Directed by Roger Sherman, the film features James Beard Award-winner Michael Solomonov as he searches for his culinary roots in his native Israel. Solomonov is one of the hottest chefs in the country. His Philadelphia restaurant, Zahav, has been making all kinds of best-of lists and it’s become a culinary destination in the City of Brotherly Love. These days, you go to Pat’s or Geno’s for one wit wiz for lunch and then over to Zahav for dinner.
The pre-screening meal of falafel, hummus, couscous, and all of the fixin’s was a nice tease – but the beautifully shot film put it all to shame. And while I was sitting in a St. Paul JCC social hall at folding tables eating off of paper plates, the film did its very best to transport the viewer to the Holy Land. My pervasive thought was about the only time I had been to Israel – in 2000. Silly me went during Passover – so my options were limited. My 25-year-old palette was also limited and I desperately need to go back because I failed at the food game. Full disclosure: I ate at a Burger King in the Tel Aviv mall not once, but twice. Shame on me.
The film poses some really thought provoking questions and Solomonov does a pretty good job of mixing in some humor and some humility. Solomonov was born in Israel and has that deep connection, but he is also serving his take on Israeli food in Philly. So the premise is that he goes back to the homeland to really discover what Israeli cuisine is all about. For better or for worse, it’s truly hard to define – and everyone has a different opinion. The film’s talking heads shared those different opinions and left no definitive answer to the question: What is Israeli cuisine?
Here’s what we do know: Israel is a new country, of course, so much of its food culture is generally new as well. Naturally, it includes influences from surrounding countries and cultures – some of which are very old. But Israeli cuisine as a whole is that new mix. Israeli cuisine is not Jewish cuisine either. The two are actually quite different and if you think about the most Israeli of foods (falafel, hummus, etc) they’re probably Egyptian in origin. And shakshuka is probably Libyan. And shawarma is probably Turkish. And on and on it goes. Israeli cuisine is all of those foods and all of those places.
We also know that Israeli cuisine is extremely local – something very popular in this country and spreading throughout the world. Israel has been part of that local food movement from the beginning and mostly out of necessity. The new country of Israel didn’t have the resources to do anything other than use what it already contained. And I think it’s safe to say that Israel’s neighbors weren’t lining up to export products to this new country So the people of this new country used what they had – and they had quite a bit. I remember my grandmother coming back from her trips to Israel and raving about the produce. I was so happy to see that featured in the film because it brought back those memories – similar to what Solomonov was experiencing as the guide.
(Fun produce fact: the cherry tomato was developed in Israel using a wild Peruvian species.)
So what about Jewish food? Why can’t Jewish food get a seat at the proverbial Israeli table? There are a few explanations and for me, this was the most interesting part of the film. Most Ashkenazi-Jewish foods from Eastern Europe were beige and boiled and bland. There were lots of potatoes and onions and varieties of cabbage. Those foods were heavy and hearty – meant for colder climates and poorer people. Then the Eastern European Jews came to Israel – and it was warm and bright red tomatoes replaced those potatoes. According to the film, many Eastern European Jews were reluctant to cook the foods they had grown accustomed to – some even embarrassed around their new neighbors. A couple of generations in and sabras weren’t interested in their parents’ kugel or stuffed cabbage.
The orthodox population of Israel continues those traditions but of course they are not the ones eating at beachside cafes in Tel Aviv. The growing secular base in Israel is actually powering the food movement and veering away from their Jewish food roots. The film actually hypothesizes that traditional Ashkenzi foods are currently endangered and could possibly become extinct in Israel. I immediately thought of the Jewish deli in America – clearly an endangered restaurant species and in some parts of the country, completely wiped out.
So what is Israeli cuisine? It’s a fantastic blend of North African, Eastern European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern ingredients, dishes, and recipes. I guess the best answer is that it’s evolving just like the country itself.
Meanwhile, as I said earlier – I need to get back to Israel one of these days. I did all of the touristy things a first-timer does – you know: Wailing Wall, Dead Sea, Masada, etc. My return trip will be more about the food and I intend to completely avoid Burger King. But first, Solomonov’s Zahav is calling my name and Philly is only a couple hours south of my parents’ house. I might have to skip the cheesesteak though.