Tahini: The gathering point of food, politics and culture

Lana Zaher, together with her mother Julia, have been managing the Al Arz Tahini company in Nazareth – founded as a small family business by her father Assad Zaher in 1992.

Tasting tahini at Asif (photo credit: ARIER EFRON)
Tasting tahini at Asif
(photo credit: ARIER EFRON)

The cool, cloudy Arak aperitif, faintly perfumed with natural almond Rozata, mint and lime was a perfect respite to the muggy late-summer Tel Aviv evening.

Offered to each guest as they arrived at the Asif Culinary Institute of Israel for the chef conversation-dinner featuring Lana Zaher as part of the “Flavors from the Library” lecture series, the drink quenched our thirst and alerted senses to the unique evening which lay ahead.

Zaher, together with her mother Julia Zaher, have been managing the Al Arz Tahini company in Nazareth – founded as a small family business by her father Assad Zaher in 1992 – since his death 18 years ago and the company has expanded its market base in Israel and abroad, reaching a 30 percent sales growth in the last three years.

The culinary evening, limited to 30 guests by the COVID-19 regulations, was devoted to the topic of tahini, discussing the iconic sesame paste spread which has been produced locally since ancient times in all its aspects from production to flavor, and everything in between.

The offerings served throughout the evening’s conversation were based on recipes from some of Lana Zaher’s favorite cookbooks including fried sambusak from The Heritage of Lebanon by renowned former Lebanese TV celebrity chef Ramzi Chwayri; a tantalizing duo of tahini selections and warm pita from “On the Hummus Route” by Ariel Rosenthal, Dan Alexander and Orly Peli-Bronshtein; and a superb fish tangine based on a recipe by Julia Zaher (which is available on the Asif website) published in A Kitchen of Their Own – the Cookbook of Israel’s Women edited by Yael Kalev, with a nod to Duhul Safadi and Michal Waxman’s Baladi.

 The brain child of Naama Shefi, culinary curator and Jewish and Israeli food specialist and founder and executive director of the New York based Jewish Food Society, Asif’s self-proclaimed aim is to “promote open discussion between cultures and explore the past and present of the local culinary sce (credit: ARIEL EFRON) The brain child of Naama Shefi, culinary curator and Jewish and Israeli food specialist and founder and executive director of the New York based Jewish Food Society, Asif’s self-proclaimed aim is to “promote open discussion between cultures and explore the past and present of the local culinary sce (credit: ARIEL EFRON)

The final dish was a delicious interpretation by Asif’s culinary director, Ayelet Latovitch, of Julia’s version of a 13th century Syrian rice pudding desert recipe for sabuniye, included in Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, translated by Charles Perry.

Some in the audience, such as Mazkeret Batya resident Michal Rozani, 54, who nibbled on the still-warm sambusak laid out on the low table in front of her and her companions, wondered what had taken so long for such a culinary institute to open in Israel.

“Food in Israel is very complex. It involves national identity, politics. I think this program gives all kinds of views and points to think over,” Rozani said. “I am wondering how there wasn’t a place like this before.”

The idea for such a culinary institute took hold just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with businesswoman and philanthropist Terry Kassel, who is also chairwoman of the board of Start-Up Nation Central and co-founder of the Jewish Food Society, asking Naama Shefi, culinary curator and Jewish and Israeli food specialist and founder and executive director of the New York based Jewish Food Society, to create a similar culinary institute focusing on food in Israel.

Asif’s self-proclaimed aim is to “promote open discussion between cultures and explore the past and present of the local culinary scene.” Shefi, an Israeli-born kibbutznik who now splits her time between Israel and New York, has come a long way from the communal Givat HaShlosha dining room of her childhood.

“Israel has a unique and fascinating culture of food and I think a place like Asif is (the right place) to highlight it,” said Shefi. “Food is a window into culture, and it is time. There are a lot of ideas about the Israeli kitchen. We have to understand what is food in Israel with Arab and Jews and lots of minorities, understand where people are coming from and what they created. It is a very unique place. A lot of people cook in Israel. It is very important to learn from home cooks.”

Part of the greater Levant, the Israeli kitchen can even be seen as a “nomad kitchen,” noted Shefi, with families moving from place to place adopting and adapting different culinary traditions into their own family recipes.

The creation of the institute, of course, is not without its detractors as Shefi treads on controversial culinary ground with the interminable humus wars and discussions of culinary appropriation, but she feels the conversation is broader and more complicated than that.

“It is very wide and fascinating,” she said. Jews living in the Diaspora constantly developed their own conversation with the local foods, adapting dishes to their kashrut dietary requirements, and the laws for Shabbat. “It is interesting to see these things develop.”

Shefi has recounted how her own culinary epiphany occurred when she was invited for the first time to a Shabbat meal at her soon-to-be-husband’s grandmother’s home who was able to feed a group of 20 people in a tiny apartment with her delicacies which incorporated culinary traditions from her native Turkey as well as from Rhodes, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Israel reflecting the path of her life’s journey.

So for example, Shefi said, every Jewish community has its version of the traditional overnight Shabbat stew, whether it be called “chamin,” “cholent,” or the Iraqi version “tbeet,” and all have adapted and incorporated parts of the local kitchen into the dish as well.

