Middle East - Sara Sutton

Middle East - Sara Sutton

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


Jews have a long and resplendent history in Syria, harking back to biblical times where the city of Aleppo was considered the jewel of its people.

The well-known Jewish scholar Maimonides mentioned Aleppo in his writings in 1859. It was to be the birthplace of many learned Jews over time, becoming the home of the world’s largest Sephardic Jewish community.

Sara Sutton is an Aleppo descendant, born there in 1924 to a devout and close-knit family that included three siblings, as well as an extended family that lived nearby. From the glint in Sara’s eyes when she describes her childhood, it was a magical time to live in the city.

‘It was a very, very tight community,’ she recalls. ‘They had a wonderful life there, all the Jews.’

It was a time when Jews and Arabs lived peacefully side-by-side, and Sara remembers her community being very devout. There was a beautiful synagogue and a religious court called a beth din, while she recalls that of all the community members of the town, ‘there is not one who doesn’t know how to pray'.

Aleppo upheld a very traditional lifestyle, exemplified by the man’s role in buying the household food, which was deemed inappropriate for a woman to do. Each day the husbands would head to the markets, each with a large basket, which they would then fill with the requisite ingredients. Then, as the husbands went off to work, a carrier would return to the house with the goods so the women could start the daily food preparations.

‘When they were in Aleppo they had a lot of maids … mostly Armenian,’ Sara recalls.

‘In Aleppo each one had a cook, but the cook had to be Jewish,’ to ensure the religious dietary requirements were observed.

Food and the communal undertaking of meals was a major part of growing up in Aleppo, with Sara remembering Saturday morning feasts featuring typical Syrian starters, called maza, filling a large table to welcome the men home after synagogue.

‘We had a big table with maza to make the bracha [prayer] on arak, not on wine,’ she says.

The dishes were numerous and varied in flavour and ingredients, but would often include hummus, an eggplant dish or the Syrian version of the traditional Eastern European gefilte fish.

In Aleppo, instead of fishballs cooked in stock, their fish would be fried with garlic and onion, then dried and placed back in the pan with paprika, cumin seed, pepper, salt and other spices, so that the aroma permeated the dish. Then a little bit of tomato paste would be dissolved in a small quantity of water with garlic, which would then be poured onto the fish and the remainder would often be lapped up with pieces of bread.

Following the maza would be a meat dish and, on the Sabbath, this would usually be accompanied by a multitude of sides, including rice, green peas with meat and green beans.

Each festival also had its own unique twist, such as the quinces which were served on the Jewish New Year instead of the apples often seen on Ashkenazi tables, or the traditional calsonnes filled with cheese and egg that were perfect for Shavuot, a festival that was signified by its abundance of dairy. And on Passover the family would enjoy their version of charoset made with dates, which were then mixed with ground hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios, before being combined with wine.

‘The grandchildren love it and it’s not much work, it’s good by itself,’ Sara says.

When she was four, Sara and her family moved to Spain to a city called Palma de Mallorca, where they lived in a much smaller Jewish community of only four other families. Sara’s family became vegetarian by necessity because they were unable to source kosher meat, except on the Jewish High Holidays when it would be brought in from Barcelona where they had a rabbi and a ritual slaughterer known as a shochet.

It was around this time that Sara stopped eating meat for good, despite its abundance in Sephardic cooking, with no meat being stored at all in her home for the last 11 years.

In 1933, Sara and her family moved again, this time to Palestine after her mother decided she wanted her children to live a more Jewish life and eventually marry in the faith.

Yet despite moving even further away from their Aleppo roots, the city still held a strong place in their hearts. The expatriate community in Palestine was extremely close-knit, with many single Aleppo men quickly embraced and introduced to its women so that the Palestinian Aleppo family grew and strengthened with each new guest.

This is how Sara met her husband, who was working as an accountant and an Arabic teacher. They were married when she was 19 and, not long after that, she gave birth to her first son. Her son was only one year old when Israel was declared a nation and it’s a moment that Sara will never forget.

‘Everybody was crying and they were dancing in the streets, they were dancing and crying with happiness,’ she says.

‘You can’t explain the feeling … it wasn’t normal for us to have a country, it was something unbelievable. It came, the time for what we had been praying for all our lives, and we saw it.’

Two years later, her second son was born. But despite her growing family, Sara still hadn’t stepped foot in a kitchen. Her mother had only taken up the majority of the cooking herself when she moved to Palestine and so when the Sabbath came around, Sara took her children to her parents’ place and enjoyed the traditional Sephardic Syrian feasts from her childhood.

‘I came to Australia and I didn’t know how to cook,’ Sara says. ‘I never cooked and if I cooked sometimes I didn’t like my own food.’

The family migrated to Australia in 1959, initially with the idea that it would only be for five years so her sons wouldn’t have to do the compulsory service in the Israeli army. But Sara’s family liked Australia so much they decided to stay. It took Sara quite a bit longer to get used to her new surroundings.

‘I was crying day and night,’ she says. ‘The first three months, for me it was like hundreds of years.’

Joining Sara’s sister in Melbourne’s Murrumbeena, the family lived in a weatherboard house until they moved to Elwood. But Australia was so different from her life in Israel that Sara took a while to adjust. And her inexperience in the kitchen only further compounded her frustrations with her new country.

‘I couldn’t eat the food and I didn’t know how to cook properly,’ she recalls. ‘I used to write to my mother [for recipes] but I couldn’t cook like she cooked.’

‘But I learned, I remembered a little bit and I saw a little bit and then my mother came a few times to Australia to visit us.’

Sara recalls how her first experiences cooking rice were a disaster, something she laughs at today as it’s a dish that is now a particular talent of hers. But she persevered and while her sister tried her hand at the local cuisine, Sara stuck to the food she knew and loved from Aleppo.

‘Till today my children have never eaten a meat pie,’ she says proudly.

Sara doesn’t prepare Friday night dinners as often as she used to now, but the weekly get-together on Sundays that started many years ago incorporates her extended family, which includes five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. It’s a custom that Sara gets much joy out of, watching her family eat and deriving pleasure from her food.

‘I love it … I like to see them, I like to have them here. If they stay the whole day, I am happy.’

Her Sunday meals will still include the traditional dishes that featured on the family table on a Sabbath morning in Aleppo all those years ago, such as her granddaughter’s favourite marrow stuff ed with rice and chickpeas and cooked with apricots, or her borekas, which were always accompanied in Syria by a cup of coffee.

Sara insists it’s not her food that brings her family to her table. It seems that the act of sitting together and re-enacting the family gatherings that were common in her own homeland also subconsciously offers Sara’s Australian descendants a window into their grandmother’s childhood, spent during the golden age of Sephardic Jewry.

Recipes in this Chapter

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