Yotam Ottolenghi is not the first celebrity chef to make a culinary journey to the Mediterranean. Keith Floyd, Rick Stein, James Martin — you name them, they have all been there.
However, until the cook and food writer came along, Israel did not feature on the TV food map of the Med. Ottolenghi showed that those who ignored the land of his birth were missing a trick. This, after all, is a country made up of influences ranging from native Palestinian cuisine, Jewish food from around the globe and, superimposed on all of that, an innovative restaurant scene.
But for many, Israeli cuisine boils down to one dish — hummus. It predates Israel by several centuries, but this chickpea dip has been elevated into a national obsession. And at the best places, like Abu Hassan in Tel Aviv, there is a scrum every lunchtime. It is worth it, decided Ottolenghi. “This is heaven,” he said.
Meanwhile, across town, the man they call Dr Shakshuka was cooking his eponymous spicy stew of tomatoes and egg. Ottolenghi attempted his own, scattered with extras like pulped aubergine and preserved lemon. “Is this shakshuka?” he asked the doctor, who was looking on with some disdain. “If you want to call it shakshuka, you can,” he replied.
This was a lightning quick exploration of a varied food culture. There was a market-trader making flatbread snacks, an Arab chef cooking seafood in Jaffa, and Ottlolenghi doing what he is famous for, scattering pomegranate seeds over his salad.
It was a great climax to a quite brilliant series. No one speaks more eloquently about Mediterranean food than Ottolenghi. He observed the world’s thinnest pastry in Turkey, ate sheep’s brain in Morocco and cooked for a very severe-looking Jewish mother in Tunisia.
This is an Israeli who is rapidly becoming one of Britain’s national treasures.