Yotam Ottolenghi could simply have left Jerusalem behind. Nearly 15 years after coming to England and a decade into building a growing empire that includes a small constellation of wildly popular London restaurants and two best-selling cookbooks, he has established himself as one of Europe’s hippest purveyors of flavor-packed, pan-Mediterranean food.
But Jerusalem wasn’t just any place. “It intrigued me from a food perspective,” said Ottolenghi by phone from London. “I know it sounds strange since I was born there, but I don’t think I had ever seriously explored it in a broader culinary context.”
So when a colleague suggested Ottolenghi make his third cookbook an edible study of his birthplace, it just made sense. But in order to fully realize the project, one more person needed to sign on for the homecoming: Sami Tamimi, business partner and head chef of his and Ottolenghi’s restaurants.
Ottolenghi, who is Jewish, and Tamimi, who is Palestinian, met when the two were young culinary aspirants in late-1990s London. In Jerusalem, where Palestinians and Israelis live with daily tensions, their friendship would have been near impossible. But within the safe confines of an expatriate kitchen, the two bonded almost immediately, speaking in Hebrew as Tamimi cooked and Ottolenghi baked. “We connected over what we shared, and focused a lot less on our differences,” said Ottolenghi. In 2002, he launched his first eponomous restaurant, called Ottolenghi, and asked Tamimi to join; they’ve worked together ever since.
The Ottolenghi restaurant empire (which now includes four bakery-cafes and a fine-dining restaurant, NOPI) has well-documented culinary bona fides, but nearly as much ink has been devoted to describing the partners’ similarities, which are striking. They are the same age, 44. Both are gay. And, perhaps most significant, they were both born in Jerusalem within months of the city’s reunification in 1967 — Tamimi in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and Ottolenghi in the western, Jewish enclave of Ramat Danya.
“We never wanted to get into the ‘two gay guys’ and ‘Israeli and Arab’ angles because that is what is expected,” said Tamimi when I met him in Chicago, where he was vacationing with his boyfriend. “But you can’t really ignore it, can you? That’s the juicy story.” Still, they both insist that the more accurate narrative is less of an attention-grabber. “We are both just obsessed with making great food,” he added.
That is evident from the very first recipe in “Jerusalem,” their cookbook, which will be published in October. The lushly photographed collection of recipes and stories was completed over two years of visiting, researching (with the help of a friend, Nomi Abeliovich), cooking and eating in Israel’s capital.
What emerges from the vivid street-life photographs, meticulously curated recipes and insightful text is a highly personal, perfectly captured portrait of a cuisine as complex as the city it comes from. The food in “Jerusalem” is an expression of the city’s multicultural foodways, shaped by the impressions of two chefs grateful for the chance to revisit the traditions that helped define them.
Ottolenghi approaches recipes like the academic he almost became (he abandoned graduate studies in comparative literature to study at Le Cordon Bleu in London). “I can’t stand recipes that don’t have background,” said Ottolenghi. “What does this mean? Who cooks it? And why?”
Through the recipes and pictures the book also highlights traditions Jerusalemites take for granted — using market-fresh produce and cooking seasonally — that inform the Ottolenghi aesthetic.
“This is Ottolenghi saying, ‘I’m not running away from where I came from,’” said Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer, in England. “Most people in London — and Ottolenghi is a very cosmopolitan London phenomenon — don’t really identify him as an Israeli chef from Jerusalem. This is him further putting a stamp on his identity.”
Ottolenghi’s parents and sister, whom he visits often, no longer live there, so the project gave him the chance to approach Jerusalem from a different vantage point. In a city that strikes Ottolenghi as increasingly polarized with every visit, he found a food culture that hummed along to its own rhythm.
“When I looked at it with objective eyes I was really surprised by the diversity — each group cooking their own food so authentically,” said Ottolenghi. “The incredible places in the shuk [Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s centuries-old covered market], the little restaurants, the ethnic enclaves here and there and everywhere, and all making amazingly fresh, delicious food. This was really an eye-opener.”
While the book does pay homage to the Ashkenazi heritage of Ottolenghi’s parents and many other Jerusalemites, the authors don’t conceal their preference for Jerusalem’s Levantine traditions.
“Middle Eastern cuisine has the same depth of ingredients and processes as other cuisines,” said Ottolenghi. “They just haven’t had as much exposure.”
The same could be said for Palestinian food, an unexplored roster of dishes among even the most passionate and well-traveled eaters.
For Tamimi, whose mother passed away when he was 7, the project has been a chance for him to help bring dishes like his mother’s couscous with onions and tomatoes; her fattoush (bread and vegetable salad), and maqluba, a preparation of meat, eggplant and tomatoes that is at the centerpiece of many a festive Palestinian meal to a greater audience (all are popular items on the Ottolenghi menu back in London).
Woven into the text are Tamimi’s childhood recollections — his father chilling watermelons in the river near their home; his mother stringing okra for the purpose of drying and preserving; snatching and snacking on figs drying on a neighbor’s roof — that add humanity to a culture many Israelis and Westerners see from only one perspective. While Ottolenghi is forthcoming about his relationship with his family, it becomes clear in conversations with Tamimi that his relationship with Israel and his own family, are more complicated. “In Israel I always lived on the border between Arabs and Jews,” he said. “Let’s just say living in London is easier.”
