My latest cooking obsession is the beautiful new cookbook Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Jerusalem is a perfect storm of a book: it combines an amazing story with stunning photographs and mouth-watering recipes. Part of the amazing story is the background of the two authors: Ottolenghi and Tamimi both grew up in Jerusalem at the same time, but did not know each other. Indeed, they grew up on opposite sides of the city because Ottolenghi is Israeli and Tamimi is Arab. The two men, however, began working together many years later — in London of all places — as chefs. These days, Tamimi and Ottolenghi own a restaurant together where Tamimi is the executive chef.
What could be more symbolic than two native sons of Jerusalem — one Jewish and one Muslim — writing a book together about the city’s cuisine? What an enormous and potentially fraught project. Not surprisingly, the book begins with twenty pages of introduction, history and explanations and has many more one-page essays sprinkled throughout. The two men tread delicately around such subjects as who invented hummus, what the proper name is for pearl couscous and the observance of Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. These essays and explanations add a rich historical and cultural context to the recipes, many of which feature novel spices or ingredients — even in this day and age when American supermarkets stock multiple kinds of hummus.
Jerusalem is a melting pot — a city of immigrants, like New York — and its cuisine reflects that reality. The recipes in the book reveal influences from the areas around Israel, such North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Arabian peninsula, but also more far-flung places like Russia, Northern and Eastern Europe, and even Central Asia — all places where Jews emigrated from, bringing with them their traditional cuisines.
The narrative parts of the book also serve to remind us how central food is to religion and to culture. It is no accident that both Judaism and Islam are religions that have strict and often confusing dietary laws — many of which overlap. You can’t cook in Jerusalem without confronting the kosher and Halal restrictions, even if you chose not to follow them. These cuisines have involved to accommodate these restrictions, which is one reason there are so many vegetarian recipes in the book and why the dessert recipes often call for oil and not butter. In Jerusalem, as elsewhere, necessity is the mother of invention.
While showcasing the impossible diversity of influences on the cuisine of Jerusalem, Ottolenghi and Tamimi also emphasize how similar what Israelis and Palestinians eat really is. As they explain, everyone in Jerusalem chops up cucumbers and tomatoes to make salad, whether they call it Arab Salad or Israeli salad. Pickles, lemon juice, olive oil, and cheese-filled pastries are other examples of common currency. While Jerusalem may be a city divided, to the extent that the different factions do come together, it is around food — eating in the same restaurants and shopping in the same markets. What they call certain foods, who “owns” certain foods — these questions can be just as politicized as any others in a city so filled with tension. But food can also serve to bring people together.
But what about the recipes? A cookbook can have a great concept and gorgeous photos — and the photos in this book are wonderful — but it is no good to anyone without clear, readable and delicious recipes. I am happy to report that Jerusalem has that too. I have made eight or nine of the recipes so far, from salads to spice mixes to lamb, and each one has been a hit. Yes, I have had to go out and buy some new ingredients — like ground sumac and bulgur wheat — but it has been very worthwhile. I have also found myself with new appreciation for familiar ingredients, like flat-leaf parsley — which I am now buying multiple bunches of a week — and Greek yogurt.
What I love about the recipes in Jerusalem is that the food seems familiar and exotic at the same time. Oranges, fennel and chicken are all ingredients I have cooked with, but I never thought to combine them before reading the recipe for Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak. (Arak is a licorice-flavored liquor, but any licorice-flavored liquor, like Pernod or ouzo, would work just as well.) There are also, as I mentioned, many interesting vegetable recipes which I think would inspire any cook to experiment. Kohlrabi Salad anyone?
Among the recipes in Jerusalem that I have tried are familiar Middle Eastern dishes like fattoush and tabbouleh. And I love learning how to make these restaurant favorites at home. I have been so pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to make tabbouleh that I have been making it several times a week. But I have also loved the recipes for less typical fare, like Turkey and Zucchini Burgers with Scallions and Cumin, Braised Eggs with Lamb, and Roasted Chicken with Jerusalem Artichoke and Lemon. In fact, every recipe I have tried from Jerusalem has been fun to make and a pleasure to eat. Some are more ambitious than others, but many are easy enough to make for a typical weeknight — once you make sure that you have the proper ingredients on hand. And that is just a matter of planning ahead.
Speaking of ingredients, Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s tabbouleh recipe calls for an Arab spice mix called Baharat. I have never been one to make my own spice mixes, but in this case, I had all the required ingredients on hand, so I though I would give it a try. Ages ago, my aunt had given me an old coffee grinder to use a spice grinder, which I was very glad to have for this task. It was extremely easy to make the Baharat myself and doing so gave me a little sense of accomplishment. I have used the Baharat not just for tabbouleh but also to flavor my grown-up tomato soup and some of my other Middle Eastern dishes. Here is the recipe in case you would like to give it try:
Reprinted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
1 tsp. black peppercorns ( I used mixed peppercorns)
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick, broken up
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. cardamom pods
1/2 whole nutmeg grated (I used 1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg)
Using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle, grind the spices together until they form a powder. Store in an airtight container for up to 8 weeks. (The authors suggest that if using a mortar and pestle to use ground cardamom instead of pods.) Use to flavor meats, soups, and grains.
If you are looking for a cookbook that is both a pleasure to read and that will inspire you to expand your repertoire, I heartily recommend Jerusalem. I am so enamored of this book that my husband for Valentine’s Day bought me another one of Ottolenghi’s books, Plenty. I am excited to dig into that one as well.
Just to clarify, this post was not sponsored in any way. I bought my copy of Jerusalem with my own money.