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In Tel Aviv, a culinary center tackles the age-old question: What is Israeli cuisine?

In the 1980s and early ‘90s, when Naama Shefi’s family, who lived on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, wanted to celebrate a special event, they ordered a car from the kibbutz and drove to Kam Sun, a Chinese restaurant in the nearby town of Hod Hasharon. Shefi was a girl at the time and her taste buds no longer retain a memory of the food, but the glaring pink color of the sweet-and-sour sauce for the egg rolls is still as vivid for her as though she saw it yesterday.

The Israeli palate has grown more refined since then, and Chinese eateries of that sort have faded. But the excitement at the opportunity to eat something different – in contrast to the bland food that was served in the communal dining room of the kibbutz – didn’t stop at egg rolls and sweet pink sauce. Shefi, who was born in 1980, would badger her parents to take her to dine in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem Hateimanim or at Arab restaurants in the village of Kafr Qasem, near the kibbutz. “I wanted to eat food that from my perspective was exotic, and also to become acquainted with people and cultures, because the kibbutz was very Ashkenazi and monotonous,” she says.

“The daily fare on the kibbutz was fried beef liver, wrapped in bread crumbs like schnitzel,” she recalls. “But there was a small corner inhabited by an elderly man named Meir Schnitzer, who was responsible for the herring and the triangle cheese, which was a bit higher quality than the standard yellow cheese. That was a corner for those in the know. I was 4, and my big brother would send me to ask Schnitzer for herring. I would say to him, ‘Schnitzel, gimme salty.’ That was the high point of the meal for me. There was also a gifted cook, Batsheva, who pampered us with cholent. At early lunch on Shabbat we would run to the dining room in order not to miss Batsheva’s cholent. But other than those two items, the situation was gloomy.”

Many former kibbutzniks found themselves developing an interest in food as a reaction to the bland diet, Shefi notes. But she acknowledges that the kibbutz dining room also had its good sides. Eating together was very meaningful, and to this day she prefers picnics over luxury restaurants.

Shefi parlayed the insights she gleaned from a young age into a career, whose high point until now was the Jewish Food Society, an organization she founded in New York in 2016. Established with the aim of enabling the world to get to know Jewish cuisine, the society has become a vibrant center of cultural and culinary events. Today, more than 15 years after she left Israel, Shefi hopes to use those insights to promote food culture back in her homeland although she won’t be living there.

Early next month, Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel will open in Tel Aviv (asif means harvest, in Hebrew). Its aim is to explore, taste and “celebrate” Israel’s culinary world, as Shefi puts it. The center, which she founded together with the philanthropist Terry Kassel, in collaboration with Start-Up Nation Central, will feature an experimental kitchen where workshops will be held, old recipes will be upgraded and chefs will be hosted for pop-up meals; a gallery for temporary exhibits; a library with seminal culinary texts, including rare historical works; a deli and a café. The roof of the building will boast an experimental farm where vegetables and herbs will be grown. One aim here is to use the kitchen to test the ingredients of the future and examine how they integrate into the local kitchen. Thus, guests at the opening event will be able to nibble on grasshopper falafel.

Avoiding land mines

The term “Israeli food,” as everyone involved in the new endeavor knows, is controversial, like many things in this country. That’s readily apparent in the very name of this institution: “Culinary Institute of Israel,” as opposed to “Center for Israeli Food,” shows an attempt to avoid in advance all manner of social, political and cultural land mines that are inherent to the culinary realm, too. Shefi insisted on this name, she relates, so that the center will be able to encompass all the cuisines that have shaped food consumption here. She hoped thereby to evade the accusation, frequently hurled at Israeli chefs, that the local cuisine Israel boasts about is actually a cultural appropriation of the Palestinian kitchen. “The idea is to create a center that will explore the question of what Israeli cuisine is, in the knowledge that this question might not have a simple answer,” she says.

Is there such a thing as Israeli cuisine?

“It’s clear that there are acts of cultural appropriation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about an Israeli kitchen,” Shefi replies. “It’s a kitchen that has a great many influences. Before Israel’s establishment, there was one geographical-cultural space here and we shared certain ingredients and ancient traditions. Jews, Muslims and Christians ate very similar foods. It’s interesting to look at how certain ingredients and recipes wandered between the different peoples who resided here, as with an item like eggplant, for example.”

