A Chef's Guide to Eating in Jerusalem

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When the London-based chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, who grew up in the Jewish west side of Jerusalem, crisscrossed his hometown to research a cookbook he was writing with his company's head chef, Sami Tamimi, from the Arab east, he became a specialist in the city's subtle culinary distinctions. From the spices preferred by Jews from Libya to the technique Palestinians perfected for boiling chickpeas, "Jerusalem: A Cookbook" contains recipes inspired by the many flavors of the city's shops and restaurants in tucked-away corners. Jerusalem should not be missed, Mr. Ottolenghi said. "Especially," he added, "if you're interested in those layers of the history, the people, the religions, the tensions."

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Ottolenghi about eating in Jerusalem. 

Q. In your cookbook, you wax nostalgic about some favorite childhood dishes. What are they, and where do you go for them?

A. I have many clear memories of tables laden with meze: the warm hummus with chickpeas and olive oil; the deep-fried cauliflower with tahini; the pickled turnips with beetroot, the pickling liquid making them bright purple.

For that I recommend Pasha's in East Jerusalem. Their Palestinian classics -- fattoush (bread and fresh vegetable salad) and baba ghanouj -- are all exemplary.

For typical meze in the west, go to Rachmo in Machane Yehuda market. This is a simple, worker's eatery -- as simple as it gets -- but it's buzzing with people eating in or taking the food to go.

Q. What else can you find at the Machane Yehuda market?

A. Everything. It's spectacular. Cucumbers, aubergines, cauliflowers, tomatoes, peppers, onions, olives. Spices, sauces, herbs like tahini, parsley, mint, zaatar, allspice. But also cheese, coffee, all types of bread, pastries like rugelach. It's fantastic to walk around, get lost in.

Q. What about places to eat in the market?

A. Azura is a simple lunch place that serves superb examples of Jewish food from all across the Middle East, particularly Turkey and the Levant. They make a luscious mejadra, which Sami and I agree is the ultimate comfort food. It is made of lentils, rice with spices and tons of fried onion -- you'll find it in both Palestinian and many Israeli homes. Azura's version is simple, without the sweet spices that we often add, and it's perfectly made to go with the hearty dishes they serve, like chicken stew or kubbeh soup, which is ground-meat dumplings in a lemony broth. Completely unbeatable.

Q. And where do you find chefs experimenting and innovating?

A. Restaurants like Arcadia, Machneyuda and Chakra, they all cook with local ingredients, with traditional recipes in mind, but deconstruct them a bit. Nowadays that's quite fashionable, but only in the late 1990s did chefs stop looking to France and Italy and start cooking their mothers' food.

One of the first to do this is Arcadia's Ezra Kedem. He took baba ghanouj, made it into this fancy dish, with the aubergine fanned out on the plate. The recipe for braised eggs with ground lamb in our book is taken from Machneyuda's hamshuka, a take on the traditional Tunisian dish shakshuka.

Q. A contentious question: Where can you find the best hummus in Jerusalem?

A. Debates go on forever about which hummusia is the best in the city. Growing up, Sami used to get hummus from Abu Shukri, a mythological place within the Muslim quarter of the Old City. There's also Lina in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. In West Jerusalem, Pinati and Ta'ami are the best. The differences are minute, but it's all about the balance of chickpea to tahini, plus lemon juice.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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