The Cultural Anthropology of Food

Documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” charts a new course around Israel

Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal, August 2016 issue

By Natalie Jacobs

When you watch “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” you will think the documentary came about when chef Michael Solomonov decided to go on a journey through the homeland to add new dimension to his Philadelphia-based Israeli restaurant. You would be forgiven for thinking that, as the film follows Solomonov up and down Israel, through home kitchens and hot restaurants, as he shares personal stories about his own Jewish family’s relationship with Israel (he was born there, and his brother died there), not to mention the food he tries along the way. Although Solomonov is the film’s guide and the audience’s taste buds, the film came about when writer/director Roger Sherman took his first trip to Israel six years ago. It was on a press tour of Israeli food with his friend Joan Nathan “the doyen of Jewish cookbooks in America.”

“I could not have cared less about visiting Israel,” says Sherman, a food photographer and documentary filmmaker who won a 2013 James Beard Award for his film “The Restaurateur.” “It wasn’t on my top 10 list, it wasn’t on my top 20 list. I wanted to go to Paris. Literally, I never even considered going to Israel.”

Israel research trip, most photos by Dorothy Kalins

The very idea of a food tour of Israel is a curious one. The country, of course, is very young and as the film points out, it was very poor up until the 1980s. Citizens of poor countries don’t have time for food trends or modern revivals of classic recipes from grandmother’s kitchen. Life in a third world country is about survival, which has always been especially difficult in Israel. When the affluence of the ’80s afforded people travel and leisure, they brought back new understanding of different cultures to Israel. Couple that with the already transient nature of Israel’s population, and a multi-cultural food scene has been bubbling up for the past 30 years. Today, it’s boiling over.

“Some say [there are] 150 food traditions [in Israel],” Sherman paraphrases from the film. “Many of them coming from other places, but some have never left. When they’re talking about food traditions, they’re not saying food from 150 countries, they’re saying the Jewish food of Tripoli is different from the Jewish food in the countryside of Libya. And Libya is a giant country, so how many different traditions of Jewish food came to Israel from Libya?”

The central quest of the documentary, as the name suggests, is to define Israeli cuisine. Throughout the film, journalists, chefs, and otherwise food-lovers weigh in on this question. Some believe that Israeli cuisine is anything made in Israel. Others say the country’s newness makes it impossible for Israel to have a cuisine. Yet another points out that there is still debate over what can be considered American cuisine, so there’s no hope in answering the Israeli question anytime soon. But Solomonov and Sherman attempt at it anyway. What they end up with is a patchwork of kitchen table conversations and a brief cultural history of not only the 65-year-old nation but also its neighbors.

A handful of the chefs interviewed in the film make the point that Israeli food is Palestinian food. Others refuse the labels altogether. Husam Abbas, the owner and head chef of El Babour in the Arab town of Umm el Fahm says he’s been making the food that’s been native to the land for generations. When Solomon asks how he’d call it – Israeli or Palestinian – Abbas is quick to say “this is Palestinian food. It goes back hundreds of years.” They’re talking over preparation of his famous kibbe, made with ground lamb skewered on cinnamon sticks, grilled over charcoal and then baked under a laffa shell.

On a hilltop in Jerusalem, Jewish chef Ezra Kedem discusses his Iraqi/Sryian heritage with gruff matter-of-factness. When Solomonov poses the Israeli/Palestinian food question to him as they prepare a jalapeno-rich batch of shakshuka, Kedem is quick to say food is not political. (Continued on pg. 42.)

Shay Seltzer, goat farmer, master cheese maker near Jerusalem

While it’s tough to watch a nearly two-hour long film about food (because food is obviously better when you can taste it), and some of it does start to look the same (they really love their tomatoes over there), what is remarkable about “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is the sheer volume of cultures it explores. On the Jewish side, the film touches on the clashes between Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines and it turns out there is a revival of traditional Ashkenazi fair that was once considered bland and boring by most. There’s the kosher vs. non-kosher sectors of Israel, and a look at the Shabbat traditions of secular and religious Jews in the Jewish state. There are the fishermen and women who’ve thrived in Akko and the Kinneret for decades, and the young journalist who recreates her grandmother’s Turkish specialties in her home kitchen.

Many of the successful restaurant chefs were trained in France and Italy, and back in Israel they use the techniques they studied to create surprising food fusions using ingredients hyper-local to Israel. Then there’s the cheese maker who ages his creations in an ancient cave, the bread baker who defined Israeli bread from a few miles off the Lebanon border, and the produce farm situated a stone’s throw from Egypt.

Exploring Israel through food, whether or not it can be said that Israel yet has its own cuisine, is a fascinating and new journey around the complex country. If someone went around the United States in a similar way, though it would take much longer, it’s likely the same kinds of stories would come up. In fact, Roger Sherman tried to make a film about the U.S.’s own food revolution and the people who were influential in creating nouveau American cuisine in the 1970s, but, he says, he couldn’t get funding. With “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” Sherman may have created the template for a new kind of cultural anthropological documentary.

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival will show “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” at its Festival Kickoff event on Sunday, Aug. 21 at 5 p.m. in the Garfield Theatre at the JCC. For tickets and information, visit sdjff.org.

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