The best-selling Israeli-British cookbook author and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi gets as much of a thrill out of a kerbside pho stall in Vietnam as he does a Michelin-starred restaurant.
When I was growing up in Jerusalem, my family [father Michael, mother Ruth, sister Tirza and brother Yiftach] and I would go quite often to Jericho, a beautiful little town by the Dead Sea. Because Jericho is downhill from Jerusalem, we’d sometimes go by bike, riding down the hill, which would take a good hour.
One of my best memories from Jericho is the smell of its famous orange groves. The oranges weren’t that great for eating – they were full of pips – but they made the most delicious, floral-scented juice. Then we’d have an incredible spread of salads with aubergines and fresh vegetables and dips, in true Palestinian/Lebanese style.
I remember a small glass plate with a beautiful tahini sauce on it, which was made with tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic and some salt then sprinkled with a bit of parsley. That’s all that went into it. But the quality of the tahini was so good. I know a lot of people don’t really “get” tahini but once you’ve had a really great one, you’re converted.
I was living in Amsterdam the first time I ate in a high-end restaurant, the then two Michelin-starred De Karmeliet in Bruges, Belgium, which has since closed. It was the most incredible meal I’d ever eaten in my life. I grew up having great food as a child, both at home and in restaurants – I was very spoiled like that – but I’d never had food so refined and well prepared.
When we walked in, it was dimly lit. There was a wine case on the back wall and a beautiful flower arrangement. There were crisp tablecloths and Dutch or Flemish artwork on the walls. The silverware was perfect. It makes me sound very coarse but I’d never experienced that level of refinement in a restaurant before, right down to the crockery and the tableware.
There was a delicious amuse-bouche and our main course was rabbit with blackberries – it was rich and beautiful. Then there was a trolley with about 18 types of cheese. The degree of knowledge the waiters had about them was impressive.
I’d never spent so much money on a meal. I was really excited to be there and I tried hard to fit in, to dress up like a serious person! It was completely different to anything that I’d experienced before, like walking into another world. It was very special.
I went to Vietnam for the first time about 10 years ago with a good friend and we spent four or five days walking around Hanoi and soaking up the atmosphere. We’d sit down – literally on the kerb on tiny stools – and eat at these roadside restaurants that were part of someone’s family home.
I’d had Vietnamese food before but I’d never had it in Vietnam. It was so different. We had a kind of pho with these very thin slices of beef that were dropped in raw and braised in the soup itself. There was this amazing array of herbs: coriander, shiso and different kinds of mint. A delicious meal in the simplest surroundings.
I remember we were sitting there and not caring about anything – even though there was something like sewage running down the gutter. You don’t care. It was so vibrant and beautiful.