Jerusalem: A Cookbook, and So Much More

jerusalem book 001

jerusalem book 001

After a childhood in post-9/11 America, I have become used to the idea that political statements and ideologies may become embedded in seemingly-innocuous things, and that culture wars may then be fought over them. What I never expected, however, was that these trends would affect even the cookbook market. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem: A Cookbook, while providing an interesting survey of the city’s multi-ethnic and varied cuisine (in addition to some good recipes) also takes clear (and decidedly liberal) stands on a number of issues. And because of this, it has raised the ire of some, who then take their arguments, of course, to forums like the Customer Reviews section.

But first, a bit of background. Ottolenghi and Tamimi are both gay Jerusalemites who now own the restaurant Ottolenghi in London. Both were born soon after the ‘67 war, but Ottolenghi, a Jew of Italian and German descent, grew up in West Jerusalem while Tamimi, who is Palestinian, grew up in the East part of the city. The two met as expatriates in the UK, and opened Ottolenghi in 2002, where it has proven to be a popular establishment. Jerusalem is their third cookbook, the other two consisting of books of various Ottolenghi-inspired recipes.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s background then goes a long way in explaining the viewpoint of the book, in addition to the selection of recipes. The book often pays homage to the ubiquitous use of eggplant in local cooking, and in its introduction lists controversies ranging from the origins of hummus to the marginalization of secular communities in Jerusalem in a fairly impartial manner. At one point in the lengthy introduction, Ottolenghi describes  how he enjoyed breaking various laws of kashrut as a youth, and the commentary at the beginning of every recipe is often warm and family-centric.

In regards to their recipes, the book does not act as a guide to traditional Jerusalem delicacies, nor, for that matter, even for some common foods within the city. The recipes that the book contains are generally comfort food, some of it lifted from the many communities found within the city, some of it shared cuisine across groups (i.e. falafel). These recipes are often Middle Eastern in origin, being either from the local Palestinian population, or from various Mizrachi/Sephardic communities in places like Syria, Libya, and Iraq. There is plov, a ubiquitous central-asian pilaf eaten by Bukharan Jews, tabbouleh, a traditionally Palestinian salad that is now popular across the country, and kubbeh hamusta, a dumpling soup brought to the area by Iraqi Jews.  What there is not is kugel, bagels, and other Ashkenazi-European dishes. In addition, there are many recipes that are “inspired” by the flavors of the city. Finally, the book takes pains to be usable in the North American kitchen so recipes that might take unavailable ingredients have been omitted as well.

With all of this in mind, Ottolenghi and Tamimi both clearly place themselves in a particular context. The book’s lack of European recipes excludes both wealthy secular Jews in the suburban areas of the city as well as the Haredi-Orthodox in neighborhoods like Mea Shearim. The groups that are best represented are the Palestinian and Mizrachi-Jewish populations. Both groups have long been relegated to the working class of Israeli society, and have attempted to carve a culture that is religious, but that generally never swerves into fundamentalism. The beautiful photos of the city that are scattered throughout the book’s pages attest to the humble dignity of neighborhoods like Musrara and At-Tur. This, in addition to the written commentary on the recipes, as well as the introduction, paints a rather loving portrait of a Jerusalem that is usually missed by tourists, but that is definitely extant, a place where a practical tolerance often governs relations between various ethnic communities, and the best food is always made by someone’s mother.

This viewpoint, however, has not failed to cause some controversy among commenters in various Amazon reviews. I stumbled onto this bizarre phenomenon when looking through the list of recommendations after my purchase of Jerusalem. This included a book on Aleppine-Jewish cooking that inspired much commentary. Apparently, the idea of the cookbook was ridiculous; Jewish cooking differed little from Muslim or Christian cooking in the area. In fact, most of the recipes were Turkish in origin. In Jerusalem, the volume of such comments was slim, but it was fascinating to see both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide bitterly pronouncing judgement on Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s work.

The comments generally broke down into two categories. Jewish commenters often complained about the non-Kosher recipes in the book, as well as secular Ottolenghi’s judgements on Kosher eating, best displayed in the following, Anonymous 3 star review:

I wanted to give this cookbook out as a hostess gift for my son’s bar mitzvah. It seemed too good to be true-a cookbook that has such gorgeous pictures it could also be a coffee-table book. I ordered one to get a feel for it and I am glad I did. Although it is featured in Amazon under “kosher cookbooks” it is decidedly not. There are recipes that include shellfish, and a meat recipe that features Greek yogurt. By itself that would not be so bad. What got to me was the almost gleeful description of the author’s “illicit” consumption of ham and pork when he was younger, because it was not “cool” to keep kosher. The pictures are magnificent and the recipes look lovely but it’s not for me. Amazon, you should be more careful with your listings.

The only response that comes to my mind is that while I don’t know much about pork consumption within Israel from personal experience, I know colloquially that it’s possible to find pork in-country, and halal dietary restrictions don’t forbid mixing meat and milk, or shellfish. My point is that the book is true to the situation as it is, and is not shy in its observations on everyday life within the city. The other form of comment was rarer still, but it was best put forward the section of a comment by “nerose,”

Here, again, the book is rather unflinching in its portrait of life on the ground. Complaints have been made for years by farmers in the West Bank that Israel has flooded Palestinian markets with Israeli produce, systematically attempted to stifle the export of Palestinian produce to international markets, and restricted the production of meat in Israel to Kibbutzim. It then makes sense that all of the grocery products seen in the cookbook are written in Hebrew. The comment about the countrywomen selling herbs is overstated. In my experience, they are numerous throughout the Old City and were not kicked off the streets at Damascus Gate.

Also, after 45 years of Israeli presence in the West Bank, all of Arab culture within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is filtered through Israeli channels. Palestinian Arabic contains Hebrew loan words, many Palestinians work in Israel (and many more used to), and even the majority of matzah sales in Israel are made to Arabs (who use it in a variety of dishes). Jerusalem has much more in common with Jordan than it does with Aleppo, which borders Turkey and was a stop along the Silk Road. The only areas that might contain desserts like crystallized fruit would be Arab cities in the north like Nazareth. The book, if anything else, should be complimented for its accuracy, even if it may offend the leanings of one buyer or another.

All of this being said, Jerusalem: A Cookbook is a great cookbook. The recipes that I used required a substantial time commitment, but the results have been consistently great. On the whole, the recipes taste like the real thing. Instructions should not necessarily be followed  to the letter, but minor mishaps and politics aside, Messrs. Ottolenghi and Tamimi have pulled off quite a feat: producing a cookbook that, in addition to being politically honest and objective, is a guide to creating some of the best home-cooking in the world.