‘In Search of Israeli Cuisine’: Film Review
Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov conducts a food-focused tour of Israel’s diverse regions and myriad roots.
With its assortment of mouthwatering ingredients and dishes, In Search of Israeli Cuisine is an unadulterated foodie delight. But much more than that, Roger Sherman’s documentary offers fascinating insights into a little-understood country, using the culinary prism to illuminate a complex, still-young culture. The engaging film is also the chronicle of a personal quest: The Israel-born, Pittsburgh-raised chef Michael Solomonov, serving as onscreen guide, questioner and appreciative taster — à la Anthony Bourdain, but soft-spoken, earnest and non-imbibing — makes his own heartfelt discoveries at every turn.
Whether food is truly the road to peace, as more than one interview subject suggests, Solomonov’s counter meal at a grill joint in Tel Aviv serves as a perfect entry point for the travelogue. He reels off the origins of the array of side-dish salads he’s served — Palestine, Turkey, Morocco, Russia, Greece — an edible shorthand for an ongoing history of immigration, and a vivid illustration of the United Nations’ worth of cuisines that intermingle on Israeli menus and in home kitchens, not always without tension.
Solomonov pays tribute to street food, but most of the chefs he speaks with are working on the cutting edge of the modern appreciation for local products and terroir. From coastal fishing towns to mountain villages to desert fruit groves, Sherman and his co-lenser, Anthony Savini, capture the tiny country’s surprisingly diverse geography. As Solomonov crisscrosses Israel, the organizational logic of the sequences’ order grows less clear. But the use of simple, elegant maps by Marcelo Cermak to introduce each locale is especially helpful, and the score by Amit Gur and Moshe Da’aboul has a brightness to match the Mediterranean terrain.
A visit to the remains of an ancient wine press segues into a behind-the-scenes tour of a gleaming new winery, where Solomonov’s hosts make clear that “kosher wine” is not synonymous with Manischewitz. The film addresses a number of misperceptions and stereotypes, none more significant than the idea of a monolithic Jewish cuisine. Ultrareligious Jerusalem notwithstanding, most Israelis are secular Jews who don’t observe kosher dietary laws. As Solomonov explains this in voiceover, director Sherman and editor Pamela Scott Arnold offer the perfect punchline, cutting to a plate of shimmering oysters on the half shell.
Interwoven with Solomonov’s travels are Sherman’s interviews with journalists and cookbook authors who provide incisive historical perspectives on Israel’s culinary identity. They trace the rise of a new, dynamic cuisine over the past 30 years, in large part the result of an economic boom after decades of a more hardscrabble, utilitarian and bland approach to cooking among the country’s immigrant settlers. They examine younger generations’ shame and embarrassment over their parents’ Old World ways — a universal reaction and one that Solomonov is still grappling with as he decides what to put on his Philadelphia restaurant’s menu.
The doc strikes a fine balance between straight-up food love and wider-ranging themes, though one that it doesn’t always maintain in the later going, when the proceedings occasionally run out of steam. A discussion of the hierarchy, ethnic makeup and economics of Israel’s restaurant staffs might have enriched the discussion, had Sherman and Solomonov chosen to explore such nitty-gritty matters. But with its appreciation of the sensory, the social and the psychological, Israeli Cuisine is a satisfying and provocative concoction.
Addressing the question at the heart of the film, some interviewees insist that Israeli cuisine is indeed a thing, though perhaps one that defies definition. But most are unsure, or consider it a work-in-progress that might or might not reach maturity. Informing much of the commentary, of course, but usually not explicitly, is the political turmoil that has been an inextricable part of Israel’s seven-decade history. It’s no wonder that something as seemingly benign as hummus can stir such deep emotions, as evidenced by an Arab chef’s impassioned comments; Israel’s de facto national dish is Palestinian. Adoption or appropriation? It's in the eye of the beholder.
But that same chef argues for a more hopeful, open future, as does Sherman’s film. And the terrifically likable Solomonov, whose brother was killed while serving in the Israeli army, is the perfect conduit for that hope, his optimism always thoughtful and grounded, a knowing sadness in his eyes. Though he put modern Israeli cuisine on the U.S. map with his restaurant Zahav and a well-received book, he’s the first to admit that he’s still learning. A couple of times in the film, after tasting a chef’s dish, he’s speechless with pleasure, a student offering his surprised teacher a grateful hug.
Production companies: Florentine Films, Sherman Pictures
Distributor: Menemsha Films
Director-screenwriter: Roger Sherman
Producers: Roger Sherman, Karen Shakerdge
Executive producers: Dorothy Kalins, Rhonda Barad
Directors of photography: Roger Sherman, Anthony Savini
Editor: Pamela Scott Arnold
Composers: Amit Gur, Moshe Da’aboul