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Daietna, a Palestinian restaurant keeping the food way alive

Ara, Northern Israel – To get to Dayatna one has to pass through narrow roads and empty fields on top of Ara Hill. You’ll know you’re there when dry terrain unexpectedly gives way to lush greenery at the summit, and the bleating of goats breaks the silence.

Walking into Daietna feels like walking into a small Garden of Eden.

This gem of a Palestinian restaurant was hand-crafted by Akel Maman, 47, a gardener-turned-chef who once set it up in a corner of his family’s olive grove.

Here, the distinction between garden and restaurant is blurred. Every nook has a table and chairs, always within easy reach of some zaatar or some mints that you can sprinkle over your food.

Climb up some metal stairs to the top of the shed, where live goats and chickens rest in the shade, and you’ll get a wonderful view of the Ara. The sight of the Palestinian city nestling into a mountain in the distance is a reminder of how Dayatna coexists with the nature that surrounds it.

There is also a table and chairs above the goat shed for guests willing to trade shade for stunning views.

A zaatar manouche on a wooden board
The highlight of the menu is the manushey, often topped with tangy zaatar and rich olive oil [Adam Sella/Al Jazeera]

Giants are a family affair. On a busy day, children run along the garden path while Maman and his daughter fire up shakshuka and manusha, bread often topped with a delicious mixture of tong zaatar and olive oil for their guests.

Manouches are the highlight of the menu and come topped with cheese or potatoes. Side salad and traditional cheeses are served as well.

Maman describes the food as “simple and authentic”, which is reflected in the homemade freshness of each dish.

Here guests are not just customers, they become a part of the family. When Maman’s hands are small, he approaches a table and politely asks: “Hey, can you help me bring your food to the table?”

Daietna is a word from Levantine Arabic that refers to a self-sufficient, sustainable village, a reflection of the garden-restaurant philosophy, Maman explains.

Many ingredients, such as olive oil and herbs, are sourced from the restaurant’s grounds, and guests are encouraged to walk around the garden to see where their dishes are grown.

As you walk, all kinds of mint, zaatar and flower aromas waft around you and if you pay close attention, you will notice that you are not alone. Bees are buzzing, busy collecting pollen from a wide variety of native flowers.

A view of the restaurant's kitchen garden
All plants growing in Daietna are native to this region [Adam Sella/Al Jazeera]

For Maman, the garden is the most important part of Daitana, and the food is a kind of accompaniment to complete the atmosphere.

In fact, what he likes about being in Daietna is that he gets to “teach people about plants and nature, what each one is called, how different plants can be used to make tea or food, and how they can connect people to generations past when people Spent more time outside in nature.”

Maman said Dayatna aims to create a place where people can enjoy the outdoors and eat healthy food. Maman estimates that his restaurant is “90 percent garden and 10 percent seating”.

After the guests have eaten, Maman encourages them to stay and explore the winding garden paths.

The plants he grows in Daitana are native to the region and when he can take a break from the kitchen, he even explores his garden and the nature around him.

With more than 30 years of gardening experience, Maman is an excellent resource on all things plant related, explaining to people on her tours “how to communicate with and be positively affected by plants.”

He’s also happy to answer more mundane questions like caring for your houseplants.

Akel Maman stood in front of his tabun
Maman says tabun maker Latifa was surprised at the request to help build a stove, as no one nearby uses the traditional clay tabun anymore. [Courtesy of Saida Mamon]

Maman was fired from his job as a gardener at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Her mind was filled with worry about her daughter’s future. To get a breath of fresh air, he would approach his olive grove, a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation, and enjoy the view.

Three years ago, before the vision for Daetna crossed Maman’s mind, he just wanted to do something with his hunger at this retreat. Missing the aroma of her grandmother’s bread, Maman decides to make a tabun, a traditional Palestinian oven made of clay and straw.

But to create a kitchen like the one he grew up in, Maman had to find someone who remembered the practical details, like how to make tabun.

Today, no one makes traditional clay tabuns, says Maman. “Heritage is lost from our area.”

Maman enlisted the help of 90-year-old Latifa, who used to make all the local taboons. He recounts that he was quite surprised by her request because no one nearby uses the traditional tabun anymore.

A retired taboon maker showed Maman where to find the perfect special clay for making taboons. After three months of trial and error, Maman had a “tabun asli”, an authentic stove.

A covered seating area in the garden-restaurant
Daietna has some multi-purpose spaces that can be closed if the weather requires [Adam Sella/Al Jazeera]

Since learning how to make a traditional tabun, Maman has taught others how to make them. For example, during Heritage Day at a neighboring kindergarten, Maman explained to the children how to make a stove and helped the teacher build one for the children to use.

After making his own tabun, Maman realized that a sink would be useful for washing his hands after meals at his nature retreat, so he carved one from an abandoned log. Gradually, he continued to build and perfect until he realized he had something he wanted to share with his community.

Daietna opened its doors to the public about eight months ago with an inaugural dinner to which only his family was invited. But now, Maman says, people from all over the world come to eat there.

Revival of traditional Palestinian foodways

Maman said the inspiration for his restaurant came from his childhood. The hand-crafted fountains in the backdrop of the restaurant’s ambience, which bubble merrily, remind Maman of the spring he used to fetch water as a child.

The soil and greenery of the garden are the same colors of nature that he remembers from his childhood and work as a gardener.

In the open kitchen, Maman hangs her pots and pans like her grandmother did in hers.

A view of the breakfast table with the garden in the background
Grilled halloumi cheese and shakshuka share the table with bowls of olives, salads, pickles and preserves, and pots of fresh tea. [Adam Sella/Al Jazeera]

All is not as it was in the past. Manush, the highlight of Daitna’s menu, is a modern take on Maman’s grandmother’s manush, which he grew up eating every morning.

Maman said the recipe that Manush had as a child was used to give new life to day-old bread. Without a freezer to keep the bread fresh, Maman remembers her grandmother soaking day-old bread in water, adding za’atar and olive oil and reheating it in the taboon.

Today, Maman makes his dough from scratch and collects his ingredients from Dayetna’s garden. The olive oil is made from olives from his grove and hand-picked from Zatar’s Baldi orchard.

Maman said, in his eyes, only 10 percent of the operation is complete.

He built the structure, which he planned to build. “Now it’s just a matter of time,” he says, envisioning nature taking over, filling the space with fruits, vegetables and herbs that he and his guests can pick and eat straight off the vine.

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