When I dice a chilled cucumber along with a couple of tomatoes, toss them together in a bowl with a bunch of chopped herbs, and drizzle pomegranate-infused oil and lemon over the lot, I am not merely preparing an Arab salad fit for the scalding days of summer. I am doing my bit for world peace.
I’m also prepping in response to the news that celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi is among the first post-Covid speakers from Britain to tour Australia and New Zealand. Now is a good season to put in a little practice ahead of his return visit. The days are warm and long, and, since none of us are going anywhere, it’s an excellent time to bring the rest of the world here. Not on a plane but a plate. With a side of glittering olives.
Knowing the lie of the land is everything in this culinary game. Ottolenghi talks about ‘the great mumble jumble of food’ that is Middle Eastern fare, but that hardly does justice to the subject. The London-based restaurateur originally hails from Jerusalem, which supplied the title of his breakthrough 2012 work, co-authored with Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi. Aside from the luscious packaging and dreamy photography, a big part of the fifty-two-year-old’s appeal is his knack for writing as if he is remembering things from a previous life, letting the reader in on an amazing ancient secret. Not surprisingly, the most popular secrets in Jerusalem are Levantine. But Middle Eastern cuisines also take in North African, Persian and Turkish influences, each of with its own categories and subcategories. Baghdadi food can be quite distinct (the generous use of vinegar in some meat dishes, for example) within Iraqi cuisine which is a movable feast — here all biblical and cereal-based, there spicier and modern.
If Ottolenghi’s galloping sales are anything to go by — more than 400,000 copies of his cookbooks in Australia alone — plenty of people will be booking for one of his masterclasses to brush up on these finer points. He is bringing it all back home in other ways, too. The forthcoming appearances follow a political stew of a year in which home cooking — ‘dialling up flavour in your own kitchen,’ as the food bores put it — has been necessary to liven up lockdowns. Unlike celebrity chefs ploughing the same field, such as Australia’s tremendous Greg Malouf, Ottolenghi hammers the proposition that anybody can do cook this food and the only essential ingredient for newcomers to keep in a well-stocked pantry is enthusiasm.
That suits a late-onset cook like me, and really, doesn’t nearly everybody fancy themselves one by the time they hit fifty? Michel Houellebecq seems to think so. In his dark satire, Submission, he riffs on the idea that the born-again, middle-aged, epicurean nut is somebody who has found something more interesting than sex. This may be true with respect to his native French cuisine (let’s not get into that) but when it comes to Middle Eastern fare, there are more immediate explanations.
The simplicity, for a start. With the exception of the more regal, saffron-and-rose-water-infused Persian recipes, these are dishes that don’t require vast skill to prepare. There’s no strictly scientific method. Practice makes near-perfect.
Improvisation is the name of the game. I noticed, for example, that Ottolenghi’s recipe for shakshuka — the fiery little Tunisian all-day breakfast of harissa, tomatoes, peppers and poached eggs — tastes pretty tart in our part of the world because our tomatoes aren’t as sweet as the ones he uses. So, I add in more than his suggested pinch of sugar. Also, if I’m feeling heretical, mushrooms.
Middle Eastern food is healthy, as abundant in nutrients as it is in colour. You won’t find a lot of butter in the recipes, give or take mashed or fried potatoes that pop up occasionally in Lebanese dishes. Most recipes only call for small quantities of olive oil. Hardly anything is deep-fried. Mouthwatering salads and vegetables are quite a big deal, too. When a recipe calls for meat, it usually works best fat-free, other than the meatballs that require a splash of grease.
Another satisfaction for some of us is the way Middle Eastern cooking shuts down one of the silliest contemporary debates about ‘culturally appropriated’ food. In the Middle East, there’s no such thing. One of the reasons why one rarely sees a Middle Eastern restaurant with the word ‘authentic’ painted on its signage is that the ghosts of local history would immediately sue for defamation. Especially in Ottolenghi’s beloved Jerusalem, where what appears on your table on any given day may contain traces of the cuisine of Phoenicians, Persians, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans and (if stodgy fish and chips count) even the jolly Brits. To haggle over who pinched what and when from whom would be an argument without end or meaning. ‘Mixing food with guilt is the worst combination,’ Ottolenghi wisely observed during his last trip to the Antipodes, ‘because food is all about pleasure.’ Indeed it is, and that’s where doing one’s bit for world peace comes in. In the Middle East, eating is one of the happiest aspects of life — maybe the only happy aspect in some places, alas — providing as it does a conflict-free zone, irrespective of whether an Arab, Jew, Turk, Iranian or North African is doing the eating. Business negotiations, the resolution of simmering differences, even declarations of romantic love: it all happens at the dining table. Ask Yotam Ottolenghi. And if you happen to be standing up, pass me the tahini in the fridge.
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