I was once chatting about food with a cab driver in Jerusalem on a Friday at midday, and he offered a detour to his mother’s apartment to see the Kurdish Shabbat dishes she was preparing. I happily agreed, and soon was lifting lids on the many pots still simmering on her stove — fragrant soup, stuffed vegetables, spiced rice, with Moroccan-inspired salads already on the table. This was Jerusalem home cooking at its best: fresh ingredients, bold flavors, great hospitality but no recipes. She cooked it all, literally, by heart.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s new cookbook, “Jerusalem” (Ten Speed Press) presents 120 recipes of Jerusalem’s mothers and grandmothers, Arabs and Jews, sometimes fathers too, some reinvented and some newly inspired for contemporary cooks. Stunningly presented with full-color photos of the dishes and Jerusalem scenes along with a history of the city, the book follows Ottolenghi’s best-selling vegetarian cookbook published last year, “Plenty.”
“There is something about the heated, highly animated spirit of the city’s residents that creates unparalleled delicious food,” they write. While the city has many culinary traditions, many local cooks start with the same palette — olive oil and lemon; locally grown fruits and vegetables like artichokes, cauliflower, beets, eggplants, figs, pomegranates and herbs; lamb and chicken; freshly baked breads; bulgur and other grains. Almost everyone eats chopped-up cucumbers and tomatoes, but there is disagreement about the proper size of the dice.
“Jerusalem” is a book with a great back story that speaks to the city’s history and diversity, and that also hopes for peaceful coexistence. The co-authors, now chefs in London, were each born in 1964 in Jerusalem and grew up there, Ottolenghi in West Jerusalem and Tamimi in the eastern part of the city. When they met for the first time in London, they discovered that they shared certain tastes, longings for Middle Eastern flavors and textures, and inherited cooking styles. They worked together in a food shop and then in 2001 opened their own place and called it Ottolenghi (as Tamimi recently told The New Yorker, the place was Yotam’s investment, his vision and dream).
Now, Ottolenghi owns a group of acclaimed restaurants/food shops in London that bear his name. Tamimi is a partner and head chef. The two men collaborated on another earlier cookbook, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.”
It has been 20 years since either of them lived in Jerusalem, but for both the city is home. They write, “Not home in the sense of the place you conduct your daily life or constantly return to. In fact, Jerusalem is our home almost against our wills. It is our home because it defines us, whether we like it or not.” It is as though the city’s flavors and aromas were its “culinary DNA,” its “mother tongue.”
Ottolenghi’s parents were born in Israel to Zionist families; his mother’s family is German and his father’s is Italian. He served in the Israeli Army and then went to Tel Aviv University where he studied philosophy. Just after completing his master’s thesis, he changed directions and headed to cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu London, and then took on a number of cooking jobs in London. Tamimi left school at 15 and worked in restaurants. Later, he moved to Tel Aviv, again cooking in restaurants, including a fashionable new place. He moved to London in 1977 after a woman who loved his food kept offering him a job.
While they do include a recipe for clear chicken soup with knaidlach, matzah balls (turns out that Tamimi is well known for his knaidlach), potato latkes (mixed with parsnips and chives) and roasted potatoes with caramel and prunes that are tributes to tsimmes, an Ashkenazi sweet stew, they emphasize Sephardic traditions. Those include Syrian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Italian, Georgian, Persian and Bukharan-inspired dishes, including Basmati and wild rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs; chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice; and stuffed eggplant with lamb and pine nuts, inspired by a restaurant in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda market. The Kubbe hamusta, a Kurdish tangy green soup made of vegetables and lemon juice with meat-filled dumplings — that the taxi driver’s mother makes every week — is one of the most time-consuming.
Balilah, a Palestinian street food consisting of fresh chickpeas seasoned with lemon juice and cumin is not unlike arbes, chickpeas seasoned with pepper, that are sold in Me’ah She’arim. Hot yogurt and barley soup, adapted from an Armenian recipe, is quick to prepare and a comfort in winter. Maqluba, an Arabic one-pot meal of rice, vegetables and meat made by Tamimi’s mother, is a variation on the Ashkenzi cholent and Sephardi dafina, stews made in a single pot with long cooking times. Desserts include Ma’amul, Arab cookies served at the end of Ramadan, that are semolina biscuits, stuffed with nuts or dates.
The recipe introductions include a lot of food genealogy, and in certain cases — especially hummus — questions of who made it first and who makes it best. Egyptian Arabs may have invented hummus, but the point is debatable. Israeli novelist Meir Shalev has written that hummus goes back to biblical times.
This is not a kosher cookbook, but those who keep kosher kitchens will find much of interest and can easily make some adjustments and skip certain dishes. Some of the ingredients the authors include may be difficult to find, like barberries, and they suggest that sour cherries or currants might be used instead. And spices like ras el hanout, a blend, are now available (and kosher) in shops like Fairway. For me, the sign of a good cookbook is that my sisters, nieces and I all have our own copies and are enjoying cooking from it.
The authors’ London shops and restaurants do a lot of catering, and the book lends itself to creating a Mediterranean feast at home, featuring lots of mezze, or small plates. They write that for Jerusalemites, “Eating is a celebration, a feast, it is about breaking bread and about conviviality, it is about abundance and sharing.”
The authors stick with cooking, not politics, but they express sadness about how little interaction there is between Arabs and Jews in the city, along with a dash of hope that food can help break down some boundaries.