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’.”