In the opening moments of his movie-star debut, Zahav chef Michael Solomonov strides into a Yemenite grill in Tel Aviv, orders a snack in Hebrew, and launches into a whirlwind culinary tour of the 17 little dishes laid on the counter before him, pointing to each colorful salad and naming its origin: "Yemenite, Palestinian, Iraq, Moroccan ... Russian, carrots are from Europe ... this I don't even know," he says of one mystery dish, with a pause before rolling on to one of this movie's driving themes: "How many countries are represented in one place?"
A stunning diversity of flavors and people have converged in the global stew that is Israel, with about 150 cultures represented in a country the size of New Jersey, a sun-drenched landscape that ranges through mountains, sea, and desert. The country represents a gorgeous feast of source material for filmmaker Roger Sherman's evocative documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine.
It will make you hungry as Solomonov leads the way, foraging wild sumac for grilled local lamb in the scrubby hills of Nataf near Jerusalem, devouring raw sailor crab and shrimp from a market stall in the seaside town of Akko, visiting Palestinian kebab houses, home kitchens for Ashkenazi kugel, and the stylish restaurants of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, where ambitious young chefs (not unlike Solomonov) are pioneering a modern identity for Israel's cooking.
But it's really that undefinable sense of "I don't know" that shapes the film's central quest. "What is Israeli cuisine?" is asked over and over again. Can a country that's just 69 years old and woven from such a colorful diaspora of disparate and often tangled threads even be defined? Experts disagree.
"Israeli cuisine is a nonexistent idea. We're too young to have our own cuisine," says journalist Gil Hovav, whose great-grandfather Eliezer Ben-Yehuda helped revive Hebrew in the late 19th century, ultimately giving Israel a common language, at least.
"It's perhaps a nascent cuisine, a baby cuisine -- but a very precocious baby," says author Janna Gur. It's "a combination of what we have here, of local terroir, of Palestinian cooking, and of our immigrant baggage, which we brought from our grandparents."
The movie deftly explores the unique forces that have shaped this culinary landscape, from the ebb and flow of political tensions between Arabs and Jews to the competing tensions between Jews themselves who arrived with varied traditions from different corners of the world to the psyche of first-generation immigrants wanting to leave a persecuted history behind. An artisan-food awakening that truly blossomed in the 1990s, much as in America, has given Israel the sophistication and resources to now become something thrillingly distinct.
The movie drifts and rambles through its second half, focusing more on the growing array of artisan Israeli products, from olive oil to wine and sugar-sweet tomatoes, and making me wonder whether this would have been more compelling as a TV series of shorter episodes. But Sherman could not have found a better guide than the magnetic Solomonov, who was born in Israel, raised in Pittsburgh, then shot to culinary stardom in Philadelphia at Zahav, where he and partner Steven Cook transformed the image of Israeli cooking for a suddenly hummus-obsessed American audience.
Israel remains the power source of Solomonov's true inspiration. It's where his grandmother's burekas gave his troubled youth some meaningful direction. It's also where his brother, an Israeli soldier, was tragically shot by a sniper on the Lebanese border a decade ago, an event that spurred him to grasp his own culinary identity. That personal history -- and a family visit to the orchard where his brother was killed -- lend an undercurrent of poignancy and empathy to Solomonov's journey from kitchen to kitchen as he tastes an array of charred eggplants, spicy shakshuka stew, fragrant maqluba rice, and steaming kebabs that inevitably end with a fist bump or bro hug to thank his hosts.
The film is at its best when tackling the often uncomfortable discussion of what Israelis have learned, borrowed, and absorbed from the Arab cuisines that existed there before creation of the state. Husam Abbas, the Palestinian chef and owner of El Babor in the Arab-Israeli town of Umm el Fahm, expresses exasperation at the dismissive attitudes he has faced from Jews. And he poses the ultimate challenge: "Where is the kitchen that you call the Israeli kitchen? Where is it? ... Come! Let's join hands and work together."
As though on cue, Solomonov takes a bite of El Babor's signature kebab pot pie, closes his eyes for a moment, silently nods, and moans with delight. And then he suddenly wraps Abbas in a brotherly embrace. The look of genuine surprise and emotion on Abbas' face is priceless.