Strange bedfellows in a rose harissa

I was thrilled to find Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s book ‘Jerusalem’ at the library this evening !

Taken in by the flavour of Yotam Ottolenghi’s newest book ‘Flavor’ at our friend’s house last month, for he had transferred the contents to his dining table by recreating some of the recipes; think of ground fresh lime leaves on fennel root and rose harissa on golden beets. The cauliflower tinged in the red of harissa was so delightful that I was inspired to concoct my own pepper paste. We were very eager that day to devour the food, so I got very few shots half way through, that do little justice to the deliciousness of Sunday brunch vegetables. 

Cauliflower with rose harissa from Ottolenghi’s ‘Flavor’ made by our friend; this was supremely delicious

Israeli-British Yotam Ottolenghi and the Palestinian chef, Sami Tamimi collaborated on ‘Jerusalem’ which was released in 2012. In the book, they explored  the cuisine of the city they were born in (the same year), the religious diversity of it’s communities. Tamimi was born on the Arab east side and Ottolenghi in the Jewish west. Together in dreams and ideas, they laid out 120 recipes from their unique cross-cultural perspective, that included inventive vegetable dishes to sweet, rich desserts [1] It was I think, the merging of two cuisines, a bridge across an amorphous yet real divide floating over the same land. The confluence of flavour is like that of rivers, but even rivers come from someplace else.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Sami Tamimi writes, paints and composes Arabic poetry. He calls himself a very private person, not meant to brave the weather of publicity like Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi, also a writer, has studied comparative literature and was called the Philosopher Chef by the New Yorker. His master’s thesis was on the ontological status of the photographic image in aesthetic and analytic philosophy. Today, they say he wears the happy smile of a man who has left behind “The Phenomenology of Mind” for baked eggplants with lemon thyme, za’atar, pomegranate seeds, and buttermilk-yogurt sauce [2] Sami Tamimi has written the book ‘Falastin’, published last year, which is a remarkable collection of essays and 120 recipes [3] It may be of some note that it is actually a woman named Tara Wigley who helps both chefs translate their vision in the test kitchen. In one article, it was reported that there was a haunting gouache on Tamimi’s living-room wall, in lines of script painted over with bright-yellow flowers and green leaves. The poem, he told the reporter was “about the things you’re supposed to remember and the things you have to forget”; the flowers were according the Tamimi, “the way he felt after it was written.” Both Ottolenghi and Tamimi identify as homosexual. “I was an angry kid,” recalled Tamimi to the Guardian last year, “Because of the whole sexuality thing, I couldn’t talk about it to anybody. But I come from a different place now. I had a lot to prove. And I did it. I’m not angry now. The opposite.” [4]

I try not to talk of political theatre on my blog as I find it too absurdly real but the poem today is also inspired by the recent Israel-Palestine conflict that resulted in the death of 243 people in Gaza [5] I took a leaf from the Bible, from the Book of Ruth, because it has some lessons in social and political relationships, long forgotten. In the story of how Boaz purchased Ruth, the wife of the deceased Mahlon to be his wife, the deal was sealed with a sandal or a shoe from the nearest Kinsman of Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi. In chapter 4, line 7 of the King James Version are the words ” Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel ” [6] It is an interesting story in the bible about a woman from Moab, the kingdom of ancient Palestine which was located east of the Dead Sea in what is now west-central Jordan, it was bounded by Edom and the land of the Amorites [7] The poem is about geography, the politics of relationships, about being a woman in those ancient times when it was dangerous living without the protection of a man. It disturbs me to know that women the world over still suffer quite the same way they did in those days, as does the political map.

In trying to create my own version of pepper paste inspired by rose harissa last month, I partly succeeded with some pasilla and ancho peppers I had on hand, but I did not have rose petals nor any rose syrup to devise a perfect mix so I  included the recipe from the book ‘Jerusalem’ instead.

I believe life is tediously long when there is little love of flavour and little flavour of love to go around, like a rare resource, it exists along the lines of a scarcity model. If it were like a fusion reaction rather than a fossil fuel, it would have been an Ottolenghi and Tamimi cook book of seeking the limits of our inexhaustible creative humanity perhaps and here I am, adding my two quatrains, figuratively speaking, to the universal deluge of poems, hoping to colour it rose, like harissa. Here’s raising a glass to peace in the world if there can even be such a thing.

Strange bedfellows in a rose harissa

Sunday readings are a flavour of rose.
The blood tint on cruciferous florets,

aim to wash away the sins of geography
in a petri dish. I have no rose harissa,

so I look within the Book, in the poetry
of pomegranate love in vineyards.

I try divining recipes out of ancient lore
but the page turns to Ruth the Moabite.

Pasilla and ancho feel not at home,
in a harissa, like her, gathering wheat

in the strange fields of Jerusalem, where Boaz
called her daughter. How does she bleed,

this woman from a strange land, to love
in rose harissa ? So the peppers were

softened, deseeded, sugared and made tangy,
like Ruth, who was offering a measure of the same

to a man that called her daughter. Along the
harvest, his golden heart welled to encase her,

while she slept at his feet. With six measures of wheat
for her honour, she walked at dawn in the grace of

knowing, she was Ruth the Moabite, stranger in a strange
land, now protected by a man who called her daughter.

I think of Ruth, I think of the sandals exchanged
for the trade of goods, like honour among men.

Only one sandal from a kinsman, that Boaz may
walk into his tent to find a Moabite that he makes

loves to in tender passion, a man to her woman,
a fatherly intercourse in a field where her chastity

was bound in his sheaves of golden wheat. Thus was
created a cascade of affections, in the intoxicating Song

of Solomon, David's desire for Bathsheba, for Ruth was
the mother of Obed who sired Jesse, father of David who sired Solomon
Pepper paste substitute, the Zaatar is for the garnish; I have to reformulate this recipe to come up with something similar yet new. The peppers provide for a lovely tint without being hot
From Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s book ‘Jerusalem’