Jerusalem: A Love Letter To Food And Memories Of Home

Oct 15, 2012
Originally published on October 15, 2012 6:46 pm

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.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

And here beside me in the studio is a large bowl filled with creamy, pale hummus, the Middle Eastern chickpeas spread. I made the hummus using a recipe from a new cookbook called "Jerusalem." And the author say they're taking a giant leap of faith to claim that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.

And they should know, Chef Yotam Ottolenghi is a Jew from the west side of Jerusalem. His friend, fellow chef, and business partner Sami Tamimi is Palestinian who grew up in Muslim east Jerusalem. They work together at the popular Ottolenghi Restaurants in London, and join me to talk about the food and culture of their birthplace. Yotam and Sami, welcome to the program.



BLOCK: And why don't we start with hummus, this bowl of hummus that I have sitting next to me. In your cookbook, you call hummus an obsession, an explosive subject in Jerusalem. Why is that, Yotam?

OTTOLENGHI: Well, hummus is everybody's favorite food in Jerusalem. And when you talk about something that is so common to everybody as being in a place that is so sort of highly divided in many ways, and it is already a formula for an explosion, because everybody wants to take ownership over that plate of hummus, both Jews and Arabs. And when this argument starts, you know, there's no end to it.

BLOCK: And, Sami, it looks so benign sitting here next to me. It's hard to believe it would be that divisive.

TAMIMI: Exactly.

BLOCK: You both left Jerusalem many, many years ago. And I was wondering if you could think back to a smell memory or maybe a taste memory from your childhood that for you really captures that city? Sami, you want to start?

TAMIMI: There are quite a lot of things. I mean just walking down to the market and you get here and there a different thing, like figs or coffee - coffee with cardamoms; sweet aromas and colors. And it's as you know then...

OTTOLENGHI: Sami, when we were talking about food memories and during the process of writing the book, Sami and I discovered quite a few times about certain memories that we really share. And it's funny because we lived in really the two opposite sides of the city, or the two very unmixing insides of the city - the Arab and Jewish parts.

And I remember when I rewrote the chapter about falafel, Sami started telling me his version of it. You know, when school ends you go home. And then on the way back there is this falafel store. You know, falafel is almost as popular as hummus. And, you know, you know you shouldn't buy yourself a falafel in a pita because, you know, you're going to have lunch served to you by your mother in five minutes. But you really, really must have it.

And then you arrive back home. You're so full of it. Sure it is covered with tahini sauce and dripping all over you. (Laughter) And there's this sort of - and we literally had exactly the same experience. You know, the angry mother, falafel-full, you can't eat. The whole thing is - it's so similar in many ways. And, you know, we were really living in two separate cultures.

BLOCK: How do you think the approach to food, or maybe the emotion behind food, is different in Jerusalem than it is there in London, where you live now, or maybe other cities where you've lived or traveled?

TAMIMI: There is something about city. Jerusalem is quite special like this because there's much - there's a lot of interaction between the cuisines. Jews came from all over. And the Arabs that were living in Jerusalem for generations have been cooking a certain kind of food. And as soon as the Jews started arriving, there is a sort of mixture and reciprocal influences started happening.

So you get those sort of cross-hybrids like something that a Tunisian Jewish woman would cook that is very much influenced by what Palestinian Arab woman would cook next door or in the next neighborhood. And you've got these funny mixes that are really just typical for Jerusalem. And to every recipe there's always attached a personal story.

BLOCK: With that mixture of cultures that you're talking about in Jerusalem, come battles over the ownership of food, right? We were talking about this earlier; deep divisions over which culture can stake a claim to what food.

OTTOLENGHI: Yeah, I mean, what we sort of found out over our - the period we were working on the book, is that it's so easy to get into a row over, you know, who invented hummus and why and at which stage. And it's very difficult to find the answer to these things, because you can always look a little bit further down history and find someone else that got that same dish before you. I mean especially if it's something as simple as crushed chickpeas.

And so, the there's these arguments about ownership. But then there's also arguments that actually I find a little bit more fruitful. And that's about who makes the best hummus in town. You know, which restaurants best makes this hummus.

TAMIMI: And also, I analyze it. I mean things like hummus - what kind of chickpeas, what time (unintelligible) they soak the chickpeas...

OTTOLENGHI: What temperature...

TAMIMI: Yeah, it just goes on and on. You know, for us, we didn't really want to go this path.

OTTOLENGHI: I think what we were really interested in is just choose the best recipe that we could put our hands on. And this was the funnest bit, that we didn't feel that we had to reflect any one community or one kind of tradition. We could really mold them to fit us.

BLOCK: The cliche here would be that food becomes a thing that breaks down boundaries, right? That people gather around the table and all those divisions melt away. In Jerusalem, would that be overstating the fact? Is that a way simplistic explanation of what might happen? As much as you might want hummus to bring people together, it's obviously more complicated than that.

OTTOLENGHI: It is much were complicated than that. What we say in the book, and I think it's - we're trying to be quite conscious because, you know, Sami and I are working together in London and not in Jerusalem. And I think that's quite a telling fact. It's very difficult to be completely optimistic and to put a gloss on this picture.

We say, OK, if everybody around a big table we could solve all the problems because at the moment we can't, unfortunately. And this really doesn't happen and this is not a good time for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at all.

But what we did say, and I think this is quite evident from going around Jerusalem, is that the only places that people do interact and do meet to a degree are related to food. You know, it's in markets when they go shopping and in restaurants where occasionally people sit side-by-side and eat, or in restaurant kitchens where they cook together. And in that respect there is much more in common than you think, than you give credit.

There is much - people have more in common, Jews and Arabs, in Jerusalem. So it's a hypothetic statement that we give at one point, saying if there was a way to solve the problems, if there was a way to bring people closer together, it would be around food, around a plate of hummus and nothing else.

BLOCK: Sami?

TAMIMI: I don't think I can add to that. (Laughter)

BLOCK: Before I let you go, I need a little advice with this hummus, which is sitting next to me and smelling very garlicky. It's very dense and thick. It's not as creamy as I remember it should be. And it's very tahini-ish.

TAMIMI: Yeah, I mean, this is how we like it.

OTTOLENGHI: This is how we like it.


OTTOLENGHI: We said in unison.

TAMIMI: Just add a little bit of water and kind of whisk it really well.

BLOCK: OK, so just some water. Good.


BLOCK: Good to know. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, they're partners in the Ottolenghi Restaurant in London. And their new cookbook is "Jerusalem." Thanks so much to you both.

TAMIMI: Thank you.

OTTOLENGHI: Thank you.

BLOCK: And you can find recipes from their "Jerusalem" cookbook and see photos of the city's markets and street food on NPR's food blog, The Salt. That's at


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.