A feast for the senses

Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, creators of London’s storied Ottolenghi brand, have now chronicled the flavors of their native Jerusalem.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (photo credit: Nomi Abeliovich)
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
(photo credit: Nomi Abeliovich)
With two books, two restaurants and three shops to his name, Israeli chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi has become a staple on the London food scene.
He has made it into the nation’s homes with his cookbooks and weekly column in one of Britain’s best-read weekend broadsheets, and the mere mention of his name among Londoners evokes exclamations about cakes, presentation or flavors.
Now from the Ottolenghi camp emerges a new book celebrating the food, diversity and culture of one of the world’s most famous cities. But it’s not London, not Paris and not New York. This book is about the food of Jerusalem, and its authors are Ottolenghi himself and Sami Tamimi, the two chefs behind the Ottolenghi brand.
Ottolenghi was raised in west Jerusalem in a Jewish household and had been moving steadily toward a career in academia and journalism. However, in his late 20s, the scent of something cooking wafted him off that path and to London. There, as a pastry chef at the Baker & Spice café, he met fellow native Jerusalemite Tamimi, who had been raised in an Arab family within the Old City. Now they have teamed up to write Jerusalem, an expression of all that they love about the city and its diverse culinary heritage.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with the pair in London to find out more about the city that inspired them both to realize their dreams.
Neither a biography of the city in food nor a chronicle of its culinary culture, Jerusalem offers the reader a journey through the markets and their ingredients, inviting the reader to take inspiration for his or her own table. The book starts with a long introduction on the city, making sure that for the first 10 pages, the context, the approach to the recipes and the history of Jerusalem are all laid out clearly for the intrepid culinary traveler.
Being the midpoint of Europe, Asia and Africa as a trade hub has caused large movements of people through the city over time, and with them have come their spices, ingredients and recipes. The chapters flow from vegetables to pulses and grains, soup, meat, fish – and if you thought there was no room for more, there are also savory pastries, sweets and even condiments.
To read the book cover-to-cover in one sitting might sound like an odd proposition, but strangely for a recipe book, the even flow of recipes, photographs and insets on informative gems provides the reader with just that opportunity.
Most poignantly the authors dedicate a section to the age-old issues of ownership. In the ever-bubbling cauldron of Middle Eastern identity politics, the “who-stolewhat- from-whom” always rears it head, especially when it comes to humous and felafel.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘You stole it!’ but it’s just ridiculous to say that any one food like that can belong to one person, one nation, one culture, when things are so mixed up,” says Ottolenghi. “This is why it is so stupid to try and redraw them and say this is Arab and this is Jewish, that’s Yemeni [etc.]. So the Yemeni Jews took the felafel that was already there, and they added the s’hug, and now it’s something very different – and you have to ask, where does it end?”
Well-known food writer Claudia Roden has opened people’s minds to the variety of Middle Eastern food, collating, documenting and charting the region’s cuisine throughout her career. But what Ottolenghi and Tamimi are doing is different: It’s more of a fusion.
“This is something that we thought and expressed from the start – nobody can do it as well as she [Roden] does. For us, the book wasn’t to be a document of all of the food of Jerusalem, it is more for us to be inspired. It’s more the food the we find delicious in that city. We find it, we take it, we ‘Ottolenghify’ it and we present it to the reader in a way that really suits our sensitivities.”
Of course, the burning question that has occupied the UK press since the announcement of the book’s launch is on their backgrounds – an Israeli and a Palestinian, a Jew and an Arab who are both Jerusalemites.
Apologetically I ask that question, how some people may see these different backgrounds as more important than the making of food.
“I always have a standard answer to this,” says Ottolenghi. “We are individuals, we are close, we are friends, we work well together, and in none of our incarnations or daily actions are we ever political here in London. It never becomes an issue. We work with so many people from so many places in the world – there’s Brazilian, French and Polish [as well].”
Adds Tamimi, “I look at it like this: We have a Malaysian chef, for example, [and] I share a lot with him because the food brings us together, but with Yotam, sure, there is a little more there because we are good friends as well. We are individuals and we love food.”
Speaking to them and looking through the book, one gets a real sense of the small details of daily life in Jerusalem. One thing everyone shares there is food – talking about food, eating food and cooking food from morning to night. This spirit of the universal delightfully exists between the book’s pages in its most natural and unfettered form. The only manipulations in print are done in the altering and tweaking of recipes to make them more manageable.
Despite the authors’ claim that they haven’t chronicled the city’s recipes, there are over 300 pages of culinary joy, combined in what can only be dubbed a feast for the senses. Having eaten a lot in Jerusalem, this writer would say this is not a list of everywhere to eat; there are dozens of websites with that information. What this book is, is an inspiration, and well worth the purchase.