Israeli cuisine is a kaleidoscopic amalgam of tastes, flavors and aromas from every conceivable corner of the globe, matching the national origins of its diverse Jewish, Muslim and Christian population.
The typical Israeli, if there is such a person, will most probably like a Polish-style kugel — a baked noodle pudding — as much as a plate of humous, a Middle Eastern dip made of mashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice.
Michael Solomonov, an Israeli-born chef, restaurateur and author who divides his time between Israel and the United States, discovered the complexity of Israel’s food scene during an intensive tour of the country to gather material for In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a film by Roger Sherman now available on the Netflix streaming network.
Solmonov is a fine guide. He’s knowledgeable, curious and unobtrusive. His aim is to enlighten, not to blow his own horn, the modus operandi of far too many personalities in the food business.
Solmonov takes us around Israel to showcase its astonishing range of food, but he makes it clear at the very outset that, as far as he’s concerned, Tel Aviv is the centre of its gastronomic scene. “It’s a place where chefs want to be,” he says.
But as he adds later on, the celebration of food in Israel did not really begin until the late 1980s, when it adopted a free-market economy and young chefs who had gone abroad to master their craft returned to their homeland and opened a slew of restaurants.
As Solomonov wanders around Israel, he pauses here and there to soak up the atmosphere.
He talks to celebrity chef Haim Cohen and tours a fruit and vegetable market in Tel Aviv. He accompanies a chef foraging for sumac — a herb that lends itself perfectly to Middle Eastern dishes — in the hills of Jerusalem. He talks to the proprietor of a seafood restaurant in Akko (Acre) and samples raw crab and shrimp at a nearby fish market. He converses with Ezra Kedem, a chef in Ein Kerem who started cooking at the age of 12. He speaks to Abigail Aharon, whose fish restaurant in Tiberias faces the Sea of Galilee. He watches Hussam Abbas whip up a batch of kebobs in Um Al Fahm, an Israeli Arab town bordering the West Bank.
As he continues his journey of discovery, Solomonov learns from journalist Ronit Vered that Israeli cuisine is often inspired by Palestinian and Arab fare. No where better is this illustrated than in Ein Rafaq, a village near Jerusalem where a married Jewish-Arab couple runs a restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern fare.
In western Jerusalem, Solomonov is pleasantly surprised after biting into a kosher kugel. “It blew me away,” he exults, in one of his most demonstrative moments.
Travelling southward into the Negev desert, he meets Anan Seaon, a farmer in the village of Kadesh Barnea who grows the sweetest cherry tomatoes. Near Jerusalem, he samples the artisanal cheeses of Shai Seltzer before dropping in at a Druze olive orchard in the Galilee. From there, he visits one of Israel’s 300-plus wineries and an Arab bakery in Nazareth.
Having completed his culinary trip, Solomonov pronounces his verdict: he’s in awe of Israeli cuisine, which, as I can attest from personal experience, is remarkable.