I am a huge fan of the Ottolenghi deli group in London, (a former blogpost of mine tells you why), and whenever I am in the capital, I endeavour to stop-by at the nearest deli to where I am, buy myself a take-away box and enjoy a little alfresco dining in one of London’s many fabulous parks. As well as buying ready-to-eat food, I love stocking up on pots of sumac and za’atar whilst I’m there, in an attempt to re-create a little deli magic when I return home.
Combining my love for all things Ottolenghi and following the launch of my ‘Food Roots’ blog feature, I have recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Ottolenghi Group's Executive Head Chef - the wonderfully talented Sami Tamimi.
However, many will recognise Sami’s business partner more readily - Yotam Ottolenghi Chef-Patron of Ottolenghi delis and Nopi Restaurant. Yotam’s TV credits include his ‘Mediterranean Feasts’ series which was aired on More 4, along with BBC4 documentary, ‘Jerusalem on a Plate’. Running alongside his best-selling cookbooks: Plenty (his collection of vegetarian recipes), Ottolenghi : The Cookbook and Jerusalem; is his well-received weekly column in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. Yotam’s much-anticipated new cookbook Plenty More was released this autumn.
Whilst Yotam’s media presence may be more evident, Sami’s involvement with the Ottolenghi Group is instrumental. As well as Sami being co-author of the above mentioned bestselling cookbooks: Ottolenghi : The Cookbook and Jerusalem, (which won the James Beard ‘Best International Cookbook’ award and the Observer Food Monthly ‘Best Cookbook’ Award, amongst others), Sami’s role as Executive Head Chef is paramount across the three Ottolenghi London-based delis. He is in the kitchen every day, creating new dishes and innovative menus as well as developing and nurturing young kitchen talents.
I have over time, enjoyed following Sami on Twitter as he often Tweets about his work and shares photographs of the culinary dishes he prepares, many of which are vegetarian, creatively contemporary and are a complete joy to see.
Fascinated where he gets his inspiration from, my interview explores Sami’s years growing up in Jerusalem, how his roots have influenced his cooking methods today and the importance of carrying on the traditions he was brought up with.
Describe your food memories of living in East Jerusalem and do you still practice any feasting traditions from your years growing up there?
Food has always been a huge part of my life and my memories of growing up are totally connected with food. Fresh fruit and vegetables were part of our every day. For example, huge pomegranates bashed over the sink for the seeds to fall away ready to be eaten then and there or sprinkled over whatever was being cooked that day. Eating fresh pitta with minced lamb with chopped parsley and coriander, syrupy sweet black figs, chopped cucumber and tomato salads, stuffed vegetables with rice, smoky chops, crumbly tahini cookies, olive oil, lemon juice, olives, burnt aubergine salads, roasted vegetables drizzled in tahini sauce, chopped liver - the food memories are not so much a list as an avalanche.
Preparing food, having a house full of people willing and ready to be fed, sitting around tables full of people and a spread of dishes, something always bubbling away on the stove - these are my memories. I don’t practice specific feasting traditions so much as love creating a similar atmosphere in my own London kitchen now. Feeding people reminds me of my childhood. That makes me happy.
How important is it for you to use Middle Eastern influence in your cooking repertoire and how much influence from your roots is reflected in your recipe development?
It’s really important. It’s there in every dish I make, every squash I roast, every platter of food I prepare. The influence of my parent’s cooking, the influence of the food markets I grew up going to - where piles of fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains were presented in a way which was both bounteous and precise. The time I spent in kitchens in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv learning how to cook - these things all have a huge influence on my everyday repertoire now.
Do you feel you have to alter Middle Eastern ingredient strengths to accommodate a British palette?
No, not at all. We’ve always found our customers really ready and willing to try new ingredients and be surprised by bursts of flavour they may not be used to. This receptiveness grows year on year. Any reservations we used to have about the ‘audacity’ of ingredients like chopped preserved lemon skin or sumac – both very astringent or even a little bit shocking if you are not expecting them in a dish – are positively celebrated now. If anything, we almost have the opposite problem, if a dish doesn’t sing from the rafters and wow with every bite, some people will say that it is not very ‘Ottolenghi’. We’ve never wanted our food to shout for the sake of it, though, it’s about making food which both comforts and surprises at the same time.
Working with Yotam Ottolenghi and both hailing from Jerusalem, do you feel that that has strengthened your working relationship together?
Our relationship has always been strong. We’ve got a lot in common besides both coming from Jerusalem. Our palates, plans, pals and passions are all very similar.
With a considerable bias towards vegetarian food in many of the Ottolenghi books that you have worked on and the food that is sold in the London delis, where/how do you get your inspiration from to keep on producing new vegetarian recipes?
Neither of the books I have co-authored with Yotam – the first Ottolenghi book and Jerusalem – are vegetarian but, yes, so many of our recipes are a celebration of vegetables, pulses, grains, seeds, nuts, leaves and fruit. We both like to eat and cook meat and fish but, again, the way we were brought up with food was never the ‘meat main and two veg on the side’ approach to a meal - everything has always had equal status on our tables, whether it’s a leek or a lamb. We’re never short of ideas of new recipes to produce. For every one vegetable there are so many ways to ring the changes – different toppings and sauces and combinations of textures, different ways to cook or cut something.
Does your pantry possess products/ingredients that reflect your roots and if so, what are the 'must have' items that are always in there?
Olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and yoghurt.
Notes & My Thanks:
I would like to thank Sami Tamimi for his time in participating in the interview.
For more information about Sami Tamimi and/or the Ottolenghi Group, please visit www.ottolenghi.co.uk.