In Search of Israeli Cuisine
(USA, 96 min.)
Dir. Roger Sherman
“What does Israeli cuisine taste like?” asks Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov. The title of this new doc by Roger Sherman is on point as Solomonov returns to the land of his birth in search of Israeli cuisine. The chef acts as our guide throughout the film and he samples a variety of flavours from different regions in an effort to define a national cuisine. The flavour of Israeli cooking isn’t as easy to pin down as the buttery richness of French food, the tomatoey goodness of Italian cooking, or the fatty gluttonousness of American eats, but its indefinable complexity may be its strength. This foodie doc finds a cultural palette that is varied and multifarious as the land that creates it.
Sherman’s no frills doc offers a 96-minute version of the popular reality TV series You Gotta Eat Here with its road trip format that lets Solomonov tour the kitchens of a specific locale. Solomon surveys the mixture of flavours in Israel as he interviews chefs around the country and invites them to impart the inflections that differ from region to region. Some kitchens emphasise olive oil, while others champion goat and another creates a daunting “upside down” dish of rice and chicken that deserves a caveat of “don’t try this at home.”
The interviewees share their dishes with pride and explain how their good grub draws upon the recipes of their mothers and grandmothers. Their stories speak of the servings as plates heaped with cultural history. Every ingredient, to the chefs, belongs to a recipe for their identities as Israelis. Eggplants char and bourekas rise as the film encourages tummies to rumble while the audiences consider the legacies behind the dishes.
Solomonov, an Israeli-born Jew who grew up in America where he became a successful chef, reconnects with his roots during the film’s journey through his homeland. The host shares his own story about his family and explains how the death of his brother a decade ago still haunts him. He tells how his brother’s fate as a soldier who died on Yom Kippur, marks a passage of time for Israel and the conflicts that continue to create serious cultural, religious, and political divides in the nation.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine looks beyond the basic servings of hummus and shish kabob to show that a national palette is more than a handful of identifiable menu items. The film argues that “Israeli food” is not synonymous with “Jewish cooking,” and the doc sees more than one chef emphasize that his or her cooking exceeds the stereotypes of bland traditional foods. However, they also note that the recipes passed between generations are ones based on survival as their grandparents created dishes during the poverty and hardship of post-war life. It might traditionally lack the richness of other cuisines, but, as one chef notes, there’s something humbling about making pastries with butter rather than margarine when one adapts a recipe that survived a long and difficult journey.
The film also shows the complicated relationship between Israeli food and Palestinian food. The designation of “Israeli salad” (like Greek salad without the feta cheese) draws resentment from some interviewees who insist that its true name is “Arab salad.” Likewise, a Palestinian chef alludes to cultural appropriation when his interview with Solomonov becomes a passionate defense of Palestinian food that gives the national cuisine many flavours, yet becomes absorbed within the larger concept of “Israeli” cooking. Sharing a meal is just as much about getting to understand the other party at the table, and Sherman’s film provides some valuable insights into the complexity of a national identity and the fraught politics entailed within the process of sautéing one. Now if only a doc could find higher meaning behind Canada’s cuisine of Tortière, Ketchup chips, and poutine.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, June 16.