When chef Moshe Basson closes his eyes to smell the wild herbs routinely overflowing from his shirt pocket, he sometimes forgets if he is in ancient or modern Jerusalem.
The connection between modern cooking and native and folkloric traditions inspires his culinary life - and now, the latest reincarnation of his Eucalyptus restaurant.
A few hundred meters down and across from Jerusalem's Old City, he says this seventh location for his restaurant is the culmination of a dream to set down roots in a historic setting.
On the lower level, with its entrance in the Hutzot Hayotzer artists' colony, part of the nearly 150-year-old Yemin Moshe neighborhood, the restaurant that opened last week serves meat and vegetable dishes inspired by ancient local traditions. The upper and outdoor levels, facing the Old City walls, David's Citadel, King David's tomb and the Dormition Abbey on one side, and the skyline of Yemin Moshe on the other, will be a cafe called Sabras, where lighter locally inspired dairy and vegetarian foods will be served to live harp music. Basson is also working with the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Fund with hopes of adding a biblical garden in the surrounding greenery.
In his new office, lavender, hyssop, bay leaves and dried garlic bulbs are scattered among a mess of papers and books. His shirt pocket overflows with wild basil, sage and lemon verbena.
"I always have herbs on me," he says, calling them his inspiration and talisman. Picking one up at a time, he jumps from stories of perfume in the Song of Songs and the incenses used in the Second Temple to the aromas that recall his own childhood.
Basson was born in Iraq in 1950 and grew up in an immigrant transit camp in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood. His parents opened a bakery in the neighboring Arab village of Beit Safafa, and the scents of bread, cake and local cooking infuse his memories.
His first Eucalyptus restaurant was opened in 1986 around the namesake tree that he planted on Tu Bishvat as a child. Since then, he has been known as a food folklorist, a wild and native food activist, and as 'the biblical chef.'
What are your first memories of Jerusalem?
All the Jewish people from Amara, near Basra, came to Jerusalem. Some, like my great grandmother came a year or two before us and lived in Musrara, and the rest of my family came during Passover in 1951. We lived up to seven people in Talpiot in a seven-square-meter tin shack with no floor. You were lucky if you had a proper floor. The refugee shacks made from wood were the luxurious ones, like the ones in Kiryat Hayovel. By us, there was only one tap for water for 5,000 people, so there was always a line, 24-hours-a-day. The worst thing was the stinking so-called toilet, a hole in the ground for everyone. There were many bad smells, but I remember the smell of sweet halla and black bread baking in the oven.
A lot of native Israelis don't know about the ma'abarot; for them refugees are Palestinian. I am anxious to build a ma'abara museum.
When we moved to a 16-square-meter stone house, with a toilet outside with a seat and a small garden, it was like a villa. There were all the fruit trees, vegetables and chickens you could imagine. I remember the smell of the freshly ground allspice and dry etrog my father would add to the smelling tobacco, or the other herbs that he would bring to the synagogues at the end of Shabbat. I also remember the smell of the meats my neighbor, auntie Zeinab in Beit Safafa, made and how I fantasized to eat her [non-kosher] dishes, like Moses who sees the Promised Land and cannot enter.
I grew up in the traditions of the east. The traditions of my Jewish ancestors since the days of the prophets and kings blend with the traditions of the Palestine Arabs and the traditions of Iraq.
How did you start foraging for herbs and food?
My father used to pick wild leeks for omelets. My teacher, Nehama, used to take us on sunny days into nature and showed us the khubeiza [mallow] herb that her family ate when Jerusalem was under siege [in 1948]. And this guy from Beit Safafa used to plow our yard and I would ride a mule and follow his son Mustafa to the wadi between Mekor Haim and the Katamonim, that is today the Talpiot industrial zone. He herded goats and sheep, and I saw him picking wild peas. I was afraid it was poison and brought some home to my mom. Eventually we tried it and it was sweet and delicious and we started to trust him. I also learned from him how to cook with cyclamen so that it's not poisonous.
Later, when I was a chef, I would go to the Damascus Gate and talk to the Arab farmers and field workers who sold greens they found foraging and that were not found in the Jewish markets. Jews from Iraq come from a different climate. They knew about the plants here because they stayed in touch with Jerusalem and Hebron all through the exile, but they had no knowledge of finding or using herbs. The Halabi [Syrian Jews from Aleppo] had more practical knowledge, because the climates are more similar. Palestinians here on this ground were the keepers of our traditions.
When you go out into nature with your father and sisters and people with more experience, this is tradition. People pass on knowledge, but without schools, without lectures. I feel the tradition of herbs and medicine from nature is ultimately passed down from God. It is a common knowledge and you have to know how to soak up the knowledge. I know it might be in our mind, but for me it's there and maybe it's [in the] soul. You could also call it a collective wisdom.
What did Jerusalemites eat for their three meals, 2,000 years ago?
It seems they ate only two meals a day. And like the Americans, they started their day with cereal grains and sometimes with milk and [date] honey or bread dipped in olive oil and vinegar. For the main meal in evening, they ate grains and legumes. They also ate squash, zucchini, cucumbers and common truffles, each thing in season, and all the food from the seven species. There are archeological findings that they ate beans and lentils, which, of course, are also mentioned in the Bible. Meat and fish they primarily ate on the holidays. Those that could eat meat and fish every day were the priests and the wealthy.
