My mother prepares a cake that makes people forget. They forget their troubles, their diets, and their calorie count. They forget they only came by for a minute – they had other plans, places to go – and then they forget they promised themselves they would have only one slice.
Ugat shmarim – literally translated as yeast cake – looks like a braided Danish or a Jewish-style babka, European delicacies that made their way into Israeli cuisine and into my mother’s Jewish-Yemeni kitchen. Every Friday, before Shabbat, my mother mixes flour, eggs, sugar, lemon rind, and yeast. She throws in a package of margarine: that way the cake is not dairy, and can be consumed after a meaty dinner. While the dough rises, she beats cocoa and sugar with margarine, vanilla, and egg white for the chocolate filling. She flattens the dough on a flour-dusted table, applies a generous helping of chocolate, and braids it into a strudel. For thirty minutes the house smells so sweet you want to devour the air. When the cake is done right, the inside is moist and dense, the top is crisp, glossy with brushed yolk, and every slice presents a chocolate swirl that makes you dizzy with desire.
Relatives and friends who ask for the recipe often come back scowling. “It didn’t turn out like yours”, they say. “What’s the secret?” Secret, as in: What have you left out?
“Secret!” My mother scoffs. “You think I’d hide something from you?”
Whenever I fly back to Canada, I smuggle the contraband cake past customs agents, wrapped in foil and tucked between my socks. I eat some right away and freeze the rest for when I’m craving a taste of home. When I reheat it, the smell permeates my house, drapes over me like a comfort blanket. It pulls me back and away. It’s a cake that makes me remember.
My Canadian friends who share it with me ask, “Do you know the recipe?”
“Oh no. I could never make it,” I say. “It’s way too complicated. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
When I was nine, I found a cookbook in our house. Children Cooking had a bright yellow cover and pictures of children in chef hats, making smiley faces on toast with julienned red peppers for a mouth and sliced cucumbers for eyes. Their aprons were spotless and their kitchen immaculate. During my mother’s siesta, I decided to try my hand at a recipe, imagining how pleased she would be. I chose chocolate balls dusted with coconut flakes: an Israeli dessert popular at children’s birthday parties. My mother had never made it; for our birthdays, she baked intricate cakes with frosting, layered with filo, and topped with shaved chocolate. I found all the ingredients in her pantry, except for coconut flakes, and decided it would do.
I climbed on the counter to fetch a bowl, then hopped off, letting the cupboard door slam. “Sheket!” my mother yelled from her bedroom. I flinched. Every day between two and four, we tiptoed around the house, speaking in hushed voices. Sometimes I imagined her lying there, stiff and alert with her eyes closed; that would explain why she never seemed rested.
I crushed biscuits, mixed them with cocoa, sugar, milk, vanilla, and margarine. I dipped my finger in the bowl, amazed to discover I’d created something yummier than the sum of its parts, the way I had felt the first time I wrote words that joined into a sentence. I rolled the paste between my palms, forming muddy-looking balls.
I’d just finished the last ball when my mother walked in. She stood at the door in her gown, squinting. She ignored the plate heaped with chocolate balls on the table and headed straight to the counter. “What’s this?” She grimaced at the splashes of milk. “And this?” She pointed at the dishes in the sink.
“I was going to clean it,” I said. She started wiping the counter in rapid, urgent motions. “I wanted to surprise you.” She looked at me and sighed. My shirt was smeared with chocolate. I wasn’t wearing an apron. That day I abandoned my cooking aspirations. For the next few years, my contribution in the kitchen was restricted to dishwashing. Sometimes, my mother asked me to cut the tips off the okras, a tedious task I hated, since it coated my fingers with sticky little hairs and sent me into an itching frenzy.
I call my mother from Toronto. It’s Friday, dinnertime in Israel. She shouts orders as she speaks to me, “Turn off the oven. We’re missing a glass. Why with your hands? Use a fork!”
“You’re busy,” I say.
“No, not busy. What is it?”
“I was just wondering… how come I never learned to cook growing up?”
“How come?” She raises her voice. “You weren’t interested in cooking!”
I hear my sister in the background: “That’s because you didn’t want us in your kitchen.”
“Not true!” My mother is practically yelling. “You never asked.”
