Sunday, July 10, 2016

My Hummus Brings All The Boys To The Yard

Here's the strange thing about food. Once you develop a taste for certain foods (or acquire diseases like diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, or irritable bowel syndrome), you wonder why you can't live with them and can't live without them. When I was kid, I never thought I could eat enough peanut butter -- until the day I did. A few years later, someone introduced me to the exotic delights of satay chicken with Thai peanut sauce. Hooked again!

Today's restaurant industry has made celebrity chefs and their menus seem like a competitive sport. For foodies with cast iron stomachs and large amounts of disposable income, there is a conquest-like thrill in being the first among your circle of friends to discover a new restaurant (or to get a good table at one of the hottest restaurants in town). For many people, cooking shows have become a spectator sport. Food photography has been transformed into an art form (with the Internet providing an unending source of food porn).

Those on more limited budgets usually gravitate to the "old reliable" type of restaurant -- a place where the food is solid, the portions generous, the service genial, and you can eat the kind of food you wish you could cook at home on a regular basis. These places are of particular value to people who are single or whose work involves a great deal of business travel. Why? As the Jewish widow Clara Weiss asks in 1961's Milk and Honey: "How do you cook a tzimmes just for one?"

Among the many joys of attending ethnic film festivals is the fact that their programs usually contain documentaries about food from exotic cuisines. If you tire of following Anthony Bourdain's adventures in search of gustatory thrills (or watching familiar faces on the Food Network), it's refreshing to know that there's a whole world of culinary talent beyond the likes of Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, Nigella Lawson, Yigit Pura, and Rachel Ray. Whether the meals being prepared are high end or comfort food, watching these films provides a unique kind of armchair adventure. For those on a specialty diet, they can easily become the nutritional equivalent of safe sex.

Asian-American film festivals often present documentaries which combine insights into a cuisine's cultural history while discussing certain dishes and demonstrating how they are made. Cheuk Kwan's superb 15-part documentary series about Chinese Restaurants around the world takes the hungry viewer from Mauritius and Madagascar to Peru and up through the Amazon rainforest to Manaus; from Norway, Canada, Turkey, and Cuba to Argentina, Trinidad, South Africa, and Israel.

A recent spate of food articles has focused on the growing popularity of sushi in Orthodox Jewish homes that keep a kosher kitchen. Whether being served at weddings and bar mitzvahs or kosher restaurants, I was tickled to learn about new adaptations of traditional Japanese cuisine that include pizza-flavored sushi versions of that age-old Purim pastry treat, hamentaschen.

This year, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival offers two winners that focus on Middle Eastern cuisine. Some of these dishes are familiar to American palates while others may seem more exotic. What sets these films apart from so many other food documentaries is that, because of the unique political environment and topography of the region in which these foods are prepared, many chefs have embraced farm-to-table cooking as a necessity rather than a luxury.

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Back in 1989, when I accompanied the Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat to the new Cairo Opera House, several cast members were forced to bow out of one or two performances after having thrown dietary caution to the Sahara winds. Having ignored the warnings about eating certain types of foods, they blithely ordered salads and quickly came down with cramps and diarrhea. The following week, after a day spent touring Luxor, I sat in a roof-top cafe watching the setting sun after ordering one of the most basic foods to be found in the Mediterranean. With a plate of hummus, some pita bread, and a can of soda, I managed just fine.

Written and directed by Oren Rosenfeld, Hummus! The Movie examines the impact of a superfood whose Arabic name means "chickpeas." As a staple of ethnic cuisine it is assumed to have originated in numerous Mediterranean cultures yet none can claim its true ownership from a historical perspective.

A plated restaurant serving of hummus

A simple paste made with boiled chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, salt, garlic, and lemon juice, hummus often does a lot more to foster peace between people than foreign policy will ever achieve. As the filmmaker follows Jews, Arabs, Christians, and tourists around Israel, Lebanon, and other parts of the Middle East, it becomes obvious that their attempts to find the very best hummus can have surprising results.

Perhaps the most interesting person in the film is Suheila Al Hindi, the only Muslim woman to own her own business in Acre's busy Arab market. When the petite workaholic (whose restaurant is noted for its cleanliness and the near sterile conditions in its kitchen) triumphs over ten men to win the Golden Pita Award for the best hummus, there is some startled grumbling from her competitors about the fact that a woman is even allowed to make hummus.

