“With my food, I think it has to do with my cultural background and growing up in the Middle East, where spirits are high and the food is very intense. I have these expectations of food – that it will kind of tickle you and give you excitement and an unusual experience.”
Although he’s just arrived in Australia and is facing a relentless schedule of interviews, talks and special events (our afternoon chat falls between a collaborative lunch and dinner at Sydney’s Nomad, chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi is a particularly eloquent interviewee. With an accent peppered with typical Israeli “ehms”, his pitch rises and falls as he contemplates the possibilities before him. He tends to navigate his answers with, “Well, on one hand … [sudden high intonation] but, on the other …”
The 45-year-old, Jerusalem-born, London-based chef is touring his newest – and biggest – cookbook. Featuring 150 original vegetarian recipes, Plenty More is the follow-up to 2010’s smash hit, Plenty. Bright, fresh and exuberant, Ottolenghi’s genuine enthusiasm for the vast possibilities of cooking with vegetables is infectious.
Take the opening recipe, for example; a sensuously red pomegranate and tomato salad – a revelation he had on a trip to Turkey, which in the book he describes as a “light-bulb moment”.
It’s with his effusive nature, curiosity and knack for embracing and reinterpreting international flavours that Ottolenghi has become an incidental champion for the vegetarian movement. Incidental, because Ottolenghi only started writing vegetarian recipes because he was assigned a vegetarian food column at The Guardian in 1996. He never set out to be associated with the vegetarian cause, nor has he ever claimed to be vegetarian himself.
He does acknowledge, however, that people will need to reduce their meat consumption, as, worldwide, we will struggle to realistically sustain the demand over the next few decades.
“I think more and more people see that. But rather than just rejecting eating meat altogether – which puts off a lot of people from engaging – you say, okay, let’s just eat less.”
He continues, “In the past, people never used to eat so much meat as they do today. It was something left for celebration, for weekends. Bringing back that ‘special’ element, I think, would be a good thing. Then we can just consume way more vegetables all the time.”
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s very idealistic. How do you change eating behaviours that are so entrenched in a culture, especially in Australia?
“For me, just spreading the word of how versatile, how delicious, how different and exciting vegetables can be is the only way around it … Winning people over through their tastebuds, I think, will be more effective.”
The worldwide popularity of Plenty, which has since been translated into several languages, is immense. We start discussing the idea that, for the first time in history, we’re seeing food trends really explode on a global scale, rather than just locally. And extremely quickly. That’s why, as Ottolenghi puts it, in every major city he visits he’s greeted by, “The burgers, the pulled pork, the food trucks and the kale.”
There seems to be a problem with this new uniformity, though. While food trends are becoming universal, at the same time, sustainable best practice tells us that we must be growing and eating locally. So, while it’s great to embrace exotic ingredients such as pomelo, black garlic and kashk (fermented Iranian yoghurt) featured in Plenty More, is there an inherent conflict?
“Not really, because my ingredients are exotic at the moment, but they can easily be turned not exotic,” he explains.
To illustrate, he recalls a recent story he heard about farmers in West England growing shiso leaf, a bitter, cumin-y herb used traditionally in Japan.
“Many of those ingredients don’t have to be imported. At the moment they come from Asia or North Africa … but they can be easily adapted or adopted in other parts of the world. And when it comes to spices and other condiments, we’ve been trading in those for centuries.”
Ottolenghi reasons that local ingredients should be used as a base in your cooking to help strike a good balance.
Two criticisms Ottolenghi has regularly received for his previous cookbooks (Ottolenghi and Jerusalem included) are: (1) many (if not most) recipes call for a trip to a specialty store for unfamiliar ingredients and, (2) there are too many steps in the method.
“My recipes tend to be lengthy and you need to seek out ingredients,” he acknowledges. “I don’t think that every one of my recipes is complicated, per se. It just may be more exotic at the beginning, and then it becomes easier.” In other words, after visiting the Asian or Middle Eastern grocery enough times, and spending a little time rehearsing the techniques, suddenly things don’t seem so foreign.
Like much of his career (the effortless fusion of disparate cultures; his long-time Palestinian business partner; spurring an unlikely cultural shift towards vegetarian eating), this seems like a metaphor for something else.
In a Wheeler Centre presentation, Yotam Ottolenghi is appearing in conversation with Karen Martini at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne on Friday October 31 at 6.30pm and 9pm. Both sessions are now sold out.
Plenty More is available online and in book stores now.