Just what is Israeli cuisine? When Michael Solomonov sits down at a Tel Aviv restaurant and asks for something small, something special, he gets 17 salads, each one more intriguing than the next, plus hummus and bread. As Solomonov considers the smorgasbord before him, he points out the origins of each plate to the camera: Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Morocco, Russia, Greece and greater Europe. Solomonov has come in search of Israeli cuisine but he’s found the United Nations of food.
This moment sets the table for the documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine from director and cinematographer Roger Sherman. Sherman conceived the doc on a recent trip to Israel when he discovered a diverse and vibrant food scene on par with New York, San Francisco and London.
Sherman casts Israel native and James Beard Award-winning chef, Solomonov — co-owner of Philadelphia’s Zahav — as the movie’s guide for this country-spanning tour of food. From the secular and vibrant Tel Aviv to the traditional Jerusalem. From the Muslim city of Ein Rafa to the Sea of Galilee. On and on through Matata, Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm, Yanhu-Jat, Avdat, Ein Zivan, Mt. Tabor and Mt. Eitan, Solomonov asks at every stop, “Is this Israeli cuisine?”
But Israel is not even 70 years old, how can there be an established cultural cuisine? As Solomonov finds, there isn’t. For some, Israeli cuisine is tradition — the way Grandma used to make it. For others, Israeli cuisine is nothing more than the local ingredients used. As chef Ezra Kedem says, “The essence of Israeli taste is lemon juice, olive oil and the liquids from the vegetables.” For a few, Israeli cuisine is whatever the hell they want it to be — one chef even incorporates ingredients from Japan.
These differing opinions draw an easy parallel to the political strife that is part and parcel of life in Israel. In Search of Israeli Cuisine pays close attention to this dilemma — notably interviewing Palestinian chefs, and not just about the recipes, but how their business is impacted by the daily news. For El Babor chef Husam Abbas, this notion of Israeli cuisine is arrogance. “Where is the kitchen you call the Israeli kitchen? Where is it?” he asks, pointing out that falafel, hummus and maqluba are all Arab dishes.
And though Sherman and Solomonov are sympathetic to Abbas’s struggle, they come down on the side of chef Komat, who asks, “Does the tomato care about politics?”
For Sherman and Solomonov, food is an olive branch that can be extended across cultures. To eat someone else’s food is to respect them and their heritage. Food probably won’t stop the fighting, but it might help.
Cinematically, there is nothing inventive or unusual about In Search for Israeli Cuisine. As a documentary, it is a by-the-numbers travelogue, but it is one that provides a window into a nation and a culture of which most American audiences have no knowledge. Here is their chance to remedy that. As the motherly advice goes: The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The same is true of a culture.