Michael Solomonov is an Israeli-born chef who was raised in Pittsburgh and now owns Philadelphia’s Zahav, consistently rated among the best restaurants in the United States, as well as the hummus-focused spinoff Dizengoff, which I can vouch makes some of the best hummus I have ever had. Solomonov only switched his culinary focus to Israeli cuisine around 2008, and in a new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, he goes back to his motherland to explore the roots and evolution of a cuisine that, by definition, only goes back about 70 years. The film, directed by Roger Sherman, opens this weekend in New York, in Philadelphia and several California cities on the 31st, and rolls out nationwide over the month of April.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine is less documentary than travelogue; Solomonov is an explorer, and the film doesn’t try to give the viewer an encyclopedic look at the cuisine of his home country, in part because simply defining the cuisine of Israel is itself a thorny question. Solomonov bounces around the country, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the fishing town of Acre in the north, to the Golan region near the border with Lebanon, and to the desert south, visiting Israeli and Arab chefs who are pushing the boundaries of local cuisine as well as farmers, vintners, and other vendors contributing to the country’s vibrant culinary scene.
The film runs past the debate of the definition of Israeli cuisine somewhat quickly, with authors and chefs offering widely divergent opinions, some saying it’s ridiculous to say a country so young has its own cuisine, others pointing out that the cuisine exists because it’s in front of you. Based on what we see in the film, I’d argue with the latter group: This mélange of dishes, ingredients, and traditions comes from such a broad range of countries and cultures that it clearly forms its own cuisine. The film opens with Solomonov going into a small counter-service restaurant and asking for something small from the grill. He gets eighteen small plates, and proceeds to list their countries of origin, getting through about a dozen (not including the one where he just says “no idea”) before he’s even had anything we might call a main dish. Yogurts, salads, breads, and pickles dominate the counter in an array of colors, and it’s the combination of influences that makes this a unique cuisine.
Color is huge in In Search of Israeli Cuisine; since we can’t taste or smell the food, we’re relying on our eyes and Solomonov’s reactions (spoiler: he loves everything) to get a sense of what it’s like. The colors of the produce are eye-popping, as are the various sauces and purees smeared on every fine-dining plate we see in the film. The home-cooking Solomonov experiences is just as appealing, albeit sometimes less colorful because the dishes are slow-cooked and heavier on spices and meats; the scene where one of the chefs Solomonovs interviews (in the man’s apartment) picks up the Dutch oven full of maqluba, a Levantine stew with rice, and inverts it on to a giant metal dish, is mesmerizing and slightly terrifying to watch.
Within Solomonov’s travels, he gets at some of the questions of where Israeli cuisine came from. One controversial topic is how much of it was borrowed – or “stolen” – from Palestinian cuisine, one of many places here where food and politics intersect. Another is the influence of Sephardic Jews on the new cuisine, which some of the chefs in the film fear will mean the end of the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, who primarily come from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. (Sephardic Jews come from around the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa.) I found the premise a little tough to swallow, pun intended, because cuisines don’t disappear if they have followers. If people like this food, then someone will find it profitable to keep making it. Cuisines only disappear if no one wants to eat them, or if the ingredients required for the cuisine themselves disappear or become too expensive. It doesn’t seem like either is the case here.
One of the chefs in the film says that the tomato doesn’t care if the person cutting it is Jew or Arab. The Palestinian chef Solomonov ends up hugging (because the food is so good) says that most of the time his clientele is largely Jewish, dipping in the wake of an attack. Several chefs here see food as a way to build bridges between communities, especially between Jews and Palestinians living together in Israel. (Broader issues like Jewish settlements or the occupations of the Golan Heights and West Bank are not mentioned, nor should they be given the focus on food, but it’s hard to forget them while you watch and see the map of places Solomonov visits.)
The star of the show is truly the food, though. The thoughts of the various chefs, farmers, authors, and grandmothers whom Solomonov meets are interesting, certainly, but the food grabs your attention and usually doesn’t let go. There’s something a little primal about the way the chefs eat so much of the food on the screen – just grabbing with their fingers, or picking them up with a hunk of bread. (note: I love bread.) If anything, I wanted more details on what we were seeing on the various plates – those purees, for example, often dashes on the plate before five other ingredients were added. What were they made of? Solomonov tastes one lamb dish by picking up a slice with his fingers and dredging it in at least two of the sauces on the plate – what were they? Other than the noodle kugel he tries in one Ashkenazi man’s house, what did he learn on the trip that might influence the menu at Zahav? And how soon can I eat them?
The film ends with clips of many of the chefs and writers who’ve appeared giving their geographical backgrounds, a parallel to the opening scene of the film where we hear how many different countries contributed to the array of meze (small plates) in front of Solomonov. If the film provides any answer to the question of what “Israeli cuisine” is, that’s it: Israeli cuisine is the sum of everything the people of Israel have brought to it.