The eucalyptus tree that nourished a storied Jerusalem restaurant

Chef Moshe Basson, with roots in his mother’s Iraqi kitchen, spins tales to pepper the food at his upscale, locally sourced and kosher eatery

Chef Moshe Basson outside his Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem (Liron Almog/Flash 90)
Chef Moshe Basson outside his Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem (Liron Almog/Flash 90)

Moshe Basson’s ringtone is from “Prince Igor,” by Borodin. Presumably he couldn’t find a decent version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade,” his favorite piece; he likes to drive into the desert, and listen to it at full blast. He also enjoys the adventure novels of James Clavell. This eclecticism seems appropriate for an Iraqi immigrant who’s been knighted by the Italians, won the International Couscous Competition, and has often felt himself to be a “lone soldier” in the existential fight for an Israeli national cuisine.

Like Clavell and Scheherezade (the narrator of “One Thousand and One Nights”), Basson loves telling stories — fantastic stories, filled with history, mystery, and invention. His stories are food stories, and he tells me some of them over dinner.

His acclaimed Jerusalem restaurant, Eucalyptus, sits on several levels on the Artists’ Colony alleyway, next to Teddy Park and just outside the Old City walls. Wooden tables and potted plants dot the area, spherical lights like Chinese lanterns hang above, and the adjacent art studios decorate the setting with big canvas landscapes of the city.

The walls are made from the same stone – Basson describes it as tubza – as those of his childhood home in Talpiot. Having arrived from Iraq when he was nine months old, his family lived first in a refugee camp: “We came here as pioneers – we came to establish and renew the nation. And you cannot build a nation when you are a refugee. But, in fact, we were refugees in every sense of the word.”

Next to the family’s stone house, in 1962, Basson planted a eucalyptus tree. Twenty-five years later, he built a simple restaurant around it, with branches shooting through the ceiling. That restaurant, and its subsequent incarnations – including this current one – were named after that tree.

While the family had never been farmers, they cultivated a garden and bought a chicken and a goat called Delilah in order to supplement 1950s state rationing. Basson’s father was surprised when his son brought home a tree that wouldn’t be able to contribute to the family food effort, but let him plant it, quoting a Talmudic saying, “One day, the non-fruit trees of Israel – they will give fruit.”

Storied meals

Dinner at Eucalyptus begins with wonderfully supple focaccia, coriander pesto, tomato salsa, and thick whipped garlic butter. Bread is important to Basson. His parents owned a bakery in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem, then half in Jordan; he worked there sometimes. And, in 2008, during the fallout of the conflict with Lebanon, he took a “huge sweet challah” to Tuscany (so huge it needed to be stowed in first class on the plane) to share at a regional meeting of the Slow Food movement. Representatives from Middle Eastern countries ate it with him, in an act of universal symbolism. (At this point, he tells me a story about bread, salt, Bedouin tribes, and murderous dinner guests.) He recalls Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, announcing, “We started (the conference) affected by the clouds of war. But, after Moshe’s breaking of the bread, all the borders melted.”

Following the focaccia – via baked aubergine with pomegranates, and wild spinach with sumac – is fish falafel. It is excellent, and the resulting story is pretty good, too: “Some time ago I was interviewed by The New York Times about the origins of falafel. ‘Moshe,’ they said, ‘The Palestinians say you stole falafel from them.’ But they didn’t publish my answer – they didn’t like it, I guess.” Clearly, he’d refused them an easy soundbite: his explanation of the food’s provenance is highly considered. He thanks the Egyptians, the Palestinians, the Yemeni Jews who emigrated to America and set up “small booths that looked like British telephone boxes,” and – of course – the Israelis, who he says eat it the most.

This historic approach is essential to his explication of Israeli cuisine. “It’s food that’s coming from this terroir. When you’re using ingredients from these mountains and area – ingredients that the Arab people were using here, and that you’ll find in the Bible’s time, too – when the food is based on these ingredients, that’s what will make it Israeli. And you can take it any way you want.”

He turned Eucalyptus (then in Safra Square) officially kosher after his father’s death in 1997. And he is clear that this does not restrict his creativity: “Believe me, I don’t find any difficulties. From time to time, I get chefs who say they can’t do good cooking because they are kosher, and I say it’s nonsense. They don’t know how to cook. It’s an excuse that I won’t accept. Ok, you can’t make shrimps, but you can do other things. Don’t try to make the same dish that people make with shrimps without shrimps to make it kosher… Do what you do from your ingredients.”

