In the Middle East, there are few more contentious food issues than hummus. Lebanon, Israel and Egypt all lay claim to the best recipe.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the co-authors of Jerusalem, are well aware of the so-called “hummus wars”. The two of them grew up in different parts of the city, Ottolenghi in Jewish West Jerusalem, Tamimi, a Palestinian, in East Jerusalem, and their book contains an entire section on hummus. So, when I meet them it’s only natural to ask whose is the best. They laugh, a tad uneasily. “Probably Sami’s,” Ottolenghi, 44, says. “It’s thicker in his blood.” Tamimi, 45, gives a satisfied smile.
In 1997 both independently moved to London and found themselves working at the boutique bakery Baker & Spice. Did they know immediately they were kindred spirits? “That is perhaps a bit strong,” says Ottolenghi, leaning back on a high bar stool, his long legs almost touching the ground.”A friend of ours said that, back then, I was kind of hard to get to know,” says Tamimi. He is the more quietly spoken one and he answers questions shyly, as though slightly embarrassed to be asked his opinion. “I think what connected us from the beginning was that we both came from the same place, spoke the same language.” Ottolenghi waits for him to finish speaking before responding: they have the most delightfully respectful manner with each other. “We had a lot in common,” says Ottolenghi. “Our friendship evolved because we were working together. it just took time.”
Ottolenghi’s previous book, Plenty, won OFM’s best cookbook two years ago. Jerusalem was a different prospect: the idea came from Noam Bar, Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s business partner, who suggested it was time for a more personal project, looking back at the food that had shaped them.
“We were sceptical,” says Ottolenghi. “There were too many emotions,” adds Tamimi. “It [Jerusalem] is a difficult place to live. There is a lot of conflict.”
Ottolenghi adds: “There’s a lot of history, a lot of religion on your shoulders.”
But then they began researching the recipes: roast chicken with clementines, chermoula aubergine and sumac-spiced fatoush inspired by Tamimi’s mother.
“Suddenly you started to understand how multilayered the food culture is,” says Ottolenghi. “I grew up in the Old City and it’s kind of divided, each quarter has its own food, although they go and buy from some markets in different quarters.”
The wonderful thing about Jerusalem is its passion for cross-cultural pollination, resulting in food that transcends those invisible yet entrenched divisions.
“Food is a powerful thing,” says Tamimi. Ottolenghi nods. “People can sit around a table and…”
Tamimi completes the sentence: “It gives people hope.”
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