“Food is not political” is the foundation of Roger Sherman’s In Search of Israeli Cuisine. The documentary is a culturally subversive look at the many food-related differences in Israel. The film opens with the hustle and bustle of an average day in the Israeli metropolis, Tel Aviv. Passing cars, small shops and a diversity of people mingle throughout the busy streets. Tel Aviv is not unlike most major American cities–it’s even compared to New York in its progressiveness–though it is nowhere near as large.
It is here where we are introduced to acclaimed American chef Michael Solomonov, who was raised partially in Israel before being sent abroad for boarding school and, eventually, culinary school. Solomonov has returned to Israel to learn what exactly the country’s cuisine is — and what exactly it is is a lot more complicated then one would think.
What makes Israeli cuisine unique is that there is no set standard. Considering Israel’s contemporary origin and diverse make-up it’s hard to pinpoint a specific type of food or even differentiate amongst the food it does claim as its own. As one of the interview subjects notes, “We’re too young to have our own cuisine.” For this very reason its cooking influences stem from places like Palestine, France, Morocco, Greece, Russia and many other neighboring countries.
Unsurprisingly, their society also reflects beliefs, values and customs also associated with these many differing populations. Their complicated relationship they have with food thus mirrors its complex political climate. The intensity and openness of this political conversation ebbs and flows as Solomonov travels from region to region where Israelis of many different backgrounds each take their place front and center.
One of the major questions Solomonov seeks an answer to is: how do Israeli’s reclaim their own cuisine? One of the smartest ways the people of Israel are putting their own spin on different cultural foods is by using Israeli meats, dairy, produce, etc. Israeli itself is only about the size of New Jersey, but for some, driving even an hour away can feel like going to the other end of the world. This is due to both the cultural differences and the overall genealogical differences. It features everything from the usual fishing, seaport towns to the old grey-bearded, mountain goat-herder with an assortment of cheeses. The possibilities are endless.
Director Roger Sherman takes this informative, PBS-style documentary and provides subtle social commentary on the never-ending conflict in Israel. There is little attachment to the people we meet who come off as mostly sound bites. Even Solomonov reveals little of himself and when he does he has us begging for more. Though occasionally stiff it is full of passion and any lull is more likely caused by an interest barrier than actual narrative failures.
What is perhaps the documentary’s biggest payoff is its exploration of identity. Solomonov’s journey throughout Israel and across these cultures reflects this precisely. He, himself, is a man who grew up with American and Israeli influences. Food is a way most immigrants recapture the memories and feelings of their people, their families and their lives. What this journey and the people he meets along the way communicate is how food can be equated to self. “People came to Israel to be Israel,” as one interviewee put it. Thus unfolds a tale mixed with different languages, religions, and, most importantly, different spices.