Moshe Basson arrived in Jerusalem with his parents in 1951 as a nine-month-old Jewish refugee from Iraq. As a child he would torment his mother by disappearing into the surrounding hills to forage for seeds and wildflowers, pestering local Arab goatherds to give up their secrets.
Today, despite being an internationally fêted chef and the owner of the city’s celebrated Eucalyptus restaurant, located on a plum site just outside the Old City walls, Basson continues to stalk the Judean Hills for leaves and herbs, his curiosity undiminished.
“A good chef doesn’t simply follow a recipe in a book,” he explains, gathering up the dozen or so mushrooms he’s picked from Har Haruach (“The Mountain of Wind”), an area around a 30-minute drive outside Jerusalem. “He knows his ingredients, and cooks from the soul.”
The inspiration behind the Eucalyptus menu is, in a very real sense, divine. Basson has spent the past quarter-century delving into Biblical and Rabbinical texts in order to resurrect millennia-old recipes, ingredients and cooking styles that can be married with local Jewish and Arab culinary traditions.
His childhood fascination with food – the taste, smell and touch of it – was indulged by his mother, grandmother and anyone else who happened to be milling around his parents’ bakery in the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa, not far from the family’s Jerusalem home. But it was during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that Basson, then a young army officer stationed on the Suez Canal, really learned to cook, donning a chef’s hat after a novice culinarian nearly poisoned the men in his charge. A string of uninspiring civilian jobs kept him busy until 1987, when he opened Eucalyptus.
The restaurant now employs more than 40 people and Basson’s youngest son manages it alongside him. Any ingredients that Basson cannot find on his hilltop excursions are sourced in the bustling markets of the Old City, where traders greet him in Hebrew and Arabic as he seeks out the freshest fruit, vegetables and eggs on offer.
The “Seven Species” of food championed in the Old Testament – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates – feature prominently on the menu, and there’s a Biblical tale behind every dish and many key ingredients. Jacob and Esau’s Red Lentil Stew recalls the alluring pottage that induced Isaac’s eldest son Esau to barter away his birthright to his younger twin Jacob, while the dark green hyssop leaves drying out in the kitchen helped protect Egypt’s enslaved Jews during the bloody 10th plague recounted in Exodus (the scrubby plant was used by Israelites to daub lamb’s blood on their doorposts to distinguish them so they would be spared Egypt’s destruction).
Jerusalem’s troubled history also looms. The warm khubeiza salad pays tribute to the mallow plant eaten by the city’s besieged families during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War: its wide, vitamin-rich leaves were gathered under gunfire and boiled down into soups or fried up into patties, Basson explains. The most famous dish on the menu – the chicken, rice and potato-based maglubeh that’s turned upside down before serving – is a Palestinian casserole native to the area.
But it’s Basson’s past and personality that make Eucalyptus unique: the restaurant is named after the tree he planted as a young boy on the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat – the “New Year of the Trees”
Power of food
Moshe Basson’s Biblical couscous dish has twice earned the top prize at the International Couscous Festival in San Vito Lo Capo, Italy, but the chef is most proud of his Slow Food Award received in Bologna.
In addition to recognising his efforts to preserve culinary traditions, the Slow Food Movement acknowledged Basson as a founding member of Chefs for Peace, an organisation of Muslim, Jewish and Christian chefs established in 2001 in Jerusalem to promote cultural diversity and coexistence through shared culinary experiences.
Chefs for Peace has served up tasty dishes to hungry audiences across North America and Europe.