In chef and restaurant owner Ori Menashe’s family, everyone cooks. His brother owns a pair of restaurants in Tel Aviv, Ori co-owns the celebrated Bestia and Bavel in Los Angeles, a sister cooks for private events, and after a career in fashion and business, his father Gideon opened a bakery. It’s fitting for a family where food is at the center of everything, a tradition that, in many ways, stems from Ori’s paternal grandmother Rachel.
“[She] was the kind of person whom you couldn’t help but notice the minute she walked into a room. She was a strong personality but also fiercely maternal and one of my first role models as a cook,” writes Ori in his new cookbook “Bavel: Modern Recipes Inspired by the Middle East.” He would stay with her as often as he could as a child, enjoying her cooking and taking trips to Tel Aviv with her. “She could have opened a restaurant,” he says.
Instead, she cooked for large family gatherings at her home. As she did, relatives would gather in the dining room to dance and listen to music like Talking Heads, Sting, The Police, or Arabic music, DJ’d by Ori’s father and brother. Rachel’s culinary repertoire was broad, stretching from recipes she picked up from Ashkenazi neighbors like gefilte fish to Persian dishes her husband, whose family walked from Iran to Israel, grew up with. “She cooked outside of the box,” Ori says.
She also drew on her own roots. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia and raised on the eastern side of Istanbul, Rachel’s family is Nash Didan, a community from around Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran, near the border with Iraq and Turkey that’s connected through a dialect of Aramaic.
Her family, like Jewish cooks the world-over, absorbed the recipes of the larger population around them including peppery meat-filled dumplings called hingali (or khinkali) from Georgia, which Rachel would make in batches of a few hundred. When they were little, Ori and his brother would compete to see who could eat more of them. “And by the end of it, both of us would fall asleep on the sofa,” Ori says. She also made chatachtuma, a Nash Didan pasta with garlic-laced yogurt sauce, a soup called chefte, stuffed vegetables with beef and dill, and beef cured in salt and fat for Passover.
Meals cooked by Rachel weren’t limited to her home. When Ori’s parents were out of town, she would wrap pots in towels and carry stacks of them with her on the bus. When Ori was sick; she would prepare a pot of peshalo, a little-known soup with fresh cut noodles, cabbage, chickpeas, and a broth tinged with turmeric, and bring it over. “Most families have their own version of the cure-all soup for when someone’s sick and this was ours,” Ori writes.
In Los Angeles, Ori’s made the soup for his wife and his staff at the restaurants — and one day he will for his daughter who is little enough that she still prefers alphabet soup. As we head into the winter, it’s a soup we’ll crave. “It’s one of those,” says Ori, “a soup that cures you for sure.”