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The Taste of Jerusalem

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi paint a complex portrait of their hometown’s cuisine in a new cookbook

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Chefs Sami Tamimi (left) and Yotam Ottolenghi. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Jonathan Lovekin and Shutterstock)

“When you don’t live somewhere for a long time,” said chef Yotam Ottolenghi, “it’s exciting to come back and relive it.”

Ottolenghi and fellow chef Sami Tamimi live in London, but they revisited their native city for their new collaboration Jerusalem: A Cookbook, in which they re-taste the flavors of their childhoods. In addition to being a nostalgia trip for the authors, Jerusalem is a work of edible anthropology, with recipes from Palestinian culture as well as different Sephardic communities. With its varied recipes, interesting commentary, and dozens of color photos, its depiction of the city is complex and diverse—if still quirky, politically biased, and sadly incomplete.

Born shortly after the city was reunified in 1967, Ottolenghi and Tamimi represent the city’s two halves. Ottolenghi is a child of the West, raised in the middle-class enclave of Ramat Denya as a child of academics: Ottolenghi’s father Michael is a college professor of Italian Jewish descent, his mother Ruth a school principal with a German Jewish background. It was a home where food was important. “Both my parents were very keen cooks,” said Ottolenghi, before adding that he doesn’t feel his Jewish background informs his cooking. “Certainly not Ashkenazi [cuisine],” he said. “If anything, I’m more drawn to Sephardic cooking. It suits the climate and soil better.”

He earned Masters degrees in philosophy and comparative literature and briefly considered an academic career, but when he moved to London in 1997 Ottolenghi realized his true calling. He took cooking courses at the London branch of the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, where he trained to become a pastry chef. After that, there was no turning back.

In contrast, Tamimi, raised in East Jerusalem, never had any doubts that he was born to cook. The youngest son of a tourism-worker father and a stay-at-home mom, Tamimi developed his love for food in his parents’ kitchen. In Tamimi’s large Arab family—seven kids plus grandparents—there were many mouths to feed, and everyone cooked, including his father. “Forty years ago it was rare for a Palestinian man to cook,” said Tamimi. “My earliest memories are of going to the Arab shuk and of my father, mother, and grandmother cooking all together.” While still in his teens, Tamimi began working at a hotel kitchen. From there he ventured to Tel Aviv, where he became one of the local pioneers of California cuisine as chef at Lilith restaurant.

The 1990s found Tamimi in London, cooking at Baker and Spice, a gourmet food shop run by Tel Avivi Yael Mejiya. One day, Ottolenghi came by the store looking for a job. In a 2009 Gourmet magazine interview, Ottolenghi recalled that their initial conversation took place in English and was about the horrors of English food—especially mince pie. “We couldn’t get over it,” said Ottolenghi. Realizing that they were both Israeli, they soon switched to Hebrew. Since Tamimi has no Arabic accent in Hebrew, Ottolenghi initially mistook him for a Jewish Israeli. To this day, the two still use both languages to communicate.

From that chance encounter, a business partnership was born. In 2002, Ottolenghi and Tamimi got together with a group of partners and opened the first of what would become a chain. Today their business includes three Ottolenghi deli cafes in London, an online store, and NOPI restaurant in London’s fashionable Soho district. Ottolenghi then undertook writing the “New Vegetarian” column for the Guardian, out of which grew his first cookbook, Ottolenghi, which he coauthored with Tamimi in 2008. That was followed in 2010 by vegetarian best-seller Plenty, which Ottolenghi wrote on his own.

Now Tamimi is back on board. This new book—their first to include meat dishes—is a full collaboration between the two. “We did everything together,” said Tamimi.

During the two-year period that Jerusalem was in production, Ottolenghi made frequent trips to Israel. He also spent several weeks surveying Jerusalem’s local food scene and meeting cooks while working on a BBC television documentary Jerusalem on a Plate. Tamimi, on the other hand, didn’t visit at all. (Though his parents are listed in the acknowledgements, Tamimi refused to discuss his relationship with them.) Instead, Ottolenghi staffer Nomi Abeliovich stepped in, spending 18 months collecting recipes and information for the book. “She met cooks, mostly women from different backgrounds—Tripoli, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia—and cooked with them,” said Ottolenghi. While some of the recipes are long, Ottolenghi’s instructions are very clear and give you the sense that he’s your friend guiding you as you cook.

For two chefs who laud cooking and eating as a “hedonistic pleasure,” Ottolenghi and Tamimi are delightfully health-conscious in their approach. In their kitchen, canned foods and artificial ingredients don’t exist. Some purists would object to their love of frying, but even that is done gently with relatively small amounts of oil. Instead of grandstanding about vitamins and minerals, Ottolenghi and Tamimi coax us into healthy eating by alchemizing beets, spinach, kohlrabi, beans, and grains into amazing, edible bouquets stylishly photographed by Jonathan Lovekin, who was also the photographer for Plenty.

