Middle East - Yuval Ashkar

Middle East - Yuval Ashkar

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


Composer, musician and Middle Eastern percussion teacher Yuval Ashkar is a man of many talents. But for as long as he can remember, his one consistent passion has been for food, particularly the meals, tastes and smells that punctuated his childhood.

Born in Ness Ziona, a small town south of Tel Aviv, Yuval and his two siblings grew up in a household influenced by the German-Australian background of their mother and the Sephardic traditions of their father. On religious occasions the Middle Eastern customs won out, but Yuval remembers his mother’s cooking as being scattered with references from all over the globe.

‘She cooked [with] a lot of styles, from European to Yemenite to Persian. You can find so many cultures in Israel, there are so many varieties of food,’ Yuval explains.

‘From my grandmother she learnt her cooking and she brought it home.’

Yuval’s grandmother was the doyenne of the Ashkar kitchen, with her recipes still some of Yuval’s favourites today. The recipe for aruq, or Sephardic chicken patties, was a dish that could always be found in his grandmother’s fridge before a Sabbath meal, and Yuval remembers sneaking into the kitchen on more than one occasion to eat this dish cold on Iraqi pita bread as a pre-dinner snack.

Another favourite hand-me-down dish was Iraqi rice cooked with chicken and tomatoes called beet, which was also traditionally served on Friday night. Known fondly as ‘red rice’, the dish is marked by its distinctive redness that comes from the cooked tomatoes and was usually kept on the stove overnight to suit the Sabbath traditions. But Yuval admits his mother would often shorten the recipe so that it could be prepared an hour or two before the Friday night meal.

Along with his grandmother’s deft touch, a Yemeni friend also helped shape Yuval’s mother’s cooking style, with the traditional pastry dish known as jachnun becoming a staple of the Ashkar household. Similar in style to a croissant, it is eaten with ground tomatoes, chilli and a boiled egg.

‘This is the food I really like and I was really into it,’ Yuval recalls. ‘[The dishes included] a lot of strong flavours like fenugreek chutney, which is actually very strong and very healthy and I love it … Fenugreek with lentil and fermented pickle is the Iraqi style, this is something I’m addicted to!’

Yuval says his love of experimenting with different flavours and foods was inherited from his mother’s own fearlessness in the kitchen. One of his earliest memories is cooking for his younger brother when he was barely a teenager, copied from watching their mother in the kitchen but with not quite as successful results.

‘I didn’t really know what I was doing but I was really passionate about it. I put all the spices in an omelette and when I think about it today, it’s horrible. But I had the passion then.’

At age 16, Yuval got his first job as a kitchenhand in a commercial kitchen near Tel Aviv where he worked for eight months and learnt the basics of food preparation. He shared his workspace with Palestinian workmates, an experience that left an indelible mark on his own cooking style.

‘I really enjoyed it, just to see how they cooked. Making big dough without any machines, no mixers, [it was a] very physical and a very grounded job. It was a good experience for me,’ Yuval says.

From there he moved to a café where he was promoted to chef, a job that brought out his experimental style. And all the while, Yuval was living at home and continuing to watch his mother’s exploits in the kitchen.

‘I always got more involved in what she was doing, trying to learn what she was doing. Just to watch her was really inspiring. She loved food.’

Yuval soon moved to the commercial cooking arena, working at weddings and functions for a predominantly Iranian audience. While his mother was already experimenting with this cooking style, it was at work that Yuval was really able to learn the basics of Persian spices and flavours and how best to combine them.

‘You must have the touch for it, but there’s basic stuff that you should know that comes from experience and learning from the people you work with. I’m still learning, all the time. It’s just endless,’ he says.

One of his greatest influences in the kitchen, other than his mother, was surprisingly his army chef. Posted as a cook on a desert army base near Jordan, Yuval was lucky enough to be led by a ‘really horrible but amazing’ Moroccan cook, who seemed to create miracles out of the desert soil.

‘He would cook everything, from European to Middle Eastern to Balkan stuff , French cooking, everything. [He had] basic equipment and not the best ingredients, but he did amazing stuff … He treated us like slaves, we worked so hard with him but everything he did was so good.’

As Yuval explains, this experience taught him the importance ‘being open-minded and, as a chef, if you’re not open-minded then it’s not very good’.

With this new knowledge in hand, Yuval left the army at age 22 and travelled to India for two years. On his return he settled in Haifa, a city he describes as not only a very special place where Jews and Palestinians happily co-exist, but also the destination for ‘the best falafel in the world’.

He lived there for five years and it was there that he met his wife Ayelet and, importantly, found inspiration from Ayelet’s grandmother, a third-generation Israeli who loved to cook.

‘She used to have a restaurant for 28 years in Haifa … she had so much knowledge and recipes and so quite a few stuff I learnt from her.’

In 2002, Yuval and Ayelet made the move to Australia, first to Melbourne before settling in Byron Bay, where they lived for seven years. Yuval admits the move was quite a cultural shock, both in language and in appetite.

‘I was amazed at the quality of the vegetables [in Australia], it was not as good. In Israel it’s so cheap, you can go to the market and buy a bunch of herbs and it’s so fresh. Fruit and vegetables, especially up in Byron, were shocking,’ Yuval says.

‘Also, if you go to an Australian bakery you want to cry, it all looks the same. I love pies but all the rest, horrible stuff.’

Yuval took up catering jobs in his new town, working in a café and a curry house, then moving on to a five-star guesthouse. In each location, he was picking up tips and hints, learning how to improve and perfect his cooking skills.

He moved to Melbourne in 2009 with Ayelet and their two daughters, and has managed to incorporate both his worlds into his new life: he continues to play and teach Middle Eastern percussion and song, while also cooking at a small café in Sandringham, where he adds a bit of his own childhood dishes to the Australian menu.

‘We put ourselves in the food that we cook … I always do some special food, my grandmother’s cooking like omelettes with herbs and feta, very Iraqi,’ he says.

And often, when he finds himself in his kitchen at home, he’ll listen to music to match his particular dish, to ‘feel the culture all around you’.

‘I think it’s very important to have that kind of experience,’ he says.

Yuval describes his cooking style as a mixture of Sephardic and Ashkenazi, though he admits to having a secret love of Jewish-European staples such as gefilte fish, tzimmes and goulash, dishes he learnt from his mother.

At home he continues to hark back to the dishes that characterised his childhood. Horshet sabzi is one such dish, a very traditional Persian meal that Yuval rates as one of his favourites. A beef and kidney bean stew punctuated by dry Persian limes, Yuval first tasted this dish when it was cooked by his mother, then at a restaurant in Israel, before trying it himself. Now he says it’s a favourite of his daughters.

It’s this experience of mixing food and family, old memories and new, that makes Yuval believe he’ll continue to cook for the people he loves long into the future. For, as he says, once cooking and food is a part of you, it’s very hard to let it go.

‘I love to eat and I love to see people enjoying my cooking. That’s my enjoyment, to make nice food.’

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