It’s clear that among the major influences on food in Israel today is the local Palestinian kitchen, as well as the Middle Eastern kitchen in general. At the same time, Shefi notes, “The kitchens of Jewish immigrants from all over the world have also had a big impact on the new Israeli kitchen. A quintessential Israel dish, in my view, is pita with schnitzel and French fries inside, and with zhug, arisa and pickles – a combination of items that came from all over the world, and with a lot of exaggeration, because Israelis are not suckers and they expect to get full value for their money. After all, schnitzel in its traditional Viennese form is made of veal. In Israel, where veal was very expensive, a local version was created using chicken, which can be had for a far more reasonable price.”

Another example Shefi mentions is the Israeli breakfast, which by now is an institution.

“It’s interesting to imagine its modest beginnings in the kibbutz dining room, even before the state’s establishment, when hungry kibbutz members returned from the early-morning work in the fields and sliced up a salad for themselves straight onto the plate,” she notes. “Salad became the center of the meal, with eggs and cheeses, both white and yellow, added to it. That custom spread gradually to the whole country – to restaurants, cafés and hotels. Over the years, the Israeli breakfast was the high point of the culinary experience of tourists here, because it’s based on an abundance of fresh, high-quality ingredients and not necessarily on a highly developed restaurant culture. The Asif institute’s café will serve a ‘kibbutz meal’ as an homage to that tradition.”

A prominent feature of contemporary Israeli cuisine is the migration of traditional domestic dishes to the kitchens – past and present – of chef restaurants, like Haim Cohen’s Keren Restaurant, or Raphael, the elite eatery run by Rafi Cohen, who served “cigars,” stuffed vegetables and couscous. Shefi notes that today she sees that trend expanding: “You can find traditional Shabbat dishes like kubana [a Yemenite bread] in many restaurants, both high-end and casual types. It’s precisely the absence of a meticulous culinary tradition of thousands of years – in contrast, say, to the Italian or French kitchen – that allows Israeli chefs to think out of the box.” That creativity, she says, is one of the reasons the Israeli kitchen has acquired a worldwide reputation.

I agree that Israeli chefs have forged careers in many places, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing.

“It’s more than that: It’s cuisine that’s making waves internationally. It’s related to a change that took place in the way people eat, in terms of their diet and their passion to eat a lot of vegetables and bold flavors. Chefs like [Israeli-born] Yotam Ottolenghi, with his book ‘Jerusalem,’ which became a best seller in the United States, too, with people cooking from it cover to cover, wield a tremendous influence. It’s not every day that you can observe the emergence of a kitchen like this, which has such great significance. We have deep roots, but it’s a terribly young country and a kitchen in its infancy.”

To resort to a relevant image, Shefi says that she sees Israel less as a melting pot, and more as a pressure cooker, and it’s here that the political question enters. “Our aspiration is to bring the Arab society into this dialogue,” she says, “because it’s clear that one of the most significant influences on our cuisine is Palestinian Arab food. I hope the other side will want to share and to exchange ideas.” From her point of view, then, the Culinary Institute is an invitation to dialogue with the Arab community. “If [Jewish] Israelis knew more about yogurt stone, we’d all be better off.”

Shefi is thus looking for local Palestinian professionals who will work with the center – and finding that not to be such a simple mission. Even when she asked Arab researchers and chefs to contribute their knowledge to the task of tracking down books for the institute’s library, not all were eager to take part. “We received recommendations from fascinating people from the Arab community, but there were also some who refused to cooperate,” she says. “Others shared and asked to remain anonymous.”

She was particularly surprised by one of the women who declined to take part, because her career to date has been based on prime-time Israeli television. “She said she wasn’t into the cultural appropriation thing,” Shefi says, asking that the woman’s name not be mentioned in the article.

One thing that astonished Shefi in the local realm is in fact the reverence for TV cooking shows. Asked about this, she insists diplomatically on not being critical. Well, she’s been an American for the past 15 years. She’s willing to say only that it’s a “phenomenon” and that it’s different from what’s happening in America: “Among my friends in New York, there isn’t anyone who watches reality programs like that. But here everyone is watching television [shows featuring cooking contests and chefs], including my most intellectual friends. I’m not a consumer myself, but intuitively I’m not against it. It’s clear that there’s an enchantment with food in Israel. It’s a cultural phenomenon that says something about Israel as a cooking nation.”

Because in our region kitchen connotes home.

“Right. And in New York I see how anomalous that is. Because I’m not a distinguished gourmet chef, but I like to cook. You know, I often host friends of my daughter after school, together with their parents, and I always start with cocktails and lay out things to snack on, and people are in shock. ‘We didn’t know we were coming for dinner,’ they say. And I tell them it’s not dinner, it’s an Israeli aperitivo.”

