Home June 2013 Jerusalem – a Private Food Odyssey

Jerusalem – a Private Food Odyssey

They grew up in the ’70s and ’80s on opposite sides of a city wracked by 4,000 years of political and religious strife, Yotam Ottolenghi on the Jewish west side and Sami Tamimi on the Muslim east.  They did not know each other then, but both become chefs, later met in London and became close friends and business partners.

Four delis and two restaurants later, and after collaborating on Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (Yotam wrote Plenty by himself), the pair became nostalgic over the food of their shared homeland and embarked on what they call a “private odyssey,” capturing the sights, smells and tastes of their birthplace as only they could do.  Jerusalem, a Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, $35) emerged not as an encyclopedic documentation of the many cultures and cuisines of the city, but as their personal homage to the food they relished in their own families’ kitchens, plus their own favorite dishes and exciting flavor profiles inspired by the “immense tapestry of cuisines” of this truly international city.  “The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue,” they write.

Is there such a thing as Jerusalem food, they ponder.  Jews, Christians and Moslems from nations all over the world inhabit this diverse city, bringing with them what Yotam and Sami call “an immense tapestry of cuisines…an intricate, convoluted mosaic of peoples.”

In a city fraught with contention and fierce loyalties, stark differences in cuisine among the many groups are expected, but Yotam and Sami consider the similarities. “Everybody, absolutely everybody, uses chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad or an Israeli salad, depending on point of view.”  The same can be said of stuffed or pickled vegetables and the pervasive use of olive oil, lemon juice and olives as well as local seasonal fruits and vegetables.  “Alas, although Jerusalemites have so much in common,” they write, “food, at the moment, seems to be the only unifying force in this highly fractured place.”

Twelve years ago when I interviewed Joan Nathan about her cookbook The Foods of Israel Today, she expressed a similar sentiment.  While working in the early ’70s as a foreign press attaché for the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, she noticed how cooler heads prevailed when disputes were settled over a shared meal.  “Food became a means of breaking down political and ethnic barriers,” she noted.

Yotam and Sami echo this thought.  “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it…to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”

Within the pages of this sumptuous book, which was named cookbook of the year by both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, at least the recipes of diverse cultures nestle together in harmony: Spicy Freekeh Soup with Meatballs; Roast Chicken with Jerusalem Artichokes and Lemon; Spicy Beetroot, Leek and Walnut Salad; Clementine and Almond Syrup Cake.

The ubiquitous chopped salad appears in countless variations, one of the most popular of which is the Arab fattoush, which usually incorporates grilled or fried pita bread.  Every community and every family has its own version.  Sami’s mother didn’t fry the bread and added a sort of homemade buttermilk.  Commercial buttermilk may be substituted.

Even the method of chopping the vegetables is a source of contention, some preferring the tiniest dice and others, a coarser chop.  All agree, however, that the vegetables should be ripe, fresh and flavorful.  Be sure to use small cucumbers for this dish. They are much more flavorful than the usual supermarket variety.

Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts comes from Azura, a popular restaurant run by the Shrefler family and serving Kurdish food with a Turkish influence.  This hearty dish is Yotam and Sami’s favorite from the restaurant.  Serve with bread or a simple rice and some pickled vegetables on the side.

Na’ama’s Fattoush

Scant 1 cup Greek yogurt and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk or 1 2/3 cups buttermilk (replacing both yogurt and milk)

2 large stale Turkish flatbread or naan (9 ounces total)

3 large tomatoes (13 ounces), cut into 2/3-inch dice

3½ ounces radishes, thinly sliced

3 Lebanese or mini cucumbers, peeled and chopped into 2/3-inch dice

2 green onions, thinly sliced

½ ounce fresh mint

Scant 1 ounce flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon dried mint

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

¼ cup olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon sumac or more to taste, to garnish

1 If using yogurt and milk, start at least 5 hours and up to a day in advance by placing both in a bowl.  Whisk well and leave in cool place or in fridge until bubbles form on surface.  What you get is a kind of homemade buttermilk, but less sour.

2 Tear bread into bite-size pieces and place in large mixing bowl.  Add fermented yogurt mixture or commercial buttermilk, followed by remaining ingredients except sumac.  Mix well, and leave for 10 minutes for all flavors to combine.

3 Spoon fattoush into serving bowls, drizzle with some olive oil, and garnish generously with sumac.

Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts

4 medium eggplants (about 2½ pounds), halved lengthwise

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing

1½ teaspoons ground cumin

1½ tablespoons sweet paprika

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

2 medium onions (12 ounces total), finely chopped

1 pound ground lamb

7 tablespoons pine nuts

2/3 ounce flat-leaf parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons tomato paste

3 teaspoons sugar

½ cup water

1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon tamarind paste

4 cinnamon sticks

Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1 Preheat oven to 425˚F.

2 Place eggplant halves, skin side down, in roasting pan large enough to accommodate them snugly.  Brush with olive oil and season with 1 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper.  Roast about 20 minutes, until golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool slightly.

3 Meanwhile, for stuffing, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in large frying pan.  Mix together cumin, paprika and ground cinnamon.  Add half this spice mix to pan, along with onions.  Cook over medium-high heat about 8 minutes, stirring often.  Add lamb and brown, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until no pink remains, about 4 minutes.  Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat.  Stir in pine nuts, parsley, tomato paste, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and some black pepper.  Spoon lamb mixture on top of each eggplant.

4 Place remaining spice mix in bowl and add water, lemon juice, tamarind, remaining 2 teaspoons sugar, cinnamon sticks and ½ teaspoon salt; mix well and pour into baking dish.

5 Reduce oven temperature to 375˚F.  Cover pan tightly with foil, and roast until eggplants are completely soft and sauce thick, about 50 minutes, basting twice.  Add some water if sauce dries out.  Discard cinnamon stick and serve with pan juices.

Recipes from Jerusalem, A Cookbook
by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

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