Ahead of his new series, starting September 25 on SBS ONE, we caught up with Israeli-born cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi, who made veg-based cooking undeniably cool. Yotam talks of his Middle Eastern food heritage, the immense pride of tradition, and how everyone's out to prove themselves, including him.
April Smallwood

14 May 2014 - 9:41 AM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2014 - 4:26 PM

What was for breakfast this morning, Yotam? Have I had breakfast already? No. Normally, it’s sushi. Really? Sashimi? Yeah, I have this obsession; on the way to work I bring packets of sushi with me and devour it as soon as I arrive. It’s completely normal for me. And some Berocca because I’m feeling a little under the weather. Do you have Berocca in Australia? Yes, but if you have it at work, people assume you’re very hungover. I’m completely not hungover.

Did you have a flair for cooking as a boy? I wasn’t the keenest of cooks. I did have a cookbook with more complicated recipes. It had a little asterisk that said Mum could help you. I was keen on the eating side, a little less on the cooking side. What did your family teach you about food? My parents are from different backgrounds; my mum’s from Germany and my dad’s from Italy, so I got this sense that there was always a diversity of foods around, of various ethnic influences. My mother would cook Malaysian or Lebanese. As a result, I think there was definitely an adventurous nature in the house in terms of cuisines. So as a child, you must have been eating quite different foods to your friends. I never thought about it growing up; as you mature, you become a bit more sensitive to what’s going on around you. You learn to appreciate that diversity as a real strong point. I’m grateful to them for opening the world to us. Maybe that’s why you eat sushi for breakfast. Probably. We do have a tendency to have big breakfasts, including meat and fish – it’s definitely not cereal in our house.

Have you explored your German-Italian heritage through their cuisines at all? Not so much, though those were the foods I’d eat at home. After all, I was brought up in the Middle East, so what drew my attention was the food of the region – the Arab food. In Jerusalem where I grew up, and in other parts of the country, because of the location of Israel in the middle of the Middle East, it has a lot of influences from North Africa and Lebanon, and Turkey has a strong influence on the local food, because Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries. All those influences make for a very interesting hotpot. What's a childhood food memory that lingers? What you eat when you grew up is so crucial in defining your palate. Falafel on the way back from school is the most distinctive memory I have from childhood. That’s the kind of food I still enjoy the most.

We’re about to air Mediterranean Feast here in Australia. Filming it, did you ever feel overwhelmed by all you uncovered? Yes, that’s why I go to all these places and meet these kinds of people. I never want to go to a cutting-edge restaurant because I think there’s so much more knowledge in places with age-old tradition, like Corsica, Majora, Palestine or Morocco. You meet many new faces on this journey. What do you admire about them? There’s something relaxed about people who engage in things that take time; that requires the use of your hands. There's also the sense that nobody needs to prove themselves, unlike in big cities, like Sydney and definitely London. Everybody’s out to prove themselves, myself included. It’s very competitive, but when you leave these circles and you’re out in the countryside somewhere, all of a sudden the cooking is so much more related to a way of life than to a career. Hence, you know, recipes don’t change, but in a very good way. Tradition seems to have that power to make things that are really, really good survive and improve over time. Do you agree? Yes, it’s evolution in the best sense – something that’s really delicious and survives the test of time. They know what the cheese or charcuterie should be like and there’s no question of making it any different. And they're very happy to share that knowledge. That’s the one thing that I discovered. Which is less than true when you go to a big city.

What does a lazy meal look like for you? I have a test kitchen here in London where we're always testing, so yesterday when I came home we had Asian fish cakes with rice, split peas and corn salsa. And when I say lazy dinner, I didn’t do anything apart from warm the fish cakes. Sometimes I have toast. Or pot noodles. Got a food vice? No, I never feel guilty about what I eat. Garlic, lemon and parsley are considered “Ottolenghi essentials”. Any new additions to that list? The spice drawer is expanding, with ground cardamom and Iranian lime. Sumac and za'atar have been staples for a long time, and there's various infusions like rosewater, orange blossom, geranium. Recently, after Tunisia, I'm into various types of dried chillies, and condiments from the Middle East, like tahini or date syrup. I’m always keeping my eyes open. 

Your new book, Plenty More, is due out this month. Did you create it for the fans, or because you happened to have 120 more vegetarian recipes up your sleeve? Plenty was very popular and I thought there was room for another, which uses more ingredients, has more on the front of techniques and how I utilise vegetables; something bigger and heftier. It still keeps the spirit of Plenty. I think people really warmed up to the idea of getting to know new ingredients, as well as the non-meat side of things.


Yotam Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast begins Thursday 8:30pm, 25 September on SBS ONE

View Yotam Ottolenghi's recipes

Read our cookbook review of Yotam's Jerusalem