‘It reflects the diversity of the community that everyone is proud of’ – A Chat with Izzeddeen and Eman Alkarajeh of Izz Cafe

If you’ve been to Cork, you’ll have certainly heard of this quaint cafe. Serving authentic Palestinian food and demonstrating the embodiment of Arab hospitality, there’s nowhere you’ll feel more like part of the family than at Izz Cafe.

As Palestinians, we yearn for a taste of home. Whether it’s through their Manaeesh, their homemade traditional desserts, their Arabic coffee, or the owners’ friendly faces roaming around the place, Izz Cafe is a place where Arabs and non-Arabs alike feel right at home.

I spoke to owners Izz and Eman at length, discussing the years prior to opening up the restaurant. Our conversations dipped in and out of Arabic, which allowed me to get a deeper understanding of their experience in Ireland.

  • izz cafe
  • izz cafe

Their journey begins in Saudi Arabia, where as non-citizens, ‘if you don’t have a job, you have to leave.’ The couple began looking into family reunification processes in Palestine, but they quickly realised that this was not a viable option, and their search landed them in Ireland.

The process was not what they expected. They quickly found out that they had to go through the Direct Provision system, which had no defined time frame and could be up to a four year wait.

The couple explained the shock they experienced when arriving at the Dublin centre. It was the last thing they expected to witness, so they had a decision to make. It seemed that the only option to keep the family together was to go through Direct Provision. 

By chance, a month later, the family was dispatched to Cork, to a centre considered to be ‘one of the best Direct Provision centres in Ireland.’ Their luck went further when the first shared kitchen in the Irish Direct Provision centres was added to theirs, allowing asylum seekers to cook their own food. This is where the food development for Izz Cafe came to life.

  • izz cafe
  • izz cafe

I asked Izz what his relationship with food is like. His answer? ‘Tasting and eating.’

Izz was a software developer when he was in Saudi Arabia and Eman was the main cook in their house, so he sadly never had time to help her in the kitchen. However, after the shared kitchen was introduced, Izz began helping Eman and built the foundations for what Izz Cafe came to be.

“I tried to imitate my father, who had a habit every time he used to smell food coming from the kitchen. He used to go to the window, open it and hunt for one of our friends to share the food. I like to share our food.”

From this moment, he discovered the potential for a Palestinian food business in Cork.

A retired teacher used to visit the centre; Izz and Eman were friendly with him, and upon hearing about their food business plans, he was quick to discourage them.

“He loves to have a stable job, and he was pushing me strongly towards going to the IT companies to apply for a job. I said okay…but [we] have a passion.”

Izz mentioned that the teacher would connect them to Darina Allen, but only to discourage them from opening the business. Izz was convinced that his idea was going to be successful, but he knew that if Darina Allen felt that this idea would fail, she would let them know. He was surprised to see how knowledgeable she was about the Palestinian cuisine.

“I was considering cooking intense meals, like Dawali and Magloubeh… stuff that takes a lot of labour. She said no, you have a special food called Manaeesh, that’s the best thing to do in Ireland, because it’s not too far from pizza, it’s not too hard for people to adopt.

She connected us to her son in law who owns two farmers markets in Cork… We bought our own small pizza oven, and we started baking. Within the first two weeks we noticed that it was going to do well, so we converted that to a permanent location initially in the farmer’s market. We spent one year there.”

  • izz cafe
  •  izz cafe

I mention Manaeesh above, because this is what Izz Cafe mainly serve. Manaeesh is indeed similar to pizza, and it can be served with a blend of cheeses, such as Akkawi (named after the city in Lebanon) or Halloumi. Manaeesh can also be topped with a mixture of olive oil and Zaatar, which is both a herb, and a spice blend. Izz Cafe serve a range of Manaeesh, from the traditional cheese or Zaatar, to Musakhan, which is traditionally a Palestinian dish full of chicken, caramelised onions and lots of sumac (and Izz and Eman’s personal favourite). Their signature dish? Manooshet Falafel.

“We call it guilt free falafel. During our business in the farmer’s market, many customers would come and ask for falafel, but we are not allowed to boil oil in the farmer’s market, it’s not safe. If we want to fry falafel at home and bring it to the market, it’ll be cold, and I don’t like selling cold falafel. Eman came up with an idea – why don’t we bake falafel as a manoosheh and then add the other toppings? She made it with a spread of hummus on top and the spread of salad, and garnishing with tahini sauce, and whatever else falafel accepts, and we named it guilt free falafel. Everyone was interested in trying it, and since that day it’s been the top selling item on the menu.”