Still, a story Shefi tells about a visit she made not long ago to a new chef restaurant in Tel Aviv, indicates that she definitely feels the impact of the sometimes presumptuous preoccupation with cuisine. Here she launches into an amusing imitation of an Israeli waitress explaining the obscure items on the menu. “‘Our chef has returned from New York, so the menu reflects certain Korean elements, and one of his grandmothers is Moroccan, while on the other hand he brings the maluhiya from the Turkish grandmother and there’s tartare with Palestinian influences but from Jerusalem.’ Everything simultaneously. On the other hand, there was no lock on the bathroom door, and everything was in disarray.”

Food in Israel has also become a status symbol – with prices to match. Says Shefi: “In regard to characteristics of the cuisine here, there’s no doubt that capitalism is one of the influences.”

‘Magnificent history’

Shefi originally moved to New York to study film, with aspirations of becoming a filmmaker. The change of direction came on one of her visits to Israel, when she met her life partner, filmmaker Ilan Benatar. Their relationship, which was initially sustained over two continents, introduced her to a culinary tradition that from her perspective constituted a inspirational innovation.

“The first time Ilan invited me to a Shabbat meal to meet his grandmother, we came to a tiny apartment in Givatayim,” she recalls. “I couldn’t figure out how 20 people were supposed to fit in there, but they showed up and Nonna found a place for everyone. Everything she put on the table was amazing, in terms of both taste and in terms of the generosity and hospitality. Every dish opened a window to a magnificent piece of history belonging to that woman. She was born in Izmir, Turkey, and in her childhood moved to Rhodes, and from Rhodes the family immigrated to Rhodesia – today Zimbabwe – and then to Israel. Every dish was a waystation in her migration story. I told Ilan that we had to document this treasure chest.”

What did she serve at the meal?

“The food created intimacy and also encouraged conversation, because it’s easier talk about harsh experiences through the dishes. For example, dishes that were a product of the austerity period [in Israel]. There was a salad that she prepared from chard stalks, a part that’s usually thrown away. She sliced them and boiled them lightly, with garlic and lemon. Years later I tried to replicate that in New York, and people couldn’t understand why I didn’t throw away the stalks.”

My grandmother had an uplifting comment about a similar vegetable: “That’s the kind of food we ate in Auschwitz.”

“That’s exactly what we do in the New York society. We collect these stories and recipes. The seeds were planted at that meal at Nonna’s place.”

But more than a decade passed between the encounter at the gourmet-cook grandmother’s home and the establishment of the Jewish Food Society. In the interim, Shefi was employed in the Israeli consulate in New York, wrote about food in Israeli media outlets and curated programs about food at the Jewish Museum in New York.

“I curated crazy events there, including a symposium on gefilte fish, which drew hundreds of Brooklyn hipsters. After a year and a half of intense academic occupation with food, I decided that I wanted to do something with my hands, something that was a performance, so I took a little money from our savings account and opened a pop-up kubbeh restaurant – a Jewish-Iraqi concept.”

Why kubbeh?

“It’s a food that speaks of knowledge that’s in the hands, and if we don’t stop for a moment, trace the way it’s made, study it, celebrate it and also eat it – it will be lost. That was the idea.”

The Kubbeh Project, as it was called, operated for just one month, in March 2013, at Zucker’s Bakery, a small establishment on the Lower East Side. To prepare the kubbeh, a Middle Eastern stuffed delicacy traditionally made with spiced ground meat, onions and grains, chef Itamar Lewensohn probed and interviewed grandmothers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and New Jersey. Every dish served was based on a different person encountered in the investigation. “The menu included beet kubbeh and pumpkin kubbeh with farida [fish], kubbeh hamusta and also a few first courses – variations on sabich – sambusak and two desserts. One was chocolate sausage that I prepared, like the dessert we ate on kibbutz.”

Concurrently, Shefi and her team reshaped the interior at Zucker’s. “I collaborated with an architect who designs restaurants. I told her that in Israel there are restaurants like Azura [in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market] where people from all classes sit together – the prime minister next to a simple worker. You won’t see anything like that in the United States. I also told her that we have places where all kinds of people eat that are just a hole in the wall, most of which have been owned by a family for several generations. The interpretation she suggested was to use jeans fabric, because she was thinking of the American working class. We had a huge piece of denim that covered the ceiling and could be seen in the front window.”

Already on the first day of business, the line stretched around the park next door. On the first evening, all of the kubbeh – which were supposed to last a month – were sold. To meet the demand, two more cooks were recruited, one of them Korean, who rolled kubbeh in the kitchen in the bakery’s basement. Shefi’s friends mobilized to help wait tables and wash dishes.

