How Hedai Offaim Keeps His Grandmother’s Shtetl Recipes Alive
Recipe Roots: Piszczac, Poland > Makhachkala, Russia > Haifa, Israel
Shared by Hedai Offaim
For chef and farmer Hedai Offaim, his late grandmother Rivka’s recipes are a calling. “I make her food when I feel that’s what I need…. When I get nostalgic bursts, I make everything I remember how to make from her kitchen”, he says. That includes dishes of poverty and tradition from the small shtetl called Piszczac in the east of Poland where she lived. Dishes like kreplach and fricasse, a dish of chicken organs and caramelized onions, and eyerlekh mit tzvible, or eggs with onion, a recipe from Rivka’s mother Toibe-Mahe.
Rivka carried it with her during World War II when she fled with her husband while pregnant from Poland east towards Russia, ultimately making it to Makhachkala on the Caspian Sea. When they reached Russia, Hedai’s grandfather was drafted and ultimately killed by the Nazis. “My father never met his father,” he explains. “They waited for him for many years.” But he never returned from the war. In 1948, Rivka and her son Yankele, Hedai’s father, who was just 8-years-old made Aliyah, building a home for themselves in Haifa.
Despite moving to Israel at the time of the founding of the country, Rivka chose not to assimilate. “She kept her diaspora characteristics. She was a Yiddishe mama,” Hedai explains. “She cooked food from home and she didn’t feel sorry or a need to apologize for not assimilating. She was the real thing.” And so was her cooking.
Hedai has visited Poland more than 40 times and taken several trips to Ukraine. “I’ve been learning and studying the Jewry of those areas for a long time,” he says. “I’ve created and eaten feasts in Poland.” His grandmother’s cooking still stands out. “This is the first taste that I remember,” he adds. He would sit in the kitchen with Rivka as she cooked, keeping her company and learning her recipes and stories as she folded delicate kreplach.
While Hedai’s preserved almost all of Rivka’s recipes exactly as she made them, he has updated the eyerlekh mit tzvible over the years. It was traditionally made with eggs still inside a just slaughtered hen, which are hard to find in Israel (and the U.S.) today. In their place, Hedai uses deeply golden yolks. And while he saves the fricasse and kreplach for dinners dedicated just to Rivka, the eyerlekh mit tzvible is the one crossover to his deep and wide repertoire of cooking that takes inspiration from the land of Israel. He serves it at brunch alongside white shakshuka, corn latkes, and salads, those meals embodying both his family’s past and present.
Eyerlekh Mit Tzvible (Eggs with Onion)
When Hedai shared this recipe with us, he included a note saying that there’s not a word in the name of this dish in Yiddish about the potatoes that make up much of the recipe. Maybe, he adds, “because in eastern Europe it was very hard to imagine life without them and there’s just no need to mention them, as you wouldn’t write in a recipe: Air.” At Rivka’s table, the dish was always served with vodka nearby, perhaps to burn the bacteria of the eggs. And it was always doted on. Some believe, according to Hedai, that the expression, “oy, oy this is so good,” was born out of reactions to this dish.
Makes: 4 - 6 servings
Time: 1½ hours
3 medium russet potatoes
3 large yellow onions
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 large eggs
3 scallions, white and light green parts only, cut into ½-inch pieces
Smoked fish like white anchovies, for serving
*Cooking this recipe is all about timing. As the potatoes cook, be sure to move on to steps two and three.
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Pierce the potatoes several times with a paring knife or fork and wrap each tightly in foil. Bake the potatoes until tender, about 1 hour. Set aside in the foil until cool enough to handle.
2. Meanwhile, slice the onions into ¼-inch rings and separate the pieces. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the onion rings to the skillet and sauté until golden, flipping once with tongs, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the onion rings to a large bowl. Add the garlic to the skillet and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Transfer to the bowl with the onions. Let the oil cool slightly, then drizzle it over the onion mixture, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, remove the eggs from the refrigerator half an hour before cooking to bring them to room temperature. Bring a small pot of water that will just cover the eggs to a boil. Reduce the heat to a steady simmer and gently slide the eggs into the water. Simmer the eggs for 7 to 8 minutes until the yolks are just set. Remove the eggs from the heat and shock them in cold water to stop the cooking process.
4. To assemble the dish: Remove the potatoes from the foil and break them into large bite-sized pieces with your hands. Add the potatoes to the bowl with the sautéed onion mixture and toss to coat. Peel the eggs and cut them once lengthwise and once crosswise into quarters. Add them to the bowl with the onions and potatoes. Fold in the scallions and season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature with smoked fish.
Check back next week for more of Hedai’s recipes.