Chef Moshe Basson, the legendary Israeli chef of the Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem and the author’s friend, shares some interesting stories in Part 4 of Netflix’s Stories of a Generation with Pope Francis.
Chef Moshe Basson can talk incessantly about a 59-year-old eucalyptus tree in the heart of Jerusalem. He has reasons. He planted the tree when he was 12. And he grew up with the tree that stands tall in his restaurant. Chef Basson will tell you stories of his father who moved from Iraq as a refugee and first opened a restaurant in the courtyard of his small house. Then, the restaurant was nameless. One day when the beverage supplier required a name to ink on the invoice, the senior Basson looked up at the tree and said, “Eucalyptus it is.” The name stuck. And that small house is now Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus restaurant, famed for its unusual menu that includes Biblical food, locusts as dessert, whole egg cooked in charcoal embers, fresh figs stuffed with chicken breast or mushroom and slathered with tamarind sweet and sour sauce.
You must have heard Chef Moshe Basson talk of all this in Netflix’s new four-part series Stories of a Generation with Pope Francis. Based on the Pope’s 2018 book Sharing the Wisdom of Time, the programme showcases stories from people over 70 from all quarters of the globe, including the pontiff himself, as they talk of their lives and lessons. Chef Basson is featured in Part IV which is devoted to the central theme of ‘Work’.
Chef Basson, who once worked for the Israel Army, has so many other stories. Of his father’s favourite herb basil (not the Thai basil but the Iraqi/Yemeni basil). Of his mother who taught him how to cook whole raw eggs in the dying embers of charcoal. Of the dishes that he has picked from the Bible. Of locusts that were the favourite food of John the Baptist (he preferred the wild honey dip). The King Solomon Menu. The Queen of Sheeba tasting menu. Risotto made with green smoked wheat that the young David carried to the battlefield to kill Goliath. And of Maqluba (meat, rice and fried vegetables cooked in a pot which is flipped upside down when served) that you can see in the Netflix series.
“I never wanted to be a chef. I served in the Israel army and my battalion had a Moroccan cook. He’d work one week and get the next week off. I was fascinated by that work schedule. Gradually, I started cooking for my men. Often, as a commander of the battalion, I’d wear the apron over the uniform and sweat in the kitchen. Perhaps that was my first casual stint as a chef and I started enjoying it,” Chef Basson retraces his footsteps.
“Of course, I had watched my father cook in the small house that we had moved into from Iraq. He’d cook inside and serve in the courtyard. He’d often bring myrtle and rub it between his hands. The myrtle still reminds me of my father. And the basil that he loved,” Chef adds in between his tale of the 4.5-day shoot for the Netflix series. Interestingly, he was not aware of the premise and the Pope’s connection even after the shoot ended. Plus, he and his men were bound by a very strict non-disclosure agreement.
Wearing blue jeans, black tee and his signature tiny plait, in the series the Chef can be seen trudging through the forest for a chore that he loves. Foraging for wild mushrooms growing under pine trees, wild thyme, hyssops, marjoram, wild asparagus. Calling himself an avid forager, the chef brings all this wild into the Eucalyptus kitchen and rustles up fascinating dishes. The Queen of Sheeba is a tasting menu that includes everything that is in the kitchen on that day. Lamb from the oven (cooked overnight and served in a clay pot covered with dough). Pastellia comprising confit of duck, raisins, dried plums and dried fig that is deep fired and served with vanilla cream (the vegan option is stuffed with artichoke). Puff pastry filled with fish shawarma with aioli and amba (raw mango pickle). Nettles with a dash of almond milk.
Of late, Chef Basson has also earned the sobriquet of Israel’s most-loved locust chef. No one serves locusts better than him. Locusts sautéed with tomato, garlic and hot pepper. Locusts dipped in beaten eggs, rolled in flavoured flour (chickpea flour with added garlic, chilli, salt) and deep fried. Locusts added to salad. Locusts thrown into a pasta bowl. Locusts boiled in sugary syrup and turned into a crunchy dessert. Interestingly, locust is the only insect considered kosher and four types of desert locusts are mentioned in the Torah (the five books of the Hebrew Bible) — the red, the yellow, the spotted grey, and the white.
I can incessantly repeat Chef Basson’s stories about how he cooked for Pope Benedict XVI during the latter’s visit to Israel. He does not talk often about it but I have heard of the chef’s poignant days in a Nazi concentration camp. I know when the pomegranate plant on his third-floor garden flowers and the papaya ripens with sugar in its belly. I know other stories of this celebrated chef because the 71-year-old chef and I have been friends for long. Plant and bird buddies, actually. I tell him tales of the bulbuls that come early morning to pick the white flour-jaggery-sesame bread that I make for them. He shares videos of the hens clucking in the coop and the Malabar spinach snaking around the restaurant’s walls. He has promised to send Yemeni basil seeds for me, and when I go to Israel again, I’ll carry the rosary pea and the vermillion seeds from my garden for him.