Today, whose recipes are closest to the recipes of the Bible and ancient Holy Land?
According to the traditions that we see in the Torah, from the story of Abraham greeting the angels with a meal, the food is identical to the meat and grain meal cooked in butter that Beduin will make today for guests. The rest of the time the Beduin diet was also identical to how people in the Holy Land ate on typical days - a vegetarian diet, based primarily on bread, butter, some cheese, sometimes eggs and occasionally fruits.
Workers of the land [in ancient times] ate in a way more similar to the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese kitchens of today - more olive oil and vegetables, higher-quality bread and a wider variety of grains and legumes.
In the Iraqi kitchen today - maybe because of the continuously strong connection to the land here through exile - you can also find traditional foods from ancient times, like a haroset of date syrup and walnuts, and other food customs and traditional foods mentioned in the Mishna.
Traditional Palestinian farmers still eat and cultivate many wild species of plants. Why did the use of wild plants fall out of use in most other areas here?
In 1948 when people were eating khubeiza, as well as during the time of the Bible, it was considered poor people's food. After 1948, there were also many types of cultivated vegetables that pushed khubeiza to the side.
The modern lifestyle doesn't leave time for the proper way of life. Sometimes it is exactly the situation of hunger, unemployment and lack of advancement that has helped indirectly to preserve the important traditions of using herbs and wild plants.
The new "Slow Food" movement that I am involved with is trying to preserve this ancient tradition.
Lately there have been a number of arguments that Israeli Jews claimed Palestinian recipes as their own. Did Israel steal felafel?
I and the other Arab Muslim and Christian chefs in Chefs for Peace [a group committed both to coexistence and culinary excellence] think this argument is nonsense. There are similar food traditions all over the region, though here some things are different because of kashrut. Last year the Lebanese claimed tabouli, like the Greeks claim feta cheese. The Arab countries responded that tabouli was actually here long before Lebanon. Felafel is Egyptian. More than 100 years ago, it was the street food in Egypt but not in Palestine.
If I'm stealing something that means I'm saying it's mine. But sometimes if I try your recipe, it does not mean it's mine and it also may no longer be yours because, though maybe you found the recipe, I will experiment with it, change it and maybe I will make it famous. I'm waiting for people to say that I stole magluba [upside-down rice and chicken dish]. I'm not putting a sign on my food. I eat to survive.
Felafel is cheap for people who can't afford to eat meat. So why don't we talk about rice and beans or rice and lentils? This is also cheap food and it is real Jerusalemite food, but you can also say rice and beans or rice and lentils are Egyptian or Indian or South American or influenced by Jewish hamin [cholent], because sometimes similar foods develop in many places simultaneously.
Anyway, Jews and not only Muslim Arabs come from Iraq and Persia and Egypt and India, and the foods of Palestine developed under the Ottoman Empire. So I don't look at these as food of Jews, Christians or Muslims. What you can say is that if something has pork in it, it is probably Christian. But all the rest of the foods are developed naturally. You can't say wheat belongs to one group or another. It is food, not a trademark. When it started and spread, it wasn't about who put a flag down first.
What is Israeli food? Is there something unique that has developed here?
Israeli food is a mix of traditional foods from the Levant and foods from Eastern Europe, with a growing influence from the various international and local cultures and the kitchens on TV. Now there are also unique biblical elements that are starting to return to the modern kitchen. More and more Israeli chefs are looking at local ingredients rather than what French cuisine, for example, is offering. They are starting to understand that the best foods use local ingredients, and what we have is clean and good and we can be proud of it. For example, almost every chef in Israel now uses pomegranate, one of the seven species. When I started using pomegranate in recipes, I was one of the few. I'm very happy it has come back into use.
What other biblical/ancient foods are not made in Israeli cooking that you would like to make popular again?
If we look back to the Bible stories about the Second Temple, it was clear that incense and a form of couscous were also offered. Couscous is thought of as a North African dish, but for me the Bible is the real source and I believe that this Second Temple era couscous was actually made with a very fine bulgur. I explained this when I won the world couscous championship in Italy several years ago, and eight or nine years later I sent my son Ronni to the competition with this recipe that I call King Solomon's couscous, and he also won. We serve this at the restaurant using local ingredients and ingredients from the Bible, and I would be very happy to make this dish popular.
I would also like to popularize my stuffed figs, and other dishes I make using rich, local game meats - pheasant and quail, and wild Jerusalem sage, purslane and khubeiza, which are now considered bad weeds. My recipe for khubeiza meatballs without meat is from the 1948 siege. And hopefully, I'll find the secret of manna [the food the Israelites ate for 40 years in the desert].
Why is it so important to you to look to Torah and Mishna and history for inspiration in your cooking?
Maybe it's not primarily a matter of searching for the past, but I also get so much enjoyment from the search because it's so interesting. Perhaps it's also a feeling of bringing new life into the Israeli kitchen through invention. n
December 10 is International Slow Food Day/Terra Madre Day, which is observed by more than 100 countries around the world. Chef Moshe Basson, Chefs for Peace and the David Yellin College are sponsoring the Israeli celebration, with one event for school children (closed to the public) and another for adults at 8 p.m. The chefs will explain the value of using local, natural ingredients and returning to the tradition of having family meals. There will also be a food tasting, a talk with members of Chefs for Peace and a live video hook-up to the international headquarters of the event in Italy. To participate, members of the public must sign up by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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