Last week, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi opened Sesame. A far cry from the sleek, white Ottolenghi delis, Sesame is a tribute to the flavours and ingredients of the street food they enjoyed as children. As such, it strikes me as the realisation of their earlier cookbook, Jerusalem, which was born out of the duo’s reminiscence over their formative food haunts.
Jerusalem was my first Ottolenghi cookbook and remains one of the most-thumbed on my kitchen shelf. I became acquainted with Ottolenghi through his Guardian column, but the limitations of Dorset’s supermarkets made our encounters brief. When owning Jerusalemcoincided with a move to London and its more readily available ingredients, I opened the door a new realm of flavours from the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean. A love affair began.
Much has been made of food’s ability to transcend the geopolitical and religious divisions of the city to which this book pays homage. Jerusalem’s power lies not in portraying dishes that ‘belong’ to certain groups, but in exploring ingredients and techniques that create affinities between them. Thus, the yogurt of an Armenian soup reappears in a conchiglie dish that hints at Ottolenghi’s Italian paternity.
Yet what makes the recipes appealing is something more visceral than their subtle interweaving of Jerusalem’s ‘immense tapestry of cuisines’. It is nostalgia. Jerusalem is suffused with a child’s appreciation of food not for its complex origins or ingredients, but for the comfort it brings. This is food the authors ate at home or bought from street food stalls. Recipes feature the classics – including iconic chicken sofrito or a chapter on hummus – and their families’ variations on the classics, from Yotam’s mother’s stuffed peppers to Sami’s mother’s fattoush.
The duo’s focus on their preferred flavours instead of an (impossible) attempt to give a full overview of Jerusalem’s cuisine, gives them licence to be playful. For instance, the ‘open kibbeh’ appears unrecognisable from the classic deep-fried croquette, yet retains all the essential components – bulgar, minced meat, spices and pine nuts. Other recipes, as a sweet potato and fig salad illustrates, are even less traditional and are only loosely inspired by Jerusalem’s flavours.
This unconstrained attitude to recipe writing ensures that Jerusalem offers something for everyone. Time-consuming showpieces for the adventurous cook, from maqluba to chicken with caramelised onion and cardamom rice. Side dishes made decadent by saffron or pomegranate molasses. Heavenly vegetarian numbers like chermoula aubergine with bulgar and yogurt, a well-balanced cauliflower and hazelnut salad or brunch favourite shakshuka.
My most cherished recipes, however, are the simplest. Sabih: plump fried aubergine, hard-boiled eggs, chopped salad, spicy zhoug and mango pickle, all served on thick, fresh pitta. An unassuming parsley and barley salad whose sharp, fresh flavours are so impressive that my sister requested it at her wedding feast. And, best of all, mejadra, in which four inexpensive ingredients – onions, lentils, rice and spice – combine to make a truly comforting meal.
Mejadra, like many other dishes in Jerusalem, remind us that the best food arises from a humble need to feed your family that surpasses religious or political entanglements.
“This ancient dish, popular throughout the Arab world, is also one of our most loved. The fried onion, with its sweet oiliness and slight crunch, is the secret…. The two of us can spend many pointless hours discussing what makes the best comfort food and why, but never seem to reach any kind of serious conclusion. Mejadra, however, is where the dispute ends. When served alongside yogurt with cucumber, or just plain Greek yogurt, the sweetly spiced rice and lentils strewn with soft fried onion is as comforting as it gets in Jerusalem”
250 grams green or brown lentils
4 medium onions (700g before peeling)
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
approx. 250ml sunflower oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
200g basmati rice, or brown rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
350ml cups water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Place the lentils (and brown rice, if using) in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.
- Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large, flat plate, sprinkle with the flour and one teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan placed over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and fry the onion in batches for at least five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until it takes on a golden brown color and turns crispy. Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt.
- Wipe the saucepan in which you fried the onion clean and put in the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, half teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes.
- Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes. Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion.
- Serve with a fresh salad or seasonal greens.