Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov leads viewers on a culinary road trip through a country that offers a veritable melting pot of flavors.
In the 2016 documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, restaurateur/former Iron Chef competitor Michael Solomonov takes on the perhaps unattainable task of finding a definitive cuisine of his home country. Solomonov — who owns Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia — says in the film, directed by Roger Sherman, that he decided to focus on cooking Israeli and Jewish cuisines after his brother David was killed during a military campaign in Israel.
Solomonov had started out cooking at the noted Italian restaurant Vetri in Philly. He serves as tour guide through a country he describes in the film as physically no more than the size of New Jersey. But a country with so many culinary influences it’s almost impossible to categorize the food. Solomonov leads us on a beautiful journey which for him may also have functioned as his way of coming to terms with his brother’s death.
A review from Eater.com in March 2017 has an unabashedly harsh take on this film, focusing on what this road trip to lush organic farms, of-the-moment restaurants and homey kitchens for warm Shabbat feasts doesn’t include — stops in Gaza and the West Bank, Occupied Territories where the poverty rate is high and food is rationed. The beauteous abundance we see in Solomon’s visits to restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are not shared by the people who live in those places. And that makes it a one-sided composite, argues the reviewer.
It would be ignorant, if not callous, to not recognize the Eater reviewer’s point, but to label the film “at worst, propaganda” seems severe. Yes, the film celebrates food — all the cuisines found in Israel. Jewish, Arabic, Turkish, Tunisian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Russian, Polish and so on. Solomonov visits a “pan-Middle Eastern” kitchen (Mizlala in Tel Aviv), an Arabic/Provencal restaurant in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem (Rama’s Kitchen), the seafood restaurant Uri Buri in Western Galilee. He talks to earnest chefs who use the ingredients available right there to them. And after tasting their food, he hugs some of those chefs.
The film takes a fascinating dive into Jewish cuisine, offering an exacting look at the different cooking styles of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Ashkenazi cuisine reflects the cold regions where Ashkenazi Jews settled — Eastern Europe, Germany, Russia — and is known for breads, noodles, pickled fish and potatoes. Sephardic cuisine includes things like hummus, sumac chicken and shakshouka. The home regions of that style of Jewish cooking are the Middle East, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, North Africa. Wonderful differences explained and lauded here.
Despite its flaws, the film’s message that breaking bread with people of different ethnicities and religions can heal is inarguable. Food is something all cultures share. It’s where we can lay down our differences and relate to each other as human beings.
Does the film find that definitive Israeli cuisine named in the title? In the end, it may be more about the journey.
Go See It: In Search of Israeli Cuisine
- Friday, October 6, 8:45 p.m (Fox Bay Cinema Grill)
- Thursday, October 12, 2 p.m. (Downer Theater)