“It was a kind of performance. At first we climbed a ladder and installed the big piece of jeans fabric, while people waited in line. Afterward everyone sat crowded together. I was in charge of the concept and I managed the place, but it seemed like it was the work of a curator, or of theater. And then the media snowball began rolling. In New York, there’s no limit to the energy and the resonance of a thought or an idea. When something starts to move, it’s pushed forward and there’s openness and a place in which to create.”

The astounding success of the Kubbeh Project demonstrated to Shefi that the local public was curious about Jewish cuisine. “The concept of Jewish food was very limited, something extremely Ashkenazi: bagels and lox. But Jews lived all over the world for thousands of years; their kitchens are fascinating. Sabich [pita stuffed with fried eggplant, tahini and a hard-boiled egg, among other things], for example, is something so Jewish in its essence. And people who came to the restaurant wanted to know what a Jewish Iraqi was. Were there Jews in Iraq? Are they Jews or Arabs? That stirred a dialogue.”

After the Kubbeh Project, Shefi joined EatWith, a platform for marketing chef meals in private homes, and was in charge of forming a local group of chefs. In 2017 she was contacted by philanthropist Terry Kassel, board chairwoman of Start-up Nation Central, a nonprofit based in Tel Aviv (the new culinary institute shares its building) that seeks to connect Israeli high-tech firms to investors worldwide. Kassel asked Shefi to manage an organization that would replicate the EatWith method by arranging community Shabbat meals, to strengthen the ties between young American Jews and the Jewish Israelis.

“That was a project with a lot of Zionist ideology,” Shefi relates. “I told her I wasn’t the right person, because I look at Jewish food in a historical and cultural context, definitely not a religious one. That runs counter to my ideology. But she wouldn’t let up. She asked me what I was prepared to do, and I said I was dying to establish a cultural center for Jewish food that would include an archive. She told me to go for it. Her thinking was that it would create a point of entry for young people who weren’t connected to their Jewish roots, and that this would be a flexible, liberal way to connect them. And it really works.”

But each of you had a different agenda.

“Yes, but we saw a lot in common. She could see the potential of what I proposed. There’s also something urgent in it. You mentioned the vegetable that your grandmother ate in Auschwitz – consider that these are crumbs which, if we don’t document them and protect them and study them, will be lost.”

The result was the creation of the Jewish Food Society, which today not only boasts an archive but also a center for cultural and culinary events and a podcast, based on a live event called “Schmaltzy,” where members of the Jewish community tell personal stories related to food.

“The basic idea is that recipes constitute cultural DNA,” Shefi says. “There are so many things that can simply disintegrate if they’re not documented. At the heart of the project is a digital archive of family and historical recipes and the stories behind the recipes. And in order to make the archive come alive, we curate all sorts of events around it. It could be a pop-up event featuring several generations – let’s say a chef and her grandmother – or a seder night like we did a few years ago with three chefs from Mexico City and their family tradition. The project speaks about the breadth of Jewish culture through food. Frequently the rigid kashrut and Shabbat laws were in dialogue with local food traditions and created something singular.”

What’s especially important for Shefi in her work at the society is being able to tell a story, by means of a combination of food, design and style. “The process of working with recipes is very long. In the first stage, we cook with the people in their homes, based on the notion that only at home will people feel truly at ease. They also open family albums and show us all kinds of significant objects that they brought from ‘there.’ And then, in our test kitchen, we improve the recipe, we quantify all of the ‘a little of this and a little of that.’ The final stage is what we call ‘grandma chic,’ which is our interpretation of the family tradition. We set out the dishes, and photograph the finished, meticulously prepared table, which all the most talented stylists in New York have worked on. The final result is very chic.”

The Jewish Food Society’s archive contains a story about a Jewish family from Queens who adopted the recipe of their Black nanny for fried chicken and replaced the bread crumbs with matza meal. Another story involves Esther, a Brazilian woman who lived in a small town in the Amazon valley, in the wake of her grandmother’s immigration to the region from Morocco. Her Shabbat menu includes hamin (Moroccan cholent), preceded with first courses with their origins in the Amazon, such as an escabeche (a Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American delicacy) made with marinated river fish. Shefi also mentions recipes from Mexico that she characterizes as “oxymoronic”: The gefilte fish that’s prepared in Veracruz, for example, came from a Polish shtetl, picked up chipotle and tomato sauce along the way, and is served hot. “Another family we met arrived in Mexico from Lebanon. For Rosh Hashanah they prepare lamb shoulder stuffed with rice and raisins, with sauce made from coriander and tamarind.”

