Writing about Palestine, one meal at a time

After 10 months of planning, getting the main room of the brand new Haifa Room ready to open is a sobering experience. With its soft brown furniture, mahogany paneling, beige and velvet banquettes, and…

After 10 months of planning, getting the main room of the brand new Haifa Room ready to open is a sobering experience. With its soft brown furniture, mahogany paneling, beige and velvet banquettes, and hundreds of flickering candles, it looks – to be charitable – quite gorgeous. But we’re the journalists, so we’re here to make money. A tip from our colleague Juan Carlos López-Chavez, formerly of The Brooklyn Paper and now one of The Jerusalem Post’s most talented and courageous Middle East correspondents, recently arrived from Syria, and supplies some good advice about what to wear to a high-profile opening. To meet friends or to impress someone, it would seem, and we didn’t want to seem cold. So wearing a light-colored blazer over a dark shirt, jeans, and comfortable shoes, we gathered at 11:30 a.m. for a quick walk around the neighborhood to test how the new room felt.

The guide leading us around was Maath Ahadi, one of my favorite young local chefs. She told us that her plans included building a student program, in collaboration with some of Haifa’s culinary institutes, where youth from the area can learn the art of cooking, including her own favorite dish, Kofte, or pizza. Not yet baked on the Haifa kitchen, she said, the Kofte slices would be waiting for us when we entered the room.

We took the walk by the street, passing a pair of beautiful mixed shades of red on a street lined with dilapidated apartment buildings. We then walked a few blocks north to Haifa’s Florentine Quarter, where we passed shops that boasted tantalizing wares for sale. At a corner stand, a giant bag of freshly baked cookies was on display: the ones that look like you just tossed them all over your body after an epic game of limbo are fresh, shiny, and slightly sticky, and they won’t go soggy in your hand.

When we entered the room, we were greeted by a welcoming fireplace and a modest-sized, makeshift gallery of paintings hung on the walls. This, the room was going to be all about. We were to begin our meal with three courses made from traditional Palestinian food. We chose various courses from a huge and extremely delicious menu, one that would be the real bread and butter for the next two hours.

Across the room, a tasty hummus bar was under construction, as well as much of the adjacent kitchen. Chef Ahadi told us that the products used on our food would come from her new venture, a catering business she was starting. It would be an exciting initiative, and we had no idea how important such an endeavor would be for any emerging chef.

Our initial table was broken up into seven, although we didn’t expect we’d be eating this food for such a long time. The chef served drinks and, eventually, after reading our names, some of the chef’s guests from across the room came along to help.

The oldest woman in the room, an elegant woman of septuagenarian age, introduced herself and said, “I was born here, and I’ve been cooking all my life.” After some positive mentions about how really incredible the food was, she ordered herself a lunch, and she and several other friends led us down a narrow hallway to a small bar and onto the dining room.

It was amazing. I’ve never eaten an entire meal on my first visit to a new place, or on a first date, for that matter. It was just that good. We were led by another friend of hers to her table, and she began dipping her fingers into the warm hummus by stirring it gently – she was familiar with the salts that were on the table, and other guest dishes. We asked about the hummus, and the wine. She revealed it was made on her allotment from the nearby olive tree, a particular grandmotherly specialty. Her efforts, she said, had been to come up with local and organic ingredients. Yes, she acknowledged, it would be fine for us to take home some of the dips, and others we were still undecided about – there was enough for everyone. We offered her our verdicts – no need for that much hummus in our lives – and left. She was justif

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