IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE (2016) review
written by: Roger Sherman
produced by: Roger Sherman
directed by: Roger Sherman
runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: April 7, 2017 (Music Box Theater, Chicago, IL & Landmark Renaissance, Highland Park, IL)
The last line of my Twitter profile reads “searching for that perfect falafel”, so I come to the new documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” with a certain amount of bias. I could eat falafel, hummus, some Jerusalem salad with a dash of Tabbouli every day and not get bored, but I did wonder how engaged I would be watching an entire film on the subject. The simple answer: thoroughly. Yet my knowledge of Israeli cuisine is clearly limited, since most of the delicacies I just mentioned are considered Middle Eastern or Persian food, so maybe I needed to see this film more than I thought I did.
That’s okay, since director Roger Sherman educates viewers on identifying Israeli cuisine, the history behind it, how it differs in each region of the nation and what the current state of all of it is. He’s assisted by Michael Solomonov – the James Beard award-winning chef and owner of Zahav, a restaurant in Philadelphia – who currently has a New York Times bestseller called Zahav: A World of Israeli Cuisine. Solomonov was raised in the States, then came back and wound up taking up cooking the food he grew up with as well as other Israeli cuisine. Not only is he knowledgeable and passionate about Israeli cuisine, but his curiosity is present throughout the film, making him an ideal, informative and enthusiastic guide as we visit different regions of Israel.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” follows Solomonov back to his homeland, where the chef is surrounded by diverse cultures and dishes, traveling in every direction to discover the true definition of the “Israeli Kitchen.” Such an endeavor doesn’t come easy, since the country today is compiled of at least 100 cultures – Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Druze, French and Moroccan (to name a few) – that have migrated and converged with their own distinctive customs and traditions when it comes to food. Because of that, the documentary is as much a portrait of the Israeli people, the chefs, family cooks, farmers, vintners and cheese makers, as it is a look at the way indigenous food differs throughout the land. We get a well-rounded view of the culture of Israel with this approach, offering a complex and human journey.
As Solomonov samples dishes, the goal of the film becomes problematic, or at least not as straightforward as one might think. That’s because just about everyone he talks to has their own definition of what Israeli cuisine is. Obviously, it’s not just tomatoes, olive oil and hummus, their are influences from nearby countries and it becomes clear that much of the young generation have incorporated them into traditional fare. On the flip side, there’s also a question of who will keep generational recipes in the family as elders pass on, something that almost any family can relate to.
The film’s tour kicks off in Tel Aviv, which Solomonov calls “the New York” of the country and takes us to Mt. Tabor, the Negev Desert and Jerusalem, traveling to the Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian borders. We see how the geography in each area makes a difference in resources and ingredients that make up the food of certain areas. For example, the restaurants in the mountainous areas won’t have the fresh daily seafood options that a coastal restaurant in metropolitan Tel Aviv will have. While in Tel Aviv, Sherman stops to see Solomon recreate bourekas, a pastry his grandmother had made growing up. This brings to mind that food can definitely be more than just delectable and nourishing dishes that please the palette. Preparing and serving flavorful recipes can often commemorate and honor family history.
Sherman employs a cinema vérité approach throughout, recognizable in the many interviews and visits to kitchens, restaurants and marketplaces, in doing so viewers will learn that the complex cuisine that has developed has only been around for the past thirty years. What’s most interesting is what we learn from the different philosophies Solomonov encounters when he interacts with the chefs, restauranteurs and everyone else who are making the food of their surroundings and homeland. There’s Rama Ben Zivi, who trusts in the flavor or local ingredients and wild spices and owns Rama’s Kitchen and shares how he only uses ingredients that grow where he lives, “For example, I love coconut milk, “he states, “but coconut milk doesn’t enter my kitchen because it takes people’s consciousness to the beautiful beaches of Thailand. I want them here in this land with the lamb, the olive oil, basilicum, with tomatoes.”
Another chef who takes a similar approach of only taking what the earth provides them is Husam Abbas, “You don’t create a kitchen from day to day, but from generation to generation, “says the chef and restaurant owner, “Now, creating a kitchen: it’s not my kitchen, nor is it my mother’s. It’s a kitchen created by the earth. Whatever the earth produced, people cooked.” This ‘living off the earth’ mentality is both refreshing and sobering, something that’s unfortunately unheard in the ‘have it your way’ mentality that life in the States is known for, especially in the big cities. It’s good to be reminded that a restaurant, a chef, need not be concerned with serving everything customers want, instead serving what they have.
There are as many documentaries out there on food, chefs and restauranteurs as there are on global warming and environmental awareness, but this is a unique take on the subject matter in that it takes you to the origin of a specific cuisine. And then it what Sherman does is crumble what we think we know about Israeli cuisine and shows us all the complex and intricate factors that make up this specific food. In a surprising turn, he also takes the time to unveil a personal side of our host that allows him a chance to make peace with his brother’s death a decade ago, who was killed while in military service — if anything, this serves as a revealing and relatable moment that we may not have anticipated.
Nevertheless, it serves as a poignant reminder that while we can go about our lives being passionate about something and following that diligently, we’re still affecting by life and death, so why not live life with curiosity, trying to learn how others live and encourage others to do so as well.