Middle East - Erez Sharaba

Middle East - Erez Sharaba

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


Mention the word ‘Sabbaba’ around Sydney’s Eastern suburbs and you will be certain to hear praises of golden, crispy falafel balls, pita pockets brimming with colourful salads and exclamations of an authentic experience that takes you straight to the streets of Tel Aviv.

Erez Sharaba is the Israeli co-owner of this chain of restaurants that some say is responsible for bringing the Middle East to Bondi. And Erez is very proud to hold this mantle.

‘I love cooking, I love hospitality, I love food,’ Erez says. ‘I can see Australians like the authentic cuisine and we have taken the Middle Eastern food to a different level.’

Born just outside of Tel Aviv in 1966, Erez and his four siblings grew up in a home where feeding others was a way of life. His mother was born in Iraq, from a wealthy household where the cooking was outsourced and her mother didn’t see the need to learn any kitchen skills. It was Erez’s mother, who migrated to Israel with her mother in 1951, and his sister who became the cooking masters, bringing their Sephardic influence into the meals they lovingly prepared and served.

‘In a Sephardic family you come to visit for five minutes, you have to eat something,’ Erez says, laughing. ‘All the time there were four pots on the stove … and if you wanted something else, it was in the freezer.’

His Aunt Lily became a trained pastry chef and Erez still talks about her ‘amazing, amazing’ recipes, which were so revered that her children published a cookbook in her name after she passed away recently.

While one of her better-known dishes was the yellow rice and minced meat dish called rice kuba, for Erez the meal that typifies his Aunt Lily was her take on the Ashkenazi matzah balls, otherwise known as kneidelach.

‘She used to do around 200 matzah balls in the soup and it was amazing. It wasn’t a clean chicken soup, there were much more spices … it was a spicy chicken soup and the matzah balls were amazing inside, not soft, they were harder.’ Erez’s mother tended to focus on lighter Iraqi food, such as a rice dish eaten with orange lentils and yoghurt called kitri, and a red rice kuba dish made with semolina. These were the dishes found on a Sephardic table during the High Holidays, which were an important part of Erez’s childhood.

‘On Passover my mum used to do chocolate balls covered with matzah instead of Israeli biscuits,’ Erez recalls. ‘Lily used to make the kneidelach and my mum’s favourite was the stuffed head of the artichoke.’

For this dish his mother would stuff the artichoke head with minced chicken and cook it with the remaining pieces of the artichoke and its leaves in a stew, which was then served with rice.

As Erez grew up, his life revolved around cars and kitchens, but it was cooking that eventually won his heart when he started working in hospitality aged 14 years. His first job was at a canteen based at a local conference centre, where American fast food was a mainstay and offered Israelis their first taste of pizza and hamburgers. It was a complete change from the food he ate at home but it was to give Erez the expertise to open his own restaurant in 1988.

After his stint in the Israeli Army, Erez wanted to perfect his knowledge of pizza and pasta, so he travelled to Italy to learn from the best, visiting osterias and cooking schools to hone his skills. He knew he was offering a cuisine to Israelis that they hadn’t had the chance to properly experience before, but he was convinced it would be one that they would soon love and embrace.

So after convincing friends to bring him Italian parmesan, pasta and other essentials from their trips overseas, Erez was ready to open his first restaurant at the age of 21, which he called Fabio. It was an immediate hit.

‘It was a very snobby area in Tel Aviv, so the people had been overseas and they were comparing and knew exactly what to ask for,’ Erez explains. ‘It was easy to go ahead with a fancy menu because people understood what we were talking about … it was fun.’

He operated Fabio until 2000, when the South Lebanon conflict broke out and Erez decided to travel with his brother to Australia. When his brother returned to Israel to start university, Erez made the decision to stay in Sydney.

‘Straight away I saw the big potential in everything … If someone really wants to work hard and to do something, this is the right place to do it.’

He started familiarising himself with the Sydney hospitality industry, helping a friend build a menu for a coffee shop in Bondi, then working in an events company to see how the local industry operated. He was excited by what he saw and opened his first Sabbaba restaurant in Bondi in 2002.

The biggest coup was the importation of a pita oven from Israel, which became the basis of his new café’s menu and put Sabbaba on the culinary map.

‘Everything in Sabbaba starts with the pita pocket … we do all the grilled meats in a pita and we do amazing borekas as well. We do 14 kinds of falafel,’ Erez says, such as the Ayia Napa pita pocket, a homage to the Cypriot city of the same name and filled with haloumi, capers, tahini, hummus, salad and green basil pesto falafel balls. ‘It’s amazing combinations and people love it.’

Along with both the traditional and unique falafel dishes on offer, Sabbaba is also famous for its other Middle Eastern fare like sabich, a well-known Israeli dish made from boiled egg, eggplant, tahina and salad. It’s a dish commonly eaten as part of an Iraqi breakfast but at Sabbaba, Erez has put his own twist on the dish and serves it in pita.

Another dish Erez has made his own is a fava beans recipe, which is also common to an Israeli breakfast. But at Sabbaba it is served in pita with a boiled egg, tahina and garden salad, as well as onions and an Iraqi mango pickle.

Erez prides himself on only using the freshest of ingredients and offering the Australian market a unique take on Middle Eastern food that had previously been dominated by kebabs. And it seems to have hit a mark with the locals, as plans are underway to increase the current five stores in Sabbaba’s stable to 50 stores by 2016.

For Erez, his success in Australia comes down to help from his fellow Israeli expatriates, as well as the nous to import a Middle Eastern flavour and sensibility to Sydney’s shores.

‘I was an Israeli who came to Australia and I saw there was a big potential for Israeli food,’ he explains.

And Australians seem to be lapping it up, one pita pocket at a time.

Recipes in this Chapter

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