M, 85 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
What is the best hummus? Is it Israeli or is it Arab? Opting for one over the other is a political choice in the highly politicised state of Israel. A curious fact revealed in this new culinary documentary from Israel that has been so generously welcomed at film festivals around the world.
The country’s ubiquitous traditional salad, a mix of cucumber, tomato, herbs and minced spring onion sprinkled with lemon and oil, is also in contention. Is it Arab or Jewish cuisine?
I’m inclined to go with the view that most of the recipes are Arabic based, or based on cuisine from the wider Levant region. Although that view would be bound to upset some. What’s perhaps most important is that Arabic dishes have made their way into Israeli cuisine.
Breaking Bread opens on a creamy hummus being made with pestle rather than a blender. The luscious images in slo-mo are intercut with an introduction to one of the winners of Israeli MasterChef, a Palestinian. Dr Nof Atamna-Ismeel is the first Muslim to win in the competition since the it began in 2010.
When Dr Atamna-Ismaeel won MasterChef in 2014, she didn’t leave it there. She went on to found the A-Sham Arabic Food Festival in the northern city of Haifa. Three days devoted to fostering better community relations between Arab and Jewish Israelis through a mutual interest in great food.
collaborating in the kitchen to create a new reality on a plate
A-Sham means Levant, taking in Syria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.
As a Palestinian Israeli, Dr Atamna-Ismeel may seem caught in the middle to some, but she feels she has the best of both worlds. So, the idea underpinning the festival she founded is for Jewish and Muslim chefs to swap places, and work in each other’s establishments to see what they can celebrate and what new culinary creations they can come up with.
Breaking Bread is a compilation of interviews with chefs in the Haifa area and Akka, a town further north, who are participants in the A-Sham festival.
There’s Schlomo, the Jewish chef whose grandfather lost his brothers in the Holocaust, and arrived in the country with nothing but his favourite recipes committed to memory. His grandson recalls that he didn’t measure his ingredients in standard quantities, but in handfuls.
There’s Ali, a young Arab chef from Syria whose village in the Golan Heights was captured during the ‘67 war. He can’t wait to reveal recipes from a culinary tradition that goes back many hundreds of years. For him it is important that Arabic dishes, unknown and undocumented, make their way onto the Jewish table.
Ilan, of mixed Catholic and Jewish heritage, and with a Muslim godfather, is very chilled. He thinks that collaborating in the kitchen is about creating a new reality on a plate.
Breaking Bread is competently, if not particularly imaginatively, directed by Beth Elise Hawk, who appears to be in the early stages of her career. Too many heads talking to camera for my taste. It would have been more interesting if this interview material were turned into audio while we watched the chefs do their thing.
a sign of hope in a bitterly contested region
Yet, it’s the spirit of the film and the hopes of the people in it that are engaging. Along with the tantalizing idea of new flavours to experience. Like kishek yoghurt soup, and qatayef filled with cheese and nuts, and mussahkhan or Palestinian chicken, and the octopus maqluba. Are Dr Atamna-Ismeel’s lamb dumplings to die for?
The film has had an impressive range of nods from the international film community. Invited to participate in official selection in at least 14 festivals, it has picked up a number of awards.
No doubt this has a lot to do with the film’s message of peace. Many of the chefs interviewed say in their different way, that if change is to come it will come from the people, not the politicians who maintain division in Israeli society.
My thoughts strayed to the exciting work of Jerusalem-born ex-pat chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, whose partnership has produced recipes combining Hebrew and Muslim heritage that have had a major impact.
Can our shared love of food help in reconciliation? The A-Sham festival is a sign of hope in a bitterly contested region. Surely Dr Atamna-Ismeel and the other chefs we meet here are on to something.
First published in the Canberra Times on 5 June 2021