Jerusalem: A Cookbook (and a great “ROI”)

August 16, 2013
By Holly Jennings

A Cookbook
by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Ten Speed Press
320 pp. $35.00


Here’s what DCCC members have to say about Jerusalem:


LOVED everything that was made—both by me and the other club members.
—Sherri, DCCC member


This was my favorite cookbook so far and favorite menu. Food is not only beautiful, it’s delicious, healthy and not too hard to make.
—Lisa, DCCC member


I am a HUGE fan of anything related to Ottolenghi. My husband & I go to their restaurants every time we are in London. I now own all 3 of their cookbooks & love everything about them. The tone, history, culture, photos & of course the inspiring recipes.
—Leslie, DCCC member


I love Jerusalem, how ethnic it is and delicious the recipes are. It’s one of my favorite cookbooks now. And I love that it isn’t just straight up recipes. There was so much culture in it, too.
—Jennifer, DCCC member


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For a long time I didn’t feel I had much to add to the talk about Jerusalem, except for more of the same exuberating adulation along the lines of “Wow, this is a wonderful cookbook. I don’t think there’s a single bad recipe in it. The food is fantastic—very flavorful and reasonably easy to make.” For this reason I’ve dragging my feet, waiting for something to percolate. I mean just saying “Gee, this book is great” doesn’t make for much of review.


I, like everyone else who picks up the book, was immediately seduced by its soft, puffy cover and the gorgeous food photography by Jonathan Lovekin and the lively street photography by Adam Hinton. Clearly Lovekin is one of the best food photographers in the world because upon first flipping through the book, I found myself saying “I want to make that, and that, and that . . .”


Once drawn in, next comes skimming the recipes. The theme is irresistible, and is hard to sum up in just a few words. Here is snapshot: Ingredients like sour lemon and tart sumac and tangy yogurt, sweet sun-ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, fruity and meltingly soft eggplant, bitter greens, caramelized onions, and any number of other fantastic vegetables, including the au curant fennel bulb, are intermingled with a heady mix of spices, many aromatic, to either create meat-not-missed vegetable acts or dishes layered with the deeply resonant flavors and fatty textures of meats, fish, or chicken, or perhaps simply labne, tahini sauce, or olive oil. Add to this a jack-in-box flavor boost provided by one of the many piquant condiments in the back of the book, and you have flavor that is screamingly good.


Is this why the book has resonated with so many people? I’ve cooked screamingly good food from other cookbooks, so that in and of itself doesn’t seem to be it. No, I think the secret to its success is a highly favorable exchange rate, or what my financial copy writing and excellent punster boyfriend said could be referred to as the ROI. In the financial world this stands for “return on investment.” In the cooking world? Return on ingredients.


Simply put, for the amount of time spent securing ingredients, prepping them, and cooking them, the results you get are exceptional. Sure there is some time involved, but not a ton, and the techniques and recipe steps aren’t complicated. This is probably because at its heart Jerusalem is a cookbook of traditional foods, though in many cases tweaked and modernized by Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. And traditional cooking, unlike chef cooking, is home cooking.


Barring a sampling of traditional dishes, however, like the basic hummus and falafel, I have a feeling that the food of Jerusalem is not your ordinary Israeli home cooking. My guess is that the genius of Ottolenghi and Tamimi lies in their ability to overlay an array of sensational flavors—complex and nuanced and satisfying, delighting the mouth and belly of Western eaters—onto the structure of home cooking techniques, maintaining a perfect balance between the spirit of the home-grown foods of Jerusalem and the region and exciting and bold taste sensations that hit a chord with modern, adventurous home cooks and eaters.


How do I know this for sure? I don’t. I’ve never been to Israel, and I haven’t interviewed Ottolenghi and Tamimi to find out the back story of the book. Partly, it’s spelled out in the recipe headnotes, where they sometimes describe the changes they’ve made to traditional recipes—how they’ve put their stamp on them. But in many cases it’s just hinted at. Nonetheless, their hand in the traditional recipes is there. You sense it and can taste it.


