In case you’ve been taking a self-imposed media holiday, the big food story of the season is a cookbook called, simply, Jerusalem. It is by a pair of Israeli-born, London-based chefs, the Jewish-Italian Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, who grew up in Muslim East Jerusalem. The much-told back story, which has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to the pages of every major newspaper, including this one, is that this unlikely team sought inspiration from their shared, if disparate, Holy Land roots. So appealing is this tale of two hummuses — not to mention its whole gutsy, rustic and fresh approach to food — is that Jerusalem has emerged as the foodie bible of the moment.
Evocatively illustrated with vibrant street scene of the old city, it is The Cookbook Store’s current top seller. “It reminds me of when The French Laundry cookbook first came out,” says the Cookbook Store’s Alison Fryer. “People come in because they’ve heard others talking about it at a cocktail party, or they’ve been to a dinner where the dishes being served were cooked from it. They don’t exactly know why they have to have it, but they do what they’re told.”
Last October, when Ottolenghi and Tamimi were in Toronto to promote the book, their one appearance — at the George Ignatieff theatre — sold out within days. It doesn’t hurt that the pair are media-savvy, hyper-articulate rock stars. And, as Fryer observes, there is something particularly au courant about their approach to food: “Not only is their presentation wonderful, with lots of colour, bold flavours, lots of platters served family-style, but with everyone’s interest in healthy eating there is a lot of attention to vegetables as the focus rather than just the aside to a meal.”
Turns out the momentum was only just beginning to gather over the holiday season, when the book made the rounds as a gift. I have a friend who bought a copy to give to her sister for Christmas only to discover that both her sister and her husband had bought and wrapped the same book as a gift for her.
After reading the adoring New Yorker profile of Ottolenghi over the holidays, I ran out to pick up the very last copy at Good Egg, where, as at Fryer’s Cookbook Store, owner Mika Bareketis was having trouble keeping it (and previous cookbooks by Ottolenghi and Tamimi) on store shelves.
Catching up later with a dear pal over a glass of wine, I was intrigued to discover that she spent the entire holiday up at her chalet cooking her way through Jerusalem. “Everything is just so fresh and the combinations of tastes are so inventive, I was just so inspired,” said my girlfriend, who reported searching fruitlessly in small town IGAs for za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture required in many of the recipes.
“I just did without it, and the other crazy things they ask for like chervil leaves and tamarind water, and it was all still delicious,” said my friend, adding that at one dinner party she hosted she jokingly apologized in advance for the lack of za’atar, whereupon one of her guests — a chef in training at George Brown — pulled out a Ziploc bag of something that looked like weed but turned out to be the elusive ingredient. He too had been avidly cooking his way through Jerusalem.
After my own religious study of the book, I can report that it is indeed gorgeous, with wonderful images of present-day Jerusalem, such as a shot of a Hasidic rabbi on a cellphone leading a group of cute orthodox kindergartners along the street in a religious-school equivalent of a conga line.
And, like the complex and ancient city it’s named for, the recipes are bold and gutsy combinations that beautifully skirt the line between age-old tradition and the fresh, lightly handled yet bursting with flavour food we want to eat now.
True, the foods described are all redolent of “a place where the sun shines,” in the words of Ottolenghi (who now counts three happening London establishments under his belt plus three hit cookbooks and and a TV series in the works). That might account for its spike in appeal here in the dark cold months of a northern winter.
There is also something incredibly earnest, if not passionate, about the book that speaks to something bigger.
“The flavours and smells of this city are our mother tongue,” write Ottolenghi and Tamimi in their introduction. “We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. They define comfort for us, excitement, joy, serene bliss. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences: foods our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills …”
They’ve hit on the secret of writing about food. Says Fryer: “When it comes to feeding people, you really have to write from the heart.” What makes Jerusalem such a hot ticket is that these two chefs have done exactly that.