with yogurt -- a Palestinian specialty.
Halaika said he loved preparing food as a child and spent six years cooking in an Israeli restaurant outside Tel Aviv, where he earned a good salary but feared that authorities would discover he was sleeping in Israel illegally during the week. He eventually moved back to Hebron and took a job cooking for half the pay at the Pasha Palace restaurant, where a local clientele enjoys Palestinian fare in a leafy courtyard.
Hebron, which has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence, sees few tourists, making the chef's visit all the more special. "We learned their techniques. Their slow cooking," Halaika said.
Back in Ramallah, Sakakini said the festival was a bright spot in a challenging time, when business has fallen by 30 percent due to renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The last five months have seen near-daily Palestinian attacks, mainly stabbings in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which have killed 27 Israelis. Israelis have killed more than 160 Palestinians in the same period, most of whom Israel identified as assailants. Israel has blamed the violence on Palestinian incitement, while the Palestinians say it is rooted in frustration at decades of occupation and dwindling hopes for independence.
"The political situation in the Middle East is very dull and depressing," Sakakini said. "There's an intifada, we have checkpoints ... To work with people who are otherwise unattainable gives us the chance to believe in what we are doing."