Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cuisine as Peacemaker

I read a review of an extraordinary cookbook called Jerusalem not long ago and out of curiosity I checked this cookbook out of the library. I’m in love. I need my own copy (now high on my Christmas list). Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner and co-chef Sami Tamimi have produced a gorgeous collection of delicious recipes that live in their shared memories of growing up on opposite sides of Jerusalem. In the inspirational opening pages of commentary before they present their recipes, Ottolenghi and Tamimi write that they “imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”

These two chefs own a collection of restaurants in London, where they both relocated while in their teens. In 1968 Tamimi was born in Arab East Jerusalem and Ottolenghi was born in Jewish West Jerusalem. Tamimi is a Muslim and Ottolenghi is, almost improbably, an Italian Jew. They met when Ottolenghi applied for a job in Tamimi’s restaurant. Before long they had become business partners and they are lately the darlings of London. I can see why. The recipes they offer in Jerusalem slay me. I want to cook all of them. I want to cook my way through their book the way Julie Powell cooked her way through Julia Child, (except I’ll have to skip the meat and fish recipes since I’m vegetarian – but not a problem since the book is loaded with vegetable, bean, and grain recipes). An entire section of the book is devoted to condiments, such as dips and sauces. Yes! I remember the night my family arrived in Israel for a visit when I was 16 years old and our cousins took us to eat at a Palestinian restaurant in East Jerusalem, the “Old City.” There must have been at least a dozen different little bowls of these kinds of condiments on the table and my entire heavenly dinner consisted of dipping pita bread into all of them and savoring the different flavors.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi point out that Jerusalem is a city of many cultures. The city is home to Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Hasidic Jews originating in Poland, non-Orthodox Jews from Tunisia, both religious and secular Jews from Libya, France, Britain, and the U.S., Sephardic Jews who have lived in the Holy Land for generations, Palestinian Muslims, Christian Arabs, Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe (including Germany, Romania, Lithuania, etc.), and newly arriving Sephardic Jews from Morocco, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, Armenian Orthodox, plus Yemini Jews and Ethiopian Jews as well as Ethiopian Copts, Jews from Argentina and India and Uzbekistan. The list goes on and on, with so many faiths, colors, nationalities; and flavors at the dinner table, mouth-watering aromas in the streets.

Some of the recipes that make me drool (and the photographs are to-die-for) are:
  • Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs with chiles and soft goat cheese.
  • Fava bean “kuku” (a sort of frittata -- eggs) with barberries, onion, cream, garlic, dill, and mint.
  • Roasted butternut squash with red onion, tahini, pine nuts, and lemon juice. (I just made this one last night – so yummy.)
  • Artichoke salad with arugula, mint, cilantro and pecorino romano cheese.
  • Swiss chard fritters with cilantro, dill, nutmeg, garlic, eggs, and feta cheese (lemon wedges on the side).
  • Fried cauliflower with tahini.
  • Chermoula eggplant with golden raisins, green olives, almonds, Greek yogurt, and a heap of other ingredients.
  • Saffron rice with barberries, pistachio, dill, chervil, tarragon, and other herbs.

Lentils, eggplant, chickpeas, sesame, olives, tomatoes, goat cheese. Take me there. I dreamed about the Swiss chard fritters last night. I’ve got to start cooking these recipes.

The introductory pages of the cookbook tell a brilliant story of hope, peace, and reconciliation. Jews and Arabs have been known to go into battle over the question of who invented hummus. Hummus is a very emotional issue for our people. The conflict about ownership of ethnic food is often ridiculous, but it runs deep. For instance, a section of the text is devoted to a discussion of za’atar, a key ingredient in Palestinian cooking. (The authors say that it is a form of what the English call hyssop.) It has traditionally grown wild in the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and was at one time easy to find and pick in the wild. The authors explain:  “za’atar has joined the long list of thorny subjects poisoning the fraught relationship between Arabs and Jews because Israel declared the herb an endangered species and banned picking it in the wild.” To read what Ottolenghi and Tamimi write about the shared food of their cultures as well as the many others found in Jerusalem, one would think that if the Israelis and Palestinians would only sit down and eat together then peace would come to the Middle East.

What a lovely concept. I plan to do my part by cooking as many recipes from Jerusalem  as possible in the coming year. At the end of the Passover Seder in the spring we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” For me it will be Next Year Face Down in Jerusalem Food.

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