In the early-70’s, I spent over three months on a kibbutz in the Negev. It was an amazing experience in many ways, but the food was not among the highlights. Breakfasts consisted of “Israeli salad,” yogurts, bread, tea, and something we called, “chocy sauce,” a pre-curser to Nutella. Dinners were a monotonous and not very adventurous boiled chicken.
In the Kitchen
So when I heard that there was a new film about Israeli food, I was intrigued. What could a 94-minute documentary possibly have to say about a cuisine of almost no note? To my surprise, the answer is “a lot.” In the skilled hands of director Roger Sherman and the warm embrace of chef and James Beard Award-Winner Michael Solomonov, also the on-camera host, the film opened up a whole new culinary world to me. And it went well beyond just humus and falafel.
In the Tomato Field
Traveling up and down this tiny [the size of New Jersey] but incredibly diverse country, viewers are introduced to Israel’s history, culture, and religions. Michael meets chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, winemakers, and journalists and delves deep into the origins of the foods they grow and cook, their families, and the immigrant experience. And what an experience it is. This “new” cuisine draws from thousands of years of history and over 150 different countries and cultures including Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. All of them celebrate the bounty and abundance of the local products around them. As one chef says, “It’s the flavor of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.”
With the Cheesemaker
The film is also a heartfelt reminder of Solomonov’s own heritage. He was born in Israel but grew up in Pittsburgh eating his Romanian grandmother’s cheese and potato “borekas,” a dish he recreates on camera. During the production, he also visits the place where his brother was killed during the Yom Kippur fighting in 2003. That history led Michael to re-examine his own Israeli/Sephardic roots; and ultimately to open his restaurant, Zahav, which means “gold” in Hebrew.
Fishing in the Galilee
From a filmmaking standpoint, this doc is a lovely little gem. The pacing and editing is spot on; the chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs are passionate and articulate; and the scenes of the landscapes are stunning. Kudos also to the light, atmospheric touch of the music created by Amit Gur and Moshe Da’aboul.
So what is Israeli Cuisine? Like any good recipe or great dish, it is a subtle and ever-changing mosaic of rich and colorful flavors; full of history and personal stories; and all of it touched with love.
Top: Michael with spices
All photo credits: Florentine Films