The Middle East in your kitchen

There are so many good ideas in the Jerusalem cookbook that I have taken to carrying it around with me, planning for the next meal.

This is Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's third book after Plenty, a book of vegetarian recipes drawn from the former's column in the Guardian, and Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, containing recipes from their restaurants in London. Both of them grew up in Jerusalem: Ottolenghi in the Jewish section and Tamimi in the Muslim one. They only met later in London and started cooking their distinctive cuisine. 

Spices you will keep coming across include cumin, cinnamon, allspice, caraway, sumac and cardamom. They also use interesting combinations with fruit, such as prunes and potatoes, dates and onion dressed with vinegar, or pomegranate seeds over a salad.Their recipes draw not only on the kaleidoscopic cuisine of the city, but also from the food they were served as children.

Tamimi's mother, Na'ama, has a few of her recipes in the book. For example, there's her version of fattoush — a chopped salad of cucumber, tomatoes, spring onion, mint, parsley, garlic and crumbled flat bread, dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar, sumac and yoghurt. They also update Na'ama's simple dish of couscous with tomato and onion by adding a crust. You make the tomato sauce (it's rich, with both chopped tomatoes and puree, as well as a bit of sugar) and then mix it with couscous that has already sucked up some boiling water. This all goes back into an oiled pan over low heat, which forms a delicious crust. I made a pan of it for supper and ate every last speck of couscous.

There's also an astonishing recipe for something called maqluba – a kind of layered cake with tomato, fried brinjal and cauliflower and rice, which is cooked and then inverted over a plate. 

I could go on: a cake of minced lamb and bulgur wheat; a pale green pistachio soup and spicy carrot salad with harissa; a salad of dates, baby spinach, onion and almonds …

Ottolenghi spoke to the Mail & Guardian, over the clank of plates, from his test kitchen in Camden.

How do you write your books?
They're very different from each other. For Jerusalem, done with Sami, we started a couple of years ago, sitting around the table coming up with ideas from our past and how to do things. What captured our imaginations from the food we ate when we were younger, growing up? That was our starting point. We also thought of going out and finding things we didn't know about. Nomi [Abeliovich] went and met people in Jerusalem, especially women, because we were going for home–style cooking. She delivered them to us and then we would go and test them and remake them, or adapt them to a modern or Western palate. Many of the recipes were complex and time–consuming. Once we choose the recipes, then there is the testing … sifting through, refining … We have a group of people who give us feedback. It takes a couple of years.

What about the importance of attributing a recipe to a source?
Attribution is very much the reality and is the way we operate the restaurants – other people in the company, the head chef, contributors and other people around us. I think it's very important information for the reader. And it pays off in the end to credit people as being part of the process. [Ramael] Scully, one of our chefs, contributed and it was very important to make it clear they were his recipes. They are different in style. These are our friends. It's  a collaboration.

What about other chefs copying your recipes?
I've seen it a few times and now there are places that are a lot like Ottolenghi. But it's not only about the recipes. It's rather the whole ethos, which is not easy to imitate. It's also a compliment, to a degree. I'm not bothered about it. I used to be, but it's just the way of the world. It's important to keep on being creative and doing.

What is your ethos?
What we try to do is bring an element of ingenuity, of creating new things and not doing the things that have been described before. There is an element of renewal and generosity in a broad sense. This means giving out the recipe properly and not withholding any part of it. Our food is there to have an effect. It's abundant and colourful. All these things together create a framework and sense of clarity. I mean, you need to be able to taste what's in the dish; there mustn't be any guesswork. There must be the full, strong flavour of that ingredient, not just a hint. I don't like vagueness. In terms of process it must be straightforward. If the recipe is long, that's fine. I'll say this is a long recipe and you can choose not to make it. But the recipe should not be so long that the cook will never be able to do it properly. It has to be achievable. Sometimes I think chefs [in recipe books] are just talking to another group of chefs and forget who their target audience is.

What are the new food traditions in Jerusalem now, particularly in a divided place like the Middle East?
Jerusalem is a very dynamic place, despite politics, where things are not moving. In terms of food there's a lot going on and Sami and I tried to convey that. Fifty or 60 years ago many Jews emigrated to what was mainly a Palestinian or Arab city. Now it's much more mixed and there are more interactions among cuisines and Arabs and Jews interact. It wasn't so different to start with. European traditions have also arrived; for example, the concept of the open kibbeh, which captures a lot of processes. Kibbeh is complicated to make and time–consuming. You have to make the shells, then deep–fry them, which is not realistic for some cooks. We turned it into a cake to capture the essence. They are simpler and quicker to make. We've done the same throughout the book – simplifying.

Does the book contribute to ­making a new tradition in Middle Eastern food?
The idea that there are certain cuisines that have more affinity to the Middle Eastern cuisine are easy to draw on. It's broadening your circle … from Palestine to Turkey, then Greece. The steps are legitimate if you can justify them. It would be difficult to include Japanese cuisine, because that comes from a whole different part of the world. I try to carefully broaden my horizon.

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