Sami Tamimi, one of the most successful Palestinian chefs in the world and co-owner of the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants in London, presents a fusion of traditional and contemporary cuisine in his latest book. He also explains what his beef is with Israeli chefs
10 July 2020, by Ronit Vered, Haaretz
“As I see it, this book is a love letter from Sami to his mother and to his homeland,” says the British food writer Tara Wigley, referring to Falastin, the new cookbook that she co-wrote with chef Sami Tamimi.
“The recipes in the book, each of which was a journey in itself, started from a huge list of traditional Palestinian recipes that Sami drew up, and was gradually whittled down and underwent a process of adaptation to the kitchen of people who don’t necessarily live in Palestine and don’t have time to core and stuff carrots, for example. Stuffed vegetables are a significant part of Palestinian cuisine, yet there are very few of those recipes in the book. We tried to fuse the traditional with a new and fresh viewpoint,” she says, in a Zoom conversation from London.
In the course of working on the book, Wigley and Tamimi went on three research trips in the territories of the Palestinian Authority and in Israel.
“Family members and old friends were our drivers and guides,” says Tamimi, who was born in the Old City of Jerusalem and has lived in London for the past 22 years.
Interspersed among the recipes in the book – which was published in England in March (Ebury Press) and last month in North America (Ten Speed Press) – are fascinating stories about people and places. One of them is about Islam Abu Aouda, who lives in the Aida refugee camp north of Bethlehem. She organized a group of local women who earn a living by giving cooking lessons. Abu Aouda’s eldest son – she has five other children, too – was born severely disabled.
“There is no school with the necessary facilities in the refugee camp, and no one was able to provide help,” Tamimi relates. “The boy remained at home and she didn’t know what to do with him, so she decided to give cooking lessons in her kitchen in order to create employment and generate an income for her family and for other mothers with disabled children.
“She became quite well known,” Tamimi continues. “Today [until the coronavirus crisis] busloads of tourists come to cook with her and with the women she recruited to work with her. During Ramadan she feeds hundreds of people for free, which is amazing, because she herself came from a place where she had nothing. And she does everything with a big smile that makes you feel humble. She was not born in the refugee camp, but is conscious of the fact that she will probably die there. Nevertheless, every day she chooses to cling to the positive side of life. When you ask her what her dream is, she doesn’t talk about what you expect refugees to talk about – to return to a place they consider home – but simply to visit the seashore, which she has never seen.”
“Sami had to win her trust,” Wigley laughs, “because at first she was skeptical about the man who suddenly appeared in her kitchen, a venue that in the Palestinian realm is generally reserved for women. But he very quickly won her heart thanks to his expertise in rolling dough for shish barak dumplings.”
Wigley and Tamimi first met Abu Aouda in March 2018. “She looked at the two strangers from London with a certain suspiciousness, as though to say, ‘Who are they and what could they possibly know?’” Tamimi recalls. “But when she saw me working in the kitchen the atmosphere thawed instantly, and we spent unforgettable days with her. Most of the people we met on the road are simply living the everyday, and not only in the sense of survival – they are getting the best out of it, despite the circumstances.”
Sami Tamimi was born in 1968. His mother, Na’ama, died when he was 7, leaving behind seven children. Sami acquired five more siblings from the second marriage of his father, Hassan.
“Most of my memories of my mother and my early childhood are connected to the kitchen,” Tamimi says. “The kitchen was the heart of the home and the center of her world, and even after her death I was drawn to it and had to be chased out with cries of ‘Shoo, shoo,’ by aunts and grandmothers.”
At the age of 17, Tamimi got a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen of a hotel in West Jerusalem. In short order, he joined the kitchen staff and rose up the ladder of the professionally run kitchen. In the mid-1980s, when he moved to Tel Aviv – in part because his traditionalist family couldn’t come to terms with his sexual orientation and his secular lifestyle – he worked in the kitchens of various restaurants and finally spent five years as a chef at Liliyot restaurant (under the tutelage of Keren Hendler-Kremerman). In 1997, he left his homeland and moved to London.
“There was a series of terror attacks in Tel Aviv and even an Arab like me, who was integrated into Israeli society, felt uncomfortable. Besides, I had nowhere to advance to in terms of a culinary career,” he told me in a 2013 interview for this paper.
In London, Tamimi met Yotam Ottolenghi while working in the kitchen of the bakery-deli Baker & Spice. The two young chefs, who were born the same year and in the same city – one in the eastern part of Jerusalem, the other in the west – became fast friends and long-term professional partners.
In 2002, Tamimi and Ottolenghi joined forces with two other partners to open the first Ottolenghi deli. The group presently operates four delis and two restaurants, all in London (though they have had innumerable offers to open additional places bearing their name and their culinary stamp elsewhere in the world). The cooking style identified with the group is Mediterranean light with pronounced Asian influences.
The decor at the restaurants and delis, which has had an obvious influence on the London restaurant scene in the past two decades, is inspired by Mediterranean markets and eating culture: an abundance of fresh, colorful raw ingredients and tempting pastries adorn the counters and display windows, and there are large tables at which acquaintances and total strangers share a joint eating experience.
