Film Review: In Search of Israeli Cuisine

An enjoyable film about Israeli food that touches on history, culture and politics.
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According to some Israeli restaurateurs, chefs, farmers and other food mavens, there is no Israeli cuisine; the country is simply too young to have a defining cookery. Others say it’s an amalgam of Middle Eastern fare—Palestinian, Moroccan, Turkish—blended with the chef’s country of origin from Hungary to Romania to Poland to Spain, sometimes coupled with trendy Italian or French influences.

One well-known Israeli chef, as a case in point, has morphed gefilte fish into tiny nuggets of tuna decorously set on a lovely plate where the plate is far more visible than the food. Haute cuisine couldn’t do it better.

You don’t have to be a foodie to find Roger Sherman’s documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine unexpectedly interesting. Like everything else in Israel, its food is a complicated soup (to extend the metaphor) of politics, culture, religion, personal heritage, collective history and economics.

In a country with little agreement on anything, there’s some consensus that if Israeli dishes exist at all, it’s fairly recent. Until 30 years ago, the country was just too busy surviving to concern itself with anything as lofty as “cuisine.” Much of the food was dull and bland (e.g., boiled chicken, a staple of the shtetl Jew) and that was fine too. As one chef suggests, spices were somehow viewed as sinful.

But now, thanks to a booming economy, tourism and travel—in short cross-cultural pollination and modernization on every front—that has changed. The Green movement is central to Israeli cooking, but then even in its early years Zionist settlers were on the forefront of environmentalism—e.g., with their sophisticated methods of irrigation in the ’40s and ’50s—and the country is now a leading proponent of utilizing foods that are locally/organically grown and indigenous to the region—from eggplant to chick peas to lemons to olive oil, though several Palestinians chefs interviewed insist the Israelis stole olive oil from them and claimed it as their own.

Sherman, whose wide-ranging documentaries have won a Peabody, a James Beard Award and two Academy Award nominations, admitted he had no pressing interest in Israel and certainly didn’t view it as a food destination. But when he found himself on an Israeli press junket in 2011, he was floored by what he discovered: one of the most dynamic food scenes in the world and made all the more striking by the fact that a hundred-plus cultures have come to Israel during the last 100 years, or have been there for hundreds of years, each with its own traditions. When he recounted his experiences to his friends, they were dismissive. Sherman’s goal was to make a film that would set the record straight and introduce the world to an undervalued—largely unknown—food culture.

His stand-in/narrator Michael Solomonov was a spot-on choice. A multi-award-winning chef in his own right, Solomonov is best known for his Philadelphia-based restaurant Zahav that serves modern Israeli food or, perhaps more accurately, his spin on it. An Israeli native and Pittsburgh-reared, like Sherman he had no special interest in his roots, culinary or otherwise, until his brother who was serving in the Israeli military was killed in the ongoing conflict. It was a transforming moment for Solomonov as a chef and politically conscious human being, two interrelated elements that find a unifying voice in Sherman’s film.

Though his pain is never far from the surface, his pleasure in food is mouth-watering as he travels across Israel—from secular Tel Aviv to ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem to the Arab enclaves—checking out restaurants, farms and private parties (some religious, others non-sectarian), sampling the various offerings and interviewing the cooks (farmers or hosts) about their particular cuisines and what’s involved in their preparation (literally and symbolically). Other talking heads include cookbook authors, food journalists, vintners and cheese-makers, one of whom makes his cheeses in a cave.

One young chef/journalist who cooks her grandmother’s Turkish food explains that she and other Israelis feel free to experiment with food because it’s a young country and they’re not tied to tradition. Another chef says that in some quarters it’s virtually impossible to find traditional Ashkenazi food because it’s identified with the poor and struggling Jews of the Diaspora. A Jewish-Muslim couple who cook together create very personal food that combines both traditions.

Israeli’s high-tech agronomy is not overlooked either, as the film zeros in on a tomato farm in the Negev where cherry tomato vines grow to 36 feet, producing tomatoes for two years. Elsewhere, ancient agricultural methods are still employed, including a 2,000–year-old Nabataean technique that controls floods.

The film has its moments of comedy too. Helping a Druze farmer pick olives from an ancient tree, Solomonov aggressively pokes the branches with a long stick. Not pleased, his host intones, “Please do not hurt the olive tree. Be gentle.” Solomonov apologizes to the tree.

Along with its cultural/history/cooking lesson, the film works well as a travelogue, successfully capturing Israel’s various landscapes and climates, most vividly its long stretches of sun-baked barren terrain. Still, in the end it’s about food and its divisive and healing elements. A chef at an upscale Palestinian restaurant says his clientele is split evenly between Jews and Arabs, adding, "Food makes peace."

Whether that’s true or not, it’s a nice thought. The film tackles an unlikely topic and it’s engaging. That said, far too much is packed into it. Some careful editing would have made a good documentary even better.

Click here for cast and crew information.