Discovering Biblical Slow Food with Israeli Top Chef Moshe Basson

Chef Moshe Basson and me at his Jerusalem restaurant, Eucalyptus, where he offers“a modern interpretation of Biblical cuisine.”  Photos for Fig Tree & Vine by Eliran Dahan.

By Danielle Frum

Every time I go to Jerusalem, I unfailingly reserve one night to eat at Eucalyptus, the restaurant owned by celebrity chef Moshe Basson. It’s housed in an ancient building across the road from the magnificent Jaffa Gate, overlooking the walls of the Old City.

Normally the rule for restaurants-with-views is: Expect to pay a lot of money for mediocre food. I remember ordering a so-so coffee with my husband one evening years ago at the famous Caffe Florian on St. Mark’s Square in Venice. We sat at one of the little wooden tables clustered on the marble terraces of the piazza, under the moonlit Campanile. Like Marcel Proust and all the other celebrated figures who’d occupied the same chairs over the previous decades — nay centuries — we’d been entertained by the nightlong parade of passanti and strolling musicians. When the bill came, I gasped.

“We weren’t paying for the coffee,” my husband said, shrugging and waving at the view.

Basson’s restaurant is a rare exception to this rule. First off, his prices are reasonable. Second, instead of the usual menu turistico, Basson has created food to evoke and complement his surroundings; a type of cooking he describes as “a modern interpretation of Biblical cuisine.”

Call it the original slow food. According to the restaurant’s website:

Chef Basson’s passions for biblical culture drove him to research and resurrect recipes, spices, and local and wild herbs that were part of the traditional cuisine, and were neglected and nearly forgotten for centuries. Every dish has its origins in biblical scenes and all the spices and herbs used grow, as in ancient times, in the surrounding hills of Jerusalem and Judea.

At Eucalyptus there is an outdoor terrace from which to glimpse a lit-up view of the old city– but I enjoy as much, if not more, the restaurant’s cellar-like interior with its thickly cut limestone walls and tiled floors. On my last visit, Basson greeted me and my guests at the door — and immediately forbade us to order from the menu. Instead a parade of tasting dishes began to arrive at our table – each one, as promised, a modern innovation of an ancient or traditional regional dish.

For appetizers there were: Fish falafel in a piquant tomato sauce, with chick peas and coriander leaves; Roasted cauliflower, hot and crispy in Har Bracha tahini; Fattouch with vegetables, leafy greens, sumac, mint, wood sorrel, toasted bread.

Along came a trio of soups with some exotic dips on the side, including a pesto made from fresh hyssop, followed by dark, moist figs stuffed with chicken in tamarind sauce.  At this point, our eyes, and stomachs, were bulging and still we hadn’t gotten to the main courses! But nor could we resist tasting them when, sure enough, they began to arrive with the same military regularity.

Beef and eggplant stew in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce from my mother’s kitchen; Slow cooked neck of lamb with root vegetables stewed in a clay dish; and lastly one of the dishes he is most famous for, King Solomon cous cous. It is prepared in three ways: a vegetarian version with chick peas, braised leeks and five vegetables, or with fish, or braised lamb. When there’s a large crowd, Basson will step out and serve the cous cous personally from an enormous steaming pan.

Figs stuffed with chicken in tamarind sauce. 

Just as we were ready to roll over and plead no more food, Basson came out from the kitchen to join us at our table.  He is a jovial, large-framed man with a wide, friendly face. He wears his long, silvered hair pulled sharply back in a tidy braid that twists down over his double-breasted white chef’s coat. It gives him an oddly Navajo-like appearance; maybe the Negev is not so very far from the Mojave.

Basson is a leader in Israel’s Slow Food movement, and also the organization Chefs for Peace, which, as the name suggests, attempts to transcend the region’s political issues through food. Like many of the chefs I met in Israel, however, Basson became most passionate about his cooking when speaking of it in connection with his family– in his case his mother, who inspired many of his dishes. I say inspired because apparently she is very secretive about her recipes, and will rarely share them, even with her son-the-famous-chef.

So for example, his mother makes a tomato soup with mint and garlic that Basson has tried to replicate “hundreds of times, but it is still not hers.”

“She won’t tell you how to make it?” I’m amused but somewhat astonished.

“No. She will not give me the recipe,” he replies genially.  He turns to one of my guests — my 13-year-old daughter, who is entranced by the smiling braided man and his storytelling. (It’s this latter quality that made Basson the break-out star of the most recent London-based Gefiltefest, an annual Jewish food festival, in June.)

 Basson’s version of his mother’s tomato soup is at the center of his soup-tasting trio.

“For cooking,” he explained to my daughter, “you need a good memory. I started to understand this when I was trying to make my mother’s soup. So you take all the ripe tomatoes – it doesn’t matter how much – and the onions, and you are always checking. But you are ignoring your senses. You realize, it’s not about this much lemon, or this much sugar. It’s all about the scent.”

Capturing the scent of his mother’s soup was the key to Basson’s ability to capture his mother’s recipe – or at least a version of it that satisfied him.