Israeli-American restaurateur Michael Solomonov walks into a Yemenite restaurant in Tel Aviv, pointing at his food and calls out different countries’ names. Yemenite, Palestinian, etc. The United Nations is basically in front of him. He is doing this as respectful as possible, of course. But it also invites us to ask a question that’s dear to him and to the film’s writer-drector Roger Sherman. And that question is what is Israeli food? That question applies to cultures as diasporic and diverse as Israel’s.
Sherman’s In Search of Israeli Cuisine is more television than it is cinema. It shows Solomonov walking to places and trying dishes that are within the Israeli cuisine pantheon. It shows the people in the kitchen, who is sometimes Solomonov himself. And with these chefs come the ingredients they use, some of the chefs being secular people who bend kosher rules. Talking heads also prominently figure into the film. That gives it some humour since we see people disagreeing with each other.
With food comes a people’s culture and this film is a window to that. Some of the Israeli chefs mention French cuisine. It’s indicative of perceptions of European culture. It’s both part of their history and something foreign to them as an aspirational model is hard to unlearn. But this generation of chefs are doing their best to unlearn that and mostly succeeding. These chefs pride themselves in using local materials and there’s an inevitable cultural twist that happens when they do that.
The film tracks what Israeli citizens learn and how they think when it comes to food. There’s a seismic shift in the country’s cultural consciousness that started in the 1980’s. Israel turned from a guilt-driven culture to one that enjoys life, specifically its own cuisine. There’s some soul searching within that. Chefs and consumers going within and closer to its borders to figure out what that cuisine is. And that search goes within the Middle Eastern world.
Some of the chefs frame the formation and evolution of Israeli cuisine as learning from their Christian and Arab neighbours. This means that the film does touch on the failed peace talks in the 90s. The Palestinian issue comes up once in a while. Sadly, it’s more of a topic of a discussion as opposed to something that the film more prominently represents. But despite of its shortcoming its still a film that whets the appetite.