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Cooking Studio in Israel Creates Community Through Food

Sisters Aliya Fastman and Shaendl Davis’ cooking studio in Tel Aviv has one purpose: Create community through food.
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August 3, 2023
Chocolate Brownies Photo courtesy Dawn Lerman

Sisters Aliya Fastman and Shaendl Davis’ cooking studio in Tel Aviv has one purpose: Create community through food. At Citrus & Salt, they teach tourists about Israeli food and culture, while also offering meaningful cooking experiences for locals. “Forming communities is very much in our genes,” Fastman told the Journal. “It’s a family-run business, so we want people to feel at home.”

Sisters Fastman and Davis, who are from the Bay Area, are the daughters of rabbis. They grew up organizing Purim carnivals, going to huge services and enjoying synagogue potlucks. They always appreciated the value, the taste and the role of great food to bring people together.

“Obviously everybody wants to learn recipes and eat, but it’s a lot of conversation and facilitation with these strangers that end up leaving as friends.” – Aliya Fastman

“With any cooking class, the first thing that springs to mind is the food,” Fastman told the Journal. “Obviously everybody wants to learn recipes and eat, but it’s a lot of conversation and facilitation with these strangers that end up leaving as friends.” She likes to introduce Israeli food to tourists as a beautiful tapestry that was brought to Israel by the diaspora cultures. “We try to incorporate those flavors and their spices to our menu, so they can kind of touch upon the multifaceted, multicultural nature that is Israel,” she said.

For the local community, which includes immigrants from the United States, South America and South Africa, they offer group classes for companies as well as individuals. For those, Fastman teaches menus based on her travels.  “I take cooking classes wherever we travel and then I source those ingredients in Tel Aviv,” she said.  When she travels to countries such as Greece, Turkey or Morocco, she’s sampling the food. As she recreates the dishes she ate for her students in Israel, she likes to look for the similarities. “So many recipes are interconnected, because it’s a global world,” she said. 

Fastman created her recipe for Moroccan Pastilla after backpacking in Morocco. “I had it at a fancy restaurant then I had it at a [food] stand,” she said. “It’s a chicken phyllo pie with cinnamon and brown onions topped with powdered sugar.” (The recipe is below). 

Fastman got her BA in political science from University of California Santa Cruz, and has a Master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation in Tel Aviv. That’s when she started teaching out of her dorm room.  She had no idea it would grow into her studio, which brings together flavors, cultures and students from around the world. “I feel like everything in life is a building block,” she said. “My culinary background, my love of travel, my being a waitress, my training in mediation, so I can deal with large groups. It’s all kind of led me to this point, where I have the skills to be able to run the studio and work with people from different backgrounds.”

Davis, who got her culinary degree from the (now closed) Jerusalem Culinary Institute in 2012, has worked in restaurants and pastry kitchens in both America and Israel. She was working in high tech when Fastman brought her in to run the studio with her. 

The sisters made aliyah around 2015, a few months apart, and truly believe their upbringing prepared them for this venture. “When you are the daughter or son of clergy, you learn very quickly and very early how to talk to a lot of people of different backgrounds, and how to be comfortable with that, how to ask them questions about themselves,” Davis said. “We want to create a space for community — for olim (immigrants), locals and visitors,” she told the Journal. “We hope to be a place where people are able to come and connect with others, and that as we grow, our community grows with us.” Fastman added, “We bring together different groups of people with different backgrounds, whether that’s Palestinians and Israelis, or maybe different groups of people within Tel Aviv, refugees and people who live here. [We give them] a shared experience that is cooking.”

To learn more go to CitrusandSaltCooking.com.

Moroccan Pastilla 

3 Tbsp neutral oil (such as canola or corn)
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (bone-in is okay if you’re up for a bit
more work!)
3 medium onions, thinly sliced
1⁄2-1 inch ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp ras el-hanout (Moroccan spice blend)
1-2 tsp cumin
1/4 cup crushed almonds, or coarse almond flour
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp brown sugar (white can sub)
1 package phyllo dough, thawed
Powdered sugar (for garnish)

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook the until cooked through, five minutes each side for boneless thighs, 10-to-15 minutes a side for bone-in. Remove the chicken from the pan, reserving the oil. Shred the chicken into long thin pieces. Set aside.
Add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt to the oil used to cook the chicken. Cook them, stirring occassionally, over medium-to-low heat until golden brown. Once the onions have begun to brown add in the spices, ginger, brown sugar and garlic, and cook for a few more minutes. Add the shredded chicken and mix to combine. Turn off the heat.
Taste for seasoning and add more spices, to taste. The flavors should be strong as the phyllo dough will lighten the overall balance.
Add in the eggs and almond flour and mix.
Place one sheet of the defrosted phyllo dough into a round baking pan ( about 7 inches, larger is fine) brushing oil on the pan between each layer. Layer 5 bottom sheets and add the chicken mixture. If using a pan on the smaller side you can fold the bottom phyllo sheets over to serve as the pie top, brushing oil in between each top layer. If your pan is a bit bigger you should add several fresh phyllo sheets on the top and cut to size, oiling in between layers and using the top and bottom sheets to form the sides of the pie.
Brush the top of the pie with oil and bake in a 350°F oven for 10-15 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.
Sift cinnamon and a generous amount of powdered sugar on the top and serve.

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