To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Book Review: Jerusalem -- A Cookbook

Jerusalem a cookbook photo 2.jpg

This is the fifth in a series of reviews of new books on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, to review this newly published delicious book about the culinary culture of the city at the heart of the conflict.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jerusalem: A Cookbook (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012). 319 pages. $35.00

With the opening image of Jerusalem aglow with morning light, the reader enters the sensory feast that is Jerusalem: A Cookbook. 

As with the photograph, the Introduction anticipates the "complicated pedigree" of the recipes to follow, and alerts us to the all-encompassing approach of an Israeli and a Palestinian, chefs who met in London and became friends and business partners bound by their passion for cooking and their nostalgia for the city of their birth and childhoods. 

The stated purpose of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in creating Jerusalem: A Cookbook is very personal. Their concern is neither with trendy "fusion" or "ethnic" cooking, but rather, it is to "unravel their mutual culinary DNA," to recapture the tastes forever associated with childhood memories. How fortunate for us.

The recipes, of course, are the essence of the book, but the introductory remarks, including a brief history of Jerusalem, make clear that the dishes are not presented in isolation--a metaphor, perhaps, for the inclusiveness at the heart of the authors' orientation. They neither justify nor ignore the political and religious conflicts that characterize Jerusalem today, including the precarious and threatened existence of its Palestinian minority. They counter these realities, however, with what might seem a rather na├»ve non-sequitur:  the heated atmosphere of Jerusalem produces fantastic, creative food and bold flavors, and the variety of dishes presented in the book illustrate the city's world heritage status.

This is, after all, a cookbook, and while it is important not to overstate the point, food as a means of transcending entrenched mistrust among peoples should not be entirely dismissed.  It is an axiom of anthropology that food, to a large extent, holds a society together. As the late, great James Beard put it, "Food is our common ground."  And as the food of Jerusalem embodies the diverse history and culture of the city, so Ottolenghi and Tamimi hope that understanding the traditions preserved in Jerusalem's wide-ranging cuisine can foster acceptance and coexistence.

The authors' intent, then, is to present a more benign Jerusalem reality, even when conflict persists in arguments about the origins of a particular dish.  Co-existence reigns in the presentation of traditional unchanged recipes, recipes updated for modern sensibilities and entirely new recipes redolent of Jerusalem's flavors, and in the authors' attention to the typical elements found in all local dishes, the loose affinities shared by a few, and the presence of local ingredients. As Ottolenghi observes, Jerusalem cuisine is an immense tapestry, the natural outcome of a city comprised of so intricate a mosaic of peoples and cultures, it is impossible to restrict the pedigree of a single dish. Which version one chooses is less relevant than that every tradition boasts equally satisfying results.

Having tried a few of the recipes, I can testify that although they are uniformly delicious and clearly written, they most probably would appeal to the experienced, adventurous cook. This is not, however, a cookbook for tackling complex gourmet dishes, but a celebration of home cooking. Easily followed guidelines, the inclusion of metric and US measurements, suggestions of substitutes for Middle Eastern ingredients, and tips for successful pairings are standard.  The nostalgia for home underlining the choice of dishes is illustrated by placing each recipe within a context of personal meaning.  From time to time, the authors introduce bits of general history and overviews of the ingredients found in Jerusalem's markets and adapted to the tables of Arabs and Jews from every part of the world and the Levant. Typical is the introduction to the "little local celebrity," the "humble eggplant."  Here the reader not only learns in mouthwatering terms about the adaptability of the eggplant to every imaginable cooking method and dishes both savory and sweet, but also that it represents historically the interaction of Moorish Arabs, Sephardic Jews and medieval Christians. Read about Za'atar, central to the Palestinian heritage and now to modern Israeli cuisine, sadly now another subject of dispute between Arabs and Jews; or about Henry Kissinger's platter of stuffed dishes representing Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

Equally arresting are the striking photographs that punctuate the text throughout, sometimes of a completed dish, sometimes of ingredients alone, sometimes of arresting snapshots of Jerusalemites and their neighborhoods. These present a range of experiences from the recipes themselves to the memories and observations they evoke, and add to the text by reinforcing that Jerusalem: A Cookbook is more than a cookbook.

It is a celebration of a city unparalleled in its tragic beauty and diversity. Unfortunately, while the photographer is credited, the images are not identified, suggesting that this is, indeed, an insider's look at Jerusalem.

In sum, two fundamental ideas are at work in this cookbook: creating and sharing a meal promotes cooperation and understanding; and the mingling of ingredients and histories in the cuisines of Israelis and Palestinians can serve as a metaphor for creating peace between the two peoples.

Another example of these ideas is the non-profit organization Chefs for Peace founded in 2001, months after the Second Intifada exploded. An original group of two Israeli and two Palestinian chefs now has expanded to twenty four Jewish (10), Christian (10) and Muslim (4) chefs whose stated purpose is to take the message of peaceful coexistence around the world. 

Like Ottolenghi and Tamimi, Chefs for Peace believe that the creation and sharing of food can promote cross-cultural understanding, that through food, Jews and Arabs can explore cultural identity, diversity, and peaceful co-existence.  Unlike Ottolenghi and Tamimi, however, they promote a more overtly political message, and require that all their recipes fuse ingredients to create flavors that "unite."

Jerusalem: A Cookbook celebrates unique histories, ingredients, and traditions, respecting what might be termed a "separate but equal" inclusiveness.  The recipes are steeped in a deep identification with the connections between food, history and culture, and with the distinctive peoples who made and make that history and culture. While it celebrates the links food can forge between people, the goal of this cookbook is to revive childhood experiences and to cook and eat meals inspired by the colors and textures of Jerusalem's 4000 year history.

This book renders homage to a great city, and if it testifies to the contributions of both Jews and Arabs to a world cuisine and to the possibilities of peaceful co-existence, that testimony is deliciously cloaked in the tastes of eggplant, pita and sumac, pine nuts and prunes, za'atar and, and, and ...