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Book Review: Michael Solomonov's 'Zahav' Explores What It Means for Food to Be Israeli

There's a lot more going on here than just hummus and falafel

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The Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia is one of the oldest parts of what is — at least, by American standards — a very, very old city. Despite its pedigree and ritzy name, it was, for a long time, one of the mid-Atlantic's poorest areas, and in the 1960s and ‘70s a large swath of its dilapidated colonial architecture was almost entirely razed, replaced by well-intentioned high-density housing: hundreds of low-slung brick row-houses designed by architect and social theorist Louis Sauer, and I.M. Pei's famous Society Hill Towers. "I knew it was cruel while I was doing it," urban planner Ed Bacon is quoted as saying about the project he oversaw, which displaced thousands of black Philadelphians. "It was more important to restore this area than to maintain the low-income residents."


Zahav, the mega-hit restaurant helmed by chef Mike Solomonov, is on the grounds of the towers, in a blocky commercial building whose exterior matches the warm midcentury anonymity of the Sauer row-houses. Inside is another story: in the words of Eater's Bill Addison, the room "evokes the Levantine landscape with sandstone walls and limestone tiles." The restaurant's name is the Hebrew word for "gold," both the metal and the color, which Solomonov has explained as a direct reference to Jerusalem; individuals who have a connection to Israel (or who, like me, spent youthful summers at Jewish sleepaway camp) will recognize it as a reference more specifically to the Israeli song "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" ("Jerusalem of gold"), a beautiful, mournful anthem of exile and diaspora, a song of yearning for home, of home as Israel.

National borders rarely coincide with culinary ones; the alchemical process of forging a coherent national cuisine is not a speedy one

Israel is home for Solomonov, or at least it was. He was born just outside of Tel Aviv, moved with his parents to Pittsburgh at the age of two, and went back at fifteen. As he tells it, in his cookbook Zahav (co-written with business partner Steve Cook, and out this week from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), he resented his family's uprooting from America, and went back to the States "as soon as I could" to finish high school and make an attempt at college. Then it was back to Israel for a stint at a bakery, to Florida for culinary school, and back to Pennsylvania where he ended up under the mentorship of Philadelphia restaurant titan Marc Vetri, eventually pairing up with Cook, with whom he opened Zahav in 2008.

If this were another cookbook, maybe that would be the whole story. But in the pages of Zahav, whose 150 or so recipes share nearly equal space with anecdotes, backstory, and an engagingly sprawling personal and familial history, Solomonov shrugs off the usual restaurant-cookbook narrative of a modestly unfocused chef eventually finding beauty and fulfillment within the formalist constraints of culinary rigor and a nearly academic pursuit of perfection. Instead, there's an intense honesty, a reckoning not only of self but also of family and culture and country. The book begins with a punch, a large-type dedication to his younger brother: "You are with me always." David Solomonov died at the age of 21, shot by Hezbollah snipers shortly before the end of his time serving in the Israeli army.

That's a powerful, personal beginning for a cookbook, and the 360 or so subsequent pages don't drop the candor. Not all autobiographies lend themselves to a gastronomic narrative, but Solomonov's does. In chapter introductions, expansive headnotes, and copious ingredient- and recipe-sidebars, he unpacks the histories and associations shoring up Zahav's menu, from a fragrant, curry-tinged Yemenite chicken soup that epitomizes his wild year at Israeli boarding school, to the flaky Bulgarian bourekas that, as a child, brought him close to his grandmother, and that as a young adult marked his entry to the world of professional cooking.

The virtuosity in storytelling may be to Solomonov's credit, but it also probably has something to do with the food itself. The food in Zahav calls itself "modern Israeli," and none of the recipes read like restaurant food. At least, not in the way we've expect from the sort of world-class restaurant that heads national best-of lists. But Zahav is an unconventional restaurant, in that respect.

Despite its global influences — Eastern Europe, Northern and Eastern Africa, and the entire olive-oil loop of the north Mediterranean all make significant appearances, and the overall attitude is very much American — the defining palate of Zahav remains Middle Eastern, a torrent of warm spices and bitter herbs and smoke-kissed meats and breads. It's a communal, festive way of eating, one that involves using your hands and sharing plates with your neighbor (who is generally also your cousin), and Solomonov makes no effort (outside of an oddly incongruous fluke crudo) to shoehorn either palate or presentation into the twee artistry of tasting-menu restaurant food. There's no recipe that's a psychoanalytic deconstruction of the vivid, curry-laced Yemenite chicken soup of his youth — there's just the actual recipe for the soup. It's perfected, of course, as you'd expect from a meticulous, much-praised chef, but Solomonov is interested in capturing his memories alive, not dressing them up in clever outfits and making them pose for a witty tableau.

