Jerusalem: A Cookbook- Introduction
This book begins with a confusing narrative of how food has its complex roots in various parts of the Middle East. It follows the same narrative and joins to elaborate how the two authors though grew up in the same city they never knew each other till they met in London. With age they became obsessed with revisiting their memories of the city and its food, and how Jerusalem is their home, not in terms of going back to it physically but because it defines them in their comfort, emotions and taste buds. They clearly state that this is a self-indulgent venture where they re-create their childhood and a history that has changed endlessly and is resident to the such a variety of people that it is not enough even when compared to the tower of Babylon.
They question what ‘Jerusalem Food’ is. Which is something we as Indians do too. Much like Jerusalem (minus the political scenarios and emotions of the past millennia), our cuisine has gone through a flux of changes from different parts of the world through conquerers, change in regions, trade and even through regional travels (you can my notes on KT Achaya). It is impossible to call something Indian and therefore much like Jerusalem it is also a convoluted mosaic of people and their food.
Some similarities among all the people living there include, chopped cucumbers and tomatoes to create a salad. Stuffed vegetables with rice, or rice and meat, pickles, use of olive oil, olives and lemon appear in every table. Common vegetables include, tomatoes, okra, string beans, cauliflower, artichokes, beets, carrots, peaches, pears, eggplants, nuts, lamb, chicken etc. I love this about about food from that region and my memories attached to food from Tunisia is that I can easily make the same things at home in India without having to look for ingredients and local vegetables because they are all the same in the Indian pantry. This can be explained because of the early trade routes as discussed in these notes from KT Achaya where there was a link between Egypt and India and this made all sorts of exports and imports possible.
The years of political and religious differences are evident. There is little dialogue between the Jews and the Arabs and if there is anything that breaks it down a little is food. People shop in markets together and eat in each others restaurants.
“Existence feels so uncertain and so fragile that people fight fiercely and with great passion to hold onto things: land, culture, religious symbols, food—everything is in danger of being snatched away or of disappearing.” Page 29, Jerusalem : A Cookbook
The authors say this is futile (agreed), and that food and the beauty of food is that they are rooted in the present. Food is to be shared, it is basic and it purely a hedonistic pleasure. Hummus is a staple of the local Palestinian population, but it was also a feature of dinner tables of Alpine Jews who have lived in Syria for a millennia who arrived in Jerusalem only in the 1950s. Nobody can own it because it very likely that someone else cooked it before them, and even before them. It is impossible to find out who invented a dish or who bought it because food cultures are mashed and fused together. They interact all the time and nothing is ever pure. We can try attribute foods to nations but we will end up discovering that there are many dishes that are similar in an other country. Like the Zalebias I had as a kid in Tunisia, and the Jalebis I have had in Delhi.
Jerusalem has never been a big metropolis city like Greece or Rome, it has always been a small crowded city built of stones, even though it has been a meeting point between Europe, Asia and Africa. In medieval maps, Jerusalem was the centre of the universe surrounded by three continents.
King David founded it as his capital in around 1000 BC. His son Solomon built the first temple, Temple Mount in Jerusalem. After his death, the kingdom was broken up and in 587 BC, Babylon attacked the city burnt it and the temple. This was the first time we see the greatest emotion attached to Jerusalem: that is yearning. In fact this is so strong that pscyhatirsits have identified this has the Jerusalem syndrome where people break down when they go to the holy city. In 332 BC, the Persian empire fell to Alexander the great, and Hellenistic (covers the period of history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire) influences followed and there was inter- marrying between Hellenistic and Traditional Jews, called Maccabees. They gave birth to Hanukka, based on the story that upon restoring the temple to its Jewish traditions, a little jug of oil could feed the light of the temple for eight days.
Romans appeared and asserted their authority against Jewish resistance and the second temple was destroyed. Jesus lived some decades before this event and caused a small section of Christianity there. There was another revolt in AD 132, after which Jews were banned from the city. It was remanded Aelia Capitolina, and became Christian.
Islam was born in the 7th century, and claimed on Jerusalem as the holiest site for Sunni Muslims. Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. The site of Temple Mount was now demolished to two large mosque exclusively for Muslims, with jews only using the Western Wall, also called the wailing wall where people still weep over the temple lost two thousand years ago.
Christian staked a new claim over the city in the Middle Ages, when all forces of Europe came to gather recapture the Holy Land. Crusaders controlled the city from 1099 to 1187 but lost it again. Jerusalem became a rather negated place, the muslim rulers kept going and coming. However, they were more tolerant than the Christians since the Jews were allowed to stay in the city and Christians were allowed to workshop there.
In the 1917, the British conquered Jerusalem during the first world war. However there was a growth of Palestinian national identity and reclaim of Israel. Jerusalem was in the middle of this struggle. In 1947, UN decided to divide Palestine between them, Jerusalem was given to International administration. this resulted in a war. Israel managed to win the western part of the city while loosing the ancient part of the city (eastern) which was densely populated with Arabs. However, it was later controlled by Jordan until 1967 when Israel took over all of Jerusalem.