Ezra Kedem’s kitchen smells of citrus and smoke. In front of him is a charred eggplant and a paring knife that he uses to scrape off the inky, blistered peel, revealing silken flesh. Arranging it elegantly on a plate with lavish glugs of olive oil, tahini, and yogurt, slippery tomato seeds, and a potent splash of lemon juice, he pauses. “So that is eggplant carpaccio,” he explains to his guest. “But if you take a fork and smash it, at the end of the day, it’s the eggplant salad of my mother.”
Kedem is the owner of Arcadia, a celebrated Jerusalem restaurant he opened in 1995. His kitchen companion, Michael Solomonov, is an equally renowned American chef. (Zahav, Solomonov’s modern-Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, earned him a James Beard Award.) He’s in Kedem’s kitchen in the name of tasty research, as a kind of host of the documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, which is screening at festivals now and will have its theatrical release this fall.
Director Roger Sherman was inspired to make the film after his friend, revered Jewish food writer Joan Nathan, invited him to join a culinary tour of the country. “Before that, it was not on my top-10 list or even top 20,” Sherman says. “But I was completely knocked out to learn that Israel has one of the most dynamic food scenes in the world.” He brought Solomonov on as both a guide and adventurer in chief. His mission: Find out whether a country as young as Israel can claim its own cuisine. And if so, what is it?
What’s clear from the first frame is that the food being cooked and shared across Israel today is vibrant and evolving. Traveling the 290-mile length of the country over three weeks of filming, Solomonov encounters a cheese maker who ages his cheeses in caves thousands of years old. He joins Tomer Niv, executive chef of Rama’s Kitchen, near Jerusalem, in foraging for wild sumac. Back at the stove, they rub the lemony herb onto lamb, douse it with olive oil, and grill it, slicing off blushing medallions of meat.
These food scenes are new for Israel. For the first 40 years of the country’s existence, the economy was unstable. Families—most of them new immigrants from places as far-flung as Hungary, Morocco, Lithuania, and Yemen—struggled. Things began to change in the 1980s, when the country experienced an economic boom that allowed many Israelis to move beyond a subsistence lifestyle. Over the past decade, this transformation has sped up, thanks to creative chefs and food producers who have begun to explore their ancestors’ diverse cuisines while embracing the region’s ingredients, from pomegranate molasses to sheep’s-milk labneh.
Solomonov is the ideal fanboy. His cooking is inspired by Israel (he was born there but raised in Pittsburgh), and one of his earliest food memories is of his Bulgarian Israeli grandmother rolling out boureka dough. The film feels like a homecoming and culinary odyssey.
Solomonov faced personal tragedy when, in 2003, his brother was killed while serving in the Israeli army. The memory is a reminder that, no matter how much innovation comes out of the Israeli kitchen, politics and conflict are never far from the table. The film covers these subjects with nuance and equanimity, sharing perspectives of Israeli and Arab chefs. (Among them is Hussam Abbas, the Palestinian chef and owner of northern Israel’s El Babor, whose lamb kebab leaves Solomonov speechless.)
Near the end of In Search of Israeli Cuisine, it becomes clear that the film will offer no definitive conclusions. Whether a 68-year-old country can have a definable cuisine is beside the point. Israeli food today is about memories and family, and embracing the here and now. No matter what you call it, that is bound to be delicious.
Photo: Courtesy Zahav