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How Yotam Ottolenghi is inspired by Jerusalem’s culinary mish-mash

    Photo: Keiko Oikawa
    Photo: Keiko Oikawa

    Yotam Ottolenghi’s passion for the food of his homeland is no secret. Last year’s award-winning BBC4 documentary, Jerusalem on a Plate, was a very public love letter. Jerusalem’s food is, he says: “The perfect expression of a mish-mash of cultures”. It was this mixture of cuisines, he adds, that “inspired me to cook”.
    Now he and fellow chef, Sami Tamimi, one of the co-founders of the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants, have committed their passion to print with the recent publication of new cookbook, Jerusalem. For both cooks, the plundering of their culinary roots has been a bit of a U-turn.

    The men, who met while cooking in London, both grew up in Jerusalem but on different sides of the tracks. Ottolenghi is the Jewish son of German and Italian immigrant parents and Tamimi is of Palestinian parentage. Nonetheless, they found many shared food memories.
    “Our sensitivities and flavours were very similar,” Ottolenghi says. “The smells of the Judean hills — of za’atar and thyme; the same sized dice of chopped salad, for example; or the food we weren’t allowed to eat on our way home from school. I would arrive home late and covered in all the bits that had fallen out of the pitta.”

    When the pair founded their cafe chain, the food they cooked was new and different. “For eight years we never consciously looked back to Jerusalem.” he says. “The whole premise of Ottolenghi was to cook for the here and now without consciously basing our food on any cuisine,” he explains. Although the dishes they created did not look to the food of their home country, they were obviously influenced by the flavours they grew up with, as well as the food they had tasted on their travels in Asia and beyond.

    Their colourful recipes combined a whole raft of ingredients new to English cooks, including za’atar, sumac and pomegranate, combined with buckets of fresh herbs. “I have made my name on za’atar,” laughs Ottolenghi.
    But then Noam Barr, one their Ottolenghi business partners, suggested they might want to look to their background for inspiration.

    The book took nearly two years to write. In so doing, the pair relived the dishes of their youth, cooking and tasting the original recipes before reinventing them. “We were building up from our food alphabet,” explains Ottolenghi. Some recipes were created using dishes he terms as “emblematic”, such as hummus, chopped liver, babkes and falafel. “We included 30 or 40 of those recipes — the seminal foods of some of Jerusalem’s communities.”

    Many of the authentic dishes had to be changed as the original versions were either too complicated or fatty or sweet for Western tastes. “The amount of oil in many recipes was a relic of a time when the cooks simply had less of the other ingredients to use,” he says. Others just received an Ottolenghi twist. “A traditional Syrian lamb kibbeh was deconstructed and reinvented as a sort of layer cake,” he says.
    The remaining recipes were not based on particular dishes, but were created in their style, with the flavour of Jerusalem — flavours such as pomegranate molasses, chard and an ingredient new to this book, and bound to become another signature ingredient, date syrup.

    Traditional chopped salads were given an Ottolenghi-style spin by the addition of a dressing of soured buttermilk and yoghurt in which they soaked bread — a recipe they credit to Tamimi’s mother, Na’ama. The pair were also able to include other family recipes, including Tamimi’s mother’s fenugreek cake and several of Ottolenghi’s Italian paternal grandmother’s recipes for including polpettone (meatballs), salsina verde and poached ox tongue.

    As in his two previous cookbooks Ottolenghi and Plenty, Ottolenghi has tried to steer clear of complicated techniques. Jerusalem does include a couple of slightly more challenging techniques — stuffing kibbeh and making yeasted doughs. “I first had to learn how to stuff kibbeh myself, ” he laughs. “I really enjoyed it.”
    In his television programme, he says that “food can bring people together in a way nothing else could”. However, when asked if he thought opening an Israeli outpost of their popular restaurant chain would be possible, he shakes his head. “Sadly it would not work. There is more to our collaboration than being Palestinian and a Jew. Our background is not an issue here but there we would be reminded of it daily. It is depressing that everything is connected to the conflict. It’s not very cheerful but it is realistic,” he shrugs.
    Ottolenghi acknowledges that Jerusalem is not the only Israeli city producing fantastic food. “Tel Aviv is the most exciting place to eat in Israel,” he smiles. There new traditions are being created. In his view, Jerusalem’s food is more backward looking and for modern Israeli cuisine you should go to Tel Aviv and to Jaffe.
    But he is a fan of letting old recipes speak for themselves. “There is nothing like a good old recipe,” he says. “If it has lasted, then it is good.”

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