A spicy combination
INTERVIEW:STEPPING INTO A restaurant kitchen can be akin to walking into the fires of hell. Hidden from the relaxing diners outside, sharp knives and boiling pans crowd what is often a too-small space crammed with screaming, shouting, cursing chefs. To stir politics into this already toxic mixing bowl would be a crazy, lethal . . . or would it?
Chefs and business partners Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi first sparked the imagination of foodies in London some years ago with their window displays of colourful, overflowing mountains of food.
But what is also enthralling about this pairing is their working relationship itself. Their kitchen sprawls one of the most contentious political divides today: Ottolenghi is an Israeli Jew and grew up in the Jewish western side of Jerusalem while Tamimi is a Palestinian Muslim and grew up not too far away in Muslim East Jerusalem.
Politics doesn’t usually infiltrate the kitchen, yet it was unavoidable when working on their latest project, a cookbook of recipes sourced from their shared childhood home of Jerusalem.
“We both felt it was important not to try to ignore Jerusalem’s politics completely,” says Ottolenghi. “The politics of food and the external politics are difficult to ignore when you’re there. To do so would give an untrue image of Jerusalem. It would be a very European thing to do, but not very Middle Eastern!”
It’s clear that arguments over the future existence of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews don’t feature in their day-to-day relationship but that tackling the very mixed culinary heritage of Jerusalem was not possible without risking a stamp on someone’s toes.
Tamimi is eager to point out that for Ottolenghi and himself, who both left Jerusalem more than 20 years ago, politics are not relevant.
“But when you talk about the food and you talk about Jerusalem, it’s almost like a fight in itself. A lot of these recipes are shared by Palestinians and Jews and each side has its own version and each side wants to take credit for it.
The well-known Middle Eastern classics of hummus and falafel are two that often fail victim to endless bickering over ownership and while these arguments may seem like pointless niggling, they are an expression of a group trying to state their claim on a political and future reality. Tamimi gives the example of the seemingly innocous deep-fried chickpea balls of falafel. “Falalfel is not just an Israel thing; it’s been in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. But both Israelis and Palestinians say ‘it’s mine’ and try to get credit for it. They say, ‘our falafel is better than your falafel’ but it’s not our role to argue with that.”
“You know when you think back to when you were a kid, you remember the flavours and the smells and you want to replicate them and bring them back,” sighs Tamimi who, although he was trained in formal French cuisine, is more comfortable with the flavours his mother put on the table in front of him.
“Sometimes it was hard because I was asking people for their recipes and they’ve been making them for years but they don’t use proper measurements. So they say to ‘add a little bit of this, then a bit of that’. I would ask ‘how much?’ and they would say, ‘oh you know, a handful of this and a pinch of that’.”
Often the chef’s curiosity was met with the common-sense response, “You just feel it.”
Unlike his partner, who built up his reputation as a chef before moving to London, Ottolenghi didn’t “just feel it” until he left Jerusalem.
After stints in journalism and thoughts of a career in academia, for Ottolenghi it was only after leaving his childhood home that he learned to appreciate food. “When I left Jerusalem, I wasn’t a chef and I didn’t have that kind of mindset. I didn’t see the city in culinary terms. I grew up in the city and I knew it but I never looked at the city from the eyes of a chef or a foodie.
“So going back now was fascinating for different reasons but mainly because I started looking at the food as who I am now, as a chef.”
It’s fortunate that Ottolenghi was tempted abroad before venturing into the kitchen as both men are certain that their rare partnership would not be possible in Israel. “In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv there would have been too much pressure on both of us,” says Ottolenghi.
There is a distinct international influence to the food served by Ottolenghi and Tamimi. There are some age-old dishes, some have been hit with an Ottolenghi-Tamimi poetic licence and others are loosely inspired by Jerusalem’s flavours. However, it’s clear that the two years of research that have gone into their latest project involved nostalgia. Tamimi speaks warmly about the influence that his late mother and her way of cooking had on him. A lot of the recipes that fill the vast pages of the forthcoming cookbook are, in fact, hers.
“I always spoke about my mom’s cooking and her recipes,” says Tamimi. “I tried over the years to cook all different cuisines but the food I feel more comfortable with, the food I know the flavours of and the food that I can control, is the food that I grew up with.”
“After a few years of restaurant cuisine,” Ottolenghi says, “home cooking makes a lot of sense. There’s now a real hunger for good home cooking amongst chefs.”
The pair see a big contrast between the “show-off, male-dominated world of professional kitchens” and the Jerusalem dishes of their childhood that have been developed by generations of women working at a kitchen stove.
Jerusalem is a chaotic city, and has the ability to overwhelm visitors. Ottolenghi and Tamimi don’t try to sugarcoat the reality but they do seek to illustrate a sense of normality that tends to hide deep behind the headlines.
“Food is a normalising force,” say Ottolenghi. “When we cook at home, we cook beyond politics. We try to show Jerusalem food as colourful, attractive and delicious and to bring out the spectacular tastes.”
Both men feel that food is the sole unifying force in a divided city where the inhabitants rarely cross paths and, despite their strong message of coexistence, they are not overly optimistic for its immediate future.
Their wish that a shared love of hummous might force Israelis and Palestinians to look for what unites, not divides, them is ambitious, and they acknowledge that intolerance is all too common in their childhood home.
Yet the chefs from opposing sides of the divide can share memories and tastebuds – Tamimi claims that when tasting a new dish, each man can tell what the other is thinking before they swallow the first bite.
In exchange for divulging the secrets of their countrymen’s hummous, perhaps they can offer them a working model of coexistence in the most fiery place of all – the restaurant kitchen.
Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi is published by Ebury
Couscous with tomato and onion
This wonderfully comforting couscous is based on a dish Sami’s mother cooked for him when he was a child. All we did was add a crust, similar to Iranian tadik, which is a famous rice dish cooked in such a way that a crispy crust forms at the bottom of the pot; this crunchy bit is everybody’s favourite. Good-quality stock is important here.
Serve with grilled fish skewers with hawayej and parsley; turkey and courgette burgers with spring onion and cumin; or just with salad as a light vegetarian meal. Serves 4
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (160g in total)
1 tbsp tomato purée
1/2 tsp sugar
2 very ripe tomatoes, cut into 0.5cm dice (320g in total)
220ml boiling chicken or vegetable stock
40g unsalted butter
salt and black pepper
Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a non-stick pan, about 22cm in diameter, and put on a medium heat. Add the onion, cook for 5 minutes, stirring, until it has softened but not coloured. Stir in the tomato purée and sugar and cook for a minute. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt and black pepper and cook for 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the couscous in a shallow bowl, pour in the boiling stock and cover with cling film. Set aside for 10 minutes, remove film and fluff with a fork. Add the tomato sauce and stir well.
Wipe your pan clean and heat the butter and remaining olive oil on a medium heat. When the butter has melted, spoon couscous into the pan and use the back of the spoon to gently pat it down so it’s packed snugly. Cover, reduce heat to its lowest setting and allow couscous to steam for 10-12 minutes, until you can see a light brown colour around the edges.
Use a palette or other knife to help you peer between the edge of the couscous and the side of the pan: you want a really crisp edge all over the base and sides. Place a large plate on top of the pan and quickly turn the couscous on to the plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.