After the falafel might come some soup. The restaurant’s tasting menus feature a set of three: Jerusalem artichoke, lentil, and a sharp sweet tomato and mint. The third shows the influence of Basson’s mother, whose Iraqi food he loves. He had a realization while recreating it: he found that he was instinctively seasoning the soup correctly solely by smell. Similarly, he says, he can tell – without tasting – whether a cup of coffee has sugar in it. I ask if this works with salt and he says it does, but “in a way that I can’t explain.” He feels it happens outside of his “thinking mind,” and says “sometimes, you get an idea of adding something that’s nothing to do with the dish, but you know – spontaneously – it will work.”

The soup is delicious. But you mustn’t miss out on something that looks like a spring roll yet tastes like the best doughnuts – or possibly the best anything – you’ve ever had. Brittle pastry full of duck, dusted with icing sugar, and accompanied by tamarind sauce and a vanilla-rich carrot and pumpkin purée. The purée triggers a story about an ancient Iraqi jam technique using limestone, which he says proves that molecular gastronomy is nothing new.

The main courses include dense sticky makluba, lamb neck that’s been slow cooked under a thin bread hat, and a wonderful beef and aubergine stew that is also from his mother’s repertoire. The family is very close: Basson’s son has just returned to work at Eucalyptus after a stint in South America, and relatives live next door. Like at the stone house, they share a garden and poultry – “I’m trying to push people to raise chickens in their backyard.”

Another dish comes with risotto made from smoked green wheat, “the food that young David took to the battlefield, just before he killed Goliath.” To Basson, it offers an unconventional reason for a traditional celebration. He describes “an ancestor” whose prized field of green wheat was hit by lightning: “He was yelling and crying – he’d lost his treasure. But a few minutes later, when the flames calmed down, he started to smell something. And it was the first time a human being smelled cooked or baked wheat. This was the first step for bread. The Lag Ba’omer bonfires are in memory of this fire. If there is no bread, there is no Torah, no education.”

There’s almond and hibiscus cream for dessert, and a peerless chocolate fondant with coconut ice cream, which leads, ultimately, to the finest of his stories.

“When I was a child, we used to make the best-ever ice cream. The only thing that is close is Ben and Jerry’s.” (He admits a weakness for this: “It’s very dangerous. I can come home sometimes, 1 in the morning, open the box, and – it’s pity to leave it… I can eat the whole container.”) Since they didn’t have electricity in the stone house, ice blocks were bought daily from a green truck with a bell to keep the fridge cold. However, as he recalls, “Even if you had plenty of ice, you could not freeze anything.” Therefore, to make ice cream, they used a special bucket with a metal container in the middle. (He’s been searching for one recently, and found something similar, sold by the Amish.) After putting ingredients into the metal container, ice and salt were packed into the bucket around it, and then a handle was turned to operate a mixing mechanism.

A simplified version of this method won him innumerable bets in the army: the salt-ice mixture could, to others’ surprise, rapidly freeze Coca-Cola bottles on hot desert days. “My friends and I were always drinking free. Take a wooden box used for hand grenades or something, and some ice. Add salt. And just shake it when you have the item you want inside. In ten minutes, if you don’t take (the bottle) out, it will explode.” Even without a grenade box to hand, it’s a resourceful way to chill drinks, quickly.

The root of it all

When Basson is finished at the restaurant, he takes me to see the original eucalyptus tree. It’s on Pierre Koenig, and is surrounded by a parking lot – an open space amidst built-up industry. He says, “I am happy that, when my dad was still with us, we opened the restaurant under the eucalyptus tree – so it did give us fruit. I go (to it) when I have to make a big decision, and when I am traveling and coming back. It’s a sort of meeting point with (him).”

The eucalyptus tree that started it all (Rebecca Coulson)
The eucalyptus tree that started it all (Rebecca Coulson)

Once, on army leave, he visited it and found that it had been stripped bare for Sukkot: “I was crying because only a piece of wood remained.” Now, the tree is suffering again. Concrete and asphalt impede its water supply, and Basson is aware of its prime location: “the last open space in Talpiot.” Although the tree is listed, its illness will make it easier for developers to apply to have it removed. This clearly upsets him, and it’s hard to know what to say.

I asked earlier if he’d been tempted to plant another, near the current Eucalyptus. He pointed to a Thai fig tree, saying, “I have this one… It pretends to look like a eucalyptus, but it’s not. So, when people say, ‘You don’t have a eucalyptus,’ I say, ‘Oh, I have.’ And they don’t realize at all.”

Or maybe the truth is that his restaurant is just so good, it doesn’t need a story any more.

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