My family calls her to sit down, join them, stop hovering between the stove and the table. “The salad isn’t dressed yet,” she cries. “Stop picking!”
“Go.” I swallow. “We’ll talk later.”
My mother serves salad with lunch, dinner, and on Saturday mornings, with our traditional breakfast of jichnoon, a Yemeni Shabbat bread served with brown eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a few slivers of white onion, generously dressed with fresh lemon, olive oil, and rock salt. Like most of her recipes, it only sounds simple.
Every Thursday my mother drives to the shuk at the edge of our city, a labyrinth of intersecting alleys lined with produce stands. She marches up and down the market, fondling peaches, stroking avocados, and tasting grapes, carefully selecting the freshest cilantro, firmest tomatoes, and sweetest apples.
She takes note of the best produce and its corresponding vendor, mapping it in her mind as if formulating a strategic battle plan, then returns to the winning vendors and buys kilos of everything, making a couple of runs to fill the trunk with baskets.
As a kid, I trailed behind – grimacing at the stench of rotten vegetables, the slippery bits of lettuce and smashed fruit, the slimy tread of my sneakers – while my mom haggled with the vendors. “Your parsley looks tired today.” She crinkled her nose at one vendor. “Why so expensive?” she complained to another.
“Especially for you: five shekels.” The vendor winked. “Because you’re so beautiful.”
She waved a bill, frowning. “Should you be talking to women like that? You’re wearing a kippah.”
Making the salad was the one food preparation activity we were encouraged to engage in. We struggled to dice the vegetables as small as possible, competing for our mother’s final approval. A coarsely chopped salad was an “elephant’s salad”; a finely chopped salad earned the much sought-after label of “mice salad”; but none of us could do it as well as our mother, who was so skilled with the knife that she sliced without a cutting board. She cupped a tomato in her hand, and in a series of swift motions, slashed it up and down and side to side like an apron-wearing Jedi master. She then opened her palm as if releasing a dove to let the tiny pieces drop into the bowl. “I’ve never seen anybody do that,” I told her when I grew to appreciate her rare talent. She smiled modestly. “I saw a French chef on TV do it once.”
Every day, when my father came home from the office for siesta, we ate lunch as a family. I was delighted whenever my mom made schnitzels: this Austrian dish, brought to Israel by European Jews, was a national favourite, adopted into the mish-mash national cuisine alongside shish kebab, couscous, and pizza. My mother modified the original recipe to make it her own. She never hammered the chicken breast, cutting it instead into long, fat strips. She added garlic to the beaten eggs, then dipped a chicken strip in, dredged it in bread crumbs, and dropped it into hot oil until it was golden and crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside.
The one time my mother visited me in Vancouver, she walked through our kitchen, arms crossed, nodding like an art collector at a gallery. She ran her hand along our stove and our IKEA island, eyed the steel pans hanging on the wall.
“Do you have chicken breasts?” She gazed into my freezer. “Potatoes?”
Sean and I had planned elaborate meals to impress her, but she wouldn’t have any of that. I watched her sashay between the stove, the sink, the fridge, training her body for a new dance routine, marking her space. It didn’t matter that she was half a world away from her comfort zone. Kitchens were pockets of solace in every house, a neutral territory, a gastronomic Switzerland.
After my father passed away, my young mother spent most of her days in the kitchen. She didn’t speak much, rarely looked at us, but she cooked endlessly. When she dug in the drawers for a pan, she’d bang the pots against each other in a high-pitched cacoph ny. She chopped vegetables with homicidal intent, and when she tossed schnitzels into the sizzling oil, it sounded like a scream. She disappeared into the kitchen, became one with the appliances. Food replaced her words; cooking became her currency.
When she wasn’t cooking, she cleaned. I woke to the sounds of furniture dragged across the floor, rugs beaten, appliances wheeled. Cleaning was my mother’s form of meditation; it was also the one thing she could control. Her world may have fallen apart, but at least she had clean surfaces, laundered clothes, food on the table.
