Food solves all problems, my mother always believed,” Yaffa Olenski says as she darts around her kitchen late one Friday afternoon. “She used to say people underestimate the power of food.”
For Yaffa, food is a unifying force most evident at her Jewish Friday night meal known as Shabbat. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Jews refrain from work to commemorate God’s day of rest after creating the universe. Yaffa and her family take pleasure in this opportunity to stop and reflect while surrounded by loved ones, laughter and food. “Shabbat is different to the other six days. The whole day has to be dressed up – the table, the food, the way you love and the stories,” she explains.
To reflect this difference, Yaffa changes into a traditional Moroccan kaftan known as a jalabiya once dinner preparations are complete. Moroccan customs punctuate Yaffa’s Shabbat meal, following her childhood in Israel where her parents, both from Casablanca, taught their children to hold tradition in the highest regard. Yaffa enjoys recreating those scents and senses for her family in Melbourne. “When my mother had finished all the cooking, she went and had a long shower and covered her head with a handkerchief, and she looked so beautiful. She looked like she was ready for Shabbat,” Yaffa recalls.
As sunset nears, Yaffa lights a candle for each of her three children and one grandchild to welcome in the Shabbat, just as her eldest daughter Ilit arrives with the youngest member of the family, baby Mila. Ilit notes how in a Moroccan home the door is always open, with plenty of food on hand. “Shabbat to me means family and food, and Mum bringing people together,” she says.
Yaffa’s husband, Jack, who grew up in a traditional Jewish Eastern European home with dishes, such as gefilte fish (stuffed fish) and chicken soup, has embraced his wife’s Moroccan traditions. He says while some of the customs differ from the Shabbat dinners of his childhood, the meaning and importance of the night remains the same.
“Shabbat simplifies things,” he explains. “It’s about family and friends.” Now dark outside, guests gather around the table as Jack conducts prayers over the wine and braided bread called challah. In a Moroccan home, parents and grandparents are respected above all else, and to signify this, each family shares their wine from the same cup.
Then it’s time for the food. Plates of mezze cover the table, the Moroccan feast offering heady aromas and vibrant colours. Cooked carrots glisten in harissa, while fried eggplant sits alongside the much-loved matboucha, a traditional tomato and chilli dish.
Yaffa brings out a Moroccan fish dish traditionally eaten by her family on a Friday night. “After the fish, we often think we don’t have room in our stomachs for anything else,” Yaffa says, and yet out come the meat dishes: lamb tagine with dried fruit, veal and vegetables on couscous, and prunes and artichokes each stuffed with meat.
As Turkish music plays in the background, Yaffa and her sister Lilian wash up, dancing and laughing to the beat. More guests arrive and another table is set. It’s now 10pm and dessert is being served while Yaffa conducts the traditional Moroccan mint tea ceremony using her mother’s teapot, marking the end of the meal.“Shabbat was always the most magnificent day,” says Yaffa. “My mother used to say that when you have a good Shabbat, you’re going to have a very good week.”
Photography Julian Kingma
As seen in Feast magazine, February 2014, Issue 28. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.