If someone asked you to describe your country’s cuisine and what makes it uniquely of your country, you might be hard-pressed to provide an answer. Especially for Americans, if you’re country is made predominantly of immigrants and hasn’t been around for even 250 years, that’s a really tough question to answer. For Israel, a country that hasn’t even been around for 70 years yet exists in a geographical territory with a couple millennia worth of history, that’s a particularly complex question.
Although it works as an appetite-rousing foodie documentary, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” poses this question as it follows esteemed Israeli-born American chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant on a journey through Israel’s many regions to discover the country’s most celebrated foods and restaurants. The crew visits esteemed restaurants and home kitchens alike belonging to Israelis with Arab, Turkish, Moroccan and other backgrounds.
In a lot of respects, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is more of a long episode of a food/travel television program, but Solomonov’s personal connection to Israel and the way exploring this food and the people making it generates a deeper conversation about culture and history makes it worthy of the documentary feature format. As the chef making the best Israeli-inspired food in the States, Solomonov lends the precise authority filmmaker Roger Sherman needed to seriously explore this topic.
What’s immediately most striking about the film is the honesty that Israeli cuisine is not just a melting pot of traditions (like with America), but that many of the foods most associated with Israel (namely hummus) are definitively Palestinian in origin. This naturally ropes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the dialogue but in a healthy way. The fact that Arab restaurant business hurts when conflict is heightened is an indicator that food could really be a big key in bridging these two sides together.
For those more interested in just the food rather than social-political issues, learning about the origins of certain dishes and the way a region’s cuisine develops based on its people and history is quite fascinating. Many of the chefs and cooks featured in the film emphasize the use of local ingredients. We tend to think of that as healthy and a “movement” or “trend” in the restaurant industry, but local ingredients are the first step in defining what a region’s cuisine is, or should be. The way native foods and herbs combine with the traditions of Ashkenazi (European Jewish) or Sephardic (North African, Middle Eastern and Spanish Jewish) Jews creates the still-broad category of what might be considered Israeli cuisine.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” has some audio-visual issues that remind you to focus on the people, stories and food rather than the filmmaking craftsmanship, but it certainly could’ve been an even more vibrant viewing experience. Narratively, the story loses a little energy in the second half as we meet a diverse array of home cooks. Each brings something valuable to the film, but sequentially there’s nothing naturally linking these different stops on the journey other than the theme of the movie in the most general sense.
Exploring a country to identify its cuisine and culinary history is a decent subject for a documentary, but it’s the way other social issues bubble up as the journey goes deeper that make the film a worthwhile watch. In addition to your appetite, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” will open your mind just enough to facilitate some deeper thinking about what a country’s cuisine really is in the context of history, geographical and social factors, and how food and cooking can be a powerful agent beyond satisfying our taste buds.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine
Directed by Roger Sherman