By Joe Korson
Do you think you really know Israel? Did you know that there are some 74 cultures that inhabit Israel? Each culture contributes a distinct culinary tradition which tells the story of Israel in a unique way. In every culture we are exposed to in The Culinary Heritage Project we learn how our food narratives give us an access point to a deeper understanding of our cultural story.
Chef Fatna Prada told us of how her food story walked hand in hand with her family from Ethiopia as they crossed the Sudan to arrive in the promised land – literally carrying maze seeds to plant in their new homes.
Or, the struggles of Chef Moshe Basson’s generation arriving from Iraq through tent communities on the fringes of Israeli society to a prejudiced society, and how the food of his youth, that was once scoffed at, is now a staple of most Israelis shopping list.
In truth, there are many untold stories, that when captured reveal a rich culinary past.
The Culinary Heritage Project was established to mobilize the Jewish World, Israelis of all backgrounds, and lovers of food – through a unique ‘recipe’ of education, technology, and engagement, while capturing and sharing our diverse culinary heritage. It is a cultural calling: partnering with visionary philanthropists to safeguard our culinary treasures and memories – in an apolitical format that will connect people through the language of food, from across the Middle East and beyond.
What is your earliest food memory?
I remember helping my Safta Bea make ricotta and spinach ravioli in her kitchen in Independence Iowa. To this day the smell and taste of homemade ravioli triggers my internal time machine and transports me 46 years in the past! While most of my memories of those times have faded, this particular food memory is alive and revived every time I make this simple dish.
If we examine this food memory it reveals a deeper story. My grandparents were second generation Americans who came from very traditional Jewish families. So how is it that my six-year-old self is cooking this Tuscan ravioli dish in my Ashkenazi Safta’s kitchen?
When we investigate food culture, we realize that in reality it isn’t something static but an ever developing and changing aspect of our identity. We realize that it lives as an individual construct informed by the experiences we had from birth.
What we perceive to be ethnic cuisine is only an entry point to a societies culinary culture. It’s come from a myriad of experiences. No cuisine in the world is untouched by outside influences. It could be the spices, raw ingredients or whole elements of a nation’s current culinary identity.
Does the pasta in my Safta’s ravioli really originate from Italy? How did this Italian recipe become one of her specialty dishes?
Our food narrative tells us who we are and where we come from. As we come together, we influence each other, and we become intertwined culturally. This truth reveals something extraordinary. We are in some way connected more with cuisine than anything else.
Every human being has an intimate relationship with food. It is the most natural and precise way to break barriers. It can start a conversation without a word spoken. When we find ourselves in a new environment, food is the most accessible way to connect to the local culture. It’s a familiar moment, something that is real and tangible that crosses perceived barriers. You sit and have a meal; you share an experience and a story is told. This is who I am. This is how I’m showing you who I am. This is coming from my heart. This coming from my reality.
I wish I could ask my Safta why she loved to make spinach and ricotta raviolis? Where is this recipe that holds such power to keep my connection to my Safta alive?
Or in the words of The Culinary Heritage Project Co-Founders: “The culinary ingathering of Jews from the diaspora into the melting pot that is modern Israel tells a wonderfully complex, dynamic, and inspiring story. Israel’s culinary trajectory reflects the Jewish and Israeli experience and is essential to its historical record.”
We believe, through global collaboration, that this information needs to be documented, shared and utilized so we can know our food, enhance our identity as a nation and convey to the world a more authentic narrative of ourselves.
Joe Korson is the Co-Founder of The Culinary Heritage Project. He has served as the Personal Chef to the Prime Minister of Israel for the past five years. During his career he has helped develop restaurant brands including celebrity chef Raymond Blanc’s “Brassiere Blanc” concept and consulted on one of Jerusalem’s hottest new restaurants, “Crave.”