Ronit Robbaz-Franco was born and raised in the port city of Ashdod, just south of Israel's capital of Tel Aviv, to Jewish Moroccan parents.
Robbaz-Franco's childhood was spent largely in the kitchen, surrounded by pots, pans and baking trays in which Moroccan ghoriba bahla shortbread cookies resonant with almonds and sesame battled for space with orange-essence date cakes and cinnamon-scented baklavas.
"...my earliest memory is couscous. We'd have it with yoghurt, nuts and seeds, honey and dried fruit. It was more of a sweet, equivalent to porridge."
"I grew up in Israel, in a big family with five sisters and one brother," Robbaz-Franco tells SBS Food. "My parents came from Morocco to Israel in 1954, and there's a rich culture of food. My earliest memories are going to the market with my mum to buy fruit, vegetables."
"My family are Jewish Moroccan. My mother was born in Casablanca and my father in Marrakesh, and my earliest memory is couscous. We'd have it with yoghurt, nuts and seeds, honey and dried fruit. It was more of a sweet, equivalent to porridge.
"There was a scarcity of food when I was growing up so you had to be clever. A broad bean soup that my mother used to make for Passover is also really memorable. We used to dunk matza in broad bean soup. We really appreciated savoury food."
Robbaz-Franco finished her Israeli military service aged 19, and soon after setting off on global travels, determined to discover and immerse herself in culinary history, rituals and traditions across Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. After 30 years of travel and exploration, she settled in Byron Bay in 1997.
"I've been here, in Byron Bay, for close to 23 years," she says. "We live on a farm where we have two huge veggie gardens, a lot of fruit trees and no animals on the land. My approach to sustainability is a by-product of my family upbringing but also travelling internationally."
Robbaz-Franco's family upbringing instilled more than an appreciation for sustainability and working with scarce produce.
"What I've learned from my mum is to really respect tradition and to honour the people around you, where your food comes from, to all of the work that goes into the preparation of food," shares Robbaz-Franco. "And to approach every part with enthusiasm, with love and respect."
"What I've learned from my mum is to really respect tradition and to honour the people around you, where your food comes from."
Robbaz-Franco's mother, her major influence, trained at Alliance Francaise, the French cooking school, but Robbaz-Franco embraced an unofficial means of gaining knowledge and skills in the art of preparing and sharing food.
"My training is old school, where I trained with different types of chefs in an apprenticeship," she says. "I travelled and approached chefs to teach me. I acquired a lot of different kinds of styles and where I've learned the most are those people who are not traditional chefs, like mothers and farmers. I worked in different kinds of restaurants in Brazil to Japan, South East Asia and Europe, including retreat centres."
For the past 18 years, Robbaz-Franco has been running OpenTable, a catering business, and also her cooking school, from her sprawling Byron Bay property. Robbaz-Franco runs courses from Indian and Persian to Ayurvedic and Brazilian.
However, it is the dishes that she grew up with that hold the dearest place in her heart. Snapper marinated in roasted pepper paste was a ceremonial family dish. Robbaz-Franco serves it garnished with oregano, black olives and pistachio tapenade in a modern twist on the traditional dish.
"For Friday night dinner, for Shabbat, one of the quintessential Moorish traditions is to eat fish. The fish is usually cooked with lots of capsicum and garlic. You can find this dish in a lot of homes of Jews who came from North Africa, so this is my take on it.
"I've added the garnish which is influenced by growing up in Israel, where food is influenced by Christians, Arabs and Jews. There are cherry tomatoes, which aren't in the traditional version. You can serve it beautifully so that you can see the layers, as opposed to doing it as a one-pot version, which is the traditional way."
Robbaz-Franco says the snapper can be swapped for other fish breeds. "It can be barramundi, it can be snapper, it can be any deep-ocean white fish. Snapper is one of the most popular fish in Australia. In Israel, they might use groper, though. Blue-eyed trevally is really good, too. A lot of Jews love eating salmon, and that can work too."
The oregano is not negotiable, though.
"Oregano is the quintessential Mediterranean herb. It has a very strong taste and flavour, and it works really well with pistachio and olives.
"It works amazingly with the capsicum, too. It looks really beautiful, the juxtaposition of the red capsicums, black olives and greens."
Snapper marinated in roasted pepper paste
Unlock exotic aromas and fabulous flavours with this tantalising fish dish, hailing from the Mediterranean Basin. Free of gluten and dairy.
- 4 pieces of snapper fillets
- 3 tbsp of the roasted pepper marinade (recipe below)
- 2 punnets of cherry tomatoes, cut into halves
- 1 red onion, coarsely diced
1. Preheat oven to 180-190°C fan-forced.
2. Marinate the fish in a non-reactive tray or a tray lined up with baking paper and leave aside covered for 20 minutes.
3. Place the tomatoes and diced onion in a baking tray drizzle olive oil and salt and roast for 15 mins or until caramelised and tomatoes are soft and aromatic.
4. Take the tomato tray out of the oven and set it aside for 5 minutes or until slightly cool.
5. Add the marinated fish on top of the tomato-onion mix, drizzle some olive oil and lemon juice.
6. Place back in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes until the fish is tender.
- 20 black olives, pitted
- 1½ tbsp roughly chopped fresh oregano
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- 2 lemons, zest only
- 1 small garlic clove, crushed
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 50 g pistachios, lightly toasted
1. Dice the olives or chop roughly.
2. Place them in a bowl and add the oregano, parsley, lemon zest, garlic and olive oil.
3. Use a pestle and mortar to crush the pistachio coarsely, leaving some just broken and others finely crushed; add to the olive mix and stir.
4. Serve the fish garnished with the olive oregano mix
Roasted red pepper marinade
- 4 red peppers
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tsp pomegranate molasses
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3-4 tbsp olive oil
- Salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 200°C.
2. Place red peppers in a baking tray, rub with a little olive oil and roast for 35-40 minutes, or until the skins blister and the flesh is soft.
3. Remove the peppers to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 10-15 minutes so that the peppers sweat and the skins loosen. Once cool enough to handle, the skins can easily be slipped off and discarded.
4. Using a food processor, process the red peppers to a pulp. Add walnuts, garlic and process to form a textured paste. Stir in oil, lemon juice and sea salt
5. Spread the paste into a serving bowl, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with lemon zest and parsley.
After its long braising time, the lamb is infused with all the warm, soft flavours of the spices and is meltingly tender.
This simple bread is a Moroccan favourite – commonly made and eaten as an accompaniment to home-cooked meals.