Dir. Roger Sherman, USA, 2016
In case you didn’t know, the food in Israel can be good, very good. In Search of Israeli Cuisine, directed by Roger Sherman, takes you from table to table and kitchen to kitchen in Israel and the West Bank. The mission is to determine whether there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine. Before it gets anywhere close to that question, it will make you hungry.
I envy anyone who has an excuse to be paid to make a film about food. But as to whether there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine – I think they mean Israeli food – I think of Duke Ellington’s view on music. If it sounds good, Ellington said, it is good, whatever you call it.
In case you haven’t already guessed, the obvious answer is, “who cares if it’s really Israeli cuisine, as long as it tastes good?”
Roger Sherman’s doc eats its way through Israel and the Occupied West Bank with the chef Michael Solomonov, who had an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia at the time. Now he has an additional Israeli stand, Dizengoff, selling hummus at Chelsea Market in New York. He loves Israel almost as much as he loves food, maybe more. As earnest as the film may be much of the time, you get the sense that there must be an Israeli cuisine. Isn’t that what Solomonov is serving to his customers
But is it really Israeli, and not just an agglomeration or melting pot of immigrant traditions and Palestinian food, which is itself a mix of Turkish and Arab flavors, with some hints of Armenian and Greek thrown in?
Here comes the pretext for a whirlwind history, from the age-old spices to recipes arriving by ship with starving refugees. A food tradition from starving survivors. How’s that for a paradox?
We are reminded that Israelis were too poor for decades to go to restaurants, that kibbutz culture was austere (but the food was fresh at least), and that Ashkenazy hegemony meant that the strong seasonings and non-European flavors of North Africa and the Middle East were viewed disparagingly. Arab food faced the same derision. Maybe that’s why Sherman doesn’t notice that schnitzel is served almost everywhere in Tel Aviv, with mashed potatoes, even in the summer.
Attitudes evolved gradually, which is the subject of this doc, in which cooks take you into the kitchen to sample their cooking, much of which came from someone’s grandmother, as so much good food does.
Israelis who once were ashamed of those “Oriental” foods now make those dishes and teach other to make them with pride. Solomonov certainly doesn’t mind sampling them. Nor would you.
Let’s be clear. There was certainly food in Palestine before it became Israel. Palestinians remind you of this as they cook for Solomonov, with ingredients that are new to Israeli cooks who seem to be discovering them for the first time. But it’s also true that some Israelis, along with Arabs and Druze, have turned that food into a restaurant culture that never existed before. I need only think of the Druze restaurant owner in Haifa who asked me to wrote about his place on Trip Adviser.
But beware. If you visit Israeli today, you’ll encounter a parallel fusion of consumerized food – from mediocre brew pubs, to awful Asian restaurants and to bad versions of every cuisine that crosses borders. As always, there’s more than one truth about Israel. Use this film as a guide, and you’ll have a head start. Just ignore the proprietary attitude that so many Israelis have about hummus.
And now the question is – why is the food on El Al so bad, and why are the portions so small?
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