Israel arguably has one of the hottest food scenes in the world, but Baltimoreans don’t necessarily have to travel overseas to get a taste.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” a movie documenting a culinary journey throughout Israel, is being screened at the Gordon Center on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 4 p.m., presented by the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival. The event will feature Roger Sherman, director and producer of the film, as a special guest speaker, in addition to live Israeli music and Israeli snacks.
The film captures a culinary scene that could only happen in Israel with its extreme climate difference between the green north and the arid desert of the south. In addition, more than 150 cultures have come to Israel throughout history, some of which remain, bringing with them their unique food traditions.
At its birth in 1948, Israel was one of the poorest places in the world. “People would have yelled at you for talking about fine cuisine even 40 years ago; it was about survival then,” said Sherman. Now, Israeli chefs are traveling the world, coming back and opening restaurants, he said. “The street food is remarkable; the bread is as good as in Paris.”
Sherman originally went to Israel as a last-minute stand-in on a food press trip. He didn’t have high expectations but was blown away by the food he discovered.
“I came back and started telling people about this amazing place and the people I had met,” said Sherman. “People didn’t believe me, I was laughed at. I thought, ‘Wow, they didn’t know about any of this, just like I hadn’t.’ It was just a great subject to make a film on.”
Every day was a surprise for him on that trip, he said.
“I was completely naïve,” he said. “For example, there are 350 boutique wine stores in Israel that are winning critical acclaim globally. The only difference between this kosher wine and a wine made in a top Bordeaux chateau is that a religious, Sabbath-keeping Jew is the only one who can come in contact with the wine. Nobody knows this stuff. The cheese in Israel is a quality like you would find in a small town in France or Italy, but it never leaves that region.”
The movie delves into Israeli cuisine from both a historical and geographical perspective. The film’s guide is Michael Solomonov, chef and owner of Zahav in Philadelphia, which serves what is considered to be some of the most authentic Israeli cuisine in America.
“I instantly realized he was my guy,” said Sherman, who was introduced to Solomonov by a mutual friend. “He was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh. I realized in talking to him that I needed someone who understood all of the cultures and could put himself in the situation.”
Solomonov’s story is an important and poignant part of the film. When he returned to Israel, he was unskilled. Unable to find work, Solomonov passed a bakery with trays of a pastry called a bureka, which he recognized because his grandmother made them. He walked in and got a job there — that was the beginning of his cooking career.
“Throughout the film, Solomonov looks to establish a real connection with the land of Israel through his food and cooking,” said Alyson Bonavoglia, director of the Jewish Film Festival and special projects at the Gordon Center. “They travel the whole country, and the motivating question is really, ‘Is there an Israeli cuisine?’”
Solomonov would say yes, and in the film, he explores what exactly it is.
“It is a multicultural society, and that is definitely reflected through the food,” Bonavoglia said. “He speaks to chefs with food influenced by so many different cultures. There is a real focus on preparing food very freshly, so everything that you see is locally sourced. It is a beautiful movie because you get to see different parts of the country, and it is really about how food connects the land and the people.”
The film is booked in 90 festivals globally through next year.
“One bit of warning to everyone who comes,” said Sherman. “Do not come hungry because you will be hungry by the end of the film. Reviews have been mouthwatering.”