Among the Palestinian dishes, Ottolenghi himself was captivated by the discovery of muttabaq, a combination of sweetened ricotta and goat’s milk cheeses encased in filo dough. “It was a revelation,” he said. “The idea of mixing the cheeses together, the texture and flavor, just delicious.”
The book’s recipes are divided into two categories. The first includes time-honored classics such as hummus, shawarma and falafel. But the bulk of the recipes belong to a second group: modern, produce-driven dishes that benefit from a looser interpretation of local originals and add ingredients such as pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs and a spice market’s worth of herbs. The lush food photographs convey the authors’ affinity for vivid colors — yogurt brightened with beet purée; a painterly mélange of roasted sweet potatoes, figs, red chilies and scallions — that are also a defining characteristic of the Ottolenghi restaurant menu, and highlight the freedom they feel in brightening traditional flavors with distinctive flourishes.
It’s this instinct — a process they call “Ottolenghifying” — that allows them to take a dish like tzimmes, traditionally stewed carrots and dried fruit — and reinvent it as a roasted-potato dish studded with whole dried fruit and lavished in a quick caramel sauce.
In their research, the authors also nailed down another common theme. “Everything has to be stuffed,” joked Ottolenghi, pointing out that everyone in Jerusalem — Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Arab or Palestinian — fills vegetables with meat, herbs and other alluring flavors. In recipes such as lamb-stuffed quince anointed with pomegranate and cilantro and artichokes stuffed with peas, “you really see that this is a Jerusalem specialty.”
And who can claim boasting rights to these recipes? “It really doesn’t matter,” the authors write in the introduction. “The beauty of food and eating is that they are rooted in the now. Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct we all share and revel in. It is a shame to spoil it.”
“Jerusalem” clearly makes the case that focusing on the pleasures of eating can transcend political, religious and ethnic strife. But attempting to pin any sort of rigid doctrine onto Ottolenghi’s chef jacket has proven near impossible. Many have tried, as though achieving peace in the Middle East were as easy as devising a felicitous topping for a flatbread pizza.
“It takes a lot to understand the complexity of coexistence or lack of coexistence,” said Ottolenghi. “Obviously we have a very fruitful friendship and relationship, rooted partly in the city we share. But it has nothing to do with politics.”
Roasted Sweet Potatoes & Fresh Figs
Figs are abundant in Jerusalem and many trees, bearing the most delectable fruit, actually belong to no one, so anybody can help themselves. Summer months are always tinted with the smell of wild herbs and ripe figs. The mother of Sami’s childhood neighbor and friend, Jabbar, used her roof to dry the glut of figs (and tomatoes) in the hot summer sun, spending hours cleaning and sorting them meticulously. Poor Um Jabbar — Sami and her son never wasted time and used to sneak up to her roof regularly, stealing her figs at their peak and causing havoc. This wasn’t enough for Jabbar, though. The boy had such a sweet tooth that he always carried around with him an old match box full of sugar cubes, just in case. Unfortunately, this habit had clear ramifications, evident in his “charming” smile.
This unusual combination of fresh fruit and roasted vegetables is one of the most popular at Ottolenghi. It wholly depends, though, on the figs being sweet, moist, and perfectly ripe. Go for plump fruit with an irregular shape and a slightly split bottom. Pressing against the skin should result in some resistance but not much. Try to smell the sweetness. The balsamic reduction is very effective here, both for the look and for rounding up the flavors. To save you from making it, you can look for products such as balsamic cream or glaze.
4 small sweet potatoes (2 1⁄4 pounds total)
5 tablespoons olive oil
Scant 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (you can use a commercial rather than a premium aged grade)
1½ tablespoons superfine sugar
12 green onions, halved lengthwise and cut into 1½-in segments
1 red chili, thinly sliced
6 ripe figs (8½ oz in total), quartered
5 ounces soft goat’s milk cheese (optional)
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 475°F
Wash the sweet potatoes, halve them lengthwise, and then cut each half again similarly into 3 long wedges. Mix with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, and some black pepper. Spread the wedges out, skin side down, on a baking sheet and cook for about 25 minutes, until soft but not mushy. Remove from the oven and leave to cool down.
To make the balsamic reduction, place the balsamic vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer for 2 to 4 minutes, until it thickens. Be sure to remove the pan from the heat when the vinegar is still runnier than honey; it will continue to thicken as it cools. Stir in a drop of water before serving if it does become too thick to drizzle.
Arrange the sweet potatoes on a serving platter. Heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the green onions and chile. Fry for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often to make sure not to burn the chili. Spoon the oil, onions, and chili over the sweet potatoes. Dot the figs among the wedges and then drizzle over the balsamic reduction. Serve at room temperature. Crumble the cheese over the top, if using.
Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.”
Adeena Sussman is a food writer, recipe developer and restaurant critic based in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in Gourmet, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Living.