Look­ing For Is­raeli Food, Find­ing Its Soul

Forward Magazine - - & - BY LIZA SCHOENFEIN Pho­tos by Michael Per­sico

When I get Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Award­win­ning chef of Philadel­phia’s Za­hav, on the phone, my first ques­tion is, “What do you mean by Is­raeli soul?” I ask be­cause we’re dis­cussing the new cook­book he co-wrote with his busi­ness part­ner, Steven Cook, “Is­raeli Soul: Easy, Es­sen­tial, De­li­cious.”

The soul of Is­raeli cui­sine, Solomonov and Cook write, “lies in the jour­ney these foods have taken to the ends of the earth and back, to be wo­ven to­gether in a nascent cul­ture that is both an­cient and mod­ern.”

Okay, but how to de­scribe the soul of the place, a coun­try full of cul­tures and con­tra­dic­tions?

I’ve in­ter­viewed Solomonov a num­ber of times, and he’s al­ways been open and hon­est and real. But never par­tic­u­larly lo­qua­cious. (In per­son, per­haps. In phone in­ter­views, not so much.) But when you name your book “Is­raeli Soul” — and when Is­rael is so much a part of yours, as it clearly is with the Is­raeli-born Solomonov — one might as­sume that you’ve given the con­cept a great deal of thought. And one would be right. “There are the senses that cap­ture you when you’re over there,” he tells me, “the smell of the lamb fat drip­ping on the char­coal, and the ex­ces­sive tahina that is at once bit­ter and ma­ture, at once abra­sive and tan­nic and creamy and rich and nutty. And in one bite you’re sort of car­ried through years of Di­as­pora, mil­lions of Shab­bat din­ners; the Pales­tinian, the Druze, the Be­douin; the con­ver­gence

5 MIN­UTES OR LESS: At left, in­gre­di­ents for an ex­tremely quick hum­mus.

of the spices and the silk road; the hun­dreds of cul­tures that have gone back to their home­land; the Mediter­ranean, the sea of Galilee, the Red Sea, the snow in the north, the dessert in the south, and the mod­ern and an­cient birth­place of wine­mak­ing and agri­cul­ture. And if you can in­ten­sify it and pres­sure cook it with the birth­place of monothe­ism and the dirt and the sun and the land, and you can bot­tle that up, that’s re­ally what Is­raeli soul is.”

Can I have an amen? Though that was only my first ques­tion, Solomonov and I joked that we could end the con­ver­sa­tion right there. He had suc­ceeded in cap­tur­ing the elu­sive con­cept of Is­raeli soul in a very elo­quent homily. And with the cook­book, that soul is cap­tured in an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of recipes — for clas­sic street foods like falafel, shawarma, sabich and kabobs; for restau­rant dishes such as sal­ads, soups and stews, and for breads and pas­tries made in homes and bak­eries across the land.

Over a pe­riod of eight days, the team work­ing on the cook­book — Solomonov, Cook, pho­tog­ra­pher Michael Per­sico and cook­book pro­ducer Dorothy Kalins — con­sumed ‰Š meals through­out Is­rael. The book in­tro­duces the res­tau­rants and chefs; the carts, mar­ket stalls and ven­dors, and o‹ers the his­tory of each eatery, dish and per­son.

If “Is­raeli Soul” sounds dense, it’s not.

It’s com­pre­hen­sive but easy to con­sume; full of en­tic­ing food shots and beau­ti­ful im­ages of Is­raeli cities and towns, mar­kets and res­tau­rants and the peo­ple who pop­u­late them. And it’s writ­ten in the dis­tinc­tive voices — of­ten funny, some­times edgy, al­ways fast-paced and knowl­edge­able — of Solomonov and Cook. (The pair have also pub­lished “Za­hav: A World of Is­raeli Cook­ing” and “Fed­eral Donuts: The (Par­tially) True Spec­tac­u­lar Story.”)

Take the dis­cus­sion of falafel and whether or not it’s Is­raeli or Mid­dle Eastern. In their inim­itable way, Solomonov and Cook put the ques­tion to rest. Sort of.

“For peo­ple try­ing to un­der­stand Is­raeli cui­sine,” they write, “falafel is a co­nun­drum, be­cause it is both demon­stra­bly Is­raeli and not Is­raeli.”

They ex­plain that while falafel is the uno˜cial na­tional dish, it didn’t orig­i­nate in Is­rael. “Like pizza and ra­men,” they write, “falafel is now a global phe­nom­e­non.... Does any­one care that in Ja­pan they eat pizza with corn and may­on­naise? So back to the orig­i­nal ques­tion: Is falafel Is­raeli? Yes. And No. And does it mat­ter?”

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing falafel recipe, com­plete with vivid how-to im­ages, is the one they use at Goldie, Solomonov and Cook’s lat­est restau­rant, which serves just falafel, fries and

tahini-based shakes.

The same de­bate that’s been had over falafel — whether or not it can rightly be called “Is­raeli food” — is a run­ning con­flict with re­gard to so many other dishes. I asked Cook about the ques­tion of culi­nary cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion ver­sus the idea that the new cook­book, and food in gen­eral, might act as a sort of bridge.

“Food can be a pretty pow­er­ful metaphor for what makes a cul­ture strong,” he said. “A lot of peo­ple’s gut re­ac­tion when you say Is­raeli food: A big equals sign flashes to Mid­dle Eastern food. But so much of Is­raeli food came through im­mi­gra­tion from places that are nowhere near the Mid­dle East. Food on the ta­ble in Is­rael is sort of a metaphor for how to build a strong cul­ture quickly. Peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate through food. To find things that came from Ye­men that are now part of every Is­raeli ci­ti­zen’s culi­nary ver­nac­u­lar — food is con­ducive to weav­ing that fab­ric in a cul­ture that maybe other realms aren’t quite as good at.”

An­other ubiq­ui­tous food that’s ei­ther a sym­bol of sym­bio­sis or of ap­pro­pri­a­tion, de­pend­ing on whom you ask, is hum­mus. The “Is­raeli Soul” ver­sion will likely be the recipe read­ers make most of­ten. Called ˆ-Minute Hum­mus With Quick Te­hina Sauce, it is made en­tirely in the food pro­ces­sor, no bowls or pots to clean; not even a mea­sur­ing cup, since the recipe calls for a whole Ž‘-ounce jar of tahini.

“As much as we want to high­light other things in the book,” Cook said, “hum­mus is some­thing that most peo­ple like; it’s highly cook­able and it’s a great can­vas for so many other things. You don’t have to soak the chick­peas “” hours in ad­vance or tend to them as they cook. Is it the same as cook­ing from dried chick­peas? No. But it’s de­li­cious. If you get the right size tahini jar, you don’t even have to mea­sure. We kind of de­vel­oped it around that size jar.”

In this way, “Is­raeli Soul” man­ages to be both en­tirely ac­ces­si­ble and deeply in­for­ma­tive, a col­lec­tion of recipes adapted for the home cook as well as a culi­nary trav­el­ogue for read­ers to use, whether from their liv­ing room arm­chair or on a trip to Is­rael.

“We’re tour guid­ing peo­ple through some­thing that is ei­ther slightly ab­stract or very per­sonal,” Solomonov said, “and what we’re do­ing is open­ing this door and invit­ing peo­ple in.”

With the new book, they can dis­cover Is­raeli soul for them­selves.

‘Falafel is a co­nun­drum be­cause it is both demon­stra­bly Is­raeli and not Is­raeli.’

SO MANY FALAFELS BALLS, SOLIT­TLE TIME: Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook chow down in Is­rael.

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