Even when we couldn’t afford brand-name jeans or pocket money, my mother found ways to prepare meals on a tight budget. She calculated her garlic usage for a whole year and bought dozens of bulbs when they were cheap. She ground them all, filled jars with the pulp, and froze them: two rows lining the shelves of the freezer door like teeth. For a whole week, the smell of garlic floated through our house; it stuck to our clothes and hid in the toothpaste, clinging to our hair like campfire smoke.
My mother fed me, did my laundry, cleaned my room, but it wasn’t enough. I followed her around as she worked, trying to engage her in conversation. When that failed, I found more effective ways to get her attention.
We fought about everything: my performance at school, my fashion sense, my messy room, my friends. I screamed that I hated her, stomped my feet, and slammed doors. She told me that I was ungrateful, that one day I’d have a daughter just like me. At the end of tenth grade, after my after-school work on a teen magazine led to failing grades, for which I was nearly expelled, my mother demanded that I focus on my studies and threatened to put restrictions on my job, which made me feel deeply wronged and misunderstood. How dare she go after my writing? Our relationship became so strained that once she passed me by on the street and didn’t even acknowledge me.
“The problem,” my brother once said, “is that you’re too much alike.”
I snorted. “We’re nothing alike.”
My first apartment in Tel Aviv was a two-bedroom on Dizengoff Street – a major artery in the heart of the city – that I shared with my best friend, Elsin. It was in an old, graceless building streaked by rain, with dark, musty stairways and a backyard strewn with garbage.
My mother donated her entire selection of cleaning supplies, and Elsin and I scoured the apartment for two days straight. When we finished I walked barefoot on the tile floor, its touch as tantalising as a chilled bottle of beer to a sweaty hand. My feet felt lighter, my head clearer. I never knew cleaning could feel so good.
“Wow.” Elsin admired my work. “You should do this for money.”
The next day I made a few handwritten ads: A young, energetic housekeeper for hire. I posted them on telephone poles and bulletin boards, my phone number hanging in detachable fringes. I was now, like my mother and grandmother before me, a housekeeper. In Israel’s early days, most housekeepers were Yemeni women, working for Ashkenazi families. Back then the term Yemeni in its female form was synonymous with maid.
My first two homes were my two brothers’ bachelor apartments. Over Friday dinner at my mother’s, one of them mentioned to her, “Ayelet does an excellent cleaning job.”
“She does?” My mother’s face stretched in astonishment.
“Why is it so hard to believe?” I bit into a piece of challah.
For dinner Elsin and I made pasta with sauce out of jars, pizza on pita bread, tossed salads with store-bought dressing. One day Elsin came home from her mother’s with a tray of chicken livers and suggested we prepare them the following evening. Chicken liver was a staple food we had both grown up eating. My mother made it often, fried with caramelised onions. It was a cheap source of iron, one of the many ways my mother fed an entire family on a limited income.
The next evening I was late from work, and by the time I came home, Elsin had cooked her portion. I stared at the smooth-skinned livers in the bowl.
“I didn’t know when you’d be coming,” she said. “You just have to fry them.”
I chopped onions and garlic and tossed them into an oily pan, leaning backwards, away from the splattering oil. I added the livers, which sizzled oudly. “It’s burning,” I yelled.
“Lower the heat,” Elsin answered from her room.
When the livers began to brown, I gingerly flipped them onto their sides. After a few minutes, I hollered, “How do you know when it’s ready?”
“I don’t know,” Elsin said. “Intuition?”
I stared at the pan. “Well, can you get your intuition over here and tell me if it’s ready?”
Elsin walked into the kitchen and looked at me in a new way. “Who would have thought? You have a kitchen phobia.”
My face reddened. “I just… I never really learned to cook.”
She stirred the livers and then turned off the gas. “You know, it’s never too late.”
Israelis like to ask each other, “What’s your background?” Once they know your heritage, they can conjure the smell of your parents’ kitchen: couscous or gefilte fish, rice or potatoes, spicy or bland. When Israelis discover that I’m Yemeni, their eyes often glaze in envy.
“Does your mother make jichnoon every Saturday?” “Yes,” I say.“How about malawah?”
“Yes,” I say. In fact, my mother prepares dough for malawah, flattens it between sheets of parchment paper, and stacks them in the freezer, so at any given time, I could throw one in a pan. I don’t tell them that. It would just be cruel.
