Cookbooks aren’t often considered exhilarating: endless variations of the same lasagne recipe rarely get hearts racing. However, when a cookery book like Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem comes along, illustrating the complexities of the most divisive political issue of the past 60 years – the Arab-Israeli Crisis – exhilarating is exactly the word I’d use.
Ottolenghi, a London restaurant chain owner and celebrity chef, has become a favourite for middle-class parents, his salads being reproduced at dinner parties nationwide. However, his recipes also reflect a much deeper and influential crisis. The Arab-Israeli conflict influences world politics well beyond the coveted lands surrounding Jerusalem, beyond the impoverished Gaza Strip and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. It has been credited with fuelling America’s terrorism problems, and 7 million refugees currently await their return to the land they call home.
How, you may ask, can food help elucidate the complexities of the problem? Well firstly let’s consider what Ottolenghi credits as influences for his colourful creations and the food of Jerusalem:
“Russian Orthodox priests; Hasidic Jews originating from Poland; non-Orthodox Jews from Tunisia, from Libya, from France or from Britain… Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and many others for the city and well beyond… Ashkenazi Jews from Romania, Germany and Lithuania… Christian Arabs and Armenian Orthodox; Yemeni Jews and Ethiopian Jews.” The list goes on. He comments on how their food cultures are intertwined in this melting pot of a city, and yet somehow remain completely separate.
Ottolenghi suggests that the people of Jerusalem can be brought together through food, but it is the complex culinary cultures of Jerusalem that really epitomises the difficulties in finding a resolution. Take hummus, for example. Despite being a mundane supermarket staple in the UK, in Jerusalem this unassuming yet prized dish is an explosive subject. Palestinians have eaten it for generations, and yet much of the Jewish population refer to it as “Israeli”, claiming that it is mentioned in the Old Testament, a validation similarly used to support the creation of Israel.
Another example is Za’atar, a herb that grows in the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and is mixed with sumac and sesame seeds for a traditional spice blend of the same name. Ottolenghi describes it as “one odor that encapsulates the soul of this ancient city”, and for generations Arabs have collected it and used it in a multitude of dishes. However, in 1977 the Israeli government banned the harvesting of wild Za’taar, citing its endangerment and threatened any daring offenders with a $4,000 fine or six months imprisonment. In the depths of the thorny relationship between Arabs and Jews, local customs and food have been poisoned too, infected by the international battle for the city.
Further to this, Ottolenghi comments on how Arabic food culture within Jerusalem is often staunchly traditional. With chefs being unwilling to edit recipes handed down through generations, it would seem that the Arab communities are trying to cling onto to bygone times. In contrast, the Jewish cuisine is increasingly vibrant and experimental, collecting recipes from the myriad of different cultural groups and making them their own. This can be seen in the “Israeli Salad”, which is often described as the national dish of Israel and referred to by this name throughout the world.
This is undoubtedly a derivative of a “Palestinian Salad” or “Arab Salad” regularly eaten across the Middle East. In its traditional form, the “Arab Salad” comprises of cucumber, tomato and parsley. Jewish cooks have tweaked this recipe with the addition of carrot, cabbage or radishes, and now call it their own. This battle for traditional Palestinian and Arabic food reflects a deeper and more significant battle for the continuation of the Palestinian way of life and a state to call their own. By looking beyond the rockets, failed peace negotiations and endless wall-building that has come to encapsulate the Palestinian-Israeli Crisis, we can see two communities embittered by warfare and fighting for hummus.