Michael Solomonov walks into an unassuming storefront of a restaurant in Tel Aviv and approaches the counter.
“I want to eat something grilled, something special,” he tells the cook in Hebrew.
“Do you want me to set a table for you?”
“I don’t need a table, just laffa or something.”
He’s been here before and he knows the drill. “I said, you know, I just wanted something really, really small to eat, and this is what you get. You get seventeen salads plus hummus.”
The restaurant is a Yemenite grill, and Solomonov walks through the small square plates containing salads inspired by cultures all over Europe—Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Russia, Turkey, and beyond. The spread sets the stage for a film that weaves a culinary thread through a culturally dense country with a deeply complicated history.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine is more than an exploration of the food of Israel, it also presents the question of what defines Israeli cuisine—and if it actually exists in the first place.
While the question of whether or not Israel has their own cuisine may be a surprising debate for Westerners, the reasons become crystal clear as Solomonov and various journalists guide viewers through the rich history, conflict, and turmoil of the young country.
The film is also a homecoming for Solomonov who was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh until he was about 15. After moving back and forth between The States and Israel and failing college, he returned to Israel and got a job cooking at the grill. After returning to The States to attend culinary school, he began cooking in Philly. Israeli influences didn’t really enter his kitchen until about ten years ago when his younger brother David was killed defending the Lebanese border. The loss drew Solomonov closer to his roots, and the flavors of Israel began to overtake his cooking. Five years later, Zahav was born.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine paints a picture of a diverse country that contains multitudes. Secular, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv is bursting with upscale dining establishments, hip bars, and youth. Jerusalem, once solely known for its holy sites, is now home to Assif Granit’s MachneYuda, a hip bistro in the heart of the historic Mahane Yehuda Market. From an open-air restaurant on a Nataf hillside with dirt floors and immaculate plating, to eating raw anchovies with salt by the sea in Akko, to Shabbat dinner in a Jewish home, the film beautifully displays Israel’s undeniable vibrance.
The film celebrates the complex mixing of culture in Israel through food with a backdrop of the country’s ebb and flow of political tension while remaining unbiased. The film isn’t about the conflict in Israel, but it also acknowledges that it’s impossible to explore the country’s culture without also delving into politics. The economic boom of the 70’s impacted the way Israeli’s ate because people could indulge in food for the first time. The Israel peace process has impacted restauranteurs because their clientele changes when tensions are high. Politics and food culture go hand in hand here.
Traveling with Solomonov as he eats his way through Israel is incredibly satisfying to watch. His appreciation of the food and genuine jubilation about what he’s tasting is infectious—more than once he responds to a bite by wordlessly hugging the chef with a completely blissed-out look on his face.
I had high hopes for In Search of Israeli Cuisine, and it exceeded my expectations. It presents food culture in a way that allows the viewer to appreciate it from at every level—aesthetics, quality, flavor, but with the all-important backdrop of Israel’s complex history. The fact that Israel is a cultural melting pot is beautiful, but it is not without complication. The film celebrates a rainbow of culture amidst conflict in an attempt to use food as a way of closing the divide, posing a hopeful future in a troubled place.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine opens at the Ritz Five this Friday.