When I lived in Jerusalem in the 1970s, working as foreign press attaché for Teddy Kollek, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, we would seek out good food in East Jerusalem’s restaurants. The best ones in West Jerusalem were mostly for tourists, ersatz Italian or French or hotel restaurants that were known for their boiled chicken and Eastern European, overcooked Jewish food. As Henry Kissinger, on a trip to the city, said, “In a country with 2 1/2 million Jewish mothers, you’d think the food would be better.”
No one except tourists went out to eat. The only good places for snack food were falafel and hummus joints, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants like my favorite Morduch in the Mahane Yehuda market, cafes with delicious European pastries, ethnic restaurants like Lea’s Hungarian, or restaurants in East Jerusalem like Muswadeh or the restaurant at the American Colony hotel.
Things have certainly changed today. Fresh, creative food is everywhere, and Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi are at the forefront of the change. I call it the Ottolenghi effect, apparent in Jerusalem and in cities all over the world.
In their new book, “Jerusalem” (Ten Speed Press, 2012), they have captured the home cooking of families from both East and West Jerusalem, along with delicious dishes you can now find in restaurants. But more than that, they have shown what the city, and its food, means to everybody who has grown up there.
I was very taken with the whole book, but their text in particular, and especially a section called “A Comment About Ownership.”
“In the part of the world we are dealing with everybody wants to own everything,” they write. “Existence feels so uncertain and so fragile that people fight fiercely and with great passion to hold onto things: land, culture, religious symbols, food — everything is in danger of being snatched away or of disappearing.” The two were describing ownership of recipes, but they might as well have been talking about ownership of the city.
My husband calls this part of the world the “Muddle East,” where discussions of who owns hummus and falafel lead to discussions of who owns streets, neighborhoods, borders. Many, like Ottolenghi and Tamimi, are tired of these discussions; they have gone into the food business in London to get away from fighting.
They, like many Israeli chefs, do not want to even think about these differences, about the conflict. Another Israeli cook in New York said to me just last week that he was a “baker, not a battler.” Ottolenghi and Tamimi use their dishes as a way to bridge these divides. “Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct we all share and revel in. It is a shame to spoil it,” they write.
Curiously, these two men, who are business partners in a chain of restaurants called Ottolenghi in London, did not meet in Jerusalem. Ottolenghi, from a Jewish academic family of German and Italian lineage, and Tamimi, from a secular Muslim Arab family in the Old City, both grew up shortly after the 1967 war in the same city but never met there. Together they illustrate, through lush photographs and personal text, the nuanced differences in the foods that they ate.
From left: Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
The two of them are doing something else, too. In this colorful and mouthwatering book, they show the importance of memory and food.
Each has his own memories of very similar dishes and sees the city from different vantage points: Yotam grew up in the new city eating his Italian and Jerusalem food. Sami grew up in the old city and ate his family’s Jerusalem food. In their different neighborhoods, meatballs, ubiquitous eggplant dishes, and stuffed vegetables of every ilk might have had some similarities and some differences. But it was all the food of Jerusalem, handed down through the centuries by immigrants, voyagers and citizens of the world who climbed up to see this glorious city.
With this book, Tamimi and Ottolenghi are astounding food lovers the world over with their fresh, carefully studied salads and foods. Those of us who lived in Jerusalem know them, but Yotam and Sami make them even more delicious to eat and beautiful to look at. “Jerusalem” will make you want to travel and to cook, so I have included several recipes here to be eaten during Passover, when the supreme yearning is for next year in Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, $35)
PANFRIED SEA BASS WITH HARISSA AND ROSE
3 tablespoons harissa paste1 teaspoon ground cuminSalt4 sea bass fillets, or other white fish, about 1 pound in total, skinned and with pin bones removedMatzah cake meal or flour for dusting2 tablespoons olive oil2 medium onions, finely chopped6 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar1 teaspoon ground cinnamonFreshly ground black pepper to tasteScant 1 cup water1 1/2 tablespoons honey1 tablespoon rose water (optional for Passover)Scant 1/2 cup currants (optional)2 tablespoons cilantro, coarsely chopped (optional)2 teaspoons small dried ediblerose petals, available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and online
Mix together half the harissa, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Rub the paste all over the fish fillets and leave them to marinate for 2 hours in the fridge.
Dust the fillets with a little matzah cake meal or flour and shake off the excess. Heat the olive oil in a wide frying pan over medium-high heat and fry the fillets for 2 minutes on each side. You may need to do this in two batches. Set the fish aside, leave the oil in the pan and add the onions. Stir as you cook for about 8 minutes, until the onions are golden.
Add the remaining harissa, vinegar, cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper. Pour in the water, lower the heat and let the sauce simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until quite thick.
Add the honey and rose water to the pan along with the currants and simmer gently for a couple more minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings and then return the fish fillets to the pan; you can slightly overlap them if they don’t quite fit. Spoon the sauce over the fish and leave them to warm up in the simmering sauce for 3 minutes; you may need to add a few tablespoons of water if the sauce is very thick. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with cilantro and rose petals.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Raw Artichoke and Herb Salad
RAW ARTICHOKE AND HERB SALAD
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 or 3 large globe artichokes, 1 1/2 pounds in total
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups arugula
1/2 cup torn mint leaves
1/2 cup torn cilantro leaves
1 ounce pecorino Toscano or Romano cheese, thinly shaved
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prepare a bowl of water mixed with half of the lemon juice. Remove the stem from 1 artichoke and pull off the tough outer leaves. Once you reach the softer, pale leaves, use a large, sharp knife to cut across the flower so that you are left with the bottom quarter. Use a small, sharp knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the other layers of the artichoke until the base, or bottom, is exposed. Scrape out the hairy “choke” and put the base in the acidulated water. Discard the rest, then repeat with the other artichokes.
Drain the artichokes and pat dry with paper towels. Using a mandoline or a large, sharp knife, cut the artichokes into paper thin slices and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Squeeze over the remaining juice, add the olive oil and toss well to coat. You can leave the artichoke for up to a few hours at room temperature. When ready to serve, add the arugula, mint, and cilantro to the artichoke and season with a generous 1/4 teaspoon salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Toss gently and arrange on serving plates. Garnish with the pecorino shavings and serve.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.