“Take for example an Iraqi (Jewish) family who immigrated to India, you see already a different level of spices added from that local tradition,” said Shefi. “Then the family comes to Israel, then goes to Switzerland and you see how the recipe, and how that food has been created. With the experience of an Iraqi Shabbat food, you start with chicken and rice but then you bring in another (culinary) language and tradition. Now this recipe is very unique and very “Jewish.””

Similarly, the traditional Iraqi Jewish breakfast of the sabich spread of roasted eggs, bread, fried eggplant, amba, and salads evolved when it reached Israel into a beloved street food all stuffed into a warm pita and drizzled with tahini sauce.

“Kitchen” is a very global term. I think Israel has a lot of communities which don’t exist anymore. Here in Israel we see an intersection of tradition. It is very important to know and become familiar with the strong influence of non-Jewish kitchens which have had a big influence on the Israeli kitchen,” she said.

A joint venture of the New York City-based Jewish Food Society and Tel Aviv’s Start-Up Nation Central, Asif is located in Start-Up Nations Central’s building and includes a public culinary library with some 2,000 research books and recipes recommended by Asif’s global expert panel including American-Israeli chef Michael Solomonov, Jewish Egyptian-British historian and food writer Claudia Roden, scholar of Arab-Muslim history and Christians in the Middle East Johnny Mansour, Israeli food writer Gil Hovav and London-based chef, teacher and author Anissia Helou, originally from Lebanon. There is also a bustling café and deli; an exhibition gallery, and a test kitchen and hall used for lectures, musical performances and guest-chef dinners, such as the evening with Zaher.

A roof-top garden grows rare varieties of herbs, including 10 different types of za’atar. Cultivated in collaboration with the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Research Organization-Volcani Center, it is partially a vertical garden and the goal is for the garden to supply raw materials for Asif’s workshops, pop-up dinners, café, and test kitchen.

Asif offers monthly guided tours with journalist and food researcher Ronit Vered who curated their inaugural exhibition, “A Kitchen of One’s Own,” celebrating the culinary expression and kitchen of Israel’s late first lady Nechama Rivlin, wife of former president Reuven Rivlin. The “celebration” honoring Nechama Rivlin’s kitchen and recipes is slated for December 8. Tours are also given in Arabic.

With a strong presence on social media, the institute’s website also includes recipes and articles from different perspectives by food experts, both Jewish and Arab. For now the website is only in Hebrew and English, but there are promises that it will be soon translated into Arabic as well.

Reflecting on work thus far of the institute, Lana Zaher said it is a welcomed initiative in the culinary scene.

“I love what they are doing. They are very organized and meticulous in everything they do and are giving a platform to all the culinary traditions,” she said. “This has been missing in Israel and it is a welcomed initiative. Archiving and collecting culinary history of the area is important.”

She noted that some of the cookbooks she had recommended for the institute’s library were older books from Syria and elsewhere in the Arabic world, and which had been beloved in her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. They were difficult to find and she was impressed with the search the institute nevertheless undertook to try find the books and that they were able to bring a few of them into the library’s collection, she said.

“I hope we are able to bring in more cookbooks,” Zaher said.

Even the institute’s name is evocative of a special role the new culinary institute hopes to play in the local food scene, said culinary librarian Ori Kroll. In Hebrew “Asif” means to harvest, but it also means collection: to collect knowledge, to collect recipes, to collect books and hopefully, to also collect people together.

The library now houses close to 2,000 titles in Hebrew, Arabic and English – both magazines and books, but the heart of the collection is really the local Israeli kitchen, the local Palestinian kitchen and the Jewish Diaspora kitchen.

“We also have a collection of very wide international titles, which we know will be of interest to our international professional audience,” said Kroll.

“For example, one woman came here wanting to research the development of frozen desserts around the world. I want her to be able to find answers ranging from China to (Italian) gelato through to the Turkish kitchen.”

Still, for some chefs it took a moment to register the significance and usefulness of a culinary library in today’s digital age.

“When we turned for example to Erez Komorovsky to give us his recommendations for books, he said: “What are you, nuts? Who opens a library in 2021,”” noted Kroll, adding that Komorovsky ended up doing the opening lunch event which included falafel-flavored grasshopper powder.

According to their consultant and exhibit curator Ronit Vered, said Kroll, while book sales experienced on upswing during the pandemic, cookbooks have long been doing very well.

“When you open a cookbook you get that complete experience, the story of the place, of the person that you don’t get through the web... so we envision our library as something of the future, that also has archives of (personal) recipes in additions to books,” she said.

The library is open to the public and includes rare volumes such as an edition of the two-volume Sefer Bishul, published by Wizo’s training department at the cusp of Israel’s founding. After an extensive search through rare-book sellers, another classic title, Classiques de Cuisine Tunisienne by Edmond Zeitoun, recommended by Claudia Roden, was discovered in the Eilat home of the mother of Asif’s director of content and culinary expert Matan Choufan.

Brigitte Choufan donated the book to the library and the experience led to a special mother-son “Tunisian Aperitif” evening at Asif.

“We received a book with a story which for me is the goal of what we are doing here,” said Kroll. “It is very meaningful. And we had an enrichment of the book (that evening) with the story of the family...with Matan and his mother together teaching us a bit about the tradition of aperitif. There was conversation, and a demonstration, and a delicious meal.”