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Peacemaking Power of Pita

Yotam Ottolenghi is Israeli; Sami Tamimi is Palestinian. Together, this London-based chef duo revisited the city of their birth, Jerusalem, for an astonishing new cookbook.

If chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi had never left Jerusalem, they almost certainly never would have met. Though they grew up a few miles from each other—Ottolenghi in the western Jewish part of Jerusalem, Tamimi in the Arab quarter of the Old City—the two communities “lived in perfect segregation,” Ottolenghi says. “We went to separate schools and spoke different languages.” When he was a child, his parents tried to somehow bridge the gap by taking the family to the Old City, to eat in Arab restaurants and shop in Arab stores. “Still,” he says, “I never really met any Palestinian kids my age, and we never had any proper Palestinian friends.”

It was only when Ottolenghi and Tamimi turned up in London in the late 1990s that they finally met, a felicitous moment that has led to an enduring friendship. They became partners, along with Noam Bar, of Ottolenghi, a restaurant and deli renowned across London. Plenty, the blockbuster vegetarian cookbook Ottolenghi published last year, made the place famous around the entire world, as well.

The food at Ottolenghi is boldly flavored, vegetable-driven and vividly colored, featuring Mediterranean ingredients like lemons, chiles and pomegranates. It is the kind of place where you go intending to buy a little carton of something for lunch, end up lingering at one of the communal tables for coffee and a pastry, and leave having somehow acquired your family’s dinner that night.

Exploring Israeli Food: A Bakery in the Old City.
Chef Yotam Ottolenghi had little interaction with Palestinians as a child, besides visiting bakeries in the Old City’s Muslim quarter.
Photo © Flickr RF.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi met up recently in the company’s test kitchen in north London to discuss their latest collaboration: Jerusalem, a cookbook that is a postcard from and a love letter to their childhood home, its history and its many-layered culinary traditions. It is as much a call to peace as it is a celebration of cuisine, arguing that food could be a way to bring a measure of understanding to a city riven by mistrust and fear. “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it—what have we got to lose?—to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will,” the duo write.

Ottolenghi is 43, tall, lanky and playful. Tamimi is 44, a little shorter and stockier and just as slyly funny. Talking to them is like talking to a pair of exceptionally close siblings. They finish each other’s sentences and supply details from each other’s anecdotes. “People always assume that we’re together, but we’re not—we love each other like brothers,” Ottolenghi says (both are gay).

The two chefs left Israel more than a decade ago. Tamimi was lured from Tel Aviv by the owner of Baker & Spice, a London café. Wanting to pursue a scholarly career, Ottolenghi moved to London as a graduate student in philosophy and literature, only to abruptly change course, becoming a pastry chef instead of an academic. Searching one day for a new job, he passed Baker & Spice on his moped and went inside.

“I knocked on the door to leave my CV, and Sami was the first person I saw,” he says. Within minutes, the two men were chatting in Hebrew, beginning a conversation that is still ongoing. In 2002, they launched Ottolenghi, opening the first shop on Ledbury Road in Notting Hill. They have since expanded it into a 170-employee company, with more locations in Islington, Kensington and Belgravia (they also own a more formal restaurant, Nopi, in central London).

To refresh their memories, and find inspiration for their cookbook, Ottolenghi and Tamimi returned to Jerusalem last year. Many recipes they came up with have roots in their pasts—a bit from Sami’s mother, a bit from Yotam’s father. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they found their families actually had dishes in common: A simple couscous with tomato and onion that Tamimi’s mother used to make, for instance, is similar to a dish cooked by Ottolenghi’s father, who emigrated to Israel from Italy before World War II (though he used a pasta-based couscous instead of the traditional variety).

Exploring Israeli Food: The Old City
Chef Sami Tamimi grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the Dome of the Rock.
Photo © Getty.

A dish in Jerusalem with a more clear-cut source is Sami’s mother’s unusual version of fattoush, a Middle Eastern chopped salad based on fried pieces of leftover pita bread and whatever the cook has in the refrigerator. Unlike most versions of fattoush, which are dressed simply with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, her version features a lightly sour buttermilk dressing drizzled liberally over the bread and vegetables. “When I read the recipe, I was thinking, These chopped salads are so nice and fresh, why is there all this dairy?” Ottolenghi says. “I was a little dubious.” But then he tasted it. “You mix it, and it just works,” he says. “You mix it lightly,” adds Tamimi, who had never written the recipe down until he started working on the cookbook.

Other dishes in the cookbook were adapted from Jerusalem’s modern restaurant scene, like a hearty dish of eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts from Elran Shrefler, who works at his family’s restaurant, Azura, making traditional Kurdish recipes influenced by Turkish flavors.

Then there are dishes that are completely original, like beets pureed with yogurt and the spice blend za’atar, an homage to a vegetable that figures in nearly every cuisine in Jerusalem. The omnipresence of beets at dinner tables around Jerusalem, from the borscht of Eastern European Jews to the beet-infused pickling liquid common at Arab markets, drives home the main point and underlying intention of the cookbook. “People in Jerusalem have so much in common in terms of culture and food. They’re going to the same restaurants—a Jewish family and an Arab family—sitting side by side, eating the same food, having the same conversations,” says Ottolenghi. “People say, ‘If you and Sami can be friends and colleagues, maybe it’s a sign that the whole Middle East can.’”

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times.

Published September 2012
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