If you think asking “Who is a Jew?” sparks debate, try getting in the middle of the “What is Israeli cuisine?” pie fight. As the film “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” lays it out, there may be no clear answer, but the question leads to delicious possibilities.
The 2015 documentary stars Michael Solomonov, award-winning executive chef of Zahav, a Philadelphia restaurant with an Israeli-inspired menu. In the film, Solomonov traverses his native Israel, meeting with chefs of all stripes — Jewish, Arab, Sephardic, Ashkenazi — to divine the truth about the country’s culinary style.
The result is more than an hour and a half of travelogue, culinary history and food porn extraordinaire.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will screen “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” at four theaters, starting July 23 at the Castro Theatre. Solomonov and director Roger Sherman will speak after that screening, which will be followed by a dinner at Aatxe, a nearby restaurant. Tickets for the “Film and Feast” are $90 for Jewish Film Institute members, $100 for others.
The film’s opening sequence shows Solomonov dining in an Israeli café, digging into 17 small-plate salads, with recipes hailing from Yemen, Turkey, Iran, Morocco and several other ports of call. That sets the tone for the film’s main theme: the diversity of Israeli cuisine, which stems from Jewish communities across the globe.
Several chefs interviewed credit their grandmother as a chief inspiration for the way they cook today. Chef Ezra Kedem, from the restaurant Arcadia in Jerusalem, tells Solomonov at one point, “I cook my memories. That’s the way to create a local language.”
Then, on camera, Kedem prepares an eggplant carpaccio. In fact, there’s a lot of cooking in the film, from a Moroccan couscous to sumac-spiced medallions of grilled lamb, served with creamy sweet potato and steamed daikon. Usually after Solomonov tastes the dishes, he gives the chef a hug.
Like chefs around the world these days, Israeli chefs seem in accord on using fresh, local ingredients indigenous to the region. That means using plenty of olive oil, lemon, cave-aged goat cheese and Middle Eastern herbs.
Uri Jeremias, who runs Uri Buri restaurant in the seaside town of Akko, specializes in seafood. On a jaunt to the local market, he guides Solomonov in sampling raw fish. “Israel has 107 different representative countries,” Jeremias says, “and all have had influence” on the cuisine.
Using archival footage, Sherman shows how Israelis in the ’50s and ’60s were too busy building their state to fret over haute cuisine. But eventually, with the country’s prosperity came a newfound appreciation for good food.
The film touches on the sensitive subject of culinary appropriation. Many Palestinians accuse Israeli Jews of stealing their dishes, most notably hummus. As the film notes, cross-cultural blending of cuisines is found all over the world.
“Food is not political,” says Jewish Israeli bread maker Erez Komarovsky, who lives near the Lebanese border. “It is what is grown on the land by people living here. Call them Israeli or Palestinian, I don’t care.”
The film explores the giddy days of the Oslo accords, when Israelis and Palestinians dared to meet each other and sample each other’s foods. As chef Hussam Abbas tells Solomonov from his El-Babor restaurant in the Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, “Food makes peace.”
The film takes a solemn turn when Solomonov visits the site where his brother died near the Lebanese border. An Israel Defense Forces soldier, David Solomonov was killed by a sniper in 2003, a tragedy that inspired Michael, who was cooking in an Italian restaurant in New York at the time, to turn his culinary talents toward Israeli food.
In the film, Solomonov talks to chefs who not only work with Middle Eastern ingredients but who seek to update older Ashkenazi traditions. Watching one chef “reinvent” kugel, Solomonov says “boiling noodles in milk for 40 minutes made me want to leave.” But the final product he pronounced spectacular.
The film meanders a bit, exploring Israel’s wine industry in the Golan, and the remarkable agricultural innovations taking place in the bone-dry Negev Desert. Though interesting, these sequences slow things down. The film is at its best when focusing on chefs and their sleight of hand in the kitchen.
Does Solomonov ever answer his own question? Not exactly. Israeli TV chef Gil Hovav says Israeli cuisine is “a nonexistent idea” because the country is too young to have developed its own style yet. Another chef says there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine, but that it is, at best, “a precocious baby cuisine.”
Two Jewish chefs, three opinions.
But while the search leaves an all-encompassing definition of “Israeli cuisine” hanging out there like a pretty big matzah ball (apologies to “Seinfeld”), Solomonov at least has fun along the way — scarfing down all the tasty bites that Israel’s master chefs whip up for him.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” 3:50 p.m. July 23 at Castro Theatre, S.F.; 2:15 p.m. July 24 at CineArts, Palo Alto; 12 p.m. July 30 at Roda Theatre, Berkeley; 4:20 p.m. Aug. 5 at Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles. (Rated G, 97 minutes)