In Israel, Building Community With Breakfast

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Leah Koenig


To try a recipe for semolina cake with geranium-scented sugar syrup, known as harissa, click here.

Walking through the Arab souk (market) in the Old City of Nazareth feels something like stumbling upon a secret garden. Just a few steps from the throngs of tourists flocking towards the Church of The Annunciation gates, an easily overlooked archway opens into a maze of bright tapestries, Turkish coffee pots, and folding tables weighed down by peppers and inky eggplants. A vendor stirs rue, a Mediterranean herb, into a bucket of olives while two women lay out their offering of grape leaves, green almonds, and mallow on unrolled blankets. Throughout the narrow streets, a heady mix of dried za'atar, fresh bread, and cinnamon perfumes the air, smelling at once ancient and utterly alive.

It is this breathy, reverential atmosphere that Maoz Inon hoped to capture when he founded the Fauzi Azar Inn—a 200-year-old mansion-turned-guesthouse that sits deep within the market. In 2004, he and his wife left their home in Tel Aviv and ventured out on an extended backpacking trip across Israel, California, and South America. Along the way, they stayed at countless hostels and guesthouses, enjoying the camaraderie and energy that thrives amongst the freewheeling.

As the trip neared its end, Inon realized he wanted to open his own guesthouse when they returned. He thought that Nazareth, which is set in the verdant Galilee valley and is simultaneously home to many holy Christian sites and Israel's largest Arab population, could be the perfect fit. Inon was also keen on creating a business that would foster the economy in the surrounding community—something that Nazareth's neglected Old City sorely needed. However, as a stranger to the city, he lacked the connections to find the right location.

His luck changed when he attended a local business entrepreneur's meeting in Nazareth and met Suraida Nasser. "I think I have the place for you," Nasser said after hearing Inon's story. Nasser is the granddaughter of Fauzi Azar, a wealthy Christian Arab who had owned the family's Ottoman-style mansion until his death in 1980. The building had sat empty since Mr. Azar's passing, and Nasser thought a guesthouse could bring life back to the house she loved as a child.

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Leah Koenig

Inon agreed and Nasser took him to view the house. "The moment I saw [it]"—a gracious, light-filled home with intricately painted ceilings, marble floors, and an open courtyard— "I knew it could be one of the best guest houses in the world," he wrote in a 2008 article in the Jerusalem Post. After several meetings with Nasser's family (and many glasses of "strong Arabian coffee") an agreement was made, and the Fauzi Azar Inn opened in 2005. Today the guesthouse serves nearly 4,000 travelers a year, runs daily guided tours of Nazareth, and offers a hiking tour that traces Jesus' footsteps around the region.

In a country where stories of cooperation and coexistence rarely make headlines, the business partnership between a Jewish man and Arab woman is rather remarkable. But Inon and Nasser (who works as the Inn's day manager) prefer to focus on their guests and the surrounding community. Aside from providing comfortable service, their primary goal is to encourage travelers to connect with the neighborhood beyond the Inn's walls —to patronize the restaurants, visit the holy sites, and, of course, wander about the souk. But nowhere is their pride in their home more apparent than at the breakfast table.

"Every day guests can have a traditional Arab breakfast," Nasser said. The spread (30 Israeli new shekels, about eight dollars) is lavish—far more so than the typical hostel fare of toast and jam—and decidedly Middle Eastern. It includes pita covered with crumbly goat cheese, olive oil, and za'atar and then baked in the oven, and creamy labneh yogurt accompanied by briny green and black olives. "Not Greek olives—real ones from the Galilee," Nasser specified.

Omelets are dressed up with mint, parsley, and scallions (the holy trinity of countless Middle Eastern dishes), and accompanied by a salad of tomato, onion, and cucumber, all finely chopped and tossed with lemon juice and olive oil. In the summer there are fresh melons and apricots from the souk, in the winter bright oranges and grapefruit. Fresh dates, mint tea, and glasses of strong Arab-style coffee cooked with cardamom round out the meal.

The staff also bakes each morning—a rotation of chocolate and vanilla sponge cakes for guests and tourgoers to nibble on alongside their coffee. And on mornings when the inspiration strikes, they bake harissa, a golden semolina and yogurt cake drenched with sugar syrup that has been steeped with fresh geranium leaves.

Harissa is primarily known both in and outside the Middle East as the piquant North African hot sauce used to flavor everything from meat dishes to salad. But the name, which comes from the Arabic word for "mashed" (mahroos), refers equally well to a sticky, geranium-scented cake as it does to a paste of crushed chilies. Nasser, who learned the recipe from her mother-in-law (she departs from the original in her addition of shredded coconut), said harissa is a regional favorite that she remembers her grandmother making. "It was easy, didn't cost a lot, and many people grew the geraniums in their garden," she said.

Over the last decade, Nazareth's Old City has begun to experience a cultural and economic renaissance. "It's like a sleeping beauty waking up," Inon wrote, referring to the many newly opened cafes, cultural centers and shops in the neighborhood. Some of this growth is certainly due to the Fauzi Azar Inn's success in attracting and connecting people to the area beyond the typical Christian sites. And while the Arab breakfast is only one part of a guest's experience, it is central to building their personal connection to the region. Together, the fresh souk produce and traditional cakes give visitors a taste of what Nazareth has to offer, and leaves them craving more.

Recipe: Semolina "Harissa" Cake

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Leah Koenig is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is working on her first cookbook, and more of her work can be found at leahkoenig.com. More

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose mostly food-related work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, Gastronomica, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Culinate, and other publications. She writes a monthly food column for The Forward and a bi-weekly column on seasonal eating for Saveur.com.

Leah was the founding editor of The Jew and The Carrot, a blog on Jews, food, and contemporary life. Under her tenure the site won best new blog and best food and recipes blog in the 2007 Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards. Leah has also presented her food research at venues around New York City. Most recently, she gave a presentation on the Jewish cuisine of Rome for the Jewish Historical Society of New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband. Her personal Web site is leahkoenig.com.
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