Long before social media influenced our kitchen skills, the Israeli-born chef was turning fancy salads and giant meringues into a middle-class lifestyle. By Sophie Morris
Yotam Ottolenghi in his Islington deli in an article for The Times
When I look up the first Ottolenghi recipe that I ever tried, sweet potato cakes, it seems improbably simple. I’ve since made them many times from memory; they have just eight ingredients, including salt, sugar and butter, and another six for the yoghurt, sour cream and lemon sauce.
Simple, then, but they did sting me on that first attempt: I skimread the recipe, only seeing the “drain steamed sweet potato for an hour” minutes before dinner time. But I waited, trusted in Ottolenghi, and the wet orange flesh became sticky and malleable.
All I had to do was mix it with flour, spring onion and chilli, shape into balls and fry in loads of butter. His recipes might take time and be ingredient-heavy but they are rarely tricky technique-wise.
Dipped into the creamy, sharp and sour sauce, each bite brought with it the precise clash of texture, flavour, acid and spice that has come to characterise his cooking over the past 20 years, a union that alerted bored 21st-century palates to the Ottolenghi approach, and now has us swooning at each mention of pomegranate molasses or chopped salad.
Most people don’t think “simple” when they think of Yotam Ottolenghi, the 54-year-old Israeliborn, London-based chef with five deli-cafés, two restaurants and 10 books to his name, an empire built after training at the Cordon Bleu cookery school and in leading restaurants. This is a man who turned fancy salads and giant meringues into a lifestyle long before social media dictated that we judge food on its looks.
Now, as he celebrates two decades in the business, while his restaurant menus and products remain wallet-bustingly expensive, our appetite for his numerous cookbooks (he has sold more than one million worldwide) and the ingredients they demand is infinite.
Ottolenghi didn’t introduce sumac, tahini or harissa to the UK, but it is under his tutelage that everyday cooks have learnt to spray these flavours liberally over everything from charred cauliflower to mandolin-thin sheets of kohlrabi. “Simply put, we are very serious about making people happy through our food,” he says.
In an attempt to assess the “Ottolenghi effect” on my own kitchen, I open cupboards and search out ingredients I doubt I would own without his influence on the shopping and cooking habits of middle-class Britons over the past few decades. I find pomegranate molasses, tahini and preserved lemons, along with sumac, za’atar and dukkah, a blend of nuts, seeds and spices to sprinkle on anything from eggs to bread or salad.
Once, we would have needed a specialist shop or an urban centre to source these ingredients. Today they are fairly common pantry items, found at most supermarkets, if not your corner shop.
A decade ago, Waitrose, which was early to carry many Ottolenghi ingredients (and planned stock to coincide with book launches), was reporting soaring sales. Preserved lemon was up 72 per cent year on year, for example, and rose harissa, 62 per cent. Tahini, the paste of ground sesame seeds indispensable for hummus, has developed a superfood identity and Ocado now sells more than 10 kinds.
Ottolenghi’s food is a broad interpretation of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African flavours and dishes, open to sampling, sharing and playfulness. He’s been accused of picking and choosing across countries and cultures, but when an Israeli breaks bread with a Palestinian - Sami Tamimi, his long-time business partner and co-author of Jerusalem (2012) - and sells the result around the globe, we should listen.
His first cookbook, The Ottolenghi Cookbook, co-written with Tamimi, came out in 2008. But it was the vegetarian Plenty (2010) and Plenty More (2014) that really set the standard for contemporary plantbased cooking, though his recipes are not exclusively vegetarian.
These days, the books are mostly written with a chef from his now-famous Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, who has learnt from the master, fully understands what an Ottolenghi dish is, and is able to put their own take on it, adding to his canon while amplifying it. These include pastry star Helen Goh; Ixta
Belfrage who brought her Italian, Brazilian and Mexican heritage to Flavour (2020), and Bahrain-born Noor Murad (inset below) who has co-written the two most recent books, OTK Shelf Love (2021) and Extra Good Things (2022).
Fans like myself look forward to new releases. I don’t own them all, but my cookbook shelves show his agency, from books by fellow Israeli restaurateurs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich of Honey & Co, to Ukrainian Olia Hercules and Malaysian- Australian Ramael Scully, all of whom have one or another of Ottolenghi’s kitchens on their CVs.
While the books sell well, the complexity of recipes and lengthy lists of ingredients have long been fair game for friendly mockery. I have spent the best part of a day on a mushroom lasagne.
The vegetarian “ultimate traybake ragú” asks for so many expensive ingredients, from dried porcini to large quantities of white miso, rose harissa and olive oil, that it costs more than a meat version. But it’s worth it.
He is a self-confessed cooking “maximalist” but in 2018 published Ottolenghi Simple, which promised 30-minute recipes with fewer than 10 ingredients. “I have changed my attitude over the years,” he admitted at the time, promising never to become “boring and minimalist” but to manage this without sending fans on wild goose chases for niche ingredients.
Back to my cupboards. I find five kinds of dried chilli, a bounty of vinegars and enough cumin to last out an apocalypse. From here it gets more specific, bordering on the esoteric. Do I need both white and black sesame seeds? Yes, because noodles with cabbage and sesame would be a beige dish without them. How about the dried hibiscus flowers? Essential, I feel, ever since I made that bright-pink lemon sorbet, stuffed into hollowed out whole lemons.
What about the three kinds of dried limes - whole black limes, ground green, and Makrut lime leaves? (On the publication of his pandemic cookbook Shelf Love, which promised to make use of kitchen staples, Ottolenghi said he thought black lime was the one exotic ingredient most of us have at home. Really?) During the past 20 years, cooking has loosened up. The pandemic has taught many home cooks to substitute rather than panic or jump ship if they’re missing a single ingredient. This week his 20th-anniversary range drops, with a range of new products ranging from a £15 tea towel, black lime truffles (£7.90) and sesame chocolate brittle (£7.60), through to a £180 hamper flush with delights, including a pink-and-green Battenberg cake and calamansi (a citrus) pâte de fruits.
What’s next, after the anniversary party is over? Paris, apparently, where Ottolenghi opens next year. Let them eat Ottolenghi cake. Lucky them.
Are you an Ottolenghi mega-fan?
You know that tahini isn’t just an ingredient for hummus.
You know what shakshuka is
You have used a bottle of pomegranate molasses (before the best before date).
You have smeared hummus across a dish, glistening with olive oil, sesame seeds and sumac
You chargrill your broccoli
You can’t eat scrambled eggs without a sprinkling of za’atar or dukkah
You have made your own hummus at home - blending with ice-cold water as per the recipe in Jerusalem
You consider rose a flavour rather than a flower.
You’ve made your own labneh and take homemade jars of preserved lemons to parties as gifts.