Part A: The Book
It’s difficult to categorize Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking”. Full of family history and personal anecdotes, the book reads like a memoir, liberally sprinkled with recipes and descriptions of ingredients. With glossy pages and bright color photographs, the spices and prepared dishes practically leap off the page to conquer your taste buds. It’s such a beautifully produced book that it almost deserves to be displayed on a coffee table more than subject to the wear and tear of a busy and messy kitchen.
In “Zahav”, Solomonov and Cook present a trailblazing understanding of Israeli food and culture. While it includes renditions of such staples as challah, brisket, honey cake, and rugelach, this is not your grandmother’s Jewish cookbook. Unless your grandmother lived in Palestine before Israel became a state, and had incorporated all of the local Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences into her cooking, along with strong contributions from Europe, North Africa, North America, and everywhere else that would send emigrants to Israel over the next 70 years. The result in an incredibly vibrant cuisine, one that celebrates the diversity of the Israeli experience and opportunity of incorporating multiple food traditions into one kitchen, if not quite into a single melting pot.
The one culinary nod to specifically Jewish cooking is the authors use a few basic kosher regulations to establish their definition of Israeli cuisine. None of the recipes as written in this book are made with pork or shellfish, and none include both meat and dairy. They are clear that this decision is not the result of a religious conviction, but that it is one way to differentiate Israeli food from Greek, Turkish, Syrian and other similar and neighborly dishes.
Readers and cooks who have traveled in Israel will easily relate to Solomonov’s stories, although his tone sometimes veers unnecessarily towards the brash. The explanations of ingredients, especially the elevation of the humble sesame seed and magnification of the wonders of schmaltz, are informative and fun. As is to be expected in such a trendy book, the endless focus on fresh and even select (and very pricey) ingredients eventually becomes tiresome.
This book will be loved by the ambitious cook with deep pockets and time to experiment in the kitchen. Those with close connections to the land of Israel will enjoy the personalized and sensual tour of the country’s history, people, landscape, tastes, and smells.
Everyone will love the gorgeous photographs, but many will not find frequent occasion to use it to cook.
Exactly how useful this book is as a cookbook will be covered in Part B of this review… stay tuned for the report on the Israeli feast! It’s time to make some hummus.