In a country riddled with cultural prejudice, the stereotypes associated with Yemenis over the years have ranged from romanticising to fetishising to patronising. When they first arrived in Israel, Yemeni immigrants were considered savage and primitive. A fundraising film from the fifties, meant to highlight the work of Moetzet HaPoalot (Working Women’s Council), said Yemeni women are “fruitful and multiply but they need proper instructions” – instructions given by Ashkenazi women, as the film demonstrated. Growing up, I was told Yemenis were “nice,” “modest,” “satisfied with little,” and “such great singers and dancers!” These days, Yemenis are often the butt of racial jokes and the subject of mockery. But everyone seems to love our cuisine. Jichnoon and malawah have made it into the national comfort food hall of fame. Malawah is made of thin layers of puff pastry, like a crispy pancake. Jichnoon, Yemeni Shabbat bread, is rolled into croissant-like shapes, layered, and baked overnight in a special aluminum pot with a tightly, sealed lid.
Friends invited for jichnoon on Saturday morning often look over the table and timidly ask for a fork and knife.
“You hear that?” we sneer. “She wants cutlery!” Taking pride in our hand-eating skill is our way of turning the prejudiced view of Yemenis as savages on its head.
A few years ago, my cousin Yifat moved to Vancouver with her Canadian husband and rented the apart ment downstairs from Sean and me. At that point I was no longer afraid of the kitchen. After I’d moved to Canada, and spent most of my days unemployed and alone, I began trying my hand at basic recipes. When my boyfriend and his friends complimented me on my cooking, I was encouraged to attempt more complex dishes. I became good at Indian and Thai curries, shopping at speciality stores for obscure ingredients and grinding fresh spices.
Soon after Yifat’s arrival in the city, she invited us for a traditional Yemeni Shabbat breakfast. “It won’t be as good as your mother’s,” she warned.
Late Friday night, the smell of jichnoon started creeping through the house, and by the time I woke up on Saturday, it hovered in our apartment, thick as fog. Downstairs, Yifat served brown eggs, tomatoes grated to a pulp, and spicy bisbas, a cilantro chutney-like condiment. I tore a piece of moist jichnoon and it emitted a swirl of steam. Sean grabbed an egg and examined it. “I always wondered, what makes the eggs go brown?”
“They’re in the oven all night with the jichnoon.” I laid a spoonful of bisbas on my plate.
“Do you cook them first?”
I hesitated. “I think?”“How come you don’t know that?” “It’s complicated,” I said. “It takes a whole day—”
“You don’t even know how to make bisbas. That can’t be complicated.”
“Seriously?” Yifat said. “You never made bisbas?”
“My mother never taught me,” I protested.
“Why not?”I shifted in my chair. “Maybe she didn’t like sharing the spotlight.” Sean and my cousin exchanged glances.“Maybe you should have asked,” Sean said, yanking a piece of jichnoon and dipping it in tomato.
The first time I tried bisbas, it bit my tongue like a bee sting. My mouth turned hot and numb, and my eyes started watering. It tasted like danger. It didn’t help that my mother sometimes threatened to put it in my mouth if I was bad.
Bisbas, a green paste made of cilantro and garlic and sprinkled red with chilies, was an essential condiment in our house, served with every meal. At twenty-two, after my first backpacking trip to India, I returned to Israel with a new-found appreciation for Yemeni cuisine, a higher tolerance for spiciness. The first time I grabbed the jar of bisbas and spooned some onto my plate, my mother and sister paused from eating and stared at me. “What?” I said.
It was a pale February in Israel when Sean and I arrived for a visit, hungry from the moment we stepped into my mother’s house. After Friday night dinner, Sean cornered my mother in her kitchen. “I’d like to learn how to make bisbas,” he said.
“You do?” She laughed.“You do?” I said, choking on the water I’d just sipped.The next day, my mother invited Sean into her kitchen. I tagged along, still feeling like a trespasser. I hid behind my camera, snapping my mother stuffing cilantro into a meat grinder with garlic, chilies, and cumin. Sean wrote notes while my mother explained every step with the meticulousness of a television chef.
“Can I watch when you make tzli?” Sean said. My mother beamed.
