Some of the newest products in the Marks & Spencer food range began life in a most unlikely setting: a family home in northern Israel. But you will not find the products in question among M&S’s heimishe products. The Israeli contribution is in a section that has grown as Britain’s Arab population has increased — Arabic food.
“I can’t tell you too much, but I can say that during the past year, 2017, I helped to develop the Arabic food lines in Marks & Spencer’s food, and for me it was one of the most interesting culinary experiences of my life,” says the top Israeli chef Nof Atamna-Ismaeel.
Her relationship with M&S started when some of the company’s staff showed up at a cooking class she was running in Israel. “We met and it started a whole great project together. Then I went to London and we did fine-tuning of products there,” she says.
The 37-year-old mum developed some of the lines, which are now produced in the UK and sold in stores nationwide, in her home in an Israeli-Arab town, where she juggles work and caring for her three young children.
She was catapulted to fame when she won Israel’s MasterChef in 2014, competing against an Ashkenazi man and an Ethiopian-Jewish woman. Atamna-Ismaeel has become one of the country’s finest culinary exports. This says a lot about Israel’s food scene today, as it combines influences from a wide geographic range — and she has become one of its most eloquent advocates.
“Israeli cuisine is something that is still evolving. We don’t have the final product yet,” she says. “One of its building blocks is the Arabic cuisine, coming together with influences from different parts of the world, wherever Jewish people come from.
“It’s a very lucky cuisine, to have the rare opportunity to start something new by taking lots of different influences. When you take so many different kitchens and mix them up with lots of different ways of doings things, you get one of the most interesting cuisines in the world.”
She elaborates: “When you come out of the English tradition, for instance, there are rules and you can feel constrained, but when you get a blank sheet you’re lucky as you can adopt from every cuisine what you like.”
When Dr Atamna-Ismaeel won MasterChef, she quit her job as a microbiologist and started working in food full-time. Her projects include an Arab food festival that she produces in Haifa every year, celebrating Arab food and its contribution to Israeli cuisine. She is bringing other Arab chefs to prominence, such as Saleh Kurdi, Elias Matar and Assaf Ambram.
“It brings me great happiness, as more chefs participate and bring to life Arab dishes, some that are almost extinct,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the political situation is at the time, people want to come and learn about Arabic food and tradition. There is Arabic music, Arabic flags and Arabic being spoken — and unlike when many Jews see these things on the news, it’s not intimidating.”
Is the exchange of food tastes two-way? She believes that it is mostly Arab cuisine influencing Israel’s Jews, but there is one unlikely big hit with Arabs. “On Pesach, you see in all Arab villages they sell matzah, and lots of people are buying. Why? Because people just like it.”