Mutkal Halabi serenaded us with an oud as we ate a scrumptious oven-baked lamb dish made with almonds, walnuts, and rice. A side dish of hummus beans and potatoes complemented the main course. We were in Halabi's restaurant - the only diners in fact - and we were enjoying every minute of our culinary adventure in the Israeli Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel.
The meal had started with a spread of sour labane cheese, zaatar salad, homegrown olives from the year's "good crop", creamy tehina, hummus with pine nuts, stuffed vine leaves, and Druze pita, which is flatter and thinner than pita bread available elsewhere in the country. The name of Halabi's restaurant - Misadat HaKeves - was quite fitting; it translates as The Sheep Restaurant.
"I've had this restaurant for 31 years," Mutkal told us. We were more interested in knowing how long he had been playing the oud - a musical instrument of the lute family common to Arab countries.
"I started playing the violin at the age of eight," he said. "I studied other musical instruments, including all kinds of flutes. I studied the oud for two years." Mutkal, we learned, earned a degree in music. He bought the oud in Jordan in 2001. Handmade in Syria, it cost $2,800 at the time. Today, it was priceless.
We had come for a weekend in the town, home to the largest community of Israel's Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious minority that split from mainstream Islam during the 11th century. There are some 122,000 Druze living in Israel, and they live in the Galilee, on the Golan Heights, and in the mountains near Haifa. The Druze serve in the Israel Defense Forces and are Israeli citizens who, with the exception of some living near the Syrian border, dissociate themselves from Arab nationalism. They are very welcoming and hospitable, glad to have visitors in their communities.
And, Druze food is so good. On our first night we happened by chance on the Fakher el Deen restaurant, located in a residential neighborhood far from the main road that runs through the town. The chef/owner greeted us at the door and we sat down for some creative Druze fusion cooking.
The Chef's Salad was served hot, and contained a mixture of broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, tehina, and sumac. The Chef's Shishlik was pieces of grilled chicken breast served on a bed of eggplant, tehina and tortilla. The restaurant had been open for a year and a half, the chef told us. We especially enjoyed the warm chestnuts served at the end of the meal.
Halabi seems to be a common Druze name, as in the center of Daliat-el-Carmel, all the storefronts bear that name. There is a Halabi Anter restaurant, where we dined on heart-shaped falafel and more of the creamy tehina, delicious hummus, and sweet stuffed cabbage and grape leaves. Next store is a tourist shop, operated by the Halabi Brothers. There are at least two dental surgeons and three lawyers with signs on doors advertising the name Halabi. In fact, the guest house where we stayed for two nights was owned and operated by Jamal Halabi.
Traditional attire for Druze men is the baggy pants called the shirwal. The more religious women cover their hair with a white al-mandīl--a transparent loose white veil.
On our final day in town we stopped at a roadside stand not far from the Muhraka Monastery, where according to the Carmelite Order that maintains the sacred spot, Prophet Elijah battled with the prophets of Ba'al.
"Have some coffee," our host said, pouring us each a small cup of the cardamom-flavored liquid. We sat with her and her husband, talking about life in Daliat al-Carmel. It turned out that the family lived on the same street where we had spent the night. Before we continued on our way, we purchased a jar of homemade labane, formed as semi-hard balls of the sour cheese floating in olive oil. We were glad to have a taste of Druze cuisine to take home with us.