One recent Saturday evening, my husband and I found ourselves unencumbered by social obligations, teenager demands or hosting responsibilities and landed at the theatre viewing the documentary film Searching for Israeli Cuisine, featuring Philly’s own Michael Solomonov.
Now, I’m no film critic, and I feel pretentious and awkward remarking on cinematography, but the movie was gorgeous. Food porn in the extreme, with some nice travel porn thrown in for good measure. And then there was the chef, who was charming and funny and the perfect soupcon of self-effacing. But first and foremost, the film told the story of the 100-plus diverse cultures of Israel through food.
Of particular interest was the observation that many Ashkenazi dishes which originated in Eastern Europe did not translate well to what was available in Israel’s early days. The ingredients were not indigenous, so people simply omitted them — which often left the dishes lacking flavor and texture.
This resulted in the dishes earning a reputation for being bland and unappealing; when Solomonov tasted a kugel made by an Israeli Russian chef, it was a completely novel experience. He was staggered by the stuff and planned to add it to his repertoire here.
It was also fascinating to see how local cuisine is defined in a country the size of New Jersey. One chef, who owns a restaurant in the mountains, initially refused to serve saltwater fish because it was sourced a whopping 45 minutes away. She has since relaxed her strictures and allows fish on the menu.
Others interviewed include a vintner who produces kosher wine, a farmer who uses innovative irrigation techniques (growing a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in a desert climate requires some creativity) and numerous home cooks and professionals alike. The number of varied cultures — Moroccan, Romanian, Palestinian, Yemeni, Italian, French, Palestinian, Arab, Persian and Polish, to name but a few — give a taste (sorry) of the culinary revolution that has taken place in Israel over the last three decades.
If you see the film, be sure to have a reservation for dinner afterward; I promise you will be hungry. We went to Cedars, and enjoyed a Middle Eastern feast. A perfect end to a lovely evening.