From the Levant to London With Love: Middle East Food Takes U.K. Capital by Storm

London Jewish Book Week turns its attention from the weight of history to gustatory delights and the spices of life. 'Cumin is king.'

LONDON — After days of lectures and panels with titles like “Israel, Present and Future,” “A Brief History of Humankind” and “Germany 1933-49,” the London Jewish Book Week on its final day turned its attention away from weighty Israeli authors, new Holocaust literature and age-old Israel and Palestine problems to something far easier to digest: Israeli food.

Or more specifically to the Israeli-inspired giant-couscous-and-roasted-aubergine-with-turmeric-yogurt-and pomegranate-seeds revolution currently taking the city by storm.

“Who would have thought a discussion about food would get such a turnout at a Jewish festival?” joked moderator Jay Rayner, the Observer newspaper’s restaurant critic — and a “northwest London-born and -bred Jew” — as he opened the packed Sunday evening session on “How Britain Fell in Love with Middle East Food,” at King’s Place.

The questions from the audience, of the “what would be your last meal on earth?” “what are your favorite Tel Aviv restaurants?” and “do you eat at each others’ restaurants?” variety, came fast and furious.

“What three spices could you not live without?” an elderly gentleman asked the four young panelists on stage. “Cardamom, mahlab — which I use a lot for baking — and cumin, obviously,” responded Sarit Packer, who together with her husband and co-chef, Itamar Srulovitch, helms the tiny, homey, hit cafe Honey and Co in Bloomsbury. (He chose chili flakes, cardamom and cumin.)

For Josh Katz, founding chef of the Jewish community center JW3’s kosher and cool vegetarian restaurant Zest, cumin also made the cut, together with sumac and paprika.

“Yeah, basically, cumin is king,” agreed Tomer Amedi, the fourth panelist and latest arrival on the Ben-Gurion-to-Heathrow chef express, having come from Jerusalem’s uber trendy Machneyuda a year ago to become head chef at that restaurant’s uber-popular new West End outpost, Palomar.

“So, cumin and coriander seeds,” said Amedi, weighing his options and finally settling on paprika as his third spice, but not, he says, “before it battled it out with sumac.”

Salted beef no more

There were days when the mention of Jewish food in London – usually conflated, back in that once upon a time, with Israeli food – conjured up one’s Ashkenazi grandmother’s salted beef or chicken soup, or maybe some expensive falafel at the Golders Green restaurant Solly’s (RIP).

At most, the imagination might have wandered to smoked salmon at Blooms (also RIP) or chopped liver at Reuben’s. But those days are no more.

The modern Israeli cuisine on offer in London today has a whole new range of tastes, smells and colors. “Thank,” noted Rayner, “God.”

The panel of chefs -- (l-r) Josh Katz, Sarit Packer, Itamar Srulovitch and Tomer Amedi -- and the moderator, restaurant critic Jay Rayner, at London Jewish Book Week. Photo by Jewish Book Week.

Think spicy shakshuka (eggs baked in tomato sauce with spinach and yogurt), sabikh (roasted aubergine tahini and fried egg on pita) and mesabaha (hummus with smoked paprika, olive oil and more tahini) lapped up with fresh sweet Yemeni pot-baked breads. That’s for starters.

Then consider mezzes of carrot and butternut-squash fritters and quince salads with mint and chili. Dream of some octopus with chili and coriander or a plate of crisp battered hake with harissa aioli, dill cucumber and caramelized onions. And then let your imagine run wild with a plate of crispy quail on white-bean hummus with urfa chili butter.

“It’s not Jewish cooking per se, but it is coming out of Israel,” explained Amedi, the kind of guy who likes to whip up polenta with truffle oil and top it with parmesan, mushrooms and asparagus – and uses pita to make croutons for his Palomar signature “deconstructed kebab” dish of heavily spiced minced meat with yogurt and tahini.

“The food comes out of a melting pot of traditions brought together in Israel by immigrants from everywhere: Kurdistan to Morocco to Poland to France and mixed up with the Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian influences that long existed in the region.”

“Straight-up Ashkenazi food has its time and place,” added Katz, a proud Ashkenazi, trying to be diplomatic, “but a lot of the Sephardic and Middle Eastern influences are — how shall I put it? — more interesting.”

Not your grandmother’s kitchen

And indeed, Zest, which Katz recently left to launch a new Middle-Eastern-inspired meat restaurant, Berber and Q, shook up the kosher scene of North London. Zest produced such dishes as caramelized florets of cauliflower in sweet dark pomegranate molasses and tahini and crisp tuna croquettes dipped in fiery harissa sauce – clearly not the stuff of your grandmother’s kitchen.

