Here is Yotam Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Nopi. Holding almost any other chef’s fifth cookbook in your hand would make you groan, wouldn’t it, and, as they do their version of Spanish or Indian or Summer cooking or whatever their thing is for that book, you would have to ask yourself if you need or want it. But Yotam is different. His food has a sort of style, a philosophy, that runs through it. It’s never his take on something, this food is his thing. His plates are generous, always beautiful, come from his palate more, I think, than from nostalgia. He looks for exciting combinations of flavour, mostly starting in the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, Turkey and Arabia, and in this new book with added influences from his co-author Ramael Scully, Nopi’s head chef.
There is a video of Yotam and Scully working on a new dessert. It’s fascinating to watch as they add or take a little liquorice powder or pink peppercorns or whatever, until it pleases them both. It shows, I think, that Yotam is a great collaborator. He always credits who first gave him a recipe. And that generosity is present in his food. If you go to one of his restaurants for the first time you will be struck by the huge displays of beautiful salads, abundant and inviting. He is also as great a colourist as Matisse, purple and yellow and pink or green and orange and black, all together on the same plate. I have been a fan since he opened his first restaurant, 100m from where I lived in Islington. I went almost every morning for coffee and the best croissants in London.
There is always an idea behind Mr Ottolenghi’s books. Jerusalem, my favourite, written with Sami Tamimi, I find very moving, which isn’t something you can often say about a cookbook. Yotam and Sami grew up in different parts of the city; Yotam in the Jewish West, Sami in the Muslim East. They both lived and worked in Tel Aviv but didn’t meet until they were at Baker and Spice in London. They became friends and business partners. Dan Lepard was there, too, so that was quite a star-filled kitchen. The book is about where the Jewish part of that city meets the Arabic part and all the things they have in common. As Yotam writes at the beginning, It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it – what have we got to lose? – to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalem together. I hadn’t opened my copy for a while before writing this, and found once more that I wanted to make and eat most of the recipes. It is a dialogue in food. It is a delicious, two-man peace mission.
The new book is based on what is on the menu at Yotam’s smart, West End restaurant Nopi. Scully brings Malay, Chinese, Indian, Irish and Australian influences to add to Yotam’s Israeli and Italian background. The comments under Yotam’s weekly column in The Guardian every Saturday squeal with enjoyable despair at the obscurity of his ingredients. They complain too much, really, and certainly enjoy complaining too much. In the new book, added to the usual list of date molasses and sumac and so on, are curry leaves and Korean spice paste, kaffir limes and dried anchovies. You don’t, though, ever feel like a tourist cooking, eating or even wanting his food. Still, in Belsize Park, where I’ve moved, it isn’t the easiest task to find za’atar or fresh turmeric. The single worst thing in my new neighbourhood is the absence of a branch of Ottolenghi.
In the introduction Yotam says that the book is of restaurant-style dishes, needing lengthy preparation. But people don’t go to an Ottolenghi recipe for simplicity. Simply Yotam would not be an Ottolenghi book. (Although if he is inspired to now write one I’ll tell him where he can send my royalties). I recently reviewed Inside Chefs’ Fridges for greatbritishchefs.com, which is, as you might expect, about what chefs keep in their fridges and freezers. There is photo after photo of perky vegetables and yoghurt drinks, and then we arrive at Yotam’s fridge which is full of jars of ingredients that not too long ago would have seemed obscure to Britain. But this is a nation that has always taken on and enjoyed the cuisine of countries from the Empire. Now we receive influences from the rest of the world quite happily. Yotam’s shakshuka shakshook us up, but we were ready for it to do so.
Mostly the recipes are difficult the way Chinese food is difficult; there’s a lot of shopping and chopping before you get to the fun bit of applying heat. Some of the recipes look like they’ll take some time to prepare, but there’s also the Whole Roasted Celeriac which involves rubbing a celeriac with oil and salt. You then put it in an oven for three hours. You’re left with time you can spend making the Chicken Pastilla. It’s stages and layers are more complicated. It would be a good use of a dull, autumn afternoon. I may make it this weekend.
The photography, by Jonathan Lovekin, is gorgeous, truly world-class. Everything glistens and looks inviting. I like the portraits of everyone who works at Nopi, too, by Adam Hinton. The design and typography are the least successful parts of the book. The shiny, gold edge to the pages feels too reverential, too much like a prayerbook, which goes against the loosey-goosey, painterly way Yotam and Scully have with food. I’m pleased to have this book. I’m looking forward to eating so much from it. Nopi is a fine addition to your Ottolenghi bookshelf.