Their exhibitionism is also a reflection of their success. The pair’s enterprise now includes not just the four London locations but also an off-site bakery. The Islington kitchen percolates day and night, and the gallery-chic dining room (white walls and white communal tables; Crayola-colored Verner Panton chairs) is jammed with North Londoners, many of whom are toasting their own slices of bread in the Dualit toasters placed on the tables within reach of homemade spreads, marmalades, and jams.
In the front of the shop, lunch platters vie for space with massive cinnamon and hazelnut meringues, passion-fruit tarts, and heaps of Ottolenghi’s famous hazelnut brownies. Food is piled high much the way goods are displayed in a souk. Lemon, garlic, and chile are the star flavors, but the ingredients of the owners’ youths—tangy sumac, sweet rose water and orange-blossom water, zingy pomegranate—play strong supporting roles. Dishes like cumin-and-turmeric-roasted eggplant with walnut and lemon yogurt and roasted carrots with red onion, pea shoots, and star anise in an orange reduction create tiny storms in the mouth. “Our recipes are our own, but they’re not what we ate as kids,” says Tamimi. “We take inspiration from all over the world, but we don’t fuse.”
“I love the graceful elegance, the colorful clutter of their food,” says cookbook author and television star Nigella Lawson, who is one of the pair’s lunchtime loyalists, as well as a fan of their cookbook, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. “In the book, it’s as if they use a recipe as a suggestion, a way to convey enthusiasm and encourage tastes, rather than of bossing or barking orders.”
In London, an Israeli-Palestinian joint venture is uncommon but relatively unremarkable. In Israel—or anywhere in the Middle East—such a pairing would be unthinkable. There, even something as neutral as a spice blend can become a political minefield. Za’atar, a combination of hyssop, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt, is used by Middle Eastern cooks in everything from salads to casseroles. Most Palestinians consider it integral to their identity, not just to their cuisine. However, like many wild plants, hyssop is currently designated as protected, and picking it is prohibited. Palestinians view this law as “almost anti-Arab,” according to Haaretz.
While it would be naïve to imagine that food could have any bearing on tensions in the Middle East, customers who know Tamimi and Ottolenghi’s story often come in to congratulate them and wish them well. Recently, an Israeli tourist stopped by and, upon learning that Tamimi was Palestinian, began to carry on about how he couldn’t possibly be an Arab. Although shocked by the insult-meant-as-a-compliment, Tamimi simply smiled and handed over a mouthwatering platter of food.
If only politics were as easy.