Chef and restaurateur Solomonov’s third cookbook, Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious (HMH/Martin, Oct.), makes Israel’s melting-pot cuisine accessible to home cooks.
Your earlier books were restaurant focused. What’s the inspiration behind Israeli Soul, which includes stories and photographs of people and places in Israel?
The book takes the reader to Israel: to the kiosk, to the street market at 2 a.m., to the home for Shabbat dinner, to the various kinds of restaurants. We peel apart the different layers that make up Israeli cuisine. The last place we were shooting [for the book] was on the beach in the north near the Lebanese border. We were starving afterward and we were driving, and our friend said, “There’s this Lebanese restaurant up here.” It was Lebanese-Druze-northern Galilee. No menus. The table was covered in plates of tabbouleh, everything else you can imagine. That is Israel. If I could drag people to Israel on my back I’d love to do that, but this is the second best thing.
What do you think will surprise readers most about the book?
There is an accessibility that people don’t comprehend because the Middle East is still mysterious, exotic. It’s the last bastion. People know Spain, Italy. People have explored Asia. But this book is also about making excellent hummus in five minutes using a can [of chickpeas] and a food processor. I think people will be surprised that they’ll be able to pick up ingredients in the supermarket and farmer’s market and make this food successfully and wow people with very little effort.
Israel just celebrated its 70th anniversary. At this point, how do you define Israeli food?
If you go from the Second Temple period to right now, there’s a lot of content. There are 100 or so cultures and gastronomies that have made their way back to Israel from medieval Spain, North Africa, all over the world. There’s the Ottoman influence, the Persian influence, the Palestinian influence, Druze and Levant, every major holiday celebrated by every monotheistic religion, the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Galilee—not to mention ancient and modern agriculture and winemaking, the convergence of the Silk Road. These have all combined to make Israeli cuisine a living and breathing thing. The influx of Ethiopian and Georgian immigrants is continuing to change it.
What are the biggest food trends in Israel?
People have started to do some great Israeli cuisine. They’re not embarrassed by the food they grew up with. Rather than going to Europe or the States and coming back and opening fancy restaurants, they’re saying, “My safta [grandmother] used to make this.” And Israel is an island from a trade perspective. Nothing comes from more than 100 miles outside the country. The cucumbers have been grown in the desert 10 miles or 20 miles away. Why not celebrate those things?