Zahav is an exuberant, elegant exploration of the melting pot of Israel's immigrant and Arab kitchens

That's not to say the book is rigid and uncreative, quite the opposite — Solomonov has fun, cracks jokes, admits his mistakes; his recipes are intuitive, emotive, extemporaneous, imprecise, and he urges riffing, experimentation, and seasonal substitutions. The pervasive feeling is one of warmth and commensality and celebration, family-style platters rather than perfect platings, a paean to off-the-cuff pleasures and raucous gatherings. (The wild-rumpus mood is boosted by the book's bold, jolie-laide ‘70s-inspired design, and Michael Persico's vivid photography.)

Much of the excitement in these recipes comes from juxtaposition, whether of ingredients or techniques. Iraqi laffa bread shares table space with riffs on Eastern European-inspired smoked fish, Moroccan pastilla, and pan-Mediterranean variants on hummus. Geographies and ethnicities remix and intermingle in ways driven by trends (a kale-and-walnut tabbouleh) and flavors (Solomonov suggests serving kubbe, Iraqi semolina dumplings, in a borscht-inspired beet broth). His justly famous pomegranate-glazed lamb shoulder recipe is here, a luscious, multi-day, slow-braised affair that's inspired equally by the flavors of the Levant and the pork butt served at Momofuku Ssam Bar, as well as a vegan take on meaty shashlik — trumpet mushrooms marinated for hours in onions and allspice and then grilled over hot coals — that counts as one of the best dishes I've made all year.

Zahav is an exuberant, elegant exploration of the melting pot of Israel's immigrant and Arab kitchens, on a scale that Solomonov acknowledges you'd be hard-pressed to find within Israel itself. In this case, distance from the source material is an advantage: by virtue of the gastronomic distillation on hand, a surprisingly coherent picture of a cuisine starts to emerge, despite the fact that elsewhere in the world — particularly in Israel itself — the idea of "Israeli food" is amorphous and contentious.

Israel is a young nation, less than 70 years old, and its existence has had political implications that are fractal in their argumentative complexity, and bloody and brutal in practice. Its Jewish population is composed largely of mid-century immigrants and a generation or two of their descendents, but over 20 percent of citizens (and 50 percent of the overall population, if you include disputed territories) are Arabs, most from families who lived in the region prior to the 1948 declaration of Israeli statehood.

Regardless of how a person might feel about whether or not Israel deserves to exist, it remains the case that it factually does, and that people cook and eat there. It's impossible for any conversation about Israel not to be, in some fundamental way, about identity and politics, and this is the case about its food as much as anything else. Certain stripes of Israeli culinary nationalism have hinged on an erasure of Arab ownership within Israel's foodways, redefining pan-Arab dishes like hummus and falafel as singularly Israeli products. (For the most venomous arguments, look for Facebook comment threads about whether Palestinian maftoul and Israeli couscous are the same thing — or, on second thought, don't.)

In both his cooking and his writing, Solomonov is miles beyond that kind of extremism. Zahav reads not as an inventory of the unique culinary products of tenacious Jewish settlers, but of the inevitable gastronomic synthesis of many people with strong personal cultures living in close quarters in an agriculturally specific region. Within its sprawling vernacular of European, East African, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean foodways, there may not be a single, easily-identifiable "Israeli" culinary culture, but its uncommonly diverse populace has resulted in a dazzling culinary patchwork, one whose outline is drawn not by its (ever-disputed) geographic borders, but by the makeup of its cities and towns and farms. To Solomonov, Israeli food isn't the food of the country of Israel; rather, it's the food of the people who live there.

Certain stripes of Israeli culinary nationalism have hinged on an erasure of Arab owner­ship within Israel's foodways

It's a remarkable balancing act for Zahav to maintain, framing itself as unabashedly Israeli without falling into either the preemptive defensiveness or self-deprecation that tends to go along with that. But a sidestepping of politics is itself a political choice — there's an obligation, when we tell stories through food, to tell the whole story, blood and brutality and all, a challenge to which recent chroniclers of American food, particularly in the South, have admirably risen, and which anyone who's shared a Thanksgiving table with a liberal-arts student has grown wearily familiar. The food may be wonderful, the company may be warm, but it came at a cost.

