Tavlin's modest eatery is nestled amongst the bustling and busy discount stores, butchers, delis and fruiterers on Carlisle Street, Balaclava, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Like the best street-food stalls in cities all over the globe, it is unassuming, but its Israeli menu attracts locals and foodies-in-the-know from everywhere.
Either side of the counter, where people are queued up for shawarma, fried cauliflower and falafel, the walls are lined with jars of herbs and spices, a paean to the name Tavlin, which translates to "spice" in Hebrew.
Adi Daboush opened the original Tavlin in South Caulfield, the centre of Melbourne's Jewish community, in 2012. He opened the Carlisle Street Tavlin as a destination for street food in 2018, and ran both until it became too demanding. He closed the South Caulfield venue in April 2019.
Daboush explains, "We used to bake the bread on-site, a charcoal grill, salads and dips as starters and nice sweets too, and one of those is the semolina cake.
"We don't bake on-site anymore, but everything is freshly made here: salads, dips, meats. We cook to order."
Israeli food reflects the diverse population and many food traditions that have entered its daily life and culture, where the language of Hebrew is heard among Arabic, Russian, Yiddish, French and English. There are elements of Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian and Lebanese flavours in Israeli cuisine. In fact, Daboush learned to cook from his Syrian grandmother, Esther. "My grandmother's cooking is unbelievable, I always loved it," he recalls.
"The key to Israeli food is that there's a lot of spices, but it comes down to simple ingredients."
After leaving Israel in 2007, Daboush worked in fine dining restaurants around the world, including in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the US. He lived in the latter for just over a year before moving to Australia to study commercial cookery in 2017.
"The key to Israeli food is that there's a lot of spices, but it comes down to simple ingredients. Even the shawarma [a finely sliced meat served on a stick] needs to be paper-thin," says Daboush.
"Shawarma is my favourite. I eat it two or three times a day when I go home. We also make 200 kilograms of hummus a week. The mixer makes it in 40-kilogram batches."
It's Esther's semolina cake, though, that has the deepest emotional resonance for Daboush.
"I grew up with it since I was a baby, you know?" recalls Daboush. "We'd visit with [my grandmother Esther] every second Saturday, where she'd layout 10 or 12 different dishes. She knows if you don't eat any of them, you can ask my wife, she knows. We always finished with something sweet along with coffee. One of them was always the semolina cake, my favourite."
When Daboush found himself missing his grandmother's food and seeking recipes — she lives just outside Tel Aviv — he would ring her. It wasn't as simple as reading ingredients and specific quantities, though.
"With grandma, she doesn't really have recipes. When she tells you how much paprika to put [in], she says, 'just a little bit', you know? Same with parsley, or pomegranate molasses. You cannot know exactly how much. But, with the semolina cake, she was able to tell me quantities.
"It's very simple, you mix up the ingredients, you bake it, you cut it into shapes, and then you pour the syrup on top and let it rest."
So, what goes into this beloved semolina cake? Daboush says, "We use fine semolina, shredded coconut, oil, flour, sugar, eggs, orange juice and baking powder.
"Egyptians do the same thing, Lebanese do the same thing. It's very popular across the Middle East. My grandmother moved to Israel from Syria when she was maybe 6 or 8. My grandfather immigrated from Syria, too."
Daboush has just welcomed his second son. His 3-year-old loves Ester's semolina cake. He also loves za'atar ("we call it special salt just to get him to try it"), tomato, cheese, spicy olives, avocado and hummus at breakfast.
"Hopefully the newborn will be the same," laughs Daboush.
Esther remains available to Daboush for guidance on what and how to prepare traditional Israeli foods. But it's her semolina cake that Daboush is confident home cooks can recreate.
"It's really simple to make and really tasty. It's a Friday night, 'sitting with the family' cake."
Tavlin only serves the semolina cake on weekends.
Savta Esther's semolina and coconut cake with rosewater syrup
- 300 g sugar
- 2 tsp rose water
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1. In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup (240mL) water and the sugar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often to dissolve the sugar.
2. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until syrup thickens slightly, about 5 minutes.
3. Remove from heat. Stir in the rose water and lemon juice, then allow to cool completely.
- 285 g unsalted butter or non-hydrogenated margarine, at room temperature
- 200 g sugar
- 3 eggs
- 480 g fine semolina
- 90 g plain flour
- 40 g unsweetened shredded coconut
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 240 mL fresh orange juice
1. Preheat the oven to 180 °C. Grease a 23cm (9-inch) square cake pan.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the semolina, flour, coconut, baking powder, and salt.
4. Add 120mL of the orange juice to the butter-sugar mixture and beat until just combined.
5. Add half of the semolina mixture and beat to combine. Repeat with the remaining orange juice and semolina mixtures.
6. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is lightly golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, 35-40 minutes.
7. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and use a very sharp knife to deeply score diamond- or square-shaped pieces into the still warm cake, cutting all the way to the bottom.
8. Slowly and evenly pour the cooled syrup over the hot cake. Let the cake cool to room temperature before serving.