“That’s definitely not helping us in the post-coronavirus era,” said Tamimi, clearly perturbed, in one of the conversations we held last week. “Some of the delis have reopened, mostly at the takeaway level, but the restaurants are still closed. No one, including the government, understands the guidelines and the regulations for opening them. It’s terrible. There are so many people who are dependent on us for their living, and because some of them are young folk who come to London for a year or two, they will not be able to hold out for long in this expensive city.”
In the internal division of labor among the partners, who have become like a family, Ottolenghi focused on developing recipes and on writing newspaper columns and cookbooks. Tamimi is head chef as well as the on-site acting chef of the flagship restaurant, Ottolenghi Islington.
‘The market is hungry’
In 2012, Ottolenghi and Tamimi published the book “Jerusalem” (in English), which was a personal homage to, and interpretation of, foods and recipes that shaped their childhoods in the Holy City – a historic pilgrimage site for adherents of different faiths and people of various nationalities, and a center for the exchange of ideas, raw materials and cultures. “Jerusalem,” which became an international best seller of unprecedented scope, given the situation of the global book market in general in recent years, was instrumental in sparking international interest in the Mediterranean diet and in generating remarkable attention to the national cuisines that represent that diet – not to mention claim ownership of it – among them the Israeli and Palestinian kitchens.
During an era of prolonged conflicts over land and national borders, and with the distance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians only widening, the book was also sharply criticized in the Palestinian world.
“In the Palestinian community I sometimes have to explain my partnership with Yotam,” Tamimi says. “We live in London and our places don’t sell Israeli food or Palestinian food. We would never have established this business if we were living in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Ramallah.”
Tamimi insists that the criticism he has heard from some members of the Palestinian community had no bearing on the decision to write “Falastin.”
“It’s the book I always wanted to write,” he says. “But life somehow gets in the way, you’re busy all the time, and there is always a new restaurant that is opening, or a book of recipes of the group on the way. Working on ‘Jerusalem’ with Yotam was only another trigger in the desire to write a book that is more my viewpoint of the story. This is my heritage, it’s where I came from, and this is the food I cooked in my home kitchen before I left. Many books dealing with Middle Easern cuisines have been published in the past few years – the market is hungry for information – and I wanted to spotlight the Palestinian kitchen.”
The work on “Falastin,” which lasted two and a half years, was delayed because of a heart ailment suffered by Tamimi. In July 2017 he had open-heart surgery and an aortic valve replacement. “The two years after the operation were difficult,” he says tersely. “The operation itself succeeded, but brought about complications that made it impossible for me to work for almost three years.”
For the decade between 2003 and 2013, Tamimi did not return to visit his homeland. In the 2013 interview, he described the hardships the State of Israel creates for East Jerusalem residents who have left and want to visit their families, and the humiliating treatment he himself had endured both at the Israeli Embassy in London and at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
The bureaucratic hassles have since been resolved. It’s likely that Tamimi’s professional success and reputation played a part in this, and it’s doubtful that others with the complex status of an East Jerusalem resident receive the kind of treatment he now does. Since 2013, Tamimi has traveled here to see his family several times. In 2018, he insisted on bringing along cookbook writer and food researcher Tara Wigley, who has been with the Ottolenghi group since 2010 and has worked on other books published by Ottolenghi and Tamimi, together and separately.
“I couldn’t have done it without Tara,” Tamimi says. “I’m used to the Jewish-Israeli attitude, which I can sometimes find patronizing, and I am an emotional person who can get angry and make everything political. I wanted to avoid anger and gain an additional point of view. We traveled together, but each of us experienced a different journey: I was returning home… and Tara discovered a world she didn’t know. The Palestinian struggle and the Palestinian identity are part of my roots. I can’t look at them from the side, even as one who now lives in London.”
Wigley: “People in the world, and I was one of them until three years ago, can be completely ignorant about the region. So few understand the geography, the history and the way life that is conducted there today, and when you do understand, it is jolting. The book contains more than a hundred recipes, but… we [also] wanted it to be an invitation to people to sit at the table and listen to stories. Food is a window through which to look at what is happening in Palestine today. Even if you don’t want to get entangled in the politics, but simply to meet other people.”
In Israeli culture, which for years has refused to acknowledge the fact that in the relations with the Palestinians we who have the upper hand, the word “Palestine” is still a red rag. In spoken Hebrew, we have shifted from the word Mizrahi (Eastern) to describe local and Mediterranean cuisine, to the word “Arab” (whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish). The word “Palestinian” still sticks in the craw and is unacceptable to a large public who do not recognize the existence of the Palestinian identity or consider it a threat to Israeli identity and existence.
Tamimi, who, in an exceptional way, lives between the two cultures and is fully aware of the provocativeness of the word in Israel and the Jewish world, chose to title his book “Falastin” (not “Palestine”) – the name of a popular newspaper that existed between 1911 and 1967.
