Pomelo Candies from Israel’s Days of Austerity
Shared by Gil Hovav
Recipe Roots: Jerusalem > Tel Aviv
Growing up in Jerusalem, Gil Hovav’s grandmother lived with his family. But he never called her grandmother, or savta, or bubby. Instead, she went by Mooma. “We weren’t allowed to call any woman grandmother he recalls...It would be impolite,” he says, explaining that it would have implied that she was old, something which was forbidden in their family — particularly for women.
The matriarch of the family Mooma, whose real name was Leah Abushdid, was in charge of all of the cooking in their home. Despite growing up in a well to do Tunisian family in what was then Palestine, she cooked what Gil jokingly calls “jail food.” The dishes were simple: okra and rice or beans, and chicken wings in a hot and sour Tunisian sauce. They were dishes she learned to make from the servants in her parents’ home, which served her well when she relinquished her dowry and married her husband Itamar Ben Avi, the eldest son of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the father of modern Hebrew.
The food of poverty and Israel’s era of austerity became an integral part of her cooking repertoire. On each Independence Day she would cook “Independence or victory patties,” he recalls, vegetarian croquettes, made from wild greens that people foraged in the fields during the siege on Jerusalem. “This is what they lived on in 1948. And, on Independence Day, she would cook [them] to remember.”
Even when the family did well (Gil’s parents are both noted radio journalists in Israel), the simple foods of austerity were what “we continued to cook at home,” he says. And some treats were deemed to precious for the kids. When a distant relative came to visit from France with calisson, a candy of almond paste and candied fruit from Provence, he asked for it, but instead said the Ladino word for underpants. Writing in his recent book Candies from Heaven, “Aunt Fortuna...I want to eat your underwear.”
Instead of laughing at Gil, who went by Gili at the time, Mooma and Aunt Fortuna “half expected it,” Gil recalls. “I was a clutz as a kid. I was clumsy with words….[and] they expected nothing less.” He and his brother Bonnie were given Mooma’s pomelo candies instead. They are “simple, cheap, and frugal,” he says, made from the white pith of the pomelo in an effort to not waste even the smallest amount of food. The result is greater than the sum of the recipe’s ingredients. It’s like an “all natural marshmallow...with juices that ooze out,” when you bite into them, he explains.
Despite being close to Mooma, she never taught Gil to make the candies, or anything else. “With Sephardi families, men bring only two things to the kitchen: dirt and bad luck….she never gave me even one recipe,” Gil says. It was the day she died, when he was 20 that he started to cook her recipes, working to recreate her dishes — like these candies, which he now makes in his home in Tel Aviv.
“I come from a very maternal family,” he adds. He’s passing that along to his daughter. “I’m bringing her up to be a mataddera — a tough woman in Ladino. A tough and opinionated woman.”