It’s traditional to drink tea with falafel, either with fresh mint or maramieh (sage), and Izz and Eman always recommend it to customers. People tend to wonder how they brew their tea, and they’re always surprised when they say that they use Cork’s own Barry’s Tea. The brewing process is different, because they ‘boil it with the mint, so it becomes a different kind of tea.’ But one of the most important drinks in the Arab world is our coffee. They serve three types of coffee – the Western style that we recognise as a cappuccino or latte, traditional Palestinian/Turkish coffee, and Arabic coffee, which is ‘a very light roast with cardamom, saffron, ginger, cloves.’

“Generally I see many people who like to try it for the first time as a different style of coffee because they like the way it’s brewed and served with a pot that they have to pour themselves.

You can buy a traditional pot from Izz Cafe’s website here.

As an Arab, it can be quite difficult to source authentic Arabic coffee, because it’s not the same as regular espresso. The best part about Izz Cafe’s coffee is that they grind their own beans right inside the cafe.

“I have a micro-roaster in the cafe. We buy green beans, I buy them from a supplier in Spain… and I roast twice weekly. We roast it, blend it, grind it; the whole process is made in the cafe.”

  • izz cafe
  • izz cafe

I asked them what the response was to the cafe in the last few years.

“It was amazing, it was even beyond our expectations. On the launch day, when Darina Allen cut the ribbon, we got a huge response on social media.”

As luck would have it, one of the people who noticed them was food critic Tom Doorley.

“The manager of the Direct Provision centre said if you get a positive review from Tom Doorley, don’t worry, you’re going to be successful, you are set. The day he posted the review about our restaurant, the restaurant became full from that same day – I had to call my friends to work extra hours.”

I asked why Izz Cafe is so special to them and to others. Izz said that it’s an excellent way to reflect Palestinian culture. He always knew that he wanted everyone to know about our struggle, our cuisine and our culture.

It’s a very peaceful way for fighting for our freedom, to have a positive reflection about our culture. People will start researching about Palestine when they learn about our food… we have been exposed to the community in a very good and successful way thanks to this cafe.

It reflects the diversity of the community that everyone is proud of, that Ireland is so diverse and multicultural.

  • izz cafe
  • izz cafe

Izz and Eman work together in the Cafe. Whether it’s whizzing in and out of the kitchen or having long chats with the customers, you will never see the smiles fade from their faces. I asked Izz what it was like working with Eman. ‘It’s good. It’s excellent, not only good.’ Good answer!

[Eman] tried to flip the quality of home cooking in the business. This initially was a source of conflict between us because I wanted to prioritise cost cutting over presentation…of the food. She was insisting that this is the proper way of serving food. I think she was right on this. She won.

We briefly flipped to speaking in Arabic at this stage. Eman mentioned the staff at Izz Cafe, and how they always describe it as a different environment to anywhere they’ve worked before. With Arab hospitality comes a sense of family and home, and Eman ensures that this feeling is always present both amongst her staff and in the restaurant with the customers.

  • izz cafe
  • izz cafe

I asked both Eman and Izz what their proudest moment was since opening the cafe.

Winning The Best Café at the Cork Business Association Awards in 2020, and we were ranked amongst the top 20 cafes in County Cork.

Eman was included in the 50 Heroines of the Irish Food and Drink Scene by the Irish Times, and they were both awarded persons of the month in Cork in September 2020. Additionally, the couple were included in the Examiner’s 50 New Irish Food Heroes list, as well as the Irish Times’ 100 of the best restaurants, cafes and places to eat in Ireland 2022. Coming full circle with Darina Allen, they also filmed themselves cooking Magloubeh at the Ballymaloe Cookery School for a documentary made by the UNHCR.

One thing they keep in mind is that their presence in the Cafe is what makes it unique. By being there, they can ensure that the quality they’re so famous for is maintained, which is why expanding has always been a hesitation for them. But hopefully we’ll be seeing some more Izz Cafe’s pop up soon, because representing Palestinian food, culture and hospitality is at the core of what Eman and Izz do.

izz cafe
Interview by Sara Abdulmagid

I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Cyprus and moved to Dublin in 2013, so I’ve had a mishmash of different cultures and cuisines surrounding me my whole life. I’m an avid foodie, and after realising that life as a lawyer was not for me, I studied media and became a radio host for Dublin City FM. I’m now writing for TheTaste full time, but I also have my own food blog where you can find a mixture of restaurant reviews and the occasional recipe. I talk a lot about being Palestinian; to be honest, I talk a lot in general. That’s why I did radio!

The post ‘It reflects the diversity of the community that everyone is proud of’ – A Chat with Izzeddeen and Eman Alkarajeh of Izz Cafe appeared first on TheTaste.ie.

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