Gil Hovav’s Big Fat Yemenite Childhood
In the opening pages of Gil Hovav’s new short story collection and recipe book Candies from Heaven, Israel’s leading Israeli food writer, restaurant critic and television personality acknowledges the various family members who helped shaped his childhood—and, ultimately, his writing and cooking.
There among the thank you’s is Aunt Chava. “The songs she sang with the purest voice in the world while washing the dishes,” Hovav writes, “made me think that there was no activity in the world more dazzling and lucky than to stand by a sink with dishes from the Passover seder of 40 Yemenite Jews.”
This story is one of many deliciously amusing and vivid anecdotes in the book, and mirrors the lovable brand of humor that Hovav is known for: a hefty pinch of fiery Sephardi jest and “Israeliness” amid reports of family bickering.
Stories of his father—iconic news announcer Moshe Hovav, who voiced the newsreels from some of Israeli’s most historic moments—pulling elaborate pranks and cracking jokes at the worst possible moments fill the pages of Candies from Heaven and manage to endear the entire Hovav clan to the reader.
The book—one big, boisterous anecdotal memoir filled with many wonderful voices and mostly his late grandmother’s recipes—not only provides insight into Hovav’s life, but almost operates as a memoir-cum-reality show featuring a cast of characters drawn from his notable family in the days before reality shows existed. But the Kardashians they were not. The family struggled financially, as did many Israelis during the 1960s and 70s. This is not a story of riches, but instead of simpler times, and the everyday life of a young Jerusalemite boy.
Like a Where’s Waldo for recipe hunters, it is a delight to flip the recipe page at the end of each chapter and find a dish that ties back to the previous story. Old fashioned as they may be (oven-roasted potatoes that specifically call for margarine; porridge; a poor man’s version of gazpacho), these recipes remain dear to Hovav despite his decades of gourmet pursuits.
And most charming of all: As fiercely protective as she was harsh, Hovav’s Ladino-speaking grandmother, Mooma, was the warmest of hosts. Her table was a comforting place to be, even as a temporary guest/reader.
The recipes below feature love, nostalgia and a grandmother’s touch. We would expect nothing less from the famous home-cooking advocate.
Bourekas with Eggplant Filling
Mooma never shared this recipe with me, just as she never divulged the other secrets of the Sephardi underground. Aunt Levana gave me the recipe presented below, and it’s the closest in taste to the wonders that Mooma baked. And still, when I eat these bourekas, I’m filled with such longing and tears come to my eyes as I recall the intoxicating taste of the original and the wonderful aroma of spinach and mothballs and shoes and roses.
4 cups flour
14 tablespoons margarine
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon salt
2 large eggplants
8 ounces crumbled feta cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Egg yolk with 2 tablespoons water
- Prepare the dough a day earlier: Place all the ingredients in a food processor and mix to a uniform dough. Roll into a big ball, place on a flat dish, cover with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
- The next day, remove from the refrigerator and let the dough reach room temperature (otherwise, it will be impossible to roll).
- Meanwhile, roast the eggplants on the stove or in an oven until their peel blackens. Peel and crush with a fork (woe be to anyone who crushes in a food processor!) together with the feta cheese. Beat the egg and add it to the filling, together with salt and pepper. Mix.
- Divide the dough into three balls. Roll each ball into a thin sheet, and use a glass to cut circles in the dough. Collect what remains of the dough, roll it again and cut additional circles. Repeat until all the dough is used.
- Take a circle of dough and place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center. Dip a finger in a cup of water and wet the edges of the circle. Fold into the shape of a crescent and pinch to close well. Place on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Do the same for the rest of the circles. (One baking pan will not be enough.)
- Brush the bourekas with egg wash and sprinkle a bit of sesame. Bake at 350 degrees for about half an hour, until the bourekas are golden.
Israel Chorva (Butterfly Soup)
Chorva is a general name for soup—ciorbă in Romanian, shurba in Arabic and so on. In our home, it was the name of a sweet-and-sour tomato soup, enriched with rice. The rice plays a twofold role: It adds substance to the soup and also releases starch, thus thickening the soup. It’s important to use only long-grained rice, whose granules open into the shape of butterflies if cooked properly.
2 finely diced onions
1/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds very ripe tomatoes (or 1 big can crushed tomatoes)
1 small container tomato paste (2 tablespoons)
Salt and ground black pepper
10 cups water
1 peeled carrot, coarsely shredded
1/3 cup long-grained white rice
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Lemon juice (optional)
- Heat the oil in a pot and sauté the onions.
- If using fresh tomatoes, cut in half and shred on a coarse grater (and throw away the peel). Add the shredded tomatoes (or crushed tomatoes) to the pot. Add the tomato paste, salt, pepper and water. Mix and bring to a boil.
- Add the rice, carrots and parsley to the pot and stir. Lower the heat and cook covered, only until the grains of rice open to the shape of butterflies.
- Remove from the heat and taste. Season with lemon juice or a little sugar, according to the sourness of the tomatoes.
Note: It’s important not to put more than 1/3 cup of rice into the pot. At first, it seems like just a little, but the rice later expands and if you put too much, you’ll end up with porridge.