Let's Eat

The Israeli foodie creating dishes from her childhood in Tel Aviv

Limor Chen has launched her first cookbook My Tel Aviv Table


Limor Chen’s first cookbook My Tel Aviv Table is a love letter to the beach cafés, Bauhaus buildings, busy bazaars, bars and fusion foods of the city where she spent her formative  years, a cuisine she’s successfully brought to London at the Marylebone restaurant she runs with husband Amir.     

We first spoke just before the Hamas attack of October 7. I called her back a few weeks later. Her devastation was evident, the nostalgia for the foods of her youth now tinged with a terrible sadness. “These are the most horrific atrocities we have faced since the Holocaust. To drag people from their homes, from their safest place … This is why Israel was created that we would not have to feel that way anymore.”

Limor now lives in north-west London with Amir and their two children, but her sisters are in Israel where they are supporting the relatives of the hostages and the survivors of the  Supernova party.

Limor had planned an online promotional campaign for the book, but the massacre immediately put paid to that idea. “We could not put all this happiness out there on social media, it obviously was not right.”

My Tel Aviv Table,  full of (now) heart-achingly evocative images of sunshine-soaked Tel Aviv, will be published next week. It had already been picked by many food critics as their book of the month, with her recipes described as “more practical” versions of Ottolenghi’s.

Limor’s recipes are drawn from her home-cooking repertoire, inspired partly by the melting pot of Tel Aviv’s kitchens and partly by her parents.

Her father was a huge influence on her cooking style and know-how. “He loved cooking and using lots of herbs and spices and dried fruits, making dishes that were fragrant with many flavours and textures.

“He taught me how to combine sweet with sour and not to be afraid to experiment and to use my intuition.”

Like many Israeli families, her parents came from very different culinary backgrounds. Her father hailed from Iran and her mother and maternal grandmother’s heritage was from Odesa.

“My mother’s father was the sixth generation of his family living in Israel. My great grandpa was the Muktar (head) of the village — they lived near the Galilee. He spoke Arabic and Yiddish because that was how it was then and many of his closest friends were Arab. My mother could not have been more Israeli — her food was Ashkenazi but blended with the ingredients they had on the kibbutz where they lived.”

Limor was also close to her grandmother, auntie and uncle and would go and visit them on the kibbutz every chagim.

“Each Shavuot we’d have a feast with pecans, dates, bananas — we’d eat pecans all afternoon from the tree.”

She recalls her mother being way ahead of the healthy-eating curve: “In our kitchen, there were always discussions over the advantages of wholegrains, cider vinegar, turmeric, ginger, raw honeycomb, nutritional yeast, etc. Her health-consciousness was never extreme, but there was an underlying awareness of good nutrition.”

It was something that stayed with her. “It  was always at the back of my mind. I wanted to find ways to cook with less sugar, more herbs, to fry less and swap ingredients with healthier substitutes that still had lots of flavour.

“Most importantly, my mother, who was a teacher and always worked outside home, cooked delicious food using easy, quick recipes. When I became a mum, I began to appreciate these even more!”

And the 80 recipes in her book reflect that ethos, with plenty of simple dishes for the working parent who wants to feed their family proper food with punchy flavours. Some developed from memories of her family’s staples and others have been created since she and Amir founded the restaurants that now boast legions of fans.

“It was important that the dishes were easy to make at home — I was true to the way I make them in my kitchen.”

Writing the book opened a treasure chest of nostalgia for happier times and it took her on an emotional journey.

“I realised that a lot of the dishes are about memories, and where the tastes and smells take you. Some took me instantly back to where I was when I was a child, and it’s very special. Food has so much — the memories, the togetherness, the love, the giving, the generosity of making something for someone else and seeing how much they enjoy [it].”

Childhood memories have inspired many of the recipes — a cherry mousse reminiscent of the sundae she used to eat at a Dizengoff ice-cream parlour; venison-stuffed vine leaves that had been made in her father’s family for generations. There are also plenty of family favourites including her father’s koftas (a recipe now cooked by the Delamina chefs) and her mum’s courgette, carrot and feta fritters.

One recipe that epitomises the emotional journey was her maternal grandma’s poppy seed and orange cookies. “Being on a kibbutz, she didn’t cook much — you don’t need to — but she loved to bake.”

Limor recalls going to the huge kibbutz kitchen (in between meal services) to bake with her grandmother, who would bring boxes of treats when she came to see them in Tel Aviv. “She would bring us those cookies whenever she visited — we could not wait to open the tins and smell them!”

But  in later years, after her grandmother’s death, no one had the recipe, so Limor tried endlessly to recreate them.

“I finally managed it and that moment when I took them out of the oven and smelled them, I knew I’d recreated them! For me it was wow — in a split second it transported me to being with my grandmother and eating those cookies. It was quite overwhelming.”

Those happier times are the ones Limor wants to remember, and which we all look forward to celebrating again.

In the meantime, we can dine at Delamina, and make the recipes from her Israeli cookbook and make our own memories.

My Tel Aviv Table (published by Nourish) will be published on November 14

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