The smell of food is irresistible on Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv. Walking 100 yards without stopping to eat is a challenge yet met. But the least conspicuous,
though arguably most stylish eaterie of all, is fittingly inside the Culinary Institute of Israel.
Sought out by every visiting foodie, the Institute was launched in 2017. That was when Naama Shefi, an Israeli living in New York, started to miss the taste of home. When she met her husband, whose family hailed from Rhodesia and Greece, she was inspired by their recipes and journey to America. Naama realised food was a fundamental way of connecting in a meaningful way with shared Jewish heritage. She also noted that the generation who was native to these foreign lands was ageing and felt it was important to preserve these recipes.
From that thought, The Jewish Food Society was born and it is now the largest treasure box of these wonderful recipes with accompanying life stories. During the Covid pandemic, Naama joined forces with philanthropist Terry Kassel and came up with a way of connecting the history of Jewish food with a future for Israeli food, which led to Asif: The Culinary Institute of Israel.
Partnered with Start-Up Nation, Asif is where tradition meets innovation in a country known for revolution in technology and advances in agriculture and food are no exception. Asif is a hub of culinary excitement and includes a café serving seasonal Israeli food, using ingredients grown locally. Israel has long been known for its incredible produce and its inhabitants have been pioneers in agriculture since Jews started pouring into the country from the 1920s. Given land by the government then, they cultivated it as a way to earn a living and feed themselves. Asif continues the tradition of forward-thinking. It has a culinary library, arguably one of the best in the world, and is supported and regularly visited by gastronomic greats such as Claudia Roden, Adeena Sussman and Mike Solomonov.
The Institute also has a rotation of thought-provoking discussions, exhibitions and food events with speakers coming from all over the world to explore new and innovative culinary ideas while honouring the history of our culture and food.
That food is a connector of community was demonstrated at Asif when Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi – Yotam Ottolenghi’s business partner – was part of a panel discussion. Asif has always promoted open discussion between cultures and cuisines but, since October 7 when life changed in Israel, the doors closed and the Institute sprang into action, using food as a way to support one other. It joined the civilian and military effort, koshered its kitchens and began supplying displaced families, hospitals and soldiers on the front line with meals. So far, under the watch of Asif’s CEO, Chico Menashe, the Institute has provided 40,000 hot meals to those in need.
“What Asif is doing is just one small part of a much bigger civil mobilisation effort to feed, house, fund, support and console the tens of thousands of displaced Israeli
families that were attacked on October 7, as well as the hospitals, the combat and reserve units and others,” explains Naama. “This is an unprecedented civic
movement, both in scale and efficiency, that has redirected an entire infrastructure that was set up during the year of protests, towards the war effort. Left, right,
secular, religious – the people are united, resilient and, honestly, are nothing short of astonishing.”
Have the events of the past two months changed Asif’s mission? Naama has an unwavering attitude. “Asif’s mission will stay the same because our need to understand and appreciate who we are, where we come from and what our values
are – all of which we can get through food – has never been more important.
“Our programmes will continue to explore the various communities and influences of our cuisine and to celebrate the extremely diverse and innovative food culture of Israel.”
And Naama’s philosophy fits perfectly with the times. “If we want to work together and live together, we need to understand each other. And food is a good place to start.”
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