My mother’s tzli is her signature dish, the main event at Friday dinners. The tzli (simply translated as roast) is a five-ingredient wonder – chicken, potatoes, onions, oil, salt – yet somehow it makes the most satisfying, flavourful arrangement. Some days, when I miss home, it translates into a craving for my mother’s tzli that nothing else can satisfy.
The first time I made tzli, the potatoes turned to mush and the chicken fell off the bone. The second time, the chicken and potatoes were tinted an unappealing yellow. Other times, I added too much water, burnt the onions. It seems so simple, yet impossible to perfect. It’s a recipe that makes me humble.
My mother cooks by intuition and memory, the way a musician plays without reading notes. She owns no measuring cups, no cookbooks. Her recipes call for a bit of this and a bit of that. Sometimes they’re just a list of ingredients you have to rearrange like an anagram.
“You’re sure the tzli has only salt?” I asked her after my first failed attempt. “How does it get brown out of nothing?”
“It’s the onions,” she said. “You have to caramelize them, then add the chicken legs. Keep turning until they’re brown on all sides. Add potatoes and water. Easy.”
One Friday morning, on a visit to Israel, I woke up to the smell of fried onions and stewed chicken tickling my nose. When I stepped into my mother’s kitchen, I found all four burners at work: three covered pots and one plump eggplant laid in the blue flame. The kitchen table was covered with steaming Pyrex. At any given time, there was enough food in my mother’s kitchen to feed a small village. Relatives and friends often showed up unannounced at lunchtime.
“There are only five of us tonight,” my mother said. “We’re having a small dinner.”
A small Friday night dinner was an assortment of appetizers – fried cauliflower, roasted yams with rosemary, chopped salad doused with lemon and olive oil – followed by tzli, Yemeni soup, and ugat shmarim for dessert.
The eggplant whistled, shrivelled, and blackened, thin chimneys of smoke shooting from its cracks like lit cigarettes. My mother poked the eggplant with a fork and it released a sigh. She stripped off the flaky skin, letting the meaty guts spill onto a plate. She cleaned up the burnt bits, mashed it with a fork, and added tahini, lemon, salt, and a pinch of minced garlic from a jar.
“My eggplant salad never tastes like yours,” I said.
“Do you burn the eggplant? You have to burn it until it’s black.” “I have an electric stove.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Just put it on a pan. And use a fork. No blender.” She seemed so eager to share her knowledge with me. Over the past few months, she had been nothing but helpful, not at all what I remembered or expected. As a child, I felt unwelcome in her kitchen. I figured she didn’t want to reveal her secrets because she needed to be indispensable. Cooking was her gift, her genius; if she shared that with us – then what would she have left?
Only years later, I realised I had been wrong. Like most adolescents, I was self-absorbed and so engrossed in my own grief that I couldn’t comprehend the extent of both her tragedy and her triumph. She had lost her husband at forty-one, was left with six children to care for (which she had done swimmingly, despite the dwindling financial resources and her broken heart). In a house full of kids, where she was always in demand, the kitchen was her sanctuary, her shelter, and she had to guard that territory jealously so she could keep going, so she could keep sane.
We were sitting at her kitchen table when I shared that insight with her, my mother rolling jichnoon with oily fingers. As I spoke, she nodded repeatedly, without speaking, her face open and grateful, her eyes gleaming.
At thirty-five, I learned how to make Yemeni soup. It was winter in Vancouver, dreary and cold, and my naturopathic doctor advised me to eat more soups. I never liked Yemeni soup as a child, hated how turmeric stained my fingers yellow, scowled at the wilted cilantro, despised hilbe, a ground fenugreek paste that clouded the clear soup the way water fogged arak, the Middle Eastern anise liquor. Hilbe emanated from your pores the following day, a tang Yemenis were often teased for. Whenever Yemeni soup was served at my grandmother’s house, I sulked, refused to eat it, and left to play outside.
Yemeni soup was one of the dishes my mother had learned from her mother after she got married. It was a recipe my grandmother had been taught by the aunt who raised her in Yemen, a recipe that made it through the desert and across the sea, surviving for decades, never written down.
When my mother was a child, this soup constituted their weekly serving of meat. My grandmother gave the chicken wings to the girls so they could fly away, marry off, and the legs to the boys so they could form the foundation of the house.
