Earlier this month in New York, the curtain went up on Project Kubbeh, in a small space in the Zucker Bakery, in the heart of New York’s East Village. During the day, Israeli baker Zohar Zohar will be making his usual yeast cakes, ruggelach and hallahs, but until March 21, every night the place will turn into a pop-up restaurant that serves Iraqi-Jewish kubbeh soup. In honor of the event, the space was divided with a denim curtain − a symbol of the working class − which descends from the ceiling, conceals the kitchen and also becomes a tablecloth covering the common dining table.
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On display in the window is the Kubbeh Manifesto, a short explanation to the locals about what kubbeh is (round semolina dumplings stuffed with seasoned meat or vegetables and served in a variety of flavorful broths); a deer’s head fashioned from old jeans; and jars of torshi − pickled vegetables − illuminated with colored lightbulbs. On the main wall hangs a work by the artist Ben Hagari, “I’m in a Pickle,” a series of photographs of pickled vegetables, each of which forms a letter or a face.
Visitors to the restaurant sit down at a common table. This is “not something to be taken for granted in New York, which has no culture of sitting together and sharing food. Most attempts to create a dynamic of sitting together at a table have failed,” says Naama Shefi, curator of culinary events and the moving spirit behind Project Kubbeh. The guests of the project will enjoy “Kubbeh Libre,” a nice Middle Eastern variation on the famous Cuban cocktail, made of arak, pomelo juice and spearmint.
On weekdays the menu, which is printed on the tablecloths, is offering a selection of three types of kubbeh soup: Beet kubbeh, pumpkin kubbeh and the tart hamusta kubbeh, served with rice and a selection of pickled vegetables. The recipes − even if they have undergone slight changes in taste and personal interpretation − are based on traditional recipes that have been handed down from one generation to the next in the Iraqi-Jewish community.
On Friday nights during Project Kubbeh, Kabbalat Shabbat events are ushering in the Sabbath; reservations for these were sold in advance as soon as the project was announced. There will be an expanded menu that includes first courses such as sabih (an Iraqi eggplant dish), a selection of salads inspired by the Israeli-Middle Eastern meze and fish patties with okra and yogurt. (“The meals are not kosher, and we’ve already received dozens of angry emails and letters from members of the New York Jewish community,” says Shefi.) One of the guests will conduct a secular Kiddush ceremony and tell about shared Friday night family meals. Among other guests is the Jewish-American food writer Joan Nathan.
More of a pressure cooker than a melting pot
“When the last generation who makes Kubbeh has disappeared (I expect these dishes will not be carried on, because they take too long), I hope Jerusalem keeps up her reputation as the capital, and that some food producer will decide to make them commercially, so that a whole little world of our culinary culture does not disappear.” − Claudia Roden, “The Book of Jewish Food,” 1997
“This statement by Claudia Roden echoed in my head for a long time until it found its present expression,” says Shefi. Like most of the projects in which she is involved, Shefi, whose delicate features are quiet and calm, as is her tone of voice − is combining the present one with a variety of arts and crafts. She has worked on this event together with designers, architects, artists and amateur and professional cooks, but, in the week before the launch Shefi sounded stressed, mainly about the quality of the food to be served to the guests. With all due respect to art and food culture, every food lover, including Shefi herself − knows that the most important thing is a good taste.
Shefi, who was born on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha in 1980, lives in New York with her husband, director and editor Ilan Benatar (one of the producers of the documentary film about the life of Beyonce, which was aired on HBO a few weeks ago). She moved to New York six years ago, after receiving her bachelor’s degree in literature and film at Tel Aviv University, in order to complete a master’s degree in film.
At first, she worked as a bartender and a waitress in city restaurants, and after a short period became the press liaison officer at the Israeli consulate, where she was later put in charge of cultural projects. “Because of my own inclinations I was attracted to projects related to food,” she says, “but I also realized quickly the attraction of food as a window to a foreign culture.” Among the events she created during those years are an online course about the new Israeli cuisine with chef Haim Cohen. In cooperation with The New York Times broadcast university, she created lessons and special meals conducted with leading culinary institutions such as the James Beard Institute, and lectures on subjects related to Jewish and Israeli cuisine.
A year ago she left her job at the consulate, but continues to work in the same field − promoting Jewish and Israeli cuisine − and independently curates events related to the tradition of those cuisines. Gefilte Talk is the first event in a series of panels she is holding with the Center for Jewish History (“I think that the future is actually rosy. There were lots of innovative ideas”). Brisket Talk was about the past and future of that cut of beef, which is so popular in Jewish-Eastern European tradition, and the next evening in the series will be about Jewish baking.
The Kubbeh Project is one of the first in which she is switching from an emphasis on the theoretical and the cultural to concrete involvement in preparing and serving food. Chef Itamar Levinson, who studied in New York, worked in the restaurant of chef Rafi Cohen, and today works in the Tel Aviv restaurant Cafe 48, went to New York for a month to help her with the cooking. Shefi worked on almost everything, from the concept, the recipes and the flavoring to the construction and sanding of the dining table.
And why kubbeh of all things?
“On the simplest level, it’s a real comfort food that I miss very much in the winter, and that can’t be found here in New York. Almost everything can be found in the Big Apple, but not kubbeh soups. When I try to analyze my kubbeh fixation and understand it on a more complex level, I return to my childhood on the kibbutz. Kubbeh, and in general the foods of Israeli workers’ restaurants, were symbols of another cultural world, which was more pluralistic, attractive and interesting. I always pestered my parents to drive me to the city to eat in workers’ restaurants and in places where there were tastes and faces less uniform than the kibbutz-Ashkenazi landscape. In recent years, when I’ve been professionally involved in preserving Jewish culinary traditions, I’m discovering, as Claudia Roden said, that even in my own home kitchen I find it difficult to make kubbeh.”
She considers kubbeh soup genuine Israeli food, even if it is not among the main foods of her Polish ancestors. The unique angle provided by her own personal biography, between the Israeli past and the New York present, and between Israeli cuisine and that of Jewish communities worldwide that meticulously preserved their Jewish identity by means of symbols such as food − provide her with other insights about Jewish-Israeli food culture.
“For me a pressure cooker is a more relevant concept than a melting pot in the present discourse about Israeli cuisine,” says Shefi, who has become a fluent spokesman on the subject in the American media, which are very interested in the present project as well. “The term melting pot may have been more relevant during the first years of the state, but today kubbeh, hummus, schnitzel and stuffed vegetables are already genuine Israeli foods − regardless of their origin. Sometimes the distance from Israel is actually liberating and provides perspective for understanding these things.
“The simple fact is that in the 65 years of the existence of this small country, and despite the craziness, the wars and the economic situation, elements of a local cuisine have emerged. If you look at American cuisine, which is also a cuisine of immigrant communities from all over the world, the processes there were far slower. It took a long time for Irish immigrants to cook pasta in their home kitchens.”