• Michael Otto can still remember the smell of his Nonna’s roast pork at Easter time. (Sagra Sydney)Source: Sagra Sydney
Like most significant holidays, Easter is a time for family and tradition and three local chefs share their closest Easter memories - all which involve a beautiful dose of food, of course.
By
Mariam Digges

17 Apr 2019 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 17 Apr 2019 - 11:30 AM

Many pagans and non-pagans alike celebrate Easter Sunday with a long lunch, loved ones and customs that vary from country to country. That might include breaking a fast with a suckling pig, filling woven baskets with handmade treats or dying hard-boiled eggs with family. Three chefs spill the beans on what Easter means to them and what they'll be cooking this year.

Nico Mandranca, Rey’s Place

Growing up, chef Nico Mandranca recalls wiling away the days leading up to Easter at the beach with his family.

“For us, Easter is considered just as important as Christmas, because we celebrate Jesus being raised from the dead,” the chef from Sydney Filipino restaurant Rey’s Place says.

Any meat was forbidden during Lent for Mandranca, who instead ate fish, eggs and vegetables. 

“Some even take up a liquid-only diet or abstain from food entirely.” Raised in a Filipino household, Mandranca says when it came to breaking the fast, pork was always the protein of choice, prepared in a variety of ways including the quintessential slow-cooked Lechon (suckling pig), barbecue pork, and pork lumpia (fresh or fried spring rolls). Sides might include vegetable pancit (noodles) or a tangy grilled eggplant salad.

In Mandranca’s house during the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, the table would be carpeted with dishes like grilled bangus (milk fish) and binignit: ube, sweet potatoes and glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk.

“We'll try to incorporate some of the dishes into our menu [at Rey’s Place]. This is something we definitely want to share with everybody.”

Michael Otto, Sagra

Chef and co-owner of Sagra Sydney, Michael Otto, says Easter is synonymous with his Nonno and Nonna’s house, where he would eat what he labels “semi-traditional” Italian food.

“I come from a multi-European family that spent some time in Egypt,” Otto explains. “There would always be platters of painted or dyed boiled eggs that we would use to play a game somewhat akin to Christmas bon-bons, where two people would hit their eggs against each other.”

The egg that broke would lose and the owner would have to eat their egg, but they were usually allowed to team it with some kind of salumi, Otto says.

“My Nonna also used to make the best dolmades I’ve ever tasted. This, along with the eggs, would typically make up the antipasti.”

As for the main event, a roast prepared by his Nonna in the pressure cooker would often emerge alongside a rainbow of vegetables, bowls overflowing with pasta, and salads made from the season’s bounty.

“I don’t know if [it was] the taste or sheer amount of food that made me love these family gatherings the most.”

Dominika Sikorska, Pierogi Pierogi

Dominika Sikorska’s Polish catering company and food truck, Pierogi Pierogi, has earned a cult following for its pan-fried Polish dumplings. Melbourne-siders who have tasted the crisp-edged half-moons will appreciate their traditional, handmade, from-scratch ethos.

Hailing from Starachowice, a mountainous region in south-central Poland, Sikorska has been away from the country for 10 years which she says has contributed to her estrangement from some of the cultural traditions of her childhood. But since giving birth to her son four years ago, she’s keen to reinstate some of her family’s Easter customs.

“Because I’m a mother now, I’m trying to bring some of the traditions back,” Sikorska says. “There are a couple of Polish churches around Melbourne that we sometimes go to.”

Growing up in Starachowice, Sikorska’s family would spend Good Friday and Holy Saturday labouring in the kitchen for Sunday’s feast.

“We prepare the feast and bake the meat but while we are doing it, we can’t eat the meat. We also go to church with our beautifully-prepared baskets. It is a big day.”

These baskets or ‘Święconka’ (which means “blessing of the Easter basket”) are one of Poland’s most beloved Easter traditions, dating back to medieval times.

They’re usually woven and brimming with breads, which Sikorska says symbolises Jesus’s body; sausage (a symbol of prosperity); babka; salt (a symbol of preservation); and naturally-dyed hardboiled eggs, signifying new life.

“We use onion skin to make them brown and beetroot to make them red.”

On Sunday, the feasting starts at sunrise, with a breakfast of bread, beetroot dip and Barszcz Wielkanocny, a white Easter borscht. The special celebration soup is built on a base of sour rye and served with smoked meat, egg and marjoram.

“They [borscht recipes] will differ slightly depending on the region and family [but] there is no right or wrong, just like with the pierogi.”

Later, baked pork, sour fermented rice, babka and poppyseed cake might appear.

“You’re feasting pretty much all day. It’s a very special time in Poland.”

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