From Roots to Soup: A Night with Chef Moshe Basson

DSC_4259For those who know Moshe Basson, they’ve probably heard how his story begins. They might know, for instance, that the man now called “Israel’s Biblical Chef” arrived in Jerusalem as a nine-month-old Iraqi refugee and that his first memories of Israeli are of living huddled in a tiny aluminum shed with his family in the outskirts of Jerusalem. They might know that he planted a very sacred eucalyptus tree in his front yard when he was only six years old, and that, 25 years later, after growing up in his father’s bakery, his mother’s kitchen, and the fragrant Jerusalem hillsides, he would christen his first restaurant and call it Eucalyptus.

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These key facts about one of the most innovative, praised, and renowned chefs in Jerusalem are well-known and documented.

But what those who know Moshe Basson might not know is that he credits his unique cooking method, one grounded in ancient cooking techniques and centering dishes around what is known to some as simply “the accoutrements,” to the women in his young life—and, perhaps even more surprisingly—to a couple of humdrum weeds and roots.

Moshe Basson is not a shy man, either: ask him about his weed-foraging days in the glowing Jerusalem afternoons and he will regale you for hours (he did with us!). When he talks about the ingredients he’s rescued from nearly being forgotten, he seems to glow–it’s clearly his most favorite thing in the entire world.

His menu is full of wild-growing herbs, “sidewalk weeds,” and herbaceous plants and shrubs with names I’ve never heard of, like malva and purslane and hyssop.

Malva
Malva
Purslane
Purslane
hyssop
Hyssop

If you ask him, Basson will gladly pull up a chair at his elegant al fresco restaurant in the Artist’s Colony near Old Jerusalem—which, though it’s gone through many iterations and locations over the years, still faithfully sticks to the name Eucalyptus—and will tell you all about the Arabic, Iraqi, and Syrian women in his neighborhood who taught him about the beauty of the earth’s overlooked horticulture. As a little boy, he followed these women, fellow refugees from war-torn countries themselves, around the hillsides and abandoned gardens between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and he helped them forage, sort, and cook with the new foods of his new land.

Because his family was nearly penniless when they arrived in Israel, they experimented—a lot—with the foods they could find in the wild. In the kitchen, Basson watched his Iraqi mother play with foods completely out of her cultural repertoire, foods like the herbaceous plants he was bringing home and homemade olive oil, neither of which were popular at all in the Iraqi kitchen. His mother, he says, only knew of hyssop as being a medicine and preferred oils made from sesame seeds. While his dad faithfully whipped up the same menu of Middle Eastern pastries and cakes at the bakery each morning, every meal at home was an experiment.

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Though he is often called Israel’s Biblical Chef for his devotion to using local ingredients and excavating old cooking techniques and recipes, Basson will confess that it was never his intention to be connected with Biblical cooking. “So I was just cooking the food of my mom and her mom and others from the region,” he says, gesturing widely at the tables and tables of patrons around him, and, though he has always known that “a big part of the food [at Eucalyptus] is poor people’s food,” he didn’t know that he and his mother were making nearly identical recipes to what was described in the Bible and other ancient texts until years after he opened his first restaurant.

Basson knows, though, that there are certain and unavoidable difficulties with popularizing food that has complicated histories, foods such as the Jerusalem artichoke, a root vegetable (with no relation to the green globe-like artichoke that shares its name) that he uses to make one of his celebrated soups. He tells the story of a time when a French family came to dine and he horrified the grandma at the table when he told them their next course would be a soup made of something many Westerners call a sunchoke. “She shouted and said, ‘No!’ and everybody—I mean, this is a small restaurant under a tree—looked up and she said, ‘No! This was the food in the war. I cannot eat it.’ So everybody was saying OK, they don’t want it, they don’t want it. She said “No, no, no, no, you eat it. It’s wonderful. I cannot.” Then, he laughs. “And then she ate it.” He did not know, he confesses, that Jerusalem artichoke soup—the topinambour in French—was many peoples’ daily rationed food when the Nazis occupied France in World War I. Now, he tells all his French patrons what they’ve eaten only after they’ve eaten it.

Dinner at Eucalyptus is a many-course event, prominently placing roots, stems, spices, and homegrown leafy greens like purslane, chubeza, olesh, and malva at the center of the table. The night begins with freshly-baked focaccia bread and five delectable spreads: aioli, pesto with hyssop, red pepper, sumac-dusted tahini, and garlic mayonnaise.

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From there, a soup trio, complete with the infamous Jerusalem artichoke soup as well as lentil and tomato-mint, comes out, and after that, his elegant signature dishes: gnocchi with fresh chubeza, a wild herb slightly reminiscent of spinach, mixed into the potato dough; figs stuffed with roasted chicken and drizzled in in a sweet tamarind sauce; maqluba, the upside-down casserole of rice, chicken, and vegetables, seasoned with fresh saffron and topped with yogurt; fire-roasted eggplant served with tehina and pomegranate seeds; grilled duck breast with mashed potatoes, carrot coulis and berry relish; and thinly-sliced steak served with a mix of ancient greens from his garden.

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Dessert is no less extraordinary and no less attentive, with dishes like semolina cake served with wine-soaked pears and jelly or pate-stuffed macaroons drizzled with sweet raspberry sauce.

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Though Eucalyptus has been in its current home—a collection of wooden tables, hanging pots, and old-fashioned lamps on the terraced steps of Hutzot Hayotzer, just west of the Old City—for six years now, Basson hasn’t forgotten his long journey to find home. In 1962, he planted a tree he hoped would bear fruit to feed his family. Twenty-five years later, in 1987, he opened the first Eucalyptus restaurant near the eponymous plant he raised as a child. Today, after three additional moves, the walls around which his restaurant now sits, made from the same stone as his home in Iraq, nurture his business, his family, and his future.

A future, he tells me, as we clean up after making maqluba together, that includes his young grandchildren, his family of chickens, and a garden made of beloved, complicated vegetables.

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Yours in travel and good eats,

Kristin

Most gracious thanks to Weill and the Israel Ministry of Tourism for hosting our stay in Israel and for introducing me to some of the world’s most incredible places. If you’re interested in visiting Israel, they are a fantastic resource!