“It is an homage to the old newspaper,” Tamimi says, “and in the Arabic language, which does not have the ‘p’ sound, it was the name of the region before the word began to be written with the letter ‘P’ during the British Mandate period. At the purely commercial level, it’s a strong, catchy name that intrigues people; it’s not self-evident to English speakers. But it wasn’t our intention to write the complete Palestinian kitchen book. There are marvelous cookbooks available that offer traditional recipes from the Palestinian kitchen, and for us it was important to come out with a fresh, new version of traditional recipes.
“Food has become a means of defining the Palestinian identity,” he continues, “so it is more difficult to introduce changes in traditional recipes. This is the way to preserve the heritage. I understand the Israeli-Palestinian chefs whom we met on our research travels and who are having a hard time integrating the traditional with the new. The Palestinian public doesn’t want to eat food from their mother’s home in restaurants; and the Jewish-Israeli public, which is a guarantee of [a restaurant’s] economic success, wants only traditional Arab home food that is considered authentic.”
The falafel wars
The past decade has seen the publication of many books centering around Palestinian cuisine.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and the fact that Israeli chefs are cooking and marketing internationally dishes they are labeling as belonging to them – are among the reasons that this is happening now,” Tamimi says. “People like me, and like other Palestinian writers who are third generation of the conflict, want to sound their voice, talk about their cuisine and make their knowledge the world’s preserve.”
Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s “Jerusalem,” though it did not engage explicitly in distinguishing between the Palestinian and the Israeli, was one of the triggers of the recent phenomenon. Among other books published in recent years – and there are many – are “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt (2013); “Palestine on a Plate,” by Joudie Kalla (2016); and “Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen,” by Yasmin Khan (2018).
The interest that national cuisines are attracting – as a means to define identity and to ground certain political and economic claims – is reigniting the debate about sources and cultural appropriation: Is there such a thing as an Israeli/Palestinian kitchen; when and where were foods invented that became widespread in the Middle Eastern geographical-cultural space; and who is entitled to profit today from their use?
This past February, Reem Kassis, author of “The Palestinian Table,” from 2017, published an article in The Washington Post titled “Here’s why Palestinians object to the term ‘Israeli food’: It erases us from history.” The article, which resonated widely, again sparked furious debates among Israeli and Palestinian chefs.
Tamimi: “I agree with that statement. Talking about an ‘Israeli’ kitchen erases my Palestinian identity, and there is no doubt that it is cultural appropriation. I have no desire to fight anyone or to engage in a discussion about the origin of the dishes. I am the first who says that hummus is ultimately legumes, tahini and lemon. I accept the fact that falafel and hummus are an integral element of the Jewish-Israeli identity, but that is precisely the definition of cultural appropriation: When the stronger side claims exclusivity and brings about the disappearance of the weak side. I saw no mention of the Palestinian kitchen in any of the many Israeli cookbooks published in the past few years. What really irks me are some of the Israeli chefs who market the food as Israeli and take credit for it themselves. If one side is strong, the least it can do is to acknowledge the other side so as not to erase its existence completely.”
“Palestinian food professionals are experiencing a paradox,” says the anthropologist Daniel Monterescu, of the Central European University, who initiated the ongoing series of online discussions “The Migrating Food Pot: Palestinian and Israeli Cuisines in Europe and the U.S.” (in conjunction with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute).
“Arab and Palestinian cuisine is achieving unprecedented popularity in Israel and abroad, and that is a springboard to growth,” he says. “On the other hand, as the chef Salah Kurdi said, there is a feeling that they are being ‘left out in the cold.’ Raw materials and recipes that were widespread in the region long before the Israelis discovered olive oil and za’atar are now branded as the new Israeli cuisine. In the Palestinian discourse, the responses range from ‘there is no such thing as Israeli food’ to allegations of culinary colonialism, and also a call for working together, but only on condition that there is clear recognition of the sources of inspiration and the local history of Arab gastronomy.”
Anyone who has prepared recipes devised by Ottolenghi or Tamimi (or both) knows that they consist of multiple ingredients and multiple stages. The techniques are not necessarily complicated – the recipes are adapted for amateur cooks and home kitchens – but it’s usually necessary to get hold of the raw materials in advance and there are often a lot of utensils to wash. The investment, however, is rewarding: The clear, precise recipes produce splendid dishes imbued with intriguing flavors. In his latest book, Tamimi succeeds in articulating a new language for the traditional Palestinian kitchen, a language that is not confined solely to olive oil, tomato seeds and spicy green pepper, but offers a wealth of flavors and sources of influence.
In accordance with the authors’ declaration of intent, the recipes in “Falastin” do not purport to constitute the canon of Palestinian cuisine. Among them are those that are rich in imagination and inspiration (such as pea, spinach and preserved-lemon fritters; a beetroot and sweet potato dip; and a ricotta and labneh cheesecake with roasted apricots), whose ingredients include not only raw ingredients typical of the region but also others that expand the horizon.
Article originally published in Haaretz