“There is a moment going on in which a lot of Israeli chefs in London are experimenting with bright colors, large platters and different ingredients, all infused with warmth and, well, love,” said Packer, she of the now famous Fitzrovia bun, a Honey and Co pistachio-and-cherry take on the Chelsea bun.

“Plus there is a lot of play on the balance between protein and vegetables. We are being authentic but not sticking to any conventions. It’s nice working with Jewish traditions, but we are also all trying to bring in a new pallet of flavors.”

“Londoners are very open,” added her partner, Srulovitch, a red-pepper-and-paprika-falafel sort of man, who does his chicken tagine with chestnuts, raisins and date molasses. “They will try anything and are grateful for quality and care. There are not a lot of places in the world where that is as true as it is here.”

“In that regard, there has been a massive improvement in terms both of accessibility of ingredients and open-mindedness towards different food,” says Katz, the only London-born and -bred chef in the group. “It’s night and day from when I was growing up.”

Ottolenghi, conspicuous by absence

Towering over this entire Israel-cum-Middle-Eastern food revolution, in spirit, if not in actual presence at Sunday’s event (“We tried, we tried,” said Rayner, shaking his head), is, of course, London’s most famous Israeli chef, Jerusalemite Yotam Ottolenghi.

Or, as he is otherwise known, the man who — between his bakery-cafes, restaurant and cookbooks, all of which were created with his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi — put the idea of char-grilled broccoli salads and butternut squash with tahini and za’atar on the culinary map to begin with.

“Working for Ottolenghi” is “basically the law for anyone setting up a successful Middle Eastern restaurant these days,” Rayner quipped. And in fact, three of the four chefs on the panel previously worked and trained under the celebrity chef. Srulovitch served as head chef for the Ottolenghi cafes and Packer was executive chef at Ottolenghi’s much-loved Soho restaurant Nopi.

The cuisine of Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo by Britta Jaschinski / REX.

“Are you embarrassed that you never worked for him?” Rayner ribbed Amedi, who sheepishly tried to point out that in Israel Ottolenghi is really less well known than he is in Britain.

“Who here owns one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks?” Rayner asked the audience, quickly seeking to counter such sacrilegious talk. Every hand in the crowd, or so it seemed, popped up.

`What about kosher?

The questions went on and on, with a hunger for wisdom from the culinary experts on stage that the Holocaust scholars and Israeli-Palestinian specialists of the Book Week would surely have envied — had they not been in the auditorium, too, busily asking what Edgeware Road Lebanese takeout the chefs recommended. (“Beirut Express” per Katz. But Packer warned, “beware” because many of those places don’t put enough lemon in their tabouli.)

“What ingredients are available in Israel that one can’t get in Britain?” seemed a common concern.

Good za’atar was one possible problem. And sometimes, said Srulovitch, vegetables and fruits on par with the fresh ones in Israel’s outdoor markets are harder to find.

But happily for the Brits, according to Amedi, it’s actually the other way around, with one able to buy in London those things one would have great difficulty finding back home, “like tahini from Lebanon and freekeh from Damascus and, above all” — Amedi grinned — “pork belly for my tagine.”

“On which note, what about kosher?” several wanted to know.

Katz, who had given kosher a run for its money at Zest, stayed mum, while the three Israeli-born chefs stumbled over each other to explain.

“You would need a really big kitchen,” suggested Packer. “And good, easily sourced meat,” added Srulovitch.

“It’s different in Israel. We like butter in our desserts and meat on our plates,” Packer tried again.

“We don’t really think kosher,” Amedi concluded. He also managed to shock the crowd into momentary silence by admitting he typically spends Yom Kippur back home cooking up a seven-course meal with his buddies. “It’s the only day all my friends from the industry have off!” he half apologized.

Before the evening ended and everyone headed out to dinner, someone in the crowd yelled out one more question: “Where would the chefs themselves go to eat on a night out in London, if Middle East food was not an option?”

American barbeque for Katz and Japanese udon noodles for Packer. “Something fancy and French,” was Amedi’s somewhat surprising answer.

And Srulovitch? Turns out that a decade in Britain did its work. “I have to say,” he admitted, as his wife rolled her eyes, aware of what was coming next, “that sometimes there is nothing better in this world than a good greasy English breakfast.”