Sunday, 23 September 2012

'Jerusalem' by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka cooked from 'Jerusalem'

It was the bold flavours of Levantine cuisine that brought together Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi when they found themselves working together in London.  Living only 2km apart but never meeting, they separately left Jewish West and Palestinian East Jerusalem for London, via Tel Aviv, in the 1990's. With Italian and German parentage Ottolenghi was used to eating both European food and the Arab food familiar to Tamimi when both were growing up.  This mix of cuisines has informed the cooking at their four cafe/shops and new restaurant, NOPI, in London.  Their signature is bright, fresh, spicy flavours; sometimes surprising and sometimes challenging.

A nostalgia for the food of Jerusalem finally drew them back to research this handsome, heavyweight book.  The food of Jerusalem is informed by its mix of Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants and there are many debates over the origins of dishes in this book.  Not all the food of Jerusalem is a visual feast, so some of the recipes are loose interpretations of traditional dishes. With 'Jerusalem" they hope they have succeeded in "distilling the spirit of the place ....." by "... relying on our impulses for what feels right, looks beautiful and tastes delicious to us".

I have to say I ignored the fish dishes in this book.  I prefer my fish almost flapping and none of the recipes fit the bill for me, but the authors do own that "Jerusalem is not a city of fish".  Instead what caught my attention were dishes such as Mejadra (sweetly spiced rice and lentils with fried onions), a dish of Braised eggs with lamb, tahini & sumac, the Ashkenazi Hanukkah speciality Latkes and the syrup-laced pudding Mutabbaq.

Stuffed aubergine
with lamb & pine nuts cooked

from 'Jerusalem'
Stuffed aubergine with lamb and pine nuts was easy to prepare and soon popped in the oven.  After an hour and a half and a couple of bastings the aromas were sweet, smokey and intense. I really wanted to get it out of the oven and tuck in.  The dish needs, as the recipe points out, to cool  to allow full appreciation of the flavours of the spice combination.  Rice was good to mop up the juices and I used mango chutney for the suggested 'pickle', to balance the flavours.

Shakshuka is my kind of food.  Originally of Tunisian origin, it's a simple and comforting dish of red peppers, tomatoes and eggs spiced up with cumin and an intense chilli and garlic Pilpelchuma sauce (or harissa).  Served with a cooling spoonful of yoghurt and a good flatbread it made a great lunch and I can see myself following the suggestion to "play around with different ingredients" according to the time of year.

At first reading I felt daunted by the number of ingredients for many of the recipes in 'Jerusalem'.  However, I relaxed once I realised I had most of the spices in my store cupboard.  Dukkah, Baharat and Zhoug mixes were new to me and if you have difficulty buying them there is a useful condiment section at the back of the book for making your own.

'Jerusalem' has introduced me to a part of the world with a myriad of cultural food influences of which I had only a hazy notion.  There are many recipes in here - such as Saffron rice with barberries, pistachio and mixed herbs and Cardamom rice pudding with pistachios & rose water - which have caught my imagination and what more could you wish for in a cookery book?

Book courtesy of Ebury Press