But as current as it purports to be, this cookbook doesn’t cover the popular food trend known as Jerusalem cuisine. “Jerusalem cuisine involves cooking with local ingredients that have biblical roots,” said Moshe Basson, owner of Eucalyptus—a restaurant in the Hutzot Hayotzer artists’ quarter, right outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City—and one of the movement’s leading proponents. Though some biblical ingredients find their way into this book, they are never acknowledged as such, nor are biblical or Talmudic quotations included in the commentary. (Religious observances also don’t come up in the book’s text or photos, in fact, even though Jerusalem pulses with religious observance.) A few of the recipes feature milk-and-meat combinations or shellfish, although kashrut and hallal observers will at least be pleased to note that there isn’t any pork.

More to the point, Both Ottolenghi and Tamimi seem politically quite squarely aligned with the Palestinians, a community that “bears the burden with no sign of regaining control over its destiny,” as they write in their introduction—a description disorienting and depressing for its one-sidedness. Most of Lovekin’s beautiful pictures are of the Old City’s Muslim quarter: Arab women sampling pastries in the souk, grim looking old men in mildewed rooms puffing on water pipes, a young child rushing through a grey stone alleyway. West Jerusalem, with its tree-lined streets and funky gentrified homes, scarcely makes an appearance; the second intifada’s bloody attacks on West Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda market and several of the area’s most popular restaurants are also left out. It’s an omission indicative of this beautiful and useful cookbook’s main shortcoming: The city may be reunified, but parts of it still seem to be missing here.

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I just listened to an interview with the two chefs on NPR and one gets the clear impression that they are both deeply depressed by the political situation and would prefer to focus on the food. I will reserve judgement on the book until I read it.

In fairness to the chefs, it is a book about the cuisine – not the political situation. I don’t believe they were attempting to make statements about anything other than the food they grew up loving, so this book is not meant to be seen as a political statement and it would be unfair to expect it to be merely because of their heritage.

paul delano says:

Carol, don’t you think you should have explained why Tamimi ‘refused to discuss his relationship with his parents’? Those familiar with the two men know very well why his relationship with his parents is strained but why leave it up to the imagination of those unknowing?

The duo will be appearing in Park Slope next Wednesday at 7:30 pm. Register for tickets at http://www.cbebk.org/brooklynbythebook

Nice! I hope they mix the best of both styles!
http://www.arthur-in-the-garden.com

I’m fairly late to the Ottolenghi/Tamini bandwagon, but this review disappoints me, even if more than a year has passed since its publication. If Ms. Ungar had read other pieces on the two authors (or had read the actual cookbook from from to back), she would have realized that these recipes, the stories, and the chefs themselves are far too genuine to have a political agenda. By the way, where in the entire book do they ever come out to “squarely” support the Palestinians? It’s a very nuanced book on the food of a very historic city that has existed for millennia.
Also saddening is that the reviewer, somewhat patronizingly, mentioned Tamini’s refusal to return to Jerusalem, but I fear her presumption has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a New Yorker article published several years ago Tamini, as an out gay man, no longer feels comfortable back home. Some things are far more universally human than the stereotypes we have of the Middle East and Palestinians.
As a Jewish, gay man and aspiring cook turned graduate student, I think we need more public figures like these two who can bring people together in personal ways. Why not start with food? Why not learn from others as they are willing to do what’s right and broaden other people’s minds?

Maia says:

I know some time has gone by since this review was published but I just came across it now. It is very disappointing and misleading. I did not find that the writers came out “squarely” on the side of the Palestinians at all. The line that the reviewer chose to quote, that the Palestinian side “bears the burden with no sign of regaining control over its destiny,” in fact begins with the word “currently” and the sentence goes on to highlight issues between religious and secular Jews. At another part in the book, Ottolenghi and Tamimi describe the effect the 1929 Palestinian uprising had on the Georgian Jewish community, decimating the population in one area.

The first photo of Jerusalem in the book shows a Jewish man unloading vegetables in the Mahane Yehuda market, wearing a keepah, a Palestinian or Mizrakhi Jewish man working near him. Other pages in the book included side by side photos of Jews and Palestinians preparing or eating the same food, or gathering together over food. There are photos of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews as well as photos of Palestinian women wearing hijabs. The writers talk about the type of food eaten by Orthodox Ashkenazim. They are also clear in their introduction that neither of them have lived in Jerusalem for a long time, and that they are mostly concerned with the food they grew up with and are drawn to now. It doesn’t seem fair to fault them for not including recipes from Jerusalem’s recent biblical foods trend.

It is also distracting and unfair to hint at Tamimi’s rift with his family, especially since other people seem to know that the rift was caused by Tamimi’s sexual orientation. Ungar seems as if she faults Tamimi for not wishing to criticize his family, and, given the content of her article, I suspect she is attempting to lead the reader to believe that this is somehow related to his politics-ie not criticizing his family because of what it may say about Palestinian culture as a whole. I thought this book was wonderful.

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The Taste of Jerusalem

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi paint a complex portrait of their hometown’s cuisine in a new cookbook

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