Suheila Al Hindi serving hummus at her restaurant in Acre, Israel

Among the more colorful personalities showcased in Rosenfeld's documentary are:
Eliyahu Shmueli owns a chain of hummus restaurants in Israel

There is also a segment devoted to the quest for international recognition of “The World’s Largest Serving of Hummus” (a Guinness World Records title currently held by a Lebanese hummus maker who served up a portion weighing 23,042 pounds or 11.521 tons). As the filmmaker explains:
“We’re presenting a picture of Israeli multiculturalism where the common denominator is hummus. You can’t tell the Israelis anything new about hummus, since everyone here considers himself an expert. So we decided to export the Israeli hummus story to the world -- particularly to places that don’t know anything about hummus.”
Poster art for Hummus! The Movie
“When you start to probe, you find that there are lots of interests involved in the fight for the title of best hummus. While working on our investigation we met hummus shop owners who stated that they’re in the hummus business purely for the money and that the hummus itself doesn’t interest them. We ate lots of mediocre hummus with watery tahini. We decided not to get into the question of best hummus, but rather to look at the people who make the hummus, for whom hummus is an ideology.”
The late Samir Abit was an Arabic Christian from
Palestine who ran a hummus restaurant for 65 years

If charoset is meant to symbolize the mortar with which the Israelites built Ancient Egypt's massive pyramids and storehouses, hummus is the modern mortar which fills stomachs with sustenance rather than prejudice, with nutrition rather than the bitter taste of slavery. Here's the trailer:

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While Hummus! The Movie is narrowly focused on one specific dish, Roger Sherman's mouth-watering documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, takes a much broader look at the origins of what is becoming known as a the new Israeli cuisine. Trying to pin down what makes something a genuinely Israeli dish proves to be a difficult task (for instance, a popular Arab dish is known as Israeli salad because Israelis eat it for breakfast as well as during other meals). With the help of Michael Solomontov (an Israeli-born chef whose award-winning Philadelphia restaurant, Zahav, won the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2011), this quest is more amiable than many others.

Chef Michael Solomonov (seen eating a corned beef pita
sandwich) in a scene from In Search of Israeli Cuisine

That's largely because Solomontov (who seems to equate the love of food with the food of love) is often seen instinctively hugging his fellow chefs after tasting their creations. His natural curiosity about how certain dishes developed leads to stories about families who fled Eastern Europe during the Holocaust or children who grew up with dishes from mixed heritages because of their parents' family backgrounds. In some cases, there are questions of whether dishes come from a Sephardic or Ashkenazi tradition; others have resulted from the curiosity and creativity of chefs and restaurateurs trying to overcome the challenges of maintaining a steady supply of fresh ingredients.

Poster art for In Search of Israeli Cuisine

Since it was founded in 1948, Israel has had a strange culinary history. For the first half of its existence as a new nation, its food was often dismissed as unimaginative and unappealing (most people thought its principal dishes were hummus and falafel -- accompanied by generous amounts of gas and guilt). For those who moved to Israel following World War II, the thought of continuing to make the dishes on which their grandparents had survived did not necessarily mesh with their excitement about the new culture of Israel and its sabras.

The inside of an appropriately named sabra fruit

When Sherman traveled to Israel in 2010, he was shocked to discover that Tel Aviv’s restaurant scene could easily hold its own against major gastronomic destinations like San Francisco, New York, London, and Paris. "People laughed when I told them Israel has one of the most dynamic food cultures in the world," he recalls.

Beets with tahini served at Rama's Kitchen

Like the above-mentioned cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had become true melting pots with traditional foods from Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Italy, Turkey, France, and Russia. There were interesting dishes appearing in secular and religious homes. Some recipes reflected kosher and nonkosher influences as well as the flavoring found in Arab, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, and Druze kitchens. Some cooks were carefully preserving the recipes their grandparents made for them; others were updating old recipes and adapting them to please more contemporary palates.

Whereas most Arab restaurants forbid the use of alcoholic beverages, today’s Israel has more than 350 wineries that are beginning to challenge products from France, Australia, and California’s Napa Valley. Certain cheeses are left to age in caves, with surprising results.

Chef Michael Solomonov at the Levinsky spice market
in Tel Aviv in a scene from In Search of Israeli Cuisine

Whether visiting a local vineyard or ancient ruins where grapes were crushed by manual labor, Solomonov's interviews with chefs and food writers reveal how Israel's location between the sea and the desert makes it possible to raise certain crops while being barely an hour away from easy access to fresh fish. His ability to get people to open up about their family backgrounds and defuse old arguments about whether a dish is of Israeli or Palestinian origin (and whether it is of Jewish or Arabic heritage) lends a special appeal to the documentary's storytelling.

Freshly-baked shakshuka

Sherman's documentary has already spawned an interesting spinoff. Its producer, Florentine Films, has begun a series of food tours of Israel. According to its website:
Avihai Tsabari is a certified guide with a specialty in food. He worked for years in the restaurant business, is a sommelier with a special love for cognac, owned a restaurant, and knows Israel’s culinary scene inside and out. Avihai's company, Via Sabra, is a boutique tour company, consulting, organizing and leading customized tours for individuals, families, groups, and corporations. Guests will visit many of the restaurants, street food vendors, markets, wineries, cheese makers, farms, even ancient ruins where we filmed. You’ll sample the best of Israel’s culinary landscape. Chefs, writers, and journalists featured in the film will meet participants in intimate settings to discuss Israeli cuisine, the dynamic food scene, its history and future. Chef Michael Solomonov will make special appearances throughout the tour, adding his insights to the mosaic of food and culture the tour offers.”
Chef Michael Solomontov in the kitchen with tour guide
Avihai Tsabari in a scene from In Search of Israeli Cuisine

To view the itinerary from the May 2016 tour, click here. For information about upcoming tours, click here. In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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