Chef Michael Solomonov was already making a name for himself in Philadelphia when his brother, David, was killed in an Israeli military operation in October of 2003. In the wake of his brother's loss, Michael decided to change his culinary focus to Israeli and Jewish cuisine. But what, it's natural to ask, does that even mean? One answer might be a visit to his flagship restaurant, Zahav, but if you don't live between DC and New York there's another option. Along with documentarian Roger Sherman, Michael heads back to the Holy Land In Search of Israeli Cuisine.
In part, the question is a difficult one because despite its existence at the confluence of some of the world's most ancient cultures, the modern state of Israel is among the youngest nations in the world. Even then, it has only embraced its cooking culture within the last thirty years. Is there even such a thing as "Israeli cuisine" that has come together in such a short time?
There are, at least, a number of different cuisines coexisting in Israel. Of course, many of them are related to the predominantly Jewish population. The traditions of the local Sabra and those of the returning diaspora populations are well-represented. But even among these, there is a stunning diversity. The Ashkenazim bring back those dishes from central and eastern Europe that can be made with local Middle-Eastern ingredients, while the Sephardim bring a whole range of foods from the Iberian peninsula and across North Africa, many of which blend over with the local Hamitic and Semitic cultures along the way.
And then there are the influences from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze minority groups. It takes a while to get around to the Palestinians, and early on there are a number of disparaging comments from some of the chefs and shopkeepers Michael interviews, insisting that no, Palestinian food isn't really that big a deal anyway, that he lets go unchallenged. But in time he does make sure to visit the Territories and sample their own distinct flavors.
One of the most striking commonalities is the way "locally-produced" takes on a whole new meaning in a country that's only about 250 miles long and between 10 and 70 miles wide. It's a region that would fit comfortably within most American restaurants' definitions of the term, and in Israel it can sometimes mean only farms the chef can walk to from her kitchen. But even within this small area is a remarkable array of climates, from the warm Mediterranean and coastal north to the central mountains to the Negev desert in the south. Each one offers its own particular influence on the local cuisine.
Lest I come off like a press release from the local tourism board, I should say here that that's kind of what In Search of Israeli Cuisine becomes, both for Israel itself and for Michael's restaurants in Philadelphia. It's pleasant enough, and the food looks great, it would fit in better on the Food Network or breaking up a Sunday afternoon block of cooking and tourism shows on your local PBS station. There's little need to pay multiplex prices for this one. And, if you're really interested in learning about Israeli cuisine you'd be better served by working your way through Yottam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem.
Rating: 3 out of 5