“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
James Beard, renowned American chef and author
Yes, food is a universal experience, but an experience filled with deeply particular, personal memories. When sense and sensation, texture, color, and flavor merge with images of the people who cooked for you and ate with you, the power of those memories can last a lifetime. They can even send you on a quest back to your childhood home to try to recreate those beloved dishes.
Such is the story behind Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s stunning new cookbook, Jerusalem.
Ottolenghi is an highly regarded chef and owner of four eponymous deli-cafe restaurants, as well as NOPI, a more formal restaurant, all in London. His first two cookbooks, Ottolenghi (with head chef and restaurant partner, Sami Tamimi), and Plenty, were critically acclaimed bestsellers. Ottolenghi’s recipes, mostly vegetarian, are filled with bright, fresh ingredients and dazzling combinations of flavors. The food is beautiful to look at and divine to eat.
Jerusalem is all of this and more. Both men were born in Jerusalem in 1968; Yotam in Jewish West Jerusalem, and Sami in Arab East Jerusalem. Together they bring the reader back to the Jerusalem of their childhoods, with its kaleidoscope of cuisines and bold flavors.
It is a cookbook, but also a deeply personal culinary memoir, a soulful recounting of authentic food from a beloved, complicated place. The stunning photographs of Jerusalem will bring an ache of recognition to all who have walked its labyrinth alleys. When I first saw the book I was torn — should I start at once to cook my way through it? Or just jump on the next flight to Israel?
The trip will have to wait. For now, I am happily cooking my way through another Ottolenghi cookbook. Dishes such as “Open Kibbeh” a fresh take on the traditional bulgar and lamb dumplings, and “Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak” are bringing Jerusalem’s knockout flavors to our table.
The recipes are interspersed with the authors stories and wry observations on who “owns” ubiquitous food like hummus and tomato-cucumber salad. The many immigrant groups who have come and left their culinary mark are given their due, but there is no attempt whatsoever to be “even-handed”. Ottolenghi and Tamimi present the foods that they remember and love best- and their passion is contagious.
Their mouth-watering journey will become yours.
I was able to catch up with Ottolenghi by phone to pose a few questions. Gracious, warm and generous with his time, here’s what he had to say to TC Jewfolk readers:
TC Jewfolk: Yotam, what made you write this very personal kind of cookbook?
Yotam Ottolenghi: It goes back to where we started…it has to do with age, with curiosity, looking for something new and different. At some point in life you become more sentimental.
TCJ: Your book is built around the power of food memories from childhood. How can today’s busy families build such memories for their children?
YO: You have to be realistic — you can’t demand that people cook complicated food every day. It’s very important to make time, sometimes, on the weekends or a couple of times a week, as long as there are moments where food becomes special, where you have allocated that time and space in the day. Then, I think you are going to create these deep kind of memories.
TCJ: Can you suggest some recipes that are good entry point for people who are new to your style?
YO: “Barley Risotto with Marinated Feta” is approachable and full of flavor. It’s barley cooked in tomato sauce, topped with marinated feta cheese, easy to make and wonderfully strong flavors of tomato and citrus, spices; it’s got everything that the typical palate of my food has.
Also: “Saffron Rice with Barberries, Pistachios, and Mixed Herbs.” It’s cooked in the Persian way, not such work but the result is very colorful and delicious.
And: “Panfried Sea Bass with Harissa and Rose,” a fish dish from Tunisia. It’s sweet, sour, spicy, its wonderful.
TCJ: Let’s turn for a moment to the political, which is unavoidable with a story like yours. Do you think that you and Sami, whom you met in London, could have had such success if fate had brought you together in Israel?
YO: Unfortunately it only worked away from Israel. As I see it, being away from all this pressure and daily tension was the only way to do it. In Jerusalem it would not have worked. Collaborations like this are rare or don’t really exist.
TCJ: What lessons can be drawn from the successful collaboration that you and Sami share?
YO: Lot of lessons that can be drawn. On the personal level it very often can work….all you need is to respect the fact that the basic, basic teaching of every possible religion is treat the other as you would like to be treated yourself. Jews, Arabs, I think a lot of people forget to do that. It is an age-old lesson.
TCJ: Please indulge my imagination for a moment. If there were ever serious, true negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, where both sides came to the table in good faith, ready to deal, wouldn’t it be beautiful to start that process with you and Sami cooking the meal?
YO: If someone offered me that opportunity I would grab it with two hands, but it has to be a genuine negotiation. We’ve had so many unsuccessful ones. That would be a huge honor and we would come up with the most amazing menu for that occasion!
What about the “hummus wars”? Serve it or avoid it?
The last thing you want to do is avoid objects in the Middle East because if you are going to try to avoid areas of dispute then you are going to end up cooking nothing. Better to face it head on and deal with it, and do your own version. Even in the book we don’t try to pacify anyone. The idea is we do what we like most and you can take it or leave it. People need to be less careful and just enjoy what there is to offer, but offer it in a very respectful way.
Note: Searching for ingredients for these recipes? Try Holyland Deli and Market at 2513 Central Ave. NE and also at the Mid-town Global Market, 920 East Lake Street, both in Minneapolis.
(Photo: Jonathan Lovekin)