What is Israeli Cuisine? A New Documentary Asks—and Answers

Director Roger Sherman enjoying humus and Israeli salads.

Last December as Roger Sherman’s documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine was shown at the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival in Sag Harbor, the audience was attentive but quiet. Then again, it was just after lunch. Not so last week at Lincoln Plaza in Manhattan where moans and sighs could be heard throughout the evening. Watch this film on an empty stomach at your own peril!

Guided by Michael Solomonov, the award-winning Israeli-born chef, whose restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia brought Israeli cuisine to the American palate, the film takes us on a quest. What is Israeli cuisine? Is there such a thing? What are the main ingredients? Who cooks it and how?

It’s fair to say that the opinions, as in many Jewish debates, outnumber the cooks. When it comes to Israel, nothing it seems, is simple.

Oh, Solomonov tries!

Husam Abbas, chef/owner El Babour in Umm al-Fahm and Akko.

“I just want something small,” he asks, seated at the counter of Busi Misedet Grill in Yaffo in one of the opening scenes. Soon, there are 17 different salads in front of him.

“Carrots! Hummus! Beets! Eggplants! Morocco! Iraq! Turkey! Poland! Russia!” he says, tearing out the steamy Laffa (made at the bakery next door), a chewy Iraqi-style flatbread four times the size of his head. “How many countries are represented in one dish?”

So is there an Israeli cuisine? Of course, say many of the Israeli chefs who in the last ten years dug out and updated the cuisine of their immigrant families, adding local ingredients and using modern techniques.

“When I talk to people outside of Israel about Israeli cuisine,” says chef and journalist Ruthie Rousso, “they tend to laugh.”

A traditional beets dish.

That reaction is exactly what prompted Sherman to make the film. “I wasn’t into Israel but a friend insisted I go and I was knocked out by what I saw and ate there. When I came back and told people about what I discovered , they laughed. I knew I had to make a film.”

Farmer and journalist Hedai Offaim is adamant, “Yes, there is an Israeli cuisine,” he says. “Complex and diverse, that’s why it’s difficult to define.”

“Israeli cuisine is a non-existent idea,” proclaims publisher and writer Gil Hovav. “We’re too young to have our own cuisine.” And so it goes.

Away from the argument, Solomonov savors Turkish stuffed eggplant in a home kitchen; he sucks on blue crab with Chef Uri Jeremias at the market in Akko, an Arab town on the Mediterranean; and he tears chunks of grilled lamb marinated in the herbs he foraged earlier in the hills behind what was Rama’s Kitchen near Jerusalem (the restaurant was engulfed in a fire and destroyed this past winter).

Said owner Rama Ben Zvi, who for years didn’t serve fish because the fishmongers were in Tel Aviv, an hour-drive and thus not local enough, “Ten years ago, I realized that, food-wise, the language we were conversing in, without even thinking about it, was part of a bigger thing. Israeli cuisine was born.”

Ruthie Rousso, journalist, chef, and cookbook writer.

With food as its thread, the film traces a brief history of the country and follows the evolution of the first immigrants, quick to shed anything that speaks of the past, to the new Israeli identity of the 60’s and 70’s, to the current time when grandma’s specials are no longer considered shameful but a celebration of one’s identity.

Sherman also paints the story of Solomonov’s younger brother, killed at 21 during his military service, one of the reasons why the chef moved from French haute to Israeli cuisine. “Attaching myself more to the country and the culture have kept me going,” he says.

Some of the most touching scenes involve a young Israeli/Palestinian couple who merged backgrounds and lives, and run Majda, a delightful restaurant in a small Muslim village. “People ask me,” said Chef Michal Baranes, “‘Is this an Arab restaurant?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s roll, ok?’”  She explains that the food is “her:” her Jewish background, her mother’s Moroccan roots and the dishes her Arab partner’s mother makes.

Chef Tomer Niv and Ben Tzvi of Rama’s kitchen, foraging for the restaurant.

“This food is Palestinian, the recipes are hundred of years old,” said chef and owner Husam Abbas from the kitchen of his restaurant El Babor, his hands deep in the ground lamb, herbs and onions he will wrap around cinnamon sticks. “Food makes peace,” he adds.

“This echoes the sentiment of every chef I met in Israel,” concludes Sherman.

From Ashkenazi to Sephardi, from hip Tel Aviv to religious Jerusalem, from Kosher steak to baked shrimp and Palestinian specialties, the film paints a rich ever changing landscape. One that leaves us hopeful, and hungry.

For a complete list of screenings, please visit the film’s website.