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Hummus, a match for guns?

14 September 2012

SAMI TAMIMI grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1970s and '80s. His mother Na'ama's kitchen was always full of the most extraordinary smells and noises. At breakfast, they would talk about what they were going to eat for lunch, and at lunch they would talk about what they were going to eat for dinner.

This is a man who can talk about tomatoes with the sort of passion that most of us reserve for members of our family.

During the same period, Yotam Ottolenghi was also growing up in Jerusalem, but on the west side. They went to the same markets, and both developed a passion for the same food. But they did not meet each other until they both moved to London. For Jews and Arabs, Jeru­salem is a place of walls. Perhaps they would never have met, had they remained there.

These two chefs, one Jewish, one Palestinian, do not want to talk politics. When pressed, they admit that this is because, frankly, it is just too difficult. But they agree about pretty much everything: how much lemon to squeeze, how much salt to add (a great deal), where to get the best aubergines. And their collabora­tion has now issued in a fabulous new cookbook, Jerusalem (Ebury Press), which is as much a homage to their home city as it is to its culinary wonders. Few books give such a vivid sense of the exuberance and rich diversity of that maddening city.

I have always disliked Jerusalem. Within an hour of being there, I usually get a massive migraine. The atmosphere is so redolent of thou­sands of years of tension and hatred. Yes, there are many other things there, too. But I cannot get past the divisions. Yet going out to dinner with Yotam and Sami is a thing of great joy. Here, hedonism feels so much more uniting than religion. For an evening, eating and laughter seem to trump the horrible divisions that cut across their place of birth.

This is why, despite their protesta­tions that this is just a book about food, the collaboration of these two men means so much more than food. Or, to put it another way: it is easy to get carried away and dream roman­tically that food can overcome poli­tical separation. But Yotam and Sami will not travel down that path.

I understand why politics and religion are not welcome subjects of conversation. They will not claim that hummus is a match for bombs and Uzi machine guns. But, after an evening in their company, I want to come away to claim it on their behalf. Uzi, interestingly, is a derivative of "Uzzi" meaning strength - bib­lically, the strength of God. This book gives me hope that, ultimately, hum­mus is stronger.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.

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