Solomonov is a liberal and inclusive guide to his "modern Israeli cooking," crediting recipes and techniques to this or that country, region, or ethnic group, and pointedly never conflating Israel with Judaism, but it's hard not to see the narrative sleight-of-hand he performs with the political and military aspects that are inextricable from Israeli identity. He explains at the beginning of the book that most of its recipes are kosher, and that's what makes the food Israeli: "When you add yogurt to lamb, it can become Lebanese or Syrian," he writes. But that's backwards: lamb with yogurt was Syrian well before there was an Israel, and what makes it identifiable with the people of a predominantly Jewish nation is the act of taking the dairy away.

Of course, Solomonov isn't the only one to dazzle his readers with a story of exquisitely delicious cultural harmony — Yotam Ottolenghi pulls the same trick in his blockbuster Jerusalem, to which Zahav draws inevitable (and ultimately very favorable) comparisons — but it's a disappointing elision, especially against the unsparing clarity with which Solomonov has been willing to assess both the good and the bad of his own life. (Not all of that is in the pages of this book, however — his very public acknowledgment of years of drug abuse is hinted at, but never explicitly mentioned, in this volume.)

This avoidance of difficult subjects is small change, in the grand scheme of things. It's not likely that someone picking up this cookbook is unfamiliar with the ongoing, bloody push-pull of Israel and Palestine — it's not likely that anyone is unfamiliar with it, really — and it's unfair to expect a major chef's major cookbook to serve as both primer and polemic to one of the most intractable geopolitical stalemates of our time. If anything, Solomonov's soft-shoe culinary diplomacy serves as a remarkable tempering element: the intimacy of Zahav's writing and recipes brings a human scale to a conversation usually discussed in the broadest of terms, an alternate representation for groups more commonly represented by powerful men who dictate dehumanizing propaganda and give the go-ahead to fire rockets.

This is to say, for better or for worse, that the political question of "modern Israeli cooking" is largely overshadowed by the food itself. There may be no single restaurant in Israel that presents the cross-section of cultural influences on hand in that kitchen in Philadelphia or in the pages of Zahav, but it seems likely that the multifariousness itself is the product. National borders rarely coincide with culinary ones (there's no Pasta Curtain between Italy and Austria, as spaetzle proves), and in immigrant nations like Israel (not to mention the United States, to which it is an obvious analog), the alchemical process of forging a coherent national cuisine is not a speedy one.

Since Zahav opened seven years ago, Solomonov has become Philadelphia's golden boy. He's opened nearly a dozen more restaurants, covering everything from barbecue to fried chicken to — inspired by Zahav's justly famous versions of the chickpea spread — a dedicated hummusiya. Each of those spots is headed up by its own chef, who owns the menu and experience. Zahav, however, remains Solomonov's joint; when he's in town, he's in the kitchen. When he and I spoke on the Eater Upsell, he explained that he likes to work the taboon, the wood-burning oven in which the restaurant makes the fresh laffa for each table. "I physically get to make food for just about every single person that comes in the restaurant," he said. "Which is great, because as a chef of a large restaurant or busy restaurant, usually you're not doing that sort of thing."

The humanity of it, that's the thing. The presence. The joy. The actual connection that's forged between the person cooking and the person eating. In Zahav, the recipes don't end when the food is done cooking — there are instructions for bringing things to the table, for how to serve, for how to eat, for how to share, for how to finish. "Almost unconsciously," Solomonov writes, "the experiences of growing up Israeli—the very experiences I had dismissed as irrelevant to a career as a serious chef—were somehow creeping into my cooking." The result is cooking that feels right for both a world-class restaurant and a home kitchen, food that's both an education and a pleasure.

The mid-century rectangle Zahav occupies in Society Hill is surrounded by buildings of the same era, sharp corners of poured concrete and expansive, shining windows. A few blocks away you're back in the eighteenth century, with its cramped Colonial townhouses and the white spire of Independence Hall, home of the Liberty Bell, but standing outside the staircase that leads to Zahav, it's hard to remember that. Until you look down: the architecture might be new, but the street is still cobblestones, a river of the past carving a line through this low, brutalist canyon. It makes sense for the restaurant to be here. Solomonov's modern Israeli cooking rests on tradtional Israeli cooking, which in turn, like Zahav, a document that's beautiful and vivid even in its flaws, rests on the kitchens of virtually the entire world.

Zahav

by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2015

SKILL LEVEL: Moderate. Recipes are straightforward but occasionally vague, strong home cooking skills will help.

WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Ottolenghi fans, Philadelphians, weeknight cooks, carnivores.

WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Political firebrands, people with sesame allergies.

BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's

Zahav spreads courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Interstitial photos: Shutterstock


Check out the Eater Upsell The Eater Upsell is for food lovers by food lovers. Michael Solomonov discusses his writing and his career with hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito.

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