Moshe Basson’s culinary roots stretch back through time from 200 CE, when the collection of Jewish oral law known as the Mishnah began to take shape – to the Jewish presence in Iraq, where his family lived till the 1950s – to the present time in Jerusalem. He takes his deep knowledge of foods mentioned in the Bible and other Jewish sources, adds kitchen wisdom garnered from grandmothers of all ethnic streams, and distills the essence of Biblical cooking in his Jerusalem restaurant, Eucalyptus, every day.
Basson’s passion for the land and its native edibles began when he was a small boy roaming the hillsides and abandoned gardens between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Arab women taught him to forage wild herbs; his father taught him the names and uses of culinary and medicinal plants growing in the home garden. His fascination with the authentic, historic foods of Israel eventually led him to establish a restaurant and to become a founding member of Chefs for Peace. His involvement with the Slow Food movement brought him the Slow Food Award in Bologna, the “Nobel Prize for chefs,” and honorary citizenship to that city. Today, he’s a respected food historian and his restaurant, Eucalyptus, is rightly famous.
You’d think Basson would be too important or too busy to catch for an interview, but Green Prophet found him accessible and down-to-earth.
Who were your first culinary influences?
My mother, a great cook. My father, who owned a bakery and grew herbs and vegetables in our family garden. Then, old ladies. Arab, Druze, Iraqi, Syrian – whatever their background, women are the ones who cook native seasonal foods and serve them to their families.They keep the tradition alive.
Can you tell us a little about native herbs and how you cook them?
Let’s take chicory – olesh in Arabic. It’s related to endive, and like endive is slightly bitter. It’s in season in late winter till early spring and was used as maror, the bitter herb eaten at the Passover Seder. I pre-boil chicory leaves for a few minutes to take the bitterness away, then cook them with olive oil, garlic, and lemon.
Most people don’t know that the common cyclamen also has edible leaves. They are slightly toxic, but preboiling and then rinsing them makes them safe to eat. In Iraq, they are served stuffed with minced lamb and rice. Never eat a cyclamen root! Only the leaves can be made edible.
Do you know of medicinal uses for wild herbs?
Oh, Yes. One of my workers wasn’t feeling well today, so I clipped some twigs off an olive tree growing near the restaurant and simmered the leaves for 10 minutes. Olive leaves lower blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as being antiseptic, antiviral, and antibiotic. My worker drank several cups of this tea over the day and felt better by the time we closed than when she first came to work.
How do you know so much about food in Jewish historical sources?
I’ve studied Tanach (Bible) and the Mishnah all my life. Keeping my eyes and ears open, I draw logical conclusions. For example, the Arabs maintain a tradition of smoking green wheat (frika). It’s an historical ingredient with common roots in Jewish law; the Mishnah mentions it with regard to Passover and Shavuot. The wheat is green, but ready to be harvested exactly at Lag B’omer time (33 days after Passover). Before then, farmers worry over the safety of their harvest because late rains could ruin it. They harvest and smoke it over bonfires before it’s entirely ripe, while the grain is still green and “milky. I think the Lag B’Omer fires traditional in Israel have to do with a memory of this procedure, which has been kept intact by the Arab population.
The smoking kills mice, insects, and insect eggs in the wheat. I believe that our forefather Yosef (Joseph) used this method to store the abundance of seven year’s wheat harvest against the seven-year famine he foresaw.
It’s like a puzzle, an endlessly fascinating way of putting together a picture of how our ancestors lived and ate. I love to fit the pieces together, then cook what I know. At some point, the search and the knowledge became a part of me. It’s something I need to do.”
We see that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time traveling in Europe and the Far East. How do you manage to communicate when you’re abroad?
Apart from Hebrew, I speak Arabic, English, a little French, Italian, and Spanish – and a smattering of Yiddish. No, really, Yiddish. I learned it from my late father, who owned a bakery and learned to bake Israeli breads with Ashkenazi bakers. When it comes to cooking, I can give a recipe over in any of those languages, spontaneously, even if I’m not fluent in it.
What do you consider your finest achievement?
I’m proud of having returned Israeli cuisine to its roots, and of having made this authentic style of cooking known to the outside world. To be authentic, by the way, it has to be kosher. Even Christian tourists insist on that.
We took a quick tour of the spic-and-span kitchen at Eucalyptus restaurant. Basson uncovered a pot – the most appetizing aroma of potatoes cooking in the pan juices from roast lamb wafted up. Three vividly-colored soups in espresso cups stood on a tray: just enough for a taste of each. (We know from experience how delicious those soups are, the Jerusalem artichoke soup especially.) A young worker rolled out dough for pitta bread to cover the chicken stew – it bakes on top of the ceramic stew pot, sealing the food inside. And we saw no waste in Basson’s kitchen (“Leftovers go to the chickens or to the compost.”). The entire place spoke of the chef’s fine palate and respect for the food.
Food historian and Jerusalem restauranteur, this is Chef Moshe Basson.
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