Let's Eat

Tel Aviv’s food museum

Naama Shefi is working to preserve the past and future of our colourful, culinary history


Seventeen years ago, a Friday night dinner for more than 20 in a tiny Israeli apartment was to (indirectly) provide the inspiration for the opening of new food museum, Asif. Not that Naama Shefi — the museum’s founder — envisaged it at the time.

“I met my husband in 2004 and he invited me to have a Shabbat dinner with his grandmother in her tiny little one bedroom apartment outside Tel Aviv. It was an experience that made an impression on me not only because the food was delicious … but because each of the dishes represented her immigration story. From Izmir in Turkey to the islands of Rhodes to Rhodesia and finally, to Israel.”

Shefi recalls a table laden with food, including eight different egg plant salads; stuffed tomatoes and onions stuffed with meat and rice; Swiss chard pie and albondigas (Spanish meatballs). What struck her was that the dishes represented the old lady’s immigration story from Izmir to Rhodes to Rhodesia and then Israel, and was also evidence that she had lived in an age of austerity. “She used all the parts of every vegetable — so she had a salad from the skins of the zucchini dressed with lemon and garlic. Every dish revealed parts of her history.”

She believes that planted the seed in her head for Jewish Food Society — which she was to found in 2017 — as she realised how important it was to protect this heritage. “She was old at the time and I was determined to protect her legacy — her culinary heritage.”

At the time, she envisaged a video archive of recipe and stories as she was, at that time, using film as her medium. She’d studied film making in the High School for the Arts in Tel Aviv, and then taught it whilst in the IDF and then studied it at the New School University in New York. “Food was a good way to establish my identity and moving to New York made me realise this.”

Food had always played a central role in her life. She grew up on small kibbutz, Givat Haslosha, in the centre of Israel.

“We ate in a communal dining room. Eating with 500 people made an impression on me, but the food was bland. The kibbutz had only 18 cars, which you had to book for important appointments like doctors. My parents would borrow a car to take me to try new food — at local Arab villages or into the Shuk Bezalel.”

After moving to New York, she started writing food-related articles for publications and then for the Israeli Consulate promoting Israeli culture. The culinary theme continued when working for the Centre of Jewish History where she curated their food programmes, but she wanted to do something more practical and hands on. That came in the form of a pop up restaurant serving Iraqi Jewish food in New York’s East Village. Shefi and her collaborators designed every detail from the food served to the space it was held in. “It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life — we had a line around the block from the minute from the first day and that line never stopped for a month. It was evidence that people wanted to learn more about diverse Jewish food.”

That project led to her founding the Jewish Food Society (“JFS”) in 2017, with a mission, she explains, “to preserve, celebrate and revitalise Jewish culinary heritage around the world.”
The JFS does this by sharing recipes and stories, both online and via live events and (since the pandemic) podcasts. An online recipe archive is open to all both to and is continually being updated as Jewish cooks from all over the world share their stories and recipes. All JFS content is available in English - and in Engish, Arabic and Hebrew at Asif in order to be accessible to all.

“It is important that the recipe is delicious but it must also have a story — a recipe without a story is just calories” she quips. “We really care about the story — there are of migration, of hardship, of love, of loss. Stories and recipes that define who we are. Jewish people have created their own micro-cuisines for centuries combining Jewish traditions and local influences. And it’s important for us to share this incredible variety — and also many of those communities no longer exist. That’s what we do in New York.”

However, in Israel, she says, these culinary traditions are thriving and “fuelling a golden age of Israeli cuisine”, which is, for her the connection to Israel. “From Denmark to Russia and from India to Brooklyn, Sephardic Israeli cuisine is is flourishing in ways we could not have imagined 10 years ago. “We must protect this culinary treasure box and the culinary ecosystem of Israel.” Which is why it felt natural to her to open Asif — a museum dedicated to her favourite subject.

The state of the art installation, which seals Tel Aviv’s status as a meccas for foodies, is housed in the office building of charity — Start Up Nation Central. The tech-based organisation was founded to connect Israeli innovation with the world, which includes their cutting edge agricultural methods.

Shefi explains that Asif is the meeting point between the history and the future of Jewish food. There is the main gallery which will house exhibitions that will change every six months; a library of books in many languages from all over the world; the test kitchen, and, on the roof, an educational farm. “The current exhibition is about the late wife of President Rivlin — Nachama Rivlin. She had a community garden in Jerusalem and we planted a version of it on our rooftop. There are 12 different types of za’atar up there — it’s inspiring to see all of the herbs.”

The farm is also a showcase for technology, which is also present in the test kitchen, managed by the Museum’s culinary director, Ayelet Latovitch.
“Ayelet continues the approach of the JFS of updating and preserving recipes and also experimenting with modern ideas, like printed meats; grasshopper flour and a modern replacement for vanilla — that she was experimenting with today. It’s fascinating. We host all sorts of programmes in this space.”

jewishfoodsociety / asif

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