They’ve brought warmth to our plates with their sunny flavours, and now they’re bringing a piece of their history too. DIANA PILKINGTON meets the men behind the best-selling Ottolenghi brand
IT’S hard to walk past an Ottolenghi shop front without nipping in for a giant meringue or a closer look at the salad displays, which burst with colour, freshness and vitality.
With their shops, cookbooks and magazine columns, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi have captured the imagination of foodies everywhere with their particular brand of ‘sunny’ cuisine, and made exotic ingredients like sumac that bit more familiar.
“Our food is popular because it’s very colourful and bold food, and it’s in big quantities,” says Tamimi, the company’s head chef. “It’s really to do with where we came from. You go into the markets and the food is always piled high, so we’ve unconsciously tried to recreate that.”
Indeed, after the runaway success of their first two cookbooks (Ottolenghi: The Cookbook and Plenty), they’ve gone back to their roots with their third and most personal offering. Jerusalem delves into the food of their home city, a melting pot of diverse flavours and cultures.
The result is a book that’s brimming with recipe ideas, mouth-watering photography and snippets of history - not to mention a fair amount of Swiss chard.
“People don’t eat it enough here. It’s a wonderful product,” Tamimi says of the vegetable.
“It’s so easy to grow and it’s a beautifully flavoured thing - a bit tangy, a bit sweet and good for you.”
The pair met in the late Nineties while working at Baker And Spice bakery and have since built up a successful partnership.
But, despite their shared history, their different ethnic backgrounds (Ottolenghi is from the Jewish west and Tamimi from the Arab east of Jerusalem) mean they would have struggled with a working relationship back home.
“I don’t think there are many businesses in Israel that are co-owned by Jews and Arabs,” says Ottolenghi.
“It’s really sad because there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work, but I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have stood the test of time because there’s just too much suspicion and negativity in the air.
“Every time there’s some tension in the West Bank, everything becomes a bit awkward. Here, we just live our lives and do our thing and there’s some sense of normality.”
Their ‘thing’ is quite varied these days. Tamimi keeps a close eye on their eateries (they have four shops and a restaurant, Nopi, in London) while Ottolenghi will soon become a more familiar face to TV viewers thanks to a More 4 series exploring the food of Marrakech, Tunis, Tel Aviv and Istanbul.
“So I’ll be one of those chefs,” he says, laughing, referring to the many names who have moved from the kitchen to the screen. “If the project is interesting I’ll do it and if it’s not I won’t. It’s not really about fame - but I guess everybody says that!”
The pair admit it took some time to get used to British weather, but now feel at home here and can’t imagine moving back to Jerusalem any time soon. However, they still cling to the faint hope that food can unite their fractured native city.
“The restaurants and markets are some of the only places where you see Jews and Arabs mix,” Ottolenghi says.
“If there was some glimmer of hope, food would be it. But unfortunately at the moment it’s quite bad so it just doesn’t feel like peace in the Middle East is the next thing.
“If everyone could appreciate the healing power of food as much as we do then I think it would have had a chance.”
Create a taste of Jerusalem at home with these recipes from their best-selling book...
ROASTED CHICKEN WITH JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE AND LEMON
450g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut into six lengthways (1.5cm thick wedges)
3tbsp lemon juice
8 chicken thighs, on the bone with the skin on, or a medium whole chicken, divided into four
12 banana shallots, peeled and halved lengthways
12 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 medium lemon, cut in half lengthways and then into very thin slices
1tsp saffron threads
50ml olive oil
150ml cold water
1½tbsp pink peppercorns, slightly crushed
10g fresh thyme leaves
40g tarragon leaves, chopped
½tsp black pepper
Put the Jerusalem artichokes in a medium saucepan, cover with plenty of water and add half the lemon juice. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-20 minutes, until tender but not soft. Drain and leave to cool.
Place the Jerusalem artichokes and all the remaining ingredients, excluding the remaining lemon juice and half of the tarragon, in a large mixing bowl and use your hands to mix everything together well. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight, or for at least 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 240C/220C Fan/Gas Mark 9.
Arrange the chicken pieces, skin-side up, in the centre of a roasting tin and spread the remaining ingredients around the chicken. Roast for 30 minutes. Cover the tin with foil and cook for a further 15 minutes.
At this point, the chicken should be completely cooked. Remove from the oven and add the reserved tarragon and lemon juice. Stir well, taste and add more salt if needed. Serve at once.
ROASTED SWEET POTATOES AND FRESH FIGS
4 small sweet potatoes (1kg in total)
5tbsp olive oil
40ml balsamic vinegar (you can use a commercial rather than a premium aged grade)
20g caster sugar
12 spring onions, halved lengthways and cut into 4cm segments
1 red chilli, thinly sliced
6 fresh and ripe figs (240g in total), quartered
150g soft goat’s cheese, crumbled (optional)
Maldon sea salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 240C/220C Fan/Gas Mark 9.
Wash the sweet potatoes, halve them lengthways and then cut each again similarly into 3 long wedges. Mix with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and some black pepper. Spread the wedges out on a baking sheet, skin-side down, and cook for about 25 minutes until soft but not mushy. Remove from the oven and leave to cool down.
To make a balsamic reduction, place the balsamic vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 2-4 minutes, or until it thickens. Be sure to remove the pan from the heat when the vinegar is still runnier than honey; it will continue to thicken as it cools. Stir in a drop of water before serving if it does become too thick to drizzle.
Arrange the sweet potatoes on a serving platter. Heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan and add the spring onions and chilli. Fry on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring often, making sure not to burn the chilli, and then spoon the oil, onions and chilli over the sweet potatoes. Dot the figs among the wedges and then drizzle over the balsamic reduction. Serve at room temperature with the cheese crumbled over, if using.
:: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi is published by Ebury Press, £27 in hardback. Available now