Eating and documenting

And then, at some point before the coronavirus brought things to a halt, Kassel decided that she wanted to establish a Jewish food society in Israel as well. “I told her that was an amazing idea, but Israel is a country of all kinds, of both Jews and Arabs,” Shefi relates. “And above all there is a fascinating culinary culture in the process of formation, which is worth studying.”

Like the Jewish Food Society, the new institute Shefi is opening in Israel, on Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood, will also be engaged in documenting all the types of cuisine that exist in Israel. Shefi doesn’t live in the country, but will manage the institute remotely. Michal Levit has been appointed manager of public programs; Ronit Vered (who writes for Haaretz) will curate the gallery’s exhibitions; and the experimental kitchen will be run by well-known chef Ayelet Letovich. “The society’s kitchen in New York deals with the past,” Shefi notes, “whereas here we will explore recipes and ancient traditions, but on the other hand the test kitchen will make it possible to work with the ingredients of the future, too.”

The institute’s library will open with a collection of 1,200 titles that will be available to the public and are being assembled with the help of various local and international culinary experts – among them Claudia Roden, Haim Cohen, Johnny Mansour, Asaf Granit, Anissa Helou, Nir Avieli and historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Among the rare books is “First Courses,” by Malka Sapir, published in 1931 at the initiative of the WIZO women’s organization, and the Committee for Nutrition in Palestine. From the book, an industrious cook can learn how to prepare “mayonnaise from tahini,” “artichoke in egg juice” or a “pioneer egg.” The weights and measurements page solves the riddle of how many grams there are in a “Tel Aviv ounce.”

A 1984 book by the dietitian and cookbook author Lilian Kornfeld, “I Am Cooking – The Eretz Israel Cookbook,” contains a recipe for “olive sauce” made from olives “sliced in a spiral,” fried in onions and oil, and mixed with flour and a little soup. Try it – you won’t be disappointed.

The gallery’s first exhibition will focus on the kitchen of Nechama Rivlin, the late wife of Israel’s outgoing president. Among the first events to be held at the site will be a meal prepared by chefs from Rutenberg Restaurant in the Jordan Valley, who prepare dishes based on seasonal local ingredients from their own farm, and a workshop about Druze and Jewish food with the cooks Sigi Mantel and Saffa Ibrahim, who are exploring their Syrian roots through food.

Also planned is a musical-culinary event devoted to the writer Amos Kenan’s “Book of Pleasures” (1968) with the participation of the singer (and the late author’s daughter) Rona Kenan and cook Hila Alpert. Kenan’s book, Shefi notes, was “the first Israeli book to treat food as a worthy source of pleasures, and not only as fuel for the body or for the future of the young nation. For example, he describes the kibbutzniks delighting in their ‘personal salads’ and cites salad as an example of the pleasure embodied in the most modest food.”

Sheffi believes that the experience the institute will provide will reflect the transformation in the eating experience that has taken place in recent years in Israel and elsewhere around the world.

“People no longer invest four hours in a tasting menu meal,” she says. “I also find that rather boring. I prefer small, neighborhood places with reasonable prices and a comfortable atmosphere. That’s something you see in New York in the past five years, and also in Tel Aviv, Berlin and Paris. It’s also a matter of prices – I am a hedonist and I spend money on food, but I no longer find myself going to restaurants with Michelin stars. Something in my order of priorities and my curiosity has changed.”

You mentioned that you enjoy picnics.

“Yes. The last meal of my life will be a picnic. In New York, I see elderly women in wheelchairs, sporting red lipstick, picnicking during happy hour with their grandchildren in the courtyards of their buildings. It’s delightful.”

What’s your favorite food?

“Pickled herring.”

I tell Sheffi that I find that hard to believe, but she swears that anyone who knows her will testify to it. Moreover, in New York, she says, she doesn’t find the kind of herring you get in Israel.

“There’s herring there, but they marinate it differently. Sometimes I do my own marinating, prepare a lot of jars and think it will last for a long time, but then I give some to friends and gorge on it myself, and within a few days it’s all gone. There were years when I brought herring from Dorfman’s in the Carmel Market [in Tel Aviv]. He would vacuum-pack it, and I would sit on the Lower East Side, where I live, and indulge in herring with vodka. Herring is sensual and marvelous.”

This article originally appeared in Haaretz and was reprinted here with permission.


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