Back to our (herbal) roots

Chef Shai Gini of Topolino. ‘I would say that Jerusalemite food is first and foremost a simple cuisine, not too sophisticated, even conservative.’

Chef Moshe Basson (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Chef Moshe Basson
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The French have their wines, the Hawaiians have pineapples, and the Jerusalemites have the… Portulaca oleracea plant.
The common purslane, also known as verdolaga, can be found almost anywhere in the country and is rich in, among other things, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and magnesium.
According to chef Moshe Basson, the “regilat hagina,” as it is known in Hebrew, is one of the local plants that have made Jerusalem’s cuisine what it is, from biblical times until today – simple, healthy and available to the average person. Not that rich and sophisticated dishes weren’t present on ancient kings’ tables, but as a few local chefs point out, modest and predominantly vegetarian food is what has most defined the fare served and appreciated in this city throughout the centuries.
“There are a few kinds of typical Jerusalem food,” says chef Shai Gini of Topolino, a cozy Italian restaurant located in Mahaneh Yehuda. “You have the Sephardi cuisine originating in the community in the Old City, for example – [such as] the sofrito, which can be based on chicken or beef, with lots of onion, potatoes and spices, requiring a long time to cook – which pervaded the area long after the Jewish community left the Old City after 1948, and can still be found in almost any eastern restaurant in the city.”
However, he continues, “I would say that Jerusalemite food is first and foremost a simple cuisine, not too sophisticated, even conservative.”
Basson’s cuisine, meanwhile, renews ties with ancient and local traditions.
At his restaurant, Eucalyptus, dishes are prepared with only local ingredients – which he has identified via years of investigation, encounters with locals, and texts.
“Look at the Beduin food and cuisine – that’s more or less what our ancestors here cooked and ate,” he explains, but adds quickly that “you must be careful not to go after the romantic images. Beduin do not eat meat every day, as we might all think from movies or tales. On the contrary – most of the time they are on a vegetarian diet, and that’s probably what our forefathers did, too.”
Sephardi food from the Old City, kugel and pickles from hassidic courtyards, Italian cuisine adapted to the local flavors and ingredients – what, out of all these, can be considered original Jerusalem cuisine? “Well,” says Gini, “first of all, the use of fresh vegetables. Salads, mostly cut in tiny pieces, spices – but not hot spices, rather more through use of herbs. And when it includes meat, it will be slow cooking – very different from modern fast food.”
Gini and his partner, Ada Sasson, decided to open their restaurant after spending over 10 years in hi-tech.
“I knew from the beginning that I wanted a restaurant in the shuk, in order to serve simple, fresh and healthy food, based on ingredients I can buy here,” says Gini.
The two say that apart from a few dishes – which are mostly requested by tourists or visitors from outside the city – locals will order the simple and relatively light dishes, based on fresh produce from Jerusalem’s soil.
Gini and Sasson do their daily shopping in the market, where they get all the vegetables and cheeses they use.
“Topolino is a genuine trattoria,” explains Gini, “a place where [average] people eat when they are here, at the central market of the city or close to it.
So it may not be genuine ancient Jerusalem cuisine, but it is genuine locally bought and made food. I would say it is mostly our interpretation of food of a Sicilian origin, but completely adapted to our region, based strictly on our local products.”
For Basson, who received a medal of distinction from the Italian president for his service in preserving Jerusalemite and biblical traditional food, there is a constant need to preserve and revive.
“A food critic wrote, years ago, that what I have devoted myself to here is in a way what Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did with the Hebrew language,” he says. “I focus on reviving the most ancient traditions of food and cuisine linked to this land and, more particularly, to this city.”
ACCORDING TO both Gini and Basson, the basis of Jerusalem cuisine flows from the simple fact that throughout the city’s history, its residents were never wealthy. To have some meat, whether grilled or slow cooked, one first had to slaughter a sheep or cow – which was very expensive, and as such was done only rarely.
For the Jews, it happened on holy days, when they were required to eat meat – or in the case of the priests, who ate meat every day as part of their service at the temple, where sacrifices were offered.
“To this day, it is more or less the same with the Beduin in the region,” adds Basson. “They slaughter a sheep or a larger animal only for a special occasion, and then they will serve it in three different ways. First the parts which are grilled on the fire, then a soup made of other parts, and then, to close the feast, the cooked parts of the slaughtered animal. But that doesn’t happen very often – perhaps up to four or five times a year, usually.”
