I chanced upon this documentary on BBC4 last night at 9.00pm when just flicking channels, seeing what was on before the brilliantly funny Rev, to which I’m unashamedly addicted, was due to start at 9.30. However, once I’d started watching Yotam Ottolenghi, nothing was going to move me – not even Rev, which would have to wait for catch-up TV. Earlier in the day, I’d put up a new blog post with a winter salad inspired by Ottolenghi and using za’atar, so it was a little weird to find myself sitting there with him talking enthusiastically about this being one of his favourite seasonings, as he moved through the bustling streets of Jerusalem.
I was first taken to the Ottolenghi restaurant in Upper Street, Islington by my friend Annie a few years ago. It’s one of the most visually stunning restaurants I know. In fact, I would defy anyone to walk past their window, brimming with the most amazing, colourful dishes of exotic-looking foods without being drawn to at least look. But going in is even better …
It’s a bit like the most wonderful deli you could imagine where you choose different plates to share. It’s become very fashionable to serve small, tapas-sized portions of food but it was less common when I first went to Ottolenghi. But how to choose! Huge plates full of vibrant salads of bright greens and earthy reds and yellows, sparkling jewels of pomegranate seeds scattered generously over them; and the cakes and pastries are magnificent works of art, but far too delicious to just look at.
In Jerusalem on a Plate, Ottolenghi returns to his home town of Jerusalem where he revisits places of his childhood and recalls his first food experiences. In his book, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, he tells us how his first word was ‘ma’ – not as in ‘mother’ but short for marak, a Jewish soup – and his passion for food and taste was evident in last night’s programme. As he explores the streets of Jerusalem, from the narrow alleyways of the Old City where fast foods like falafel and hummus are served on the streets, to the west of the city where immigrants from countries like Morocco and Poland have influenced the food, Yottolenghi not only shows us how old and traditional recipes combine with the new to create a rich and vibrant cuisine, but how it unites the people there. Ottolenghi’s business partner in London, Sami Tamimi, is Palestinian, and in Jerusalem on a Plate we constantly see Jews and Palestinians coming together to cook and eat and share. It was a wonderful programme not only for the rich diversity of the cuisine it explored but the political message of the possibility of harmony between different cultures.
Yotam Ottolenghi is a natural broadcaster and when I say it is easy to watch him, I mean it as the highest compliment. There was no great ego, no culinary tricks, no set pieces of supposed entertainment, but a simple yet extraordinarily engaging tour of both his homeland and its cuisine and his own experience of food. If you haven’t watched it yet, then catch up with it. And may the BBC bring us a lot more of Yotam Ottolenghi.