Last week, I had the pleasure of accompanying Chef Monsta & Co to The Strand for a conversation with Middle Eastern superstar chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his co-chef and business partner Sami Tamimi, moderated by author Jonathan Safran Foer. Safran Foer sporting bed head, hipster glasses and tales of his own dinner parties was an adorable intermediary as he challenged the two chefs both born and raised in different parts of Jerusalem to share their personal food memories, culinary influences and recipe creation process.
Ottolenghi, the author of the best selling cookbook Plenty, and a formerly vegetarian column in The Guardian co-owns a number of successful Middle Eastern restaurants with Tamimi in London. The duo is passionate about Middle Eastern cuisine and aims to elevate the region’s rich culinary heritage above common perceptions of falafel and shwarma. In their new book, Jerusalem, the authors guide home cooks through many unique dishes one flavor at a time, and discuss the food of their childhoods. The power of food to evoke memories and conjure up emotional experiences transforms the culinary process for Ottoloenghi and Tamimi. When prompted by Safran-Foer to recall a favorite food, Tamimi described the fried cauliflower sandwiches seasoned with lemon and garlic that his mother, who passed away when he was 7, prepared for him and his siblings. Armed with only the memories of its taste and smell, Tamimi set out to recreate the recipe for the Fenugreek cake his mother would bake, testing and tasting each recipe variation until he had arrived at the configuration that precisely matched the recollections of his palate.
As I experienced firsthand when I tried to create a book of Moroccan family recipes, many home chefs cook from the heart without a measuring cup. In Jerusalem, Ottolenghi and Tamimi tackle the challenge Middle Eastern recipes which have not been explored by global chefs until recently and do not benefit from hundreds of years of testing and chronicling by great cooks the way French cuisine does. As the chefs demonstrate, both in the exquisite photography and in the sophisticated flavor profiles, the cuisine of Jerusalem goes far beyond a late night falafel. The rich hues and fragrances that are found in Ottolenghi’s recipes can be traced back to the trade routes of the Ottomon Empire and have influenced Syrian, Turkish, Greek and Yemenite cuisine for thousands of years. According to the authors, modern Israeli cuisine which has been gaining attention for its use of fresh ingredients, only recently begun to champion its Sephardic roots, finally laying aside the tradition of bland Kugels and gray stuffed cabbage for the more varied flavors of immigrant communities that had been shunned as second class citizens for far too long.
Like the place itself, staples of Jerusalem cuisine, pita, kibeh, falafel and depending on where you’re from, Israeli or Arab salad can be quite political. The name and origins of the recipe, the ingredients it contains (a purist falafel of just chickpeas vs. a falafel flavored with fresh herbs), and the best hole in the wall purveyors ( I am partial to the sabich sandwhich on Frischman street in Tel Aviv) are all subject to everyone’s opinion. Ottolenghi knows that the possibility of the Arab-Israeli conflict being settled over a plate of excellent humus is unlikely, but his easy rapport with Tamimi is inspiring and their collaborating has yielded a beautiful volume of recipes that demonstrates why this ancient city is so enticing.
Jerusalem’s recipes are measured out in grams and the chefs highly recommend using a scale rather than a measuring cup, which depending on how fine you chop and pack your herbs can skew your measurements. The book relies on an exhaustive list of spices which can intimidate the home cook, starting with C alone, they include Cinnamon, Cardamom, Cumin, Coriander and Cilantro! Yet, a fun field trip to your local spice market (Kalustyans, perhaps?) can assuage your worries and keep your pantry stocked as you cook your way through Jerusalem. The book features many dinner party worthy recipes that blend sophisticated flavors such as Arak and tangerine, Pistachio and ginger yet it also gets classics like chicken soup with dumplings and homemade humus down to a science.
As Proust pointed out in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, food memories are formative. For Mr. Ottolenghi, it is his Italian grandmother’s semolina Gnocci which has shaped his affinity for comfort food, and in Jerusalem he has a number of original Middle Eastern dishes which prove that this genre is beloved across all cultures. For me, the smell of charred peppers brings me back to Friday afternoons, after school, watching my mom make roasted pepper salad for Shabbat. As we explore new places, cook, eat, and taste new creations, our food memories multiply, yet perhaps the most powerful ones are rooted in childhood. That elusive icy cinnamon milkshake my Dominican babysitter would prepare for my sister and I recently re-entered my life when my husband bought me a Horchata at the Brooklyn flea !