December 10, 2019

Documentary asks: Just what is Israeli cuisine?

In the opening sequence of the documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” chef Michael Solomonov walks into a Yemenite grill in Tel Aviv and asks for “something grilled, something special” in American-accented Hebrew.

As a starter, the waiters bring him 17 small plates with different salads.

“Notice,” he says to the camera, pointing at one dish after another. “Yemenite, Palestinian, Iraq, Moroccan, Moroccan, this is Russian … Turkish, Moroccan, I don’t even know. Greek. How many countries are represented in one place?”

The film asks a question Solomonov has been asking nearly his entire life: “What exactly is Israeli food?”

Solomonov, who co-owns two Israeli restaurants in Philadelphia and in 2011 won a prestigious James Beard Award, traveled up and down Israel to pose that question to a diverse group of restaurateurs and cooks.

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” he said in an interview. “I’m constantly educated or intrigued or humbled by Israeli cuisine.”

The documentary, which claims the Jewish Journal as a sponsor, will air on PBS next year. In the meanwhile, it’s being shown at dozens of film festivals around the world.

On May 19 and May 22, the film can be seen in Beverly Hills and Encino, respectively, as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Panels will follow both screenings, the first moderated by Jewish Journal Publisher Rob Eshman along with cookbook author Amelia Saltsman, and the second featuring Jewish food blogger Elana Horwich and Israeli chef Ofir Arbel.

The panels will address the same issue as the film: How can a hodgepodge of cuisines from around the world, brought together within the last century, become a unique and coherent food tradition?

“Depending on who you talk to, and how you count it, 100 to 150 cultures have either come to Israel or never left Israel and are informing and influencing the food that is there,” Roger Sherman, the film’s director, said in an interview.

“The food scene is, I would say, the most dynamic food scene in the world.”

The documentary is a frenetic tour of that scene, interspersed with serious interviews attempting answer the film’s central question in all its controversy.

“Yes, there is Israeli cuisine,” journalist and farmer Hedai Offaim says five minutes into the film. “Yes, there is an Israeli kitchen.”

“Israeli cuisine is a nonexistent idea,” culinary journalist Gil Hovav asserts in the very next shot. “We’re too young to have our own cuisine. That would be just ridiculous.”

“It’s not a cuisine yet,” food writer Janna Gur concludes in a third consecutive interview. “It’s perhaps a nascent cuisine, a baby cuisine — but a very precocious baby.”

One thing the interviewees seem to agree on is that Israel offers a variety of delicious food — whether it’s Israeli in origin or not — and the film has the feel of a 97-minute Anthony Bourdain special.

“Warning: don’t watch hungry,” Sherman wrote in an email.

Sherman, who was raised a Reform Jew in New York, had no intention of going to Israel before he was invited by Joan Nathan, author of a number of Jewish cookbooks, to join a press trip she was leading.

“Israel was not on my top 10 list,” he said. “It was not on my top 20 list. I wanted to go to Paris.”

Nonetheless, he consented to go. “I didn’t have a project [at the time], and I said, ‘Oh, well, let’s go check it out,’ ” he said.

What he saw truly impressed him.

“We’re so hot on ‘locavore’ and sustainable and a small footprint and everything like that,” he said. “To them, that’s just natural.

“Couple that with incredible olive oil, with world-class, award-winning wine and cheese, and you’ve got the makings of this remarkable place.”

In some cases, Israeli cuisine takes the idea of local eating to an extreme. One of the interviewees, Rama Ben Zvi, a restaurateur in the Judean Hills, is militantly local: For many years, she refused to serve fish, because it had to be shipped from Tel Aviv.

“It’s 45 minutes from here, it’s not local,” she says in the film, laughing. “Then I understood that, you know, I can be a little bit more flexible, and we started serving also fish. But this is the farthest we go.”

As with any topic in the Middle East, food in Israel can be political, and the film doesn’t avoid controversy.

“The falafel is ours, the maqluba is ours, the hummus is ours,” Husam Abbas, a Palestinian chef who runs a restaurant in the village of Umm al-Fahm, says in the movie. “What do you have? Where is it from?”

“Where is the kitchen that you call the Israeli kitchen?” the stocky, mustachioed cook demands. “Where is it? Come, let’s create an Israeli kitchen together.”

But perhaps the greater controversy the film addresses, at least for some viewers, is about Ashkenazi food: Can a culinary tradition historically associated with guilt, penury and Polish blandness actually be tasty?

For Solomonov, the answer to this question is a solid yes. After eating kugel in the Jerusalem kitchen of food guide Shmil Holland, he decided to add the traditional noodle dish to the menu at his flagship restaurant, Zahav.

It’s not your grandmother’s kugel: After vermicelli noodles are cooked in chicken stock with egg, sunflower seeds, ground coffee and orange rinds, the dish is baked and served with green almonds.

Solomonov, soft-spoken with close-cropped gray hair, sees the blurred lines of Israeli cuisine as liberating rather than limiting, enabling him to adapt dishes to whatever ingredients are found locally in eastern Pennsylvania.

The film turned him and Sherman into unwitting ambassadors for Israeli culture.

“The ministry of tourism is jumping up and down about this, because they say this is the [best] brand ambassador[ship] you could possibly imagine,” Sherman said. “And I don’t mind that at all.”

Starting this month, Florentine Films, Sherman’s production company, will be offering food tours of the country led by Avihai Tsabari, a guide who’s featured in the documentary. The next trip leaves in January.

For his part, Solomonov is an earnest evangelist for the supremacy of food over politics.

“It’s so cliché, saying, like, peace through food,” he said in the interview. “On the other hand, traditional means of diplomacy have not worked very well.”

In the film, Abbas, the Palestinian restaurateur, speaking in broken English, sums up what may be the film’s most uplifting message: “Food make peace.”