My latest cooking obsession is the beautiful new cookbook Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Jerusalem is a perfect storm of a book: it combines an amazing story with stunning photographs and mouth-watering recipes. Part of the amazing story is the background of the two authors: Ottolenghi and Tamimi both grew up in Jerusalem at the same time, but did not know each other. Indeed, they grew up on opposite sides of the city because Ottolenghi is Israeli and Tamimi is Arab. The two men, however, began working together many years later — in London of all places — as chefs. These days, Tamimi and Ottolenghi own a restaurant together where Tamimi is the executive chef.
What could be more symbolic than two native sons of Jerusalem — one Jewish and one Muslim — writing a book together about the city’s cuisine? What an enormous and potentially fraught project. Not surprisingly, the book begins with twenty pages of introduction, history and explanations and has many more one-page essays sprinkled throughout. The two men tread delicately around such subjects as who invented hummus, what the proper name is for pearl couscous and the observance of Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. These essays and explanations add a rich historical and cultural context to the recipes, many of which feature novel spices or ingredients — even in this day and age when American supermarkets stock multiple kinds of hummus.
Jerusalem is a melting pot — a city of immigrants, like New York — and its cuisine reflects that reality. The recipes in the book reveal influences from the areas around Israel, such North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Arabian peninsula, but also more far-flung places like Russia, Northern and Eastern Europe, and even Central Asia — all places where Jews emigrated from, bringing with them their traditional cuisines.
The narrative parts of the book also serve to remind us how central food is to religion and to culture. It is no accident that both Judaism and Islam are religions that have strict and often confusing dietary laws — many of which overlap. You can”t cook in Jerusalem without confronting the kosher and Halal restrictions, even if you chose not to follow them. These cuisines have involved to accommodate these restrictions, which is one reason there are so many vegetarian recipes in the book and why the dessert recipes often call for oil, not butter. In Jerusalem, as elsewhere, necessity is the mother of invention.