In September 2012 Israeli born and London based chef Yotam Ottolenghi released his third book: Jerusalem. A collaboration with Palestinian Sami Tamimi, the two men were born in the same year (1968) in Jerusalem and led what they refer to as “parallel lives” on its Eastern and Western sides before meeting in London in 1999. Since then they have co-founded a chain of restaurants and written a wildly successful recipe book which was published in 2008.
Don’t let the fact that Jerusalem is “relatively” old in publishing terms put you off from purchasing it: it really is an absolute gem. More than just a recipe book it food, history, culture and politics into an incredibly rich tapestry that really gives you a window into the two authors’ home cities.
Personal stories are woven in throughout: how as a boy Sami would clamber over rocks to forage for fresh wild hyssop (the key ingredient in the Za’atar spice mix) while at primary school Yotam bought pizza to his friends on a day where pupils were to exchange ethnic food. More than anything else, these are what sets Jerusalem apart from the average recipe book
The recipes themselves are excellent. While some may be far from straightforward quick eats, all are clearly explained with easy to follow guidelines. Take the chocolate krantz cakes for example. While certainly tricky to successfully pull off, an entire double-page spread is dedicated to showing the reader how they should be spread with a cocoa, butter and pecan mixture; then rolled and cut correctly.
Aesthetically Jerusalem is a true delight to behold. The food photography is magnificent getting close in capturing the glean of a salad, rich golden-brown of roast poultry and sunset orange of an egg baked atop of a red pepper galette. There are also numerous revealing portraits that give the reader an unexpected insight into the life of Jerusalemites of all shades. Two Palestinian men relaxing over shisha pipes, a group of Chasidic toddlers walking in a conga-esque line and a craftsman at work making the finishing touches to a leather briefcase.
In fact, there are only two real criticisms that I can make of Jerusalem. The first would be that Ottolenghi and Tamimi omitted a number of what they themselves refer to as “typical local dishes”. For me the most obvious would be the Yerushalmi kugel (noodles caramelised with copious amounts of black pepper), challah (the special braided loaves served at the beginning of meals on Shabbat and festivals) and cholent/chamin (a meat stew that has slow cooked from Friday afternoon until Shabbat morning, when it is served upon returning from the synagogue) as it is alternately known by Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. The second is an almost sneery attitude towards Eastern European-influenced cooking.
For example: “sweet, grey and smeared with gelatinous gunk, gefilte fish was perceived as a typical remnant of the old Ashkenazi world that was best left behind in Eastern Europe.”
The presence of some non-kosher recipes may bother the more Orthodox Jewish readership, but they are few and far between (mainly limited to the fish and seafood section) and as far as mixing meat is concerned, this issue can be relatively easily bypassed by using oil or margarine instead of butter in most instances.
Even if one is to visit Jerusalem on a non-culinary holiday, then I highly recommend this book as something to peruse over on the flight to Tel Aviv. The treasures it unlocks would have probably otherwise gone unnoticed. Without Yotam’s guidance how many non-Jerusalemites would have known to look for the outstanding Kurdish restaurants dotted around the “Iraqi market” in Machane Yehuda which specialise in heavenly kibbeh soups and other delicacies?
Out of five stars it’s worth a good four-and-a-half. Not only does it show the reader how to make good food, but more importantly takes them to the heart of the Middle East’s most vibrant and diverse cities regardless of where they may be enjoying it. What more could anyone want?