Jerusalem is known for its bitter politics, a divided city where decades of religious and political strife have torn away shared spaces. But as British-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi tells NPR's Melissa Block, if there's one place in which Jerusalemites of all stripes still stand united, it's in their love of food.
And food, in Jerusalem, is everywhere. It's practically an obsession.The city becomes the muse for Ottolenghi and co-author Sami Tamimi in their lush new cookbook — part travelogue, part memoir, all Jerusalem.
For Ottolenghi, these recipes are a chance "to show that there's a lot in the Jerusalem experience that is shared and common to everybody," he tells Block.
For example, both chefs got in plenty of trouble as kids for their love of a street-fresh falafel sandwich on the way home from school. Ottolenghi recalls trying to resist temptation:
"You know you shouldn't buy yourself falafel in a pita because you're going to have lunch served in five minutes, but you really, really must have it. ... You arrive back home, you're so full, your shirt is covered with tahini sauce, it's been dripping all over you ... and we literally had the same experiences, the angry mother, the falafel, the whole thing is so similar in many ways, and we were really living in two separate cultures."
And that's why the chefs' collaboration might not have happened at all if they had stayed in Jersusalem.
Ottolenghi is a culinary star in his adopted hometown of London. He oversees four restaurants there, writes vegetarian recipes for the Guardian and frequently pops up on the BBC. He grew up in Jewish West Jerusalem. His business partner and co-chef Tamimi grew up in the Muslim neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The two met as adults in London, combined culinary forces and created the Ottolenghi brand of cuisine: fresh ingredients, full-bodied Mediterranean flavors, all served up with European flair.
The two chefs tell Block that Jerusalem: A Cookbook is a chance to re-imagine the recipes of their childhoods, reminiscing about Jerusalem's open-air food markets and street food. But the chefs admit they've had to dodge the thorny hummus wars.
"Hummus is everybody's favorite food in Jerusalem, and when you talk about something that is so common to everybody but in a place that's so highly divided in many ways, it is already a formula for explosion in many ways. Everybody wants to take ownership of that plate of hummus, both Jews and Arabs, and when this argument starts, there's no end to it," Ottolenghi says.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi say the more fruitful battle is finding out just which joint in the city makes the best hummus.
With that in mind, they've taken bits and pieces of their favorite recipes from across the city and whisked together a version of their own. Theirs is the kind of mishmash that defines Jerusalem's food and its history.
Check out Ottolenghi and Tamimi's recipes for hummus and couscous below, and click on the link above to hear Block's entire interview.
Recipe: Basic Hummus
This hummus is smooth and rich in tahini (sesame paste), just the way we like it.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/4 cups dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 1/2 cups water
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons light tahini paste
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 cloves garlic, crushed
6 1/2 tablespoons ice cold water
The night before, put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover them with cold water at least twice their volume. Leave to soak overnight.
The next day, drain the chickpeas. Place a medium saucepan over high heat and add the drained chickpeas and baking soda. Cook for about three minutes, stirring constantly. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming off any foam and any skins that float to the surface. The chickpeas will need to cook for 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the type and freshness, sometimes even longer. Once done, they should be very tender, breaking up easily when pressed between your thumb and finger, almost but not quite mushy.
Drain the chickpeas. You should have roughly 3 2/3 cups now. Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine sill running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the ice water and allow it to mix for about five minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.
Transfer the hummus to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. If not using straightaway, refrigerate until needed. Make sure to take it out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving.
Recipe: Couscous With Tomato And Onion
This dish is based on one Sami's mother made for him as a child, plus a crispy crust similar to an Iranian dish. The crunchy bit is everybody's favorite.
Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 very ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/4 inch dice (1 3/4 cups)
Scant 1 cup couscous
Scant 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a nonstick pan about 8 1/2 inches in diameter and place over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often, until it has softened but not colored. Stir in the tomato paste and sugar and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and some black pepper and cook for 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the couscous in a shallow bowl, pour over the boiling stock, and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside for 10 minutes, then remove the cover and fluff the couscous with a fork. Add the tomato sauce and stir well.
Wipe the pan clean and heat the butter and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. When the butter has melted, spoon the couscous into the pan and use the back of the spoon to pat it down gently so it is all packed in snugly. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and allow the couscous to steam for 10 to 12 minutes, until you can see a light brown color around the edges. Use an offset spatula or a knife to help you peer between the edge of the couscous and the side of the pan; you want a really crisp edge all over the base and sides.
Invert a large plate on top of the pan and quickly invert the pan and plate together, releasing the couscous onto the plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.