Let's Eat

Bringing the Bible back to our plates

Moshe Basson is passionate about cooking with Israel’s ancient and native foods


Foraging and freekeh (an ancient grain) may be new and trendy for foodies round these parts, but both have been on Jerusalem-based chef Moshe Basson's menu for years. Known as "Israel's biblical chef", Basson - whose family emigrated to Israel as refugees from Iraq in the 1950s when he was nine months old - has a range of culinary influences and a long-standing interest in the native foods of his country.

"When I started, I mixed the cooking styles of my mother and grandmother with herbs from the foods of the Arabs who lived near us," he says. "Many of these, like hyssop, za'atar and wild thyme, had their roots in biblical times."

The Arab women and goatherds of the villages near where he grew up taught him how to forage for these herbs on the hillside around his home. His father taught him the names and culinary and medicinal uses of the plants that they grew in their home garden. The Bassons had arrived penniless, and were housed in a nine by 11ft aluminium shed with neither electricity nor water. His father's hard graft took them out of this poverty.

"We had been banned from taking jewellery with us when we left Iraq, but my father managed to smuggle out some gold. With that, my family were able to buy a bakery on the edge of Jerusalem."

One oven in the bakery was reserved for Arab villagers, and although the kosher Basson could not taste what they baked, he was captivated by their foods, which included a wide range of local herbs, spices and leaves.

In the late 1980s, Basson's fascination with Israel's native and biblical foods eventually led him to a cooking career. He admits that he was initially reluctant and destiny more than choice led him into the kitchen. "My brother opened a restaurant in 1986, even though he could not cook an omelette. I was helping him a little with his work but got sucked in and enjoyed it. I loved to cook but I was not a chef."

The kitchen of that restaurant was the house in which they had grown up as children and took its name from the eucalyptus tree Basson himself had planted as a child for Tu Bishvat in 1960, and around which they served their customers.

The Eucalyptus restaurant - now in Jerusalem's Artists' Colony - has had several locations in its 25 years. Basson - who also represents Israel in international competitions and expositions, and educates others in his philosophy on foraging - admits that he learned his trade on the job. "I hired cooks to work with me and watched and learned from them and discovered what I liked."

His menus are peppered with ingredients foraged from the hillsides around Jerusalem like fresh hyssop pesto, which Basson makes with walnuts and olive oil.

"Hyssop is a cousin of oregano but with more delicate leaves and a fresher taste."

Basson explains that hyssop is used by Arabs as a condiment, dried and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac - which is another now popular ancient ingredient.

In New York, freekeh is billed "the latest grain" but, says Basson, it first got airplay in the Bible. "David took it into battle when he killed Goliath and cavemen probably found it when foraging," he says.

The grain, Basson explains, is a species of wheat picked when unripe and green, because if left until mature and yellow, half the grains drop out when picked. To protect the crop, the green wheat is picked and then put into a fire to roast off the husks, which gives it a smoky flavour.

Basson is also a founder member of Chefs for Peace, a movement begun when Jerusalem-born Armenian chef Kevork Alemian watched his Christian, Jewish and Muslim colleagues working in perfect harmony in the kitchen. "He saw them working like brothers and felt it was something that we could do together - to cook and eat with no talk of politics."

At first Basson did not want to get involved. "I don't like to be involved in anything too political so I said I would help out but did not want my name involved."

But when he was in Italy, taking part in a cookery competition with Yakoub Saldif, a Christian chef from a neighbouring Jerusalem restaurant, an inaccurate newspaper article in an Italian newspaper changed his mind.

"They said that Yakoub and I were only able to meet and be friends when outside Israel. People only see the fire and blood here, and don't really know what it's like. In any kitchen there are Jews and Muslims working together, laughing and drinking together without any politicians."

Basson is keen to show how life really is in Israel. "In any moment on a Jaffe street you'll find all faiths. We're all there."

But for those not planning a trip to the Holy City in the near future there will be an opportunity to meet Basson when he appears at Gefiltefest 2015 on June 28.

Basson will be cooking up some of his recipes at the festival. "I will be demonstrating some dishes from my menu, including savoury stuffed figs, Jacob and Esau's red lentil soup and wild herb pesto," he says.

He will also be revealing the stories behind the dishes. And for those who want more than the tasters on offer at the demonstration, Basson will also be cooking a special six-course menu with Zest's Eran Tibi at JW3's Zest on June 24.

The JC is media partner to Gefiltefest

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