He stresses that one can get a sense of Jerusalem’s typical foods from the “present local Arab food habits, which represent almost certainly what our ancestors ate here – a cup of tea and some bread in the morning, sometimes some homemade butter, lots of herbs they collect.”
He cites “the famous hubeiza [mallow, a local edible weed], which served the residents of Jerusalem because of the shortage of food during the siege on the city in the War of Independence. Like in the days of the patriarchs, they had dates, very thin bread, vegetables and lots of herbs they used as spices, but the taste was as close as possible to the original taste of nature. At Eucalyptus, we serve some dishes based on these products;
they are very healthy.”
That doesn’t mean our forefathers didn’t like meat or wish to eat it more often, he continues. “When the men came home from the hard work in the fields, they probably requested a meal that included meat, but since meat was rare, the women found ways to overcome this problem.”
According to Basson’s research, the women apparently cooked grains and seeds with herbs and spices they found in the fields or close to home, and it came out tasting like meat.
He adds that some sources in the Bible back up his theory, such as the story of Esau and Jacob and the birthright.
“We all know that red lentils, once they are cooked, become yellowish. So obviously, Esau didn’t mean a plate of lentils when he begged Jacob to serve him that famous red stew, since it should have been yellow. But think for a moment – if cooked with the appropriate herbs and spices, the same lentils must have had the flavor of a meat stew – and that is what Esau must have believed he was getting in exchange for his seniority,” he suggests.
Another possibility, he says, is that Esau “simply requested his brother cook the meat he [Esau] had just hunted, but since he couldn’t wait, he actually ate it completely raw.”
Whether Basson’s theories are correct or not, there is no question that his cuisine – and that of several other chefs in the city – incorporates products that existed hundreds of years ago.
JERUSALEMITES’ APPROACH to food experiences also appears to have stayed the same – particularly as a leisure activity.
“Residents of Jerusalem are rather modest in their requests,” says Gini. “They are faithful to traditions, they like good food....
And here is a surprise – Jerusalemites eat a lot of fish, though we are far from any water source. Perhaps it is also a kind of tradition, linked to the Shabbat evening fish served over the years in practically all communities, but they do like fish, very much.”
Basson notes that “here, we have most of the herbs and spices mentioned in the Bible.
Take the Song of Songs: So many spices and herbs are mentioned there, but are still available here – za’atar, sumac and many more – and we still use them a lot.”
He says one dish has become traditional in Jerusalem, even though it was created elsewhere: the plate of rice and beans.
“It is so typically local – you can’t avoid it in any genuine local restaurant,” he says. “It enables the necessary mix of grains and beans, or the combination of rice and lentils [what we call mejadara], or green wheat, which is the basis for the special kind of pita that our forefathers used to eat in this season, between Passover and Shavuot.
And this is exactly what most of the Jerusalemites still eat these days.”
Basson has some other conclusions about today’s Jerusalemites and their customs. For example, as in ancient times, they drink wine, and sometimes grape juice or any juice available. Most of their meals are made up of one dish, although Basson hasn’t forgotten the reference to King Solomon’s habit of being served as many as 99 dishes per meal, especially on special occasions.
“I am aware of the fact that many Jerusalemites have become, over the years, a little more spoiled,” says the Eucalyptus chef. “Yet basically not much has changed. For example, eating out, at a fancy restaurant, will be something mostly done when there are guests from abroad or from outside Jerusalem – and not as a regular aspect of leisure time. But that [is more the case with] the older generation.”
Among young people, he says, “things are changing.
They go out for dinner in a fancy restaurant, order a three-course meal and drink the best wine – that is no longer so rare here.”
For Basson, this is not just a matter of cuisine. He insists that all of his research and experiments at his restaurant are aimed at one larger purpose – increasing awareness of the link between the local residents and the land in which we live, even in an urban environment.
“I’m trying to get the people here closer to our roots, to the awareness of agricultural life, around the seasons, the harvests, the life of the farmers, even if we are no longer farmers,” he says. “But at least we should not to be disconnected; otherwise, what does it mean to live here?” He adds, “It is much more than a food experience, but it certainly begins with food – food that I am careful to present as closely as possible to our ancient culture and heritage.”