“Biblical” Tomato Soup by Moishe Basson
Basson’s version of his mother’s tomato soup is at the center of his soup-tasting trio.
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. Here Basson serves 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.
Just as we were ready to roll over and plead no more food, Basson came out from the kitchen to join as 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.)
“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.
Fortunately, unlike his mother, Basson is willing to share the recipe with others. So here it is!
Serves 6 as an appetizer.
7 whole mint leaves with stems
In a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and fry the onion until golden. Add the garlic cloves and continue to sauté until lightly brown. Add the diced tomatoes, stir, and then season with salt and sugar (according to Basson’s note as to the type of tomatoes).
Add the lemon juice, water or broth, bring to a boil, and let boil for three or more minutes, until the density and taste is to your liking.
Remove from heat, add the fresh thyme, and use an immersion blender or food processor to blend until smooth.
Return to the saucepan and bring to a simmer for a minute or two more. Add the fresh mint leaves and let cook for another minute. Remove from heat.
Chef Basson suggests letting it sit “for a while” to allow all the flavor to expand.
“It gets better the more it sits,” he advises. “Beteavon (enjoy)!"