Read more about Ziona Cohen in “This Dessert from Izmir Is Best for Breakfast” and try her recipe for sütlaç (Turkish rice pudding).
Staring at the high rises and luxury condos of Tel Aviv today, it’s jarring to remember that in the early years of the country, when immigrants arrived to the city and the surrounding towns, some lived in huts built atop sand dunes. Ziona Cohen’s mother was one of them. Her parents, Esther and Shmuel Pitchon, who immigrated from Turkey, lived in a shack with an outhouse in Holon, a town a few miles to the south. When Ziona married her husband Shlomo, they too moved into a shack on the dunes nearby.
He knew the life. Shlomo’s father, who emigrated from Egypt and his Iraqi stepmother, who the family called doda, or aunt in Hebrew, lived similarly in Yad Eliyahu, a neighborhood of Tel Aviv not far from an orchard with figs, mulberry, and bitter oranges. In the winter, their street once flooded with so much water that a neighbor picked up Shlomo’s family in a small boat to get to the grocery store a kilometer away.
It wasn’t until apartment buildings started to go up in neighboring Bat Yam in the early 1950’s that Ziona and her family moved out of the dunes. Even in their new home, her mother’s cooking was simple during the week, white beans and gevetch, a hearty vegetable stew, were staples. Elaborate cooking and meat was reserved for Shabbat when the family would have chicken or bourekas with gizzard sauce. On Saturday mornings, Ziona’s mother would prepare bourekas, a flakey puff pastry stuffed with feta, rich yogurt, and potatoes, formed into triangles. Drawing on Turkish cooking traditions, she served them with hard boiled eggs, adding fresh cut cucumbers and a semi-soft cheese like feta to the plate and finishing the meals with sweet rice pudding.
Ziona has kept her mother’s tradition of bourekas for Shabbat meals when her children and grandchildren join her, sometimes even making them on Friday night, if that’s when the family can gather. Borrowing from Shlomo’s Egyptian heritage, she serves them with boiled eggs and potatoes, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil and finished with salt and pepper. Tahini and a chopped salad of tomatoes and cucumbers round out the meal, adding an Israeli touch.