There are now Israeli restaurants all over the world and in cities around the United States, but perhaps the greatest cheerleader for Israeli food ways is Chef Michael Solomonov. He and his business partner, Steven Cook, have been pivotal in bringing Israeli cuisine to America, and show no signs of stopping.
Starting with their restaurant, Zahav, which opened in Philadelphia ten years ago; to the cookbook of the same name, which brought that food to the rest of us; to their hummusiya in Philadelphia, Dizengoff, which is still the standard for hummus in the Mid-Atlantic area; to their participation in the movie In Search of Israeli Cuisine; to Goldie (their falafel joints), everything has been with the goal of bringing Israeli cuisine to a wider audience.
With their new book, Israeli Soul, Solomonov and Cook are now trying to take us with them to Israel to appreciate the flavors of Israel even more deeply. And this time, the focus is on simple, everyday Israeli food and inspiring home cooks to recreate these foods in our own kitchens.
I was able to catch up with the busy Solomonov (I think we counted 13 restaurants and three cookbooks to date) first as he traveled back to Philadelphia by train and again while he was driving to New York the next morning. As we spoke, he animatedly described the thinking behind the book and revealed his passion for the project.
He wants us to experience the “exoticism, smells, spices and deliciousness” of Israel, but still be able to experience this in a small, perhaps ill-equipped kitchen. We talked about how they found a way to create an “exquisite” lamb shawarma without a rotisserie, a “five-minute” hummus that only dirties the bowl of the food processor and a “simple and delicious” konafi (also known as knafeh, a traditional Arab dessert made of noodle-like pastry and a sweet cheese filling) in a sauté pan.
With vivid photos and stories, Israeli Soul takes us to a variety of stands, carts and restaurants around the country and introduces us to the chefs and makers. It also provides recipes designed to be made with what Solomonov colorfully described as “four burners and a sh*#*ty oven.” As evidence of this, he told me that they tested and photographed all the recipes in the one-bedroom apartment he lived in at the time.
I can vouch for the 5-Minute Hummus with Quick Tahina Sauce. As promised, it’s easy and delicious, using canned chickpeas and an improbable amount of tahina (aka tahini). Is it as smooth and creamy as the hummus in the Zahav cookbook? Not exactly, but if you simply can’t wait to soak dried beans and don’t want to fuss with a pot and a strainer, this is a solution.
I’ve tabbed so many recipes in this book that it will take me all winter to try them. In addition to the lamb shawarma, there are options using chicken thighs or cauliflower. Others that jumped out at me are the Turkish Salad, Roasted Eggplant with Peppers and Persian Meatballs with Beet Sauce, which looks vibrant and festive with its jewel-toned sauce.
I’m most excited about the section on sabich, the gloriously messy pita sandwich of Iraqi-Jewish origin, which I adore and which is so elusive in the US. There is a recipe for each component of the sandwich: fried or baked eggplant, the tangy mango condiment called amba, sliced hard boiled eggs, tahina sauce and salad. With these sub-recipes in hand, I can make the whole thing from scratch or buy some components and make just the egg and eggplant.
According to Solomonov, sabich is a uniquely Israeli dish—Iraqi Jews brought the custom of eating eggplant with egg and tahina on Shabbat morning to Israel where it then evolved into a pita sandwich—among the diversity and pluralism that constitutes Israeli cuisine. In the book, they describe visits to sabich stands all over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and explain that there is now ongoing argument, as with hummus or falafel, about whose is best.
For those of us who’ve been to Israel, flipping through this book is an aching reminder of dipping an onion slice into an impossibly creamy bowl of hummus, biting into a crispy schnitzel, eating a sabich with tahina dripping down your arm, seeing an array of salatim (salads) arriving at the table for the first time. For those of us who haven’t yet been, Solomonov and Cook hope Israeli Soul is an alluring invitation to visit Israel and explore what they see as the soul of Israel for ourselves. In the meantime, they provide us with the means to recreate a little of that soul right at home.
Want to meet the Philly duo behind this cookbook and the restaurants? Join Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy on November 14 at 6:30 pm to connect with women from across our community, enjoy delicious food and great conversation and be inspired by the stories of award-winning restaurateurs and cookbook authors Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, moderated by Joan Nathan. Register here.