I got an idea of how the recipes in Jerusalem may differ from everyday home cooking when I gave a Turkish friend of mine a taste of Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts—a dish with Turkish roots. After I showed her their recipe for it, her immediate reaction was to wonder why it had so many ingredients and is so rich tasting. Clearly Ottolenghi and Tamimi have added their chef touches, riffing on dishes here and there to make them pleasing to their palates.


I started this review by saying that for a long time I felt didn’t have much to say. That’s a little bit of a white lie. I do have a critical comment. I’ve kept it to myself because when everyone is having fun at the party, it’s a drag to be a Debbie Downer. And it is a party. In Vermont, where I live, fried chickpeas are showing up on pub menus, and at restaurants sautéed greens are being slathered in tahini sauce. And food magazines of all stripes are publishing stories about the flavors from part of the world, from Gabriella Gershenson’s “The Promised Land” in Saveur (May, 2013) to Hugh Acheson’s “A Southern Chef in Israel” in Cooking Light (June, 2013).


Plus my only criticism is a little difficult to articulate because it’s not of what’s in the book, but rather of what’s missing: a strong, personal voice. It’s not that the writing is bad, or the content boring. Far from it. The writing is competent and the story of two men, one Jewish and one Muslim, living in the very charged and often divided atmosphere of Jerusalem but united through food is compelling. And there are some wonderful turns of phrase. I love how they emphasize the importance of the sun in their cooking and the ingredients they use. Referring to the quality of the vegetables used in Fattoush, they write: “They must be fresh, ripe, and flavorsome, with many hours in the sun behind them.”


It’s simply that I don’t feel the presence of a voice, or a personality, to connect with or warm up to. The opposite is true of many previous DCCC picks: The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy, Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread by Crescent Dragonwagon, Fat by Jennifer McLagan, Thai Food by David Thompson, Ripe by Nigel Slater,  The New Portuguese Table by David Leite, The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young.


In Plenty, Ottolenghi’s previous book, a collection of recipes with short headnotes originally published in a vegetarian column he wrote for the Guardian, you can hear his voice, discern a personality. So, what happened in Jerusalem? Perhaps the explanation lies in the two-author structure. You know what they say about design by committee. Ottolenghi, of the two presumably the one with the greater writing experience, may have taken a back seat to ensure the book was indeed a two-author project. Perhaps they relied on a “ghost writer” to flesh out some passages for expediency. (Note: These are absolutely and completely my own ponderings and musings. They have no basis in fact. I simply like to think about and discuss how books get made.)


This doesn’t make Jerusalem a bad cookbook. In fact, it’s a great cookbook. I am certain that I and every DCCC member will return to it again and again. But perhaps it’s a less good book as a result. Ultimately it makes me ask myself what I want in the ideal cookbook. Fantastic recipes are a given, but a distinct voice is an added bonus that makes cooking from it a more personal and richer experience.


Like taste, however, voice is subjective, and the voice that’s I’m drawn to may be different from what you or another reader is drawn to. So perhaps one reason why Jerusalem has been so successful is that the writing is sound but largely neutral, thus alienating no one, but the food is lively, bright, and bursting with flavor. As I’m writing this, I’ve just now realized that there is a voice in Jerusalem. Not in the writing, but in the food.


In her interesting story “‘Jerusalem’ Has All the Right Ingredients,” published in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Julia Moskin has tried to get to bottom of why this book, right now, has been so incredibly popular in America. To tell the story of Jerusalem’s popularity, which has spawned the creation of several cookbook clubs, by the way, Moskin puts the book into the context of cookbook publishing as a whole, comparing it to other touchstones—like The Art of Mastering French Cooking and The Silver Palate Cookbook.


I held off on reading Moskin’s piece because I didn’t want it to sway my review. And guess what I found? This quote from Ottolenghi sent by email: “Jerusalem’s food is idiosyncratic yet has a clear voice.” For this book, it really is all in the food.


A potluck montage: DCCC members and food from JERUSALEM


P.S. You will notice that I haven’t included a list of DCCC members’ favorite recipes as I usually do in cookbook reviews. That’s because the list would very, very long. And a long list of recipes is practically as boring as just saying, “Gee, this book is terrific.”