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Recipes And Restaurants Are Keeping The Culture Of Jewish Australia Vibrant

Recipes, restaurants, and cooking clubs are sharing the history of a culture where food is a source of passion, as well as sustenance.

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If you've eaten brunch at an Australian cafe in the past year or so, chances are you've come across shakshuka, the Middle Eastern dish of eggs baked in a tomato-based sauce and served in a piping-hot pan; it’s basically the new bacon 'n' eggs.

Eating shakshuka is instantly comforting; piercing the runny eggs and using warm pitta bread to sweep through the bubbling sauce is a damn delicious experience.

At Jude Cohen's cafe Grandma's I settle in to try the dish that everyone is in love with. "Eat, use your hands!" he tells me as he serves a version with smoky fire-roasted eggplant and labne.

Jude is Israeli, and Grandma's is a celebration of the food he and his family have cooked and eaten for generations. "We really concentrate on homemade food," he says. "Jewish food in general for us is very homemade, and very family orientated."

But the menu is not exclusively Jewish; it's "about 80%," he says. For instance, the cafe serves shakshuka and bagels with the optional addition of bacon. "I've been arguing with my family about bacon in our stores for seven years," he says. "There are so many Jews that eat bacon. I won the argument."

For Jude, contemporary Jewish food has become a "mixed marriage."

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My dad is Jewish, but I'm not; the religion follows the maternal line. I've been exposed to traditional Jewish food and culture all my life, but always with the idea that it came from elsewhere. My father's side of the family immigrated to Australia from Israel. When I eat out or cook, I tend to gravitate toward food that I think of as contemporary Australian. I never really considered the two as being aligned, or interchangeable, until now.

There are Jewish communities all over Australia and the world, and as Jude says, there's one common thing that binds the diaspora: "For us, everything revolves around food."

Jude's family have lived in Jerusalem for generations, with heritage that traces back to Spain. Of Israel, he says, "It's probably one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Jewish food is a big umbrella."

Jude identifies as a Sephardi Jew, the subculture descendent from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. Ashkenazi Jews trace their family lines to Central and Eastern Europe.

Traditional Jewish dishes are, therefore, vastly different. "There's funny competition between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi over food," says Jude. "Sephardi food is all about spice, whereas the Ashkenazi is a bit more bland, but still nice. I love my matzo ball soup for instance, but I'm definitely more Sephardic."

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His family ran a bakery in Israel during the '90s selling bourekas, flaky pastries typically filled with cheese. "It's like the national food – in Australia you have meat pies, in Israel you have bourekas," he says.

In Australia, they started with a small boureka stall in the Canberra markets once a week. Now, they own three Grandma's cafes. The original is on their farm in Canberra, which Jude's father, Avi, visits once a week. The other two are in Sydney, in Rosebery and Alexandria.

They make everything themselves, from olive oil pressed on their Canberra grove, to jams and ice cream. "These are more Ashkenazi, and these are more Sephardi," Jude says, handing me boxes of salty sesame biscuits and sweet, soft date cookies.

"There's something about going back to your grandma's place – the food is just so good, with so much love in it. It's grandparents who have protected and made sure traditions are kept alive."

My grandmother was as Ashkenazi as they come, with an Austrian mother and Hungarian father. My strongest memories of her are tied to cake, specifically chocolate cake layered with apricot jam, which she would bring to every birthday without fail. She was a feeder, as all good stereotypical Jewish grandmothers are.

My grandfather, however, was totally Sephardi, born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt. Most of his family now live in Israel. My Uncle Itszic (Isaac) is an excellent Sephardi cook (he was asked to be on Israeli MasterChef, he told me, but he turned them down). The spice-laden, colourful feasts he cooks are the opposite to my grandma's delicate desserts and golden schnitzels, but just as good.

The Fantasy Cookbook was made by a woman named Edith Peer, a Bosnian-Hungarian Jew who was held in Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in 1944. The 56 pages of tiny, dense writing contain the recipes of fellow Dutch, Czech, Hungarian, and Yugoslavian prisoners of war. Edith could speak German so was given an "office job" in the camp, which allowed her to fashion the book from materials she swiped from the office: wire to bind and paper torn to size.

In handwritten notes from 1986, part of the Sydney Jewish Museum collection, Edith says that talking about food was what made life bearable in the camp. "After a gourmet fantasy meal we somehow felt a little relieved. Relieved not only by imaginary fulfilment, but sitting around like at a dining room table, and re-enacting a family circle as we talked about our pre-war life." The recipes are mostly desserts and traditional comfort foods such as cheese dumplings, which are, as Edith says, "heavy European meals which fill up your belly."

Museum curator Roslyn Sugarman sees the book as an act of resistance: "It's kind of spiritual resistance, with the will to stay alive. To do something you're not meant to do, to sit as a community and talk about food."

I have a recipe book from my Jewish grandmother, who also happened to be named Edith. Like the Fantasy Cookbook it's written mostly in Hungarian. Unfortunately, I never did get her to translate the cake recipe I loved before she passed away.

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The personal stories behind each contributed recipe are integral to the cookbooks. Their first book contained recipes from the Sydney Jewish community, the second included recipes from around the country. The third will be global.

"We have a recipe from a Moroccan-Israeli girl who happens to live in Byron now. Another girl is from New Zealand, but is married to a Yemenite guy and now cooks their food," says Lisa Goldberg. "It's showing the diversity of a community that goes all around the world." The cooking takes place in Lisa's kitchen. Today, she is accompanied by other club members Natanya Eskin and Merelyn Frank Chalmers.

They meet every Monday and Tuesday morning to test recipes and then debate which ones should be included. When I visit, they're making a traditional Jewish-Hungarian cake called flaven, with apple, poppy seed, and walnut filling layered between pastry.

"It's a such a special cake that when you google it, it's hard to even find a recipe," says Merelyn. "This came to us from a woman in her seventies who used to make it with her mother. She spent a day with her best friend trying to recreate it, and that's the recipe they've given to us. So now we're trying to recreate it."

Being given a half-recipe with nonspecific measurements, not dissimilar to those in the Fantasy Cookbook, is common for the Monday Morning Cooking Club. "If it's a half-recipe but an amazing story, we might attempt it," says Lisa. "It's just what we're about: food, family, nurturing, and loving through food."

Natanya explains the cookbooks to me like this: “It’s not just traditional Jewish food, it’s what Jewish people are cooking in their homes today, which in turn becomes tradition.”

Indeed, as the Hungarian cake goes into the oven, they move on to making a salad recipe that was submitted by a woman from Nashville, Tennessee. It's a riff on a caesar, using kale instead of lettuce, and sriracha sauce in the dressing – no trace of traditional Judaism there.

"We say that we 'contemporise' traditional recipes and we 'traditionalise' contemporary recipes," says Lisa. "A recipe that is traditional in an individual Jewish household can become so for other people too, if they love it and make it again and again."

For Jude, this means being creative, and bringing a contemporary edge to otherwise traditional dishes. When he served me shakshuka, it was with a bread similar to challah, but tinted bright yellow by the addition of carrot and turmeric. Recently, he put a green pea hummus on the menu, inspired by a pea and wasabi mash he tried in Tokyo. "I put the photo on Instagram and everybody went crazy for it," he says.

Whether you're kosher, or whether you add bacon to your bagel, one thing was made clear to me by everyone I spoke to. Food is at the core of what binds the Jewish community, bringing people from all walks of life back to their roots. Also, it's just plain delicious.

"You barely eat anything!" Jude reprimands me as I get up to leave. Just as my grandma would have.

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