Roberta Levine on April 27, 2016
We’re all proud (and sometimes surprised) that Pittsburgh has been anointed a culinary capital, but a recent JFilm presentation of the film In Search of Israeli Cuisine, hosted by once Pittsburgher Michael Solomonov, reminded me that the ‘Burgh may not be at the very epicenter of the food universe.
Israel may well be. Solomonov, now a famous Philadelphia restaurateur (Zahav, Federal Donuts, Percy Street Barbecue), leads us to eateries all over Israel, where the mix of cultures has combined with an almost hyper awareness of the native fruits of the land (one restaurateur was hesitant to travel 45 minutes to Tel Aviv for fish because that was not local enough!) to create a critical mass of incredible cooking.
In the film, Solomonov feasts his way around the tiny nation, tasting cheeses aged in caves circulated with centuries old bacteria, and observing (and sampling) the production of local olive oils and kosher wines. At an outdoor market, he eats raw seafood from the shell and at a Palestinian restaurant, parses politics while the chef shapes succulent ground lamb around a cinnamon stick for grilling. And the produce…tomatoes so sweet, guava, apples and apricots, fresh herbs, and ohh, the eggplant,charred over a fire! Israel has become a creative, thriving food paradise.
It was through this film that I realized the unique diversity of Israel, where peoples descended from ancient cultures mix with waves of immigrants from more modern times. A Wikipedia entry describes Israel as “one of the most multicultural and multilingual societies in the world” and the list of most commonly spoken languages in addition to Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian extends to French, Georgian, Yiddish, Romanian,Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, Amharic, Aramaic, Armenian, Bulgarian, Ladino, Belarusian, Persian, Hungarian, Spanish, German, Polish, Bukhori, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Tagalog, Fur, Tigrinya, Bilen, Kurdish, Turkish, Portuguese, Greek, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Bosnian, Mizo, Kukish,Latvian, Lithuanian, Dutch, Italian, Adyghe, Abzakh, Swedish, Dinka, and Afrikaans.
While the film’s premise is to somehow define Israeli cuisine, I wonder how we would define American cuisine, or even Pittsburgh cuisine. Maybe the more important message is one of the hope that Israel’s burgeoning food culture, reflecting and championing hugely diverse influences, can transcend the divisiveness of politics and serve as a unifier, focusing on the pleasures and nourishment of land and community.
Photo from the book Zahav – A World of Israeli Cooking, by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, awarded the 2016 James Beard Foundation Award International winner. Read more on Eater.com