Published originally on Cook_Inc. Magazine
(Photos courtesy of Asif)
“The mere smell of cooking can evoke a whole civilization”
It has been more than 15 years that Naama Shefi, an Israeli who lives in New York, has been searching for the roots of Jewish Cuisine. In 2013 she made New Yorkers stand in line for The Kubbeh Project, a pop-up restaurant that served the Jewish-Iraqi semolina dumplings; curated the culinary section of the Center for Jewish History; and in 2017 founded Jewish Food Society, a digital archive of Jewish culinary tradition that brings them to life in live events. The lockdown, and almost complete shutdown, that COVID-19 brought with it, led Shefi to adapt the Jewish Food Society to its “natural” territory – Israel.
Asif, which was inaugurated in July 2021, is defined as Culinary Institute of Israel – and the terminology is important. “We try to set a frame to the greatly varied culinary culture in Israel – not necessarily the Israeli one – explains Shefi – to map and study the unique and defined culture that has been created in this area of the middle east.” At a first glance, shifting from a global archive to focusing on Israel might seem like a way to reduced activity, but nothing here is as it seems.
The main influence on cuisine in Israel is the gathering of immigrant cuisines that represent Jewish communities. The voice that was given to immigrant communities for describing their tradition which grows from a necessity to adapt its original tradition to the new place is heard, through more than one prism. But not like other immigrant communities, that is different from one to the other, the Italian and Hispanic communities in the United States, for example, all Jewish communities around the world are connected by a religious fil rouge. Religion laws, especially the ones that forbid cooking on Shabbat, holidays, and according to dietary laws of Kashrut, force the Jewish diaspora to maintain a much more delicate discussion with its surroundings: the local kitchen, produce, and community. What can you eat on Shabbat when it’s forbidden to heat food? What can replace the prohibited pork that might be the main ingredient in the neighbors’ diet?
Harvesting these traditions (“Asif” is Hebrew for “Harvest”) is pedant and each item is being scanned and archived. “We dive into tables and collecting the information, mainly from oral history”, she presents the main work, ”but also cross-examining it with written sources, looking for nuances from different families of the same community and through ages, and comparing them to external material to the Jewish community, from the native community.”
“The fundamental reality of any civilization must be its geographical cradle”
Not like other immigrant histories, Israel is a case of a “retro-immigration”, when Jews return to the land where they part from. This process, which started about 150 years ago and is still happening, brings the joint tradition to its origin – with the local “culinary contamination” that each community kitchen went through – making Israel a gallery where all traditions live currently. Some traditions have been already forgotten with the dispersion of the community, yet in Israel, they have been revived thanks to the compact geography and mixing of classes and groups. This is not the case of a melting pot, where its ingredients, meaning the immigrant kitchens, lose their unique identity. Israeli cuisine serves a plate that can be identified in each kitchen with its origins and tradition.
The result is well evident in the menu of Asif’s casual cafè that offers dishes that went under the research of its experts. From the concrete table to theory – and back at the table. Kubaneh and zhug, Yemenite bread and burning paste. A salad with Circassian cheese from the Galilean village Kfar Kama, which its Muslim population’s origin is Caucasia. “Kibbutz Breakfast”, is an updated look at the main breakfast platter served in the collective communities which are unique to Israel (where Shefi grew up) for the farmers coming back from working in the fields.
This way, in which each kitchen gets a place around the table, helps Asif to overcome the political issue that could have been an explosive matter, but as Shefi explains “food is politics, and we cannot, nor want, to ignore it.” Although the main characteristic of the Israeli cuisine is indeed the mixture of Jewish immigrant kitchens, including those that flourished in Muslim countries, “under “Israeli cuisine” we find also Palestinian cuisine, which is part of the Shami cuisine, which is part of the Levantine cuisine.”
The institute manages a constant intercultural discussion with the Arab-speaking cuisines that surround Israel and live within, its website is translated to Arabic, and the cultural relationship is natural. “Eating together is an intimate action,” she adds, “which brings to the same table the common and the different, and in Israel, there’s much more from the former.” Not long after the inauguration, Asif’s library hosted Chef Sami Tamimi for a bitter-sweet conversation that departed from its last book “Falastin” to farther places, to the “big questions” – and mainly to the everyday life and reality.
Tamimi’s books, “Falastin” (with Tara Wigley) and “Jerusalem” (with Yotam Ottolenghi), and the first ones everyone spots when they enter the library, that Shefi describes as Asif’s center of knowledge – as well as a symbol. Claudia Roden, Chef Michael Solomonov, Tamimi, and many other food personas, jointly curated the library’s catalog which is enriched by private people collections. The dynamically changing display allows access to decentralized knowledge, far away from the concept of “library” as monolithic and rigid. “It proves to be right,” says Shefi proudly, “you can meet young chefs, journalists, and people who step in to study, to get inspired, or even just to stroll around the shelves.”