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A lust for Ottolenghi

The spirit of generosity behind meticulous recipes with Jerusalem at their heart

Josie Delap | January/February 2014

Born in Israel, to an Italian father and a mother of German descent, and now a British citizen, Yotam Ottolenghi is everywhere. His aromatic influence wafts around the tables of dinner parties from London to New York. At his gleaming white deli-restaurants, on television, on Twitter and in his Guardian column, he and his food fill his followers with lust. Those who live miles from the Middle Eastern grocers he blithely urges his acolytes to frequent get their fix of jellied black garlic and smoky urfa chilli through his online shop—or through reading his bestselling books. "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook" (2008) is the story of a restaurant, written after his original customers pleaded for his recipes. "Plenty" (2010) is an ode to vegetables (some fans are quite put out to learn that Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian). But it is in "Jerusalem" (2012), his most heartfelt book, that his writing came to life. It is the story of a city, its people and their history, of a place that is his home, "not in the sense of the place you conduct your daily life, or constantly return to", but almost against his will. Jerusalem defines him, whether he likes it or not.

MAIN INFLUENCE Sami Tamimi. Ottolenghi’s is the name on everyone’s lips but his Palestinian cooking partner, co-author of "Ottolenghi" and "Jerusalem", is the tahini to his hummus, the knaidlach to his chicken soup. They both talk wistfully of their hope that one day food, if nothing else, will bring Jerusalemites together. Their pairing is a good start.

TABLE MANNER Meticulous and lengthy, with a precision that reflects his training as an analytic philosopher. A tendency for hyperbole—one recipe is “heavenly”, another “delectable”—is unnecessary: the food does the showing, there's no need for him to tell. But there’s a spirit of generosity, too, reflecting the culinary munificence in his background: most of the recipes in "Jerusalem" call for at least 12 ingredients. The hummus with lamb and lemon sauce uses 26, the lahm bi'ajeen, a Levantine-style pizza topped with lamb, 24.

FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS Herbs, which he uses more often as main player than seasoning. His recipe for tabbouleh includes four large bunches of parsley and two of mint; the result is a herb salad flecked with couscous, not the other way round. The measly packets of mint and coriander proffered in supermarkets look laughable in the face of such instructions. Pomegranate molasses, tamarind water, date syrup and that black garlic also feature heavily—expect them soon on a shelf near you.

TYPICAL DISH Na'ama’s fattoush, Ottolenghi's version of the salad beloved of Israeli and Palestinian alike. Naming it after Sami's mother avoids the awkwardness of having to attribute it to either the Arabs or the Israelis, both of whom lay claim to some version of it. Again, the list of ingredients is lengthy—16 of them—but they require little more than slicing and dicing and stirring together. Or try the roasted half-moons of aubergine, slick with a yogurty saffron dressing, glinting with pomegranate seeds. If you can’t resist the temptation to Instagram it, no need to feel bad: when Ottolenghi did a master’s, his thesis was on the ontological status of the photographic image.

WHAT WORKS So much. Look past the screeds of ingredients; few of the recipes demand any complicated cooking. The greenest cook can produce a salad of spinach leaves with crispy pitta croutons sharpened with sumac and warmed with chilli. The pasta with yogurt and peas and chilli is perfectly manageable on a week-night.

WHAT DOESN’T The chargrilled broccoli with chilli and garlic, "the king of the Ottolenghi jungle" and a hallmark of his London delis, is laborious. Timing the cooking of the broccoli is tricky. Too often you end up with a mushy mess and burnt, bitter garlic. Pay the professionals instead.

COOK HIM BECAUSE He will transform you into a Jewish mama, piling food onto already heaped plates—wherever you're from. 

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