Film Review: In Search of Israeli Cuisine

by Carrie Kahn on March 31, 2017

Engaging Israeli food and culture doc is a must-see for food lovers

Chef Mike Solomonov (r.) samples spices at the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv.

Just in time for Passover comes this lovely and charming new documentary that is bound to delight foodies of all persuasions. Documentarian Roger Sherman will make your mouth water with his beautifully filmed images of sumptuous Israeli cuisine dished up by both street vendors and some of the county’s fanciest restaurants. In Search of Israeli Cuisine is writer/director Sherman’s attempt to answer a singular question: What is Israeli cuisine? In such a new country, is having a nationally defined cuisine even possible?

Sherman gives us a guide to help us examine this quandary, and we couldn’t be in better hands. Michael Solomonov is an Israeli born, U.S. raised James Beard Award-winning chef who owns and runs the renowned Philadelphia restaurant Zahav. Immensely likable and clearly an ardent food lover, Solomonov’s passion and curiosity can’t help but rub off on us as he takes us on a whirlwind tour of Israeli restaurants, homes, farms, and orchards.

As Solomonov chats with various chefs, cheesemakers, farmers, and olive and grape growers across Israel — from bustling, cutting-edge Tel Aviv to small villages — we are privy to a lively and engaging discussion about not just the history of Israeli food, but the history of Israel and its people. Arguments abound as to whether a true, national “Israeli cuisine” actually exists; some say yes, definitely, and others say no, the country is much too young.

Palestinian chef Husam Abbas (center) shows Chef Mike (l.) how to prepare Kebab El Babour in Umm al-Fahm.

From these conversations, though we learn of the influences of the immigrants who populated the country after World War II; over 100 cultures are represented in the food served in Israel today, with origins from countries ranging from Poland and Russia to Yemen, Turkey, Greece, and Morocco. In addition to these regional variations, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Kosher and secular Jewish traditions all come together in Israeli food, too, and those, in turn, are mixed with Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and Christian influences.

As such, Sherman doesn’t shy away from exploring “the complexity and beauty of conflict,” as the film puts it, and some of the most interesting interviews in the film are with Husam Abbas, a Palestinian chef at a high-end restaurant in Umm Al-Fahm that is frequented by Jews and Arabs alike. “Food is not political,” Abbas says, “Food makes peace.” Yet when various peace negotiations failed in the past, Abbas says his restaurant suffered. And the film does touch on the notion that much of what Israeli chefs have adopted as their own are recipes with Palestinian origins; what’s known as “Israeli Salad,” for example, actually had already long been known as “Arab Salad,” with its duplicate ingredients of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives. Even today, the film tells us, tensions can still run high, and collaboration between Arab and Israeli chefs can be difficult.

Chef Mike (l.) visits with cheesemaker Shai Seltzer in the Judean Hills outside of Jerusalem.

The film does have some humorous, lighter moments as well, though, as when Solomonov skeptically tries an updated version of the traditional Ashkenazi noodle dish kugel, in which (in a move that will make Italians wince) the noodles are boiled in milk for 45 minutes, But, to Solomonov’s surprise, he loves the new version so much that he reclaims the once bland dish, and has put it on his menu at Zahav.

It’s not a spoiler to say that, in the end, the film finds no definitive answers to the question Sherman sets out to answer. Just looking for answers, though, proves to be a highly entertaining and fun culinary and historical adventure for the viewer. According the film, we are all born with “a little bit of dirt in our mouths,” representing the taste of our ancestral homelands. In a nation populated by a diaspora that is trying to co-exist with the land’s original inhabitants, the cuisine is always moving forward, and where it will go, and what it can and will become, remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, we can all enjoy some hummus together, because, after watching this picture, I guarantee you’re going to have a craving.

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In Search of Israeli Cuisine opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, and the Landmark Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.

 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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