Africa - Myriam Romano

Africa - Myriam Romano

By
Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
Contains
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702865
Photographer
Mark Roper

Egypt

Myriam Romano has happy and comforting memories of growing up in Cairo in the 1940s. Surrounded by her parents and seven siblings, Myriam was also fortunate enough to have her grandmother living with the family, who quickly became the doyenne of the household and the master of the kitchen.

Aside from her grandmother and mother, no one else but the family cooks were allowed into this domain, so Myriam spent her childhood watching the culinary activities from afar and generally enjoying an Egyptian Jewish life.

‘My time there was really quite lovely,’ Myriam recalls from her home in Sydney. ‘We lived in a villa, my father was a businessman … We were not immensely rich but we were okay, we had servants, we had a chauffeur.’

‘But everything disappeared when Nasser came in.’

Myriam recalls her family celebrating every Jewish festival, with the household following the dietary rules that govern Passover quite strictly. Each room was cleansed of breadcrumbs, and specialists were brought in to clean the pots and pans. Myriam describes it as a chaotically happy time, with her father’s family coming over for dinner the first night and her mother’s family visiting the second.

Jewish New Year was similar, and Myriam remembers a delectable selection of sweets being brought out of the kitchen to inspire and evoke a sweet new year.

‘We had date jam, rose jam, coconut jam and we had cakes,’ Myriam says, with the kunafa recipe also a New Year mainstay, a vermicelli-like dish served with custard or with nuts and butter.

The cheese-triangle dish known as hunimas was also served during this festival, while on Yom Kippur the immediate family would break the fast together on light, yeast-based meals before her parents would go out to visit friends.

But in the early 1950s, Myriam’s family suffered both personal and political loss, starting with her youngest brother passing away when he was just six years old.

Then when Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser came into power in 1956 and subsequently began to push for Arab nationalism, life for Jewish Egyptians was to irrevocably change.

Myriam had only recently married her husband before they both fled to Italy in 1957 to be with his brother and wife. The rest of her family moved to Paris, as Myriam’s father had previously held a French passport. But not long after the move, Myriam’s father had a stroke and passed away at the age of 59, which Myriam believes was the result of his forced evacuation from his homeland. Myriam’s relocation to Italy also meant she was never to see her grandmother again.

‘It wasn’t natural how it proceeded, we all had to leave and leave everything and I never saw my father again, I never saw my grandmother,’ Myriam says.

Because of her familial separation, Myriam now became the master of the kitchen in her new home. As her husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law went to work, Myriam busied herself with reading cookbooks and experimenting with recipes. She remembers visiting the local markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays and becoming a regular at her local butcher and delicatessen, learning to speak Italian as she familiarised herself with her new neighbourhood.

As her sister-in-law had a penchant for French cookbooks, French dishes were the first things that Myriam started to make, resulting in her Egyptian recipes slowly fading into the background. So too did Myriam’s celebration of the Jewish festivals, as her new family lived a more secular lifestyle.

So Myriam tried her hand at European recipes, and if she couldn’t find ingredients then she’d substitute them for others. It was in this way that Myriam slowly became comfortable in the kitchen, as well as accustomed to working with challenging and unique foods.

This would stand her in good stead when Myriam relocated with her husband to Sydney in 1958, along with the rest of her Paris-based family. Initially, as her family lived in one room, Myriam didn’t cook much at all. But before too long she and her husband moved into two rooms, and then a house when they began to have children. It was when she was pregnant with her first child that Myriam went back into the kitchen.

‘I used to do mostly cabbage rolls and things that used a lot of minced meat and I started also doing baklava,’ Myriam says, remembering a Greek delicatessen in Darlinghurst during this time that imported all varieties of Mediterranean food that had previously gone unseen by Australian eyes.

‘He started importing olives and olive oil, feta cheese … I remember going to a friend’s twenty-first birthday and they never saw olives before!’ Myriam says.

And while the relocation to Australia was initially seen as exciting and glamorous, with the notion of kangaroos running amok and Sydney Harbour’s resemblance to the Italian city of Como appealing to the new immigrants, settling in became a much tougher task.

‘It was very hard, especially learning another language … and we had to get used to the Australian food. I didn’t think much of it in the beginning.’

But with the help of suppliers like the Greek deli that provided ingredients Myriam was familiar with, and a growing circle of friends where the exchange of recipes became commonplace, Myriam’s repertoire soon expanded and she began to re-embrace the dishes from her childhood.

‘Egyptian food is cheaper to do and I got used to it,’ she explains. ‘I use only olive oil, very little butter … I find that Egyptian food has less fat than the French food.’

It also became a way for Myriam to reconnect with her memories from her youth, of the times spent with her relatives that she never had a chance to see again, and an opportunity for her new family, which includes three daughters and seven grandchildren, to understand her history from the other side of the world.

‘It’s tradition … [cooking Egyptian food] reminds me of my childhood and my family when we were all together.’

‘Unfortunately now everyone is somewhere else. I’ve got a brother in Israel, my mother is in France with my sister and another brother, but it brings back memories, it brings back how we were.’

And today, as Myriam continues to regularly host 15 family members for Friday night dinners, she hopes it reminds them of their own connection to another part of the world that geographically might be far away, but is always a part of their grandmother’s heart.

Recipes in this Chapter

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