For one week in November, my mother and I met in Los Angeles, where my sister and her family were living at the time. “I’m making Yemeni soup,” my mother said. “I even brought hawayij.”
I opened the brown paper bag and sniffed it, the blend of spices instantly transporting me into her kitchen.
This time I got to watch as she prepared the soup, scribbling the steps on the back of a used envelope. We stood side by side, mother and daughter, shoulders touching, gazing into the pot, waiting for the water to boil. She added chicken drumsticks and thighs and dished the excess fat out with a spoon. She dropped in a full onion, which would later disintegrate into translucent rings, and chunks of tomato, peppers, potatoes, and carrots. She sliced garlic straight into the pot, and finally threw in an entire bouquet of cilantro. While she poured hawayij into the soup, I stirred the yellow into the water with a wooden spoon.
The aroma of Yemeni soup lingers in my kitchen for days after I cook it. I grew up trying to shake this smell off me. Now it lives in my house, a permanent stamp on my walls, a pungent greeting that welcomes my guests. When the hawayij my mother had given me in Los Angeles was finished, I started making my own: grinding cardamom, cumin, turmeric, chilies, and coriander in a mortar and pestle, the way my grandmother and great-grandmother had done before me. When I stand by my electric stove and pour hawayij into the pot, I’m a Jewish Yemeni woman making soup. I forget I live in a cold and strange city, ten time zones away from my family. I’m home.
One wintry Canadian night I’m stunned by an intense craving for my mother’s cake. I decide to call my mother for the recipe. I need to make it, this one time. I need to know how.
It’s been two years since I last made it to Israel, a year since my mother and I met in Los Angeles. Sean and I moved to Toronto so I could attend an MFA program in creative writing, and after years of talking around the subject, we started trying for a baby. But Toronto is still not home, and this apartment in up-and-coming Parkdale still doesn’t feel like a proper place for a family. In respites between writing, I spend hours toiling away in the kitchen, filling it up with the smells of my childhood in an effort to make the place feel homier, to make me more motherly, the only way I know how.
None of my siblings have ever dared to try making this cake. I always assumed it was too difficult. But today I’m feeling courageous, confident in my skills. I call my mother with the admission that we’re more alike than I ever cared to admit. Cleaning gives me peace of mind; a full fridge makes me feel rich; when I’m in the kitchen, I don’t like interruption; I cook by intuition, rarely following a recipe. If anyone can make this cake, I can.
My mother is already in bed but she’s delighted that I want to make the cake, eager to pass on the recipe. “Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work the first time,” she says. “It takes practice. Keep trying.”
Writing down the recipe takes a while. Some of the ingredients, like a cube of yeast commonly used in Israel, are unavailable in Canada; others come in different packages, different sizes. And when my mother calls for four cups of flour, she doesn’t mean standard cups. “You know the small glasses we have at home?”
“I think so.”
“Your father wouldn’t drink coffee in any other cup. You know the ones?” My father passed away nearly three decades ago.“What’s the secret?” I say.
“For the recipe?” She laughs. “No secret.” I proudly tell her of my new invention, a vegan split pea soup.
She tells me she made a Chinese recipe from TV. “Chinese!” she repeats in awe. I recommend the salmon cakes I found in O, The Oprah Magazine. “I don’t like salomon,” she says, pronouncing it the way many Israelis do. We don’t agree on everything. I find her beef too well done. I use less oil in my cooking, choose ingredients that are natural, organic. She sneers at my decision to use chicken broth in my Yemeni soup rather than a bouillon cube.
We’ve been talking for almost an hour. She hasn’t asked me about babies once, though I know she wants to.
Then I say, “Next time I’m in Israel, I’m going to watch you make jichnoon.”
“It would be my pleasure.” I can hear her smile.
The smell of cake lurks in the kitchen at first, nothing but a hint, then it brims over: warm, sweet, wholesome, homey. I feel as though I’m bathing in its silky aroma. “Do you smell it?” I clutch Sean’s hand and whisper, afraid to disturb the moment. “I can’t believe it’s coming from my oven.”
This is an edited extract from The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari, published by Penguin Random House in February 2019. © Ayelet Tsabari 2019