The Right to Cook So life’s busy, busy, busy. And I’m the kind of person who takes on more projects just in case I’m not busy enough. I’m learning to say no, but one initiative I could not say no to was doing a Pesach demo of Sephardi (Sephardi is actually the wrong word, because Iraqi Jewish food is Middle Eastern.) Baghdadi food for the Jewish festival of Pesach. The only thing was I knew how the food should taste, but not necessarily how to cook it. So guess where I’ve been for the last month? In the kitchen teaching myself how to make Mahasha – stuffed vegetables, Dolmades – stuffed vine leaves, Bamia – Okra Stew, and all kinds of other sweet, sour and delicious dishes that my grandmother used to conjure up in minutes.

Which is exactly why I agreed to do the cooking demo. When I cook my grandmother’s food I feel closer to her. I feel that I’m passing down a tradition that I enjoyed as a child to my children. The hours in the kitchen are worth it. Especially as I found them meditative and relaxing. My favourite time to cook is at night. It’s quiet, and it’s just me, a chopping board, fresh parsley and an onion that makes me cry. I never imagined it could be such a stress reliever. I could just be. Forget about the stream of never ending school issues, and life’s day to day challenges.

Somehow I never feel lonely when I cook. I find my mind wandering as I roast pine nuts and puree a tin of tomatoes. I think back to how my grandmother first taught me what it was to heat a pan with oil and saute garlic, ginger and onion. I remember how she used to talk to me about her life in Iraq, then Israel. I didn’t understand everything between the Arabic, Hebrew and English. But I got the gist. I felt her feeling. I knew that it was hard. I knew that she had her great sadnesses, and I knew that through it all she cooked and provided us with hearty, warm food from that time. This makes me stronger in my great sadnesses. A woman’s sadness doesn’t stand alone, it’s linked to the river of tears that all women weep into. My grandmother taught me that.

The meditative, regular movements of carefully stuffing and rolling vine leaves with its minty mixture of parsley, onion, rice and lemon is soothing. My hands are oiled with the olive oil, that my grandmother oiled her hands with as she stuffed her vine leaves. She had the most beautiful soft skin. Hands hardened enough to carry a piping hot tray of pinwheel cookies from the oven, but soft enough to be part of an Estee Lauder advert for hand lotion. As my leaves take shape into neat green parcels, I remember what she taught me about treating house help. With love and kindness, and food. All the knowledge passed down through kneading, cutting, filling, boiling, eating together at her small round table in Sydney comes back to me in little snippets. They make me laugh to myself and then the tears come as well.

Dolmades - Grape Vine Leaves

Dolmades – Grape Vine Leaves

I’m learning that cooking is so much more than a chore. It’s a journey to the past. It’s an adventure as I learn what works and doesn’t work. Facing a dish that tastes too sour, or worse too sweet. (Five tablespoons of sugar in Mahasha doesn’t work, despite what the recipe says.) Learning to face failure and chucking the disaster dish out with a heavy heart but lessons well learnt. Dancing around the kitchen in glee as the sauce for the stuffed vegetables comes right. I only know if it’s right by how it tastes. The recipes from the books fail me. They have too much tomato paste and sugar. I need to keep spooning and tasting to see if the dish is right. I’m surrounded by silver teaspoons and tablespoons cluttering the kitchen counter. Let’s not speak about the washing up. My grandmother was meticulous in the kitchen, she wouldn’t be impressed by the parsley that sprinkles the floor.

Mahasha - Stuffed Vegetables

Mahasha – Stuffed Vegetables

So I recommend cooking. Just taking a recipe, buying the ingredients and making it. The more chopping involved the better, the saucier and tastier the better. The more different the better. I love being taken out of my comfort zone and taking others as well. Everyone asks ‘What’s this?’ And I explain, knowing this may be the first and last time they ever taste a taste of my grandmother’s Baghdad, where Arabs and Jews lived side by side in commerce, mutual respect and most of all in baking bread.

And just to end up with this note for those who don’t like cooking. It can be very simple. Sharing a cooking experience with ones family can extend to cutting up a mango and sharing it. I did this the other day with my Princes. They learnt how to make turtle shaped mangoes. We cut and ate and laughed and made a jolly mess. They loved it. I loved it. It was bonding at its best. Simple.

Almond Cookies for Pesach

This recipe is one of my favourite new recipes I learnt. It’s from a book called, ‘Flavours of Babylon’ by Linda Dangoor, which my dear cousin, Sharon bought me. It’s very easy and the cardamom gives it a real kick that guarantees that it’ll be a conversation piece. Just don’t forget to make it in advance so it can be refrigerated for a few hours or over night. (I forgot and it didn’t set nicely because of that.)

 

Almond Cookies

Almond Cookies

Ingredients

500g blanched almonds, finely ground (I don’t use blanched. Normal works fine.)

200g walnuts (I just use almonds instead) 500g castor sugar (I found this too sweet so I half the sugar)

1 teaspoon ground cardamom (I buy the cardamom from Woolworths and use a pestle and mortar to crush the seeds.)

The whites of 5 medium eggs

1 egg yolk

Rosewater (Not necessary if you don’t have.)

Method

1. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar and cardamom. Add the egg whites and knead into a malleable dough.

2. Cover and leave to rest in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight if you wish.

3. Preheat the oven to 160 C.

4. Line a baking tray with greaseproof or baking paper. Lightly wet your hands with the rosewater and take a little of the dough the size of a walnut and shape it into a tight ball, flattening the top a little with your finger. I add an almond for decoration.

5. Arrange on a tray, spacing the balls to avoid them sticking to each other as they expand when baked.

6. Bake for about 15-20 minutes or until golden. Leave to cool completely before handling. Serve or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer where they will keep well for a long time.