It was the chef with the braid running down his back. It was he who read my soul, and even my name, in the tahini.
To tell you the story about how Chef Moshe Basson, of Jerusalem, Israel, looked deep in my soul through the lens of his tahini dessert, I must start with how we met. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism invited several writers to learn about the country’s food. (The Ministry provided transportation, lodging, food and guides). By the time our group arrived in Jerusalem we’d been in Israel several days– but the rest of the country in no way prepared me for the spirituality (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) of this tiny, enormous city.
I often have epiphanies when I eat. When I am very fortunate, these are spiritual: I feel a connection to or through the food. The connection might be to the person who raised or grew the ingredient (a farmer or producer); to the region or place the ingredients are from (the particular olive grove, a factory, city or even country); to the cook (a professional chef or a novice home cook); or to the source of the recipe (my mother’s cupcakes or your Aunt Tilda’s Pot Roast).
Moshe Basson is fully connected– heart, soul and body– to his ingredients and to the foods he prepares. He is dedicated to preserving and sharing the culture, religion, history and land from which his food comes. Chef Basson’s vehicle is his restaurant, The Eucalyptus, which is housed in an ancient stone building in the Artist Quarter, across the street from the ancient Jerusalem Citadel (Tower of David). He bills his food as a “modern interpretation of biblical food”, meaning the dishes are inspired by Jewish cuisine of the region dating back to biblical times. He uses spices and herbs that have long been neglected; and plants he has traced back to ancient times that now grow wild by the side of the road.
He leads our little group on a tour of the market: before we get there, he has pointed out wild herbs growing on stone walls and along the side of the road.
He picks some and offers us smells and tastes, then plunks them in his wicker basket for use back at the restaurant.
Our walk through the stone arches of the ancient market is often interrupted by stall owners, who run out from behind their counters to shake his hand and exchange a quick greeting. There are rock star chefs everywhere.
He tells us the best place to eat hummus– and we do. We see why the light, balanced Lina Hummus makes every top ten list in this hummus-centric country.
Eventually, he leads us back to his restaurant, and serves us dishes like these chicken-stuffed figs…
…and eggplant with tahini and pomegranate.
While we eat, someone in our group brings up the topic of spiritualism and the ability to tell the future, and Chef Moshe tells us that he used to read futures in his tahini dessert, but that he stopped doing it. It became too much of a parlor trick, a game, he said, so he stopped.
That was all he needed to say to this group of writers. Several asked– nearly pleaded– with him to do it for us, and he obliged. A waiter brought over the dessert, and my colleague was directed to eat some. She dabbed a little on her finger, and he stared at the plate. He said something about how it had been so long, and stumbled though a minute or two with her, then shook his head. “No,” he said, ” I cannot do this. I am sorry.” The conversation moved on, and a few minutes later, I quietly asked him– I truly don’t know why– if he wanted to try again. He looked deep in my eyes and said yes.
A waiter put the dessert in front of me; I swirled my finger in the dish and tasted the nutty tahini sweetened with date syrup. He leaned in close and spoke in a low, private voice. He talked to me about where and who I have been; he spoke of my strengths and described the more challenging parts of my nature. Speaking quietly in his heavily accented English that rolled and lilted like it came from another century, he talked about my spirit. He even saw in the swirl of tahini the hebrew letters that spell out the first letters of my hebrew name. Truly, he asked me if my Hebrew name (which no one on the trip knew) was Simcha.
I am generally more a skeptic than a believer, but he struck my core. This man, with whom I had exchanged less than a paragraph’s worth of conversation, reached in and plucked out my essence and even my name, and gently laid it out in front of me. He read my soul in the tahini.
All these years that I have been telling stories about life through food, I never realized food can tell us the stories of our lives.
Thank you, Jerusalem. Thank you, dear Moshe.