"It's really difficult, especially in a place like Israel, which is the cultural crossroads for many different people, to pinpoint a few things that make up Israeli food," says chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav restaurant. He is co-author of a book by the same name.
Pati Jinich: Can you tell me a little bit about your connection to Israel?
Michael Solomonov: I was born there. I grew up here in the states. When I was 15 or so, we moved back to Israel. I stayed for a year and went to boarding school there, and then moved back to the states. Then I dropped out of college and moved back to Israel for a year. That's where I learned how to cook. I worked in a little bakery, then I worked in a cafe and then I went to culinary school in the states.
Over time, I think that cooking and being interested in Israeli cuisine grounded me a little bit. Israeli food represents all the people who make up Israel: Iraqis, Iranians, North Africans, Yemenis, Greeks, Cypriots, Bulgarians, Romanians -- all of Europe.
PJ: Can you find any common denominator that would explain to a foreigner what Israeli food is, given that there's so much diversity within it?
MS: There are a couple of principles -- of course there are exceptions to all of these.
The heavy use of tehina throughout Israel is very, very important because tehina was the way to sauce meat without being non-kosher. If you add yogurt, any other dairy product or cheese, you don't really serve meat with that. So that's one thing, the heavy use of tehina, the indigenous olive oil, the bitter herbs and the spices that make up cooking in that region.
But cuisine is in motion all the time, whether we know it or not. It's always changing, it's always evolving. People are adapting, transporting and transcending food. It's really difficult, especially in a place like Israel, which is the cultural crossroads for many different people, to pinpoint a few things that make up Israeli food.
We always joke in the kitchen -- whenever somebody asks me to taste something, they're like, "What does it need?" "Olive oil, lemon and parsley." There's a lot of that.
Israeli food is very vegetable-forward, very vegetable-heavy, not relying entirely on tons of proteins.
PJ: I had the opportunity to eat at your restaurant recently with my husband and my boys. The moment we walked in, we felt a feast environment. The way the food is served, everything is shared. There's some contagious enthusiasm, happiness and generosity about the way the food is served and how it's shared. Do you think that describes or defines the Israeli way of approaching food?
MS: It's a mentality in which you eat -- the spirit of rolling up the sleeves and breaking bread together is something that we try to emulate at the restaurant. We want the customers to feel that. We want to make memories. The food, of course, has to be very good. It's about the company. It's about the style in which you eat. It's about the holiday that you share. It's about the traditions. Eating is such a huge ceremony for everybody. It's common.
PJ: You're the perfect person to talk to about how to put together a feast. How do you like to set the table? What do you like to put on the table?
MS: I think cooking and dining are festive. I like things that are bright, and not just aesthetically bright, like our turmeric-stained pickles, the sweet and the sour, and the vegetables. I want it to look like a party.
I like a bunch of little salatim, whether that's raw tabbouleh, chopped parsley salad; a stewed tomato compote called matbucha, which goes with everything or is eaten by itself; bowls of hummus and piles of bread, pita or laffa, the fluffy Iraqi pita; and then bowls of different pilafs or grains, bowls of Israeli couscous, Moroccan rice or Persian rice that's fragrant with saffron, dried fruits and almonds. I like a whole lamb shoulder that's been glazed with pomegranates, whole roasted chicken also sitting on laffa with tehina sauce, pickles and whole fish. We wrap whole fish with grape leaves and then grill it.
I just think that sort of way is fun to eat. People rolling up their sleeves, bumping elbows and sharing pieces of bread or passing things, taking little bites, and even double-dipping sometimes with their spoons and forks -- to me, that's a good party. That's what it should be. I don't like things to be overly refined, certainly not in my house.
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