Asia and Australasia - Lillian Frank

Asia and Australasia - Lillian Frank

Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper


Lillian Frank’s dining room buffet heaves with family photographs. There are pictures of her grandchildren as well as her two daughters, photos from when they were very young to today. There are portraits of Lillian and her husband Richard, with Lillian dressed in her ubiquitous leopard skin that’s made her so identifiable to Melbournians and others around the country.

And then there are the sepia-toned shots from Lillian’s childhood: her six brothers and sisters, both her parents and Richard’s, plus the multitude of cousins and other family members that surrounded Lillian as she grew up in Burma.

‘My childhood was a really happy childhood because I had so many cousins,’ Lillian recalls. ‘We were the smallest family among 11 brothers and sisters. We had children galore there.’

Lillian and her family lived a very comfortable life in 1930s Rangoon. Her mother’s family was wealthy and as such, provided a privileged lifestyle for their children. Lillian recalls how her grandfather offered her Aunt Leah a nanny for each child she bore. Aunt Leah would go on to have 16 children.

Lillian’s family home had servants and as a consequence her mother rarely cooked, though by Lillian’s admission, she was brilliant at it. Subsequently, Lillian never learnt how to cook during her childhood as the kitchen was off-limits.

Yet food was a big part of her childhood, with traditional Iraqi dishes from her mother’s Baghdadi past featuring at most meals. From samosas filled with feta cheese that were eaten at afternoon tea to traditional pilau rice presented at most meals on a large silver tray and sprinkled with toasted almonds, each meal had an element of Sephardic Jewry to it.

Lillian still speaks fondly of the dish aloo makalla, otherwise known as ‘jumping potatoes’. Peeled potatoes were boiled in saffron water and removed when they were still hard, then dried and placed in another pot filled with boiling oil. The result was a beautifully crisp potato with a melted filling, and it’s still a dish Lillian makes today.

‘Food was a celebration always, especially when the family would meet,’ she says, recalling the Jewish festivals spent at her grandparents’ house.

For Succot, the extended family would sit on long benches placed in the temporary traditional succah that featured a ceiling of leaves and sparkling lights within. The men would drink arak as a musician played an instrument called a dublah and the family sang and celebrated.

Her family would also keep the special dietary requirements for Passover with new dishes and cutlery brought in especially, while Lillian remembers the festival of Purim being particularly enjoyable and celebrated with baklava, almond pastries known as kataifis and sambusas with almonds.

‘My parents insisted we know who we are, and what we are, and where we come from,’ Lillian says of her traditional devotion to Judaism.

And while Burma didn’t have a large Jewish community at the time, there was still a synagogue, a Jewish school and the opportunity to access kosher food, making traditional and religious observance a little easier.

Lillian’s childhood was to irrevocably change with the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1941. Deciding to flee, her father went to the city’s cargo boats and bribed the captains to hide his wife, Lillian and her brother on board in exchange for their family home.

Lillian remembers this being a very dangerous and frightening time, leaving all her possessions behind to trek through the jungle to the boats and then being unsure if they were to make it onboard at all, as the boat captains were taking big risks when hiding escapees during a war.

But Lillian, her brother and mother managed to get on the boat and hide in among the rice bags, starting what was to be a treacherous journey over land and sea to India and eventual freedom.

It wasn’t long before the Japanese came onboard and threatened to shoot any white people found hiding, so Lillian and her family were thrown off the boat and into the Burmese jungle, where they walked endlessly until they were picked up by the Americans and sent to India. Throughout the entire journey, Lillian says her mother never stopped telling her children stories to distract them and keep them on their way.

‘My mother was a very strong woman,’ Lillian recalls. ‘She never lost hope and we were so young. For a woman with kids going through, on her own, not knowing, finding her way there, she was a very strong lady, a very smart lady.’

They were placed in a refugee camp in Calcutta, where Lillian recalls arriving ‘with holes in our shoes and clothes that were dirty’ before a woman brought them new clothes, albeit for grown-ups and not children.

‘I saw a red-and-white spotted skirt, I grabbed it and nearly hit somebody to get it … I had my mother sew on sleeves and I wore that red-and-white spotted dress, I’ll never forget it. It must have something to do with why I wear spots now, I love spots!’

In India, Lillian returned to school until she was 15, when her mother announced that she was sending her daughter to London to live with her sister Claire. It was to be the second major upheaval in Lillian’s life.

‘She said, “Lillian, you stand on your two feet, you are going to do what you like, you’ve always done what you like and you will do your own thing and you will make your life a success.”

‘She said that four times and I think that played in my mind so much. She really put her stamp of being so sure of my success that I had to fulfil it.’

Lillian cried for the entire six-week boat journey to England, before settling in with her Aunt Claire, ‘the glamourpuss of the family’ and starting work at Elizabeth Arden, which piqued her interest in becoming a hairdresser. It also introduced her to London’s society lifestyle.

‘I was earning a living but [the other girls] were from society backgrounds … they were social butterflies,’ Lillian says.

In the 1950s Lillian made the journey to Australia to visit her sister on what was supposed to be a 10-day holiday. But while she was there, she enjoyed herself so much that she decided to stay.

During her stay she met her husband Richard at a house party and ‘was very impressed with him … he was so avant garde, he was so good-looking’.

Richard came from a Polish aristocratic background and Lillian, being a Sephardic Jew, was not immediately welcomed into the family.

‘My mother-in-law was told by her girlfriends that it wouldn’t last, that I was a gypsy but Richard was too independent, he was an only child, he got whatever he wanted,’ she says.

They were married and had two daughters, Michelle and Jackie. It was during this time that Lillian first set foot into a kitchen but she soon realised the tastes from her homeland were all there, waiting to be brought to life.

‘The taste was in my mind and I saw my sister [cook], I learnt from her,’ Lillian says, recalling how her sister would prepare a Sunday feast each week filled with Australian dishes such as steaks and salads, but also featuring traditional Arabic meals from their childhood.

Lillian stuck with Middle Eastern cuisine, declaring her friends and family ‘didn’t want the steak and three vegetables, they got used to eating Arabic food’.

Gradually her cooking skills improved, assisted somewhat by her interest in reading cookbooks but using that only as a basis for her meals. Being true to herself, Lillian found she was too independent to follow any recipes by rote.

‘I did my own thing,’ she says. ‘I cut corners, I’m a shortcut cook. I don’t peel the potatoes and boil them, I buy canned potatoes and use them for curry.’

Today, Lillian still proudly hosts all the Jewish festivals for her growing family and loves feeding her grandchildren the meals from her own childhood. She says both her daughters are great cooks, but what keeps her grandchildren interested are their grandmother’s stories of how she herself grew up and survived in countries so far away.

‘They want me to tell them my life story,’ she says, believing that by sharing her memories it helps them understand about the many varied people in the world, and the differences in the way they live.

Throughout it all, from her childhood in Burma to her miraculous escape to India and her arrival in Australia where she became the fundraising doyenne that she is today, Lillian hasn’t lost her perspective on how important family and tradition are to her.

‘Food is how you celebrate, don’t you? You have friends and you invite them and they invite you. The basic thing for Jews is food.’

‘But you have to take the culture of the country as well, so there’s a balance … I am able to mix and mingle, to live with people and their cultures and take some of it into ours,’ she says.

‘We’re all Jews but from different places.’

Recipes in this Chapter

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