Yotam Ottolenghi, who hails from the Jewish west part of Jerusalem, and Sami Tamimi, who grew up in the Arab eastern part, were both born in 1968 and emigrated separately to London, England. They met there through work in the late '90s and realized they shared a language, history and love of good food.
They eventually established a business called Ottolenghi. The two, along with several partners, have four deli-cafes in London and a high-end restaurant, Nopi, which opened last year.
"We've traced each other's steps quite closely," said Ottolenghi during a visit to Toronto last month to promote their just-released "Jerusalem: A Cookbook" (Appetite by Random House). The cookbook tells the story of Jerusalem by describing how its diverse inhabitants interact with food.
"Our friend and partner suggested we do 'Jerusalem' because we are both from there and two different parts," said Tamimi. "Going back to where we grew up and discovering the flavours and the memories, it's a very personal journey for both of us."
"This is for us almost like taking a step back because our food (in the restaurants) is not so focused like that on the Middle Eastern flavours. It's much more wider in scope," said Ottolenghi, who has been hailed as a rising star in the food world for his new approach to food, bustling restaurants, bestselling books and television specials.
"So going back and checking those flavours was a good exercise for us to understand how we evolved our flavours and the way we see the world and eat."
Because Jerusalem's population includes Muslim, Jewish, Arab, Christian, Armenian and various sub-communities, the authors cover a variety of cuisines.
Ottolenghi said he thinks Middle Eastern food is often perceived as not being very diverse.
"It's a very multilayered kind of food that's got the same kind of complexity that you find in Italian or French, but it's just less known," he said.
"But I think it's really changing now. People are so much more keen about Middle Eastern food. They really understand about how to use these ingredients, tahini and eggplants, and all the oils and the herbs and spices."
The food of Israel and Palestine is focused on seasonal vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchinis, fruits such as figs, plums and pomegranates, with lots of herbs and spices.
"It's very fertile and very abundant. So we like to keep that focus on vegetables and on pulses which are very much a part of the local diet and a little bit less on meat and fish, so it's very vegetable heavy," Ottolenghi noted.
There is extensive use of flavourings.
"We love spices, things like allspice and turmeric and cinnamon and saffron and cumin. This selection of spices we love using and playing with. Also the same with herbs. We use tons of herbs — coriander and basil, dill and parsley," said Ottolenghi. "So that's the flavour profile. It's very strong, ballsy flavours."
The two each brought recipes from their respective backgrounds; 120 made it into the book.
"All the recipes have little stories behind them and a little bit of history," said Tamimi, who is the company’s head chef.
"In the introductions we always mention if it's my mom's recipe or his mom's recipe, the whole evolvement of the recipe," said Ottolenghi.
"Sami brought a lot of Palestinian dishes that are from his home cooking — fattoush and maqluba, hummus, all those things that are very traditional Palestinian — and maybe I did things that are a bit more mixed, but (he) also worked on the recipes that are very Jewish," like the chicken soup with knaidlach (matzo meal dumplings), Ottolenghi explained.
"Sami is famous for making great matzo balls even though he's not even Jewish."
Maqluba, which translates to "upside down," is a one-pot meal of rice, vegetables and meat. In Jerusalem, salad in some incarnation always accompanies a meal. Fattoush is an Arab salad that often contains grilled or fried leftover pita.
Dishes may have different names but are often similar, the two noted.
"So when we write the introductions to the recipes we often try to show the other examples of similar dishes and the other variations on that dish. If it's a rice dish, then we would show how another community cooks it, what makes it different, what they add," said Ottolenghi.
"Sometimes they add a fruity element or other times it's a savoury element. It's nice to see how you get different incarnations with the same dish."
The chef authors have written the recipes in "Jerusalem" so that they're simple and easy to follow.
"They're not like restaurant recipes. They're adapted to home cooks, the techniques are simple, they don't take forever to make," Ottolenghi said. "They're very approachable."
Previously Ottolenghi and Tamimi co-authored "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook" (2008) and in 2010 Ottolenghi published cookbook "Plenty."