Warning: Don’t watch the film “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” on an empty stomach. It presents one mouthwatering scene after another of vibrant, delicious Israeli dishes that will leave you ravenous.
Rumbling tummies not withstanding, documentary director Roger Sherman’s real intent was to make viewers hungry for a better understanding of contemporary Israel beyond the headlines about the Middle East conflict. A treat for foodies, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” opens this Friday in New York. Hardly light fare, it is more substantially an exploration of aspects of Israeli history, culture, religion and politics — through food.
James Beard Award-winning American-Israeli chef Michael Solomonov serves as the film’s guide as it crisscrosses the Holy Land, stopping at over 100 locations associated in various ways with the development of Israel’s dynamic culinary scene. Although Solomonov is chef and co-owner of Philadelphia’s Zahav, considered by critics to be the best Israeli food restaurant in the US, he seems surprised by many of the products, kitchens, dishes and tastes he discovers.
Solomonov, 38, was not acting for the camera. He was genuinely learning new things and meeting new people.
“I think I know a lot about food and a lot about Israel, but it turned out that about 65-70% of the places we went I had never been to before,” the chef told The Times of Israel.
For instance, while Solomonov had previously been to the famous Uri Buri restaurant in Acre, he had never before had the opportunity to walk through the local market tasting fresh fish with the restaurant’s legendary owner Uri Jeremias.
‘It was actually a life changing experience in terms of my understanding of agriculture’
“And we went to a Druze olive press at 10:00 at night. That was something I definitely had not done before,” he said.
Another highlight for Solomonov was a visit to a small farm in the Negev desert where agriculture is done according to millennia-old Nabatean methods. In the film, the chef is seen sampling a guava grown this way and being very impressed.
“It was actually a life changing experience in terms of my understanding of agriculture. I was blown away by the taste. It was a totally different taste experience,” Solomonov said.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is jam-packed with leading Israeli celebrity chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers, all of whom are household names to Israelis (Assaf Granit, Meir Adoni, Janna Gur, and Ronit Vered to name just a few), but were unknowns to the New York-based Sherman as he began research for the film.
In fact, Sherman, 65, knew not only nothing about Israeli food culture, but also almost nothing about everyday life in Israel prior to this project. Despite being Jewish, Sherman had had no connections at all with Israel until 2010, when he was “dragged” to the country for the first time by his friend food writer Joan Nathan on a food press trip.
“My wife [Saveur magazine creator Dorothy Kalins] and I never thought of going to Israel. We wanted to go to Paris,” Sherman said.
Sherman was totally smitten by Israel, and particularly by its world-renowned food scene, which has developed over the last three decades as the country’s economy strengthened and its culture opened up to global influences.
‘I came back to New York and started telling people how amazing Israel is, and they either just laughed at me or didn’t believe me’
“Most people in the world — including many American Jews — do not know Israel. They only know the misinformation and what they see in the news media. I came back to New York and started telling people how amazing Israel is, and they either just laughed at me or didn’t believe me,” Sherman said.
“It was then that I knew that I wanted to make a film about Israel to surprise and delight people, but it would not be just a food film,” he said.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” doesn’t shy away from the culinary appropriation question, but it also doesn’t belabor the point.
Famous Palestinian-Israeli chef Husan Abbas of Umm al-Fahm’s El Babor is seen cooking his signature kibbe dish (lamb meat wrapped around cinnamon stick skewers grilled over charcoal and then baked in a laffa shell) and claiming that much of what people today call Israeli food is really Palestinian.
The film also suggests, as would be expected, that shared food traditions and sitting down together to break bread at the same table could help bring peace to the region.
‘If they are called Palestinians or Israelis, I don’t think the tomato cares’
“Food is not political. It is what is grown on this land by the people who are living in it. If they are called Palestinians or Israelis, I don’t think the tomato cares,” said one chef who made the typical North African-inspired Israeli breakfast dish shakshuka for Solomonov in his home kitchen close to the northern border with Lebanon.
Solomonov’s self-deprecating humor and levity are dampened at points in the film when viewers are reminded when and why he began cooking Israeli food. It was soon after his younger brother David was killed in 2003 while serving in the IDF, just a few days before his scheduled discharge.
Although this strand of the film takes up very little of its two-hour running time, it is an important one that connects the affable American chef-guide to the film’s setting and to the lives of the people growing, cooking and eating the food on the land.
After visiting the site near the Lebanon border where his brother was killed by a sniper’s bullet, Solomonov hugs his wife and young son. The rest of the time, he’s constantly hugging the many restaurant chefs and home cooks he meets as a gesture of appreciation for their delicious food.
‘We had to edit out a bunch of hugs’
“We had to edit out a bunch of hugs,” Sherman joked about the demonstrative Solomonov.
The film asks the question of whether a definitive Israeli cuisine exists yet, but it doesn’t really answer it. Some of the Israeli chefs and food critics say yes, and some say no. Janna Gur sums it up well when she says it is — or will be — a combination of local terroir and Palestinian cuisine and “our immigrant baggage,” the incredibly diverse food traditions of Jews from around the world.
Solomonov has made a few changes to Zahav’s menu and sourcing as a result of his work on “In Search of Israeli Cuisine.” But even the chef who best represents Israeli food to Americans is no clearer now in his perception of what Israeli cuisine is.
“There’s a commonality of confusion. Everyone is equally confused about it,” he said.