Chef Michael Solomonov is a man on a mission. Raised in both Israel and the States, he is one of the prominent culinary figures successfully bringing Middle Eastern food into the mainstream. His Philadelphia fine-dining restaurant, Zahav, for which he won his James Beard in 2011, is consistently packed although it’s been open for nine years. His casual hummus takeout joint, Dizengoff, opened to praise and its expansion into NYC’s Chelsea Market was one of the most widely anticipated openings of 2016. His most recent Philly venture, a falafel-focused spot named Goldie’s, will surely be just as successful. But one can easily say that all of his menus are Middle Eastern, not Israeli. Deciphering Israeli cuisine, and what it says about the state’s political environment, is Chef Michael’s mission in his thought-provoking documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine.
Obviously, Israel is a young nation with a tremendous amount of cultural complexities. Looking at those nuances through the lens of food does help the outside audience get to know the people who call Israel home. In Search of Israeli Cuisine gives a general background to the formation of the state, particularly how the Jewish immigration and its formerly depressed economy affected the region’s cuisine. The influx, poverty, and racism during Israel’s formative years led to Eastern European/Ashkenazi cuisine being placed on a pedestal. But after their 1980s economic boom and the peace talks, Israeli palates opened up more to Palestinian, Lebanese, and Sephardic influences. Additionally, Israelis are incorporating more local ingredients on their menus. As Chef Michael goes around the country interviewing chefs and restaurateurs, they often remark that local to them is an ingredient found within kilometers or mere minutes from the kitchen.
And like in the States, incorporating local ingredients often leads to looking for local wine. The Holy Land does have a history of grape growing and wine-making. They were a part of the Holy Roman Empire at one point, and wherever you found Romans, you found wine. During Islamic rule, viticulture was banned due to their dietary laws. In modern times, the first major player in Israel’s wine industry was Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the owner of Château Lafite-Rothschild, who began importing grape varietals and knowledge to the region. His influence is still felt. The current most widely planted varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Unfortunately, it appears that many of the indigenous varietals have disappeared through the years.
Israeli wine is up against the assumption of being cooked kosher wine, generally known to be of lower quality and taste than that of non-kosher wines. Many simply equate kosher wines to Manischewitz, and quickly assume Israeli wine would be more of the same. After all, isn’t Israeli a very Orthodox Jewish-leaning culture? (Hint: No, but that would be giving away a big part of the documentary.) For the past decade, Israeli wine has actually been garnering acclaim from critics like Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson. Though there are currently 300 wineries in the country, mostly concentrated around Galilee, Shomron, and Samson, a few wineries stand out from the rest. Domaine du Castel was one of the first to receive international press for their white in 2002, and their wines continue to impress. Yatir Winery’s vintages regularly receive 90+ points from Robert Parker. Golan Heights Winery has received recognition from both Wine Enthusiast and at the 2011 Vinitaly. Just like how Israeli cuisine is “up and coming” in the States, so are the wines.
Bottles To Pick Up:
• 2012 Dalton Oak Aged Petite Sirah
• 2013 Jerusalem Wineries ‘3400’ Premium Shiraz
• 2013 Jerusalem Wineries ‘3400’ Premium Cabernet Sauvignon
• 2013 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin
• 2013 Recanati Winery Reserve Wild Carignan
In Search of Israeli Cuisine is currently playing in select theaters throughout the country.