In April 2014, Dr Nof Atamna-Ismaeel became the first Arabic contestant to win MasterChef in Israel.
"It gave me some kind of a power — a tool — to use food in order to make bridges between Jews and Arabs," she says in the new Breaking Bread documentary, which screens at the Jewish International Film Festival this month.
The movie focuses on A-Sham Arab Food Festival, an annual event she co-founded in Israel's northern port city of Haifa in 2015. The festival pairs local Arab chefs with Jewish chefs, and together they collaborate on forgotten or lesser-known Levantine dishes from the region.
Breaking Bread chronicles the festival's third edition, which took place in 2017. Here, we meet Ali Khattib who wants to restore the 200-year-old dishes of his Syrian ancestors in his adopted homeland. The chef is from Ghajar, a village that was split in two in 2000 — one part was claimed by Lebanon, while the other remained in Israel.
At the festival, he is paired with chef Shlomi Meir, who runs Ma'ayan Habira in Haifa, an Eastern-European restaurant started by Meir's grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.
Beth Elise Hawk, the documentary's director, was struck by the similarities between the men — despite their different backgrounds.
"They were mirror images of each other: Shlomi really lives and breathes his grandfather's legacy. He touches the meat and feels his grandfather touch the meat," she says. It's similar to Khattib's quest to bring his descendants' Syrian recipes to Israeli diners.
In tribute to their heritage, Khattib decides to serve kishek at the festival — a bulgur-soaked yoghurt dish that can be hard to access in Israel, despite its close origins. The festival's creator Dr Atamna-Ismaeel says, "Syria is just, I don't know, two hours from here. But I have to go to Belgium to get kishek ... to try it for the first time.
"Why? Because of politics."
It's why she named the festival A-Sham, which refers to Levant — what the region was called before modern conflict and politics divided it into contentious borders and war zones. Instead of being polarised by their differences, Dr Atamna-Ismaeel hopes chefs will notice how similar their cuisines, palates and languages are.
"They're in the kitchen and they're cooking, and suddenly you're focused on humanity and that's all that matters. That's what food does," says Hawk.
"They're in the kitchen and they're cooking, and suddenly you're focused on humanity and that's all that matters."
So when Khattib explains his family's pre-war way of making kishek — how his mother dries it in the sun for 20 days — Meir is struck by how "perfectly" salty and sour the preserved bulgur-yoghurt ball is. When he eats it for the first time, it actually reminds him of his grandma's biscuits.
There's a similar connection when chef Ilan Ferron meets Osama Dalal. Ferron describes himself as half-Christian and half-Jewish — and he doesn't care that his festival collaborator is an Arab. Dalal has multicultural roots, too: He's a Palestinian chef from one of the oldest families in Akko, a coastal town where synagogues sit next to churches and mosques.
For the festival, Dalal wants them to make octopus maqluba, a regional specialty. Maqluba is a layered rice dish and it means 'upside down', because you invert the dish when serving it. It's often eaten in other areas after a mosque visit, but this version is specific to the town: it's typically cooked during its octopus season. Dalal unearths the recipe from his grandmother's book and notices a memorable comment about the 'upside-down' dish: "when you flip it, you can smell history."
When Ferron and Dalal create their interpretation, Ferron says it's neither a Hebrew dish nor Arabic dish, but their dish.
Hummus is a big part of the festival, with Dr Atamna-Ismaeel pairing hummus-makers with top chefs. One collaboration leads to the chickpea dip being garnished with bright, tomato-red Tunisian chreime.
"Hummus is very symbolic. It co-exists with whatever topping you put on it," the festival director says. In Breaking Bread, she's pleasantly surprised to see the dip migrate to an American party table, next to guacamole and salsa. "It has no borders."
The region's dishes also feel like characters in the movie and Hawk illustrates this by showing hummus in different culinary settings. "Every time, I had a topping from a different culture," she says. I was taking Nof's message further."
Another character in the documentary is Haifa, the city where the festival takes place. It's known as a "mixed city", given its Jewish-Arab population. Yona Yahav, who was its mayor from 2003 to 2018, says in the movie: "This is the only place on earth which is exercising on a daily basis full peace between Jews and Arabs for more than 100 years."
Hawk, who is based in Los Angeles, says she "fell in love with Haifa", particularly its multicultural population.
"They really do co-exist," she says."Sometimes people don't even like that word. They really just live together. It's not segregated, it's a really mixed city."
"We can show the world that there is another way."
While some people have questioned Haifa's image of multicultural harmony, Breaking Bread presents an optimistic version. Festival chef Rabih Kamal says, "We can show the world that there is another way."
But it goes beyond Haifa. In the film, chef Salah Cordi (who was born in Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv-Yafo), embraces Israel's multicultural character: "In our neighbourhood, we spoke Arabic. We laughed in Hebrew. We cursed in Romanian. We got upset in Moroccan. And it was all sababa (okay).”
They also learnt an extra language, via the food exchanged between neighbours' kids.
Although A-Sham Arab Food Festival isn't currently scheduled to take place (due to the pandemic and other reasons), it lives on virtually through Breaking Bread.
"It's played at 40 different film festivals," says Hawk. The documentary has screened in Israel (twice) and won an audience award at the Napa Film Festival. There are requests to play it in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Singapore and Moscow. After its Australian debut at the Jewish International Film Festival, the documentary is due for a local theatrical release in May — and there are plans for an accompanying cookbook, too.
Hawk has been struck by the response from audiences who have seen it around the world. Dr Atamna-Ismaeel's desire to bring people together through food has resonated strongly with viewers. And with the pandemic leaving our passports dormant, it's also a pleasure to 'travel' to Haifa, Akko and other Israeli towns via the film.
Breaking Bread's optimism endures, too. "You get to see this positive hopeful message, where you think, maybe there’s a chance that the world will be a better place tomorrow," says Hawk.
Breaking Bread screened in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Perth and Melbourne at the Jewish International Film Festival from 21 February to 22 March. Follow the documentary on Instagram and Facebook for updates about its upcoming cookbook and details and times of their Australian cinema release from June 3 2021 are available now via their website.