Asia and Australasia - Ivan Earl

Asia and Australasia - Ivan Earl

Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
11 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper


Ivan Earl doesn’t hesitate when asked who his biggest influence is in the kitchen. ‘My grandmother was a phenomenal cook,’ he says. ‘I know exactly who I am when it comes to cooking and I couldn’t even fit in a tenth of her shadow.’

Born in Calcutta in 1945, Ivan was the eldest grandson and spent a lot of time with his Singaporean-born grandmother, whose own family has an Israeli lineage that spans many generations. Despite having cooks and staff to look after the household, Ivan’s grandmother liked to do her own cooking and, because of her desire to eat meals made from fresh produce every day, Ivan would often accompany her to the markets, watching and learning her recipes and dishes.

‘The style of cooking that she had was a cross between Indian-Jewish and Moroccan,’ Ivan says, explaining how the influx of Iraqi Jews in India helped influence her cooking and tastes.

During this period, Calcutta had quite a large Jewish population, numbering around 50,000, with two synagogues that stand to this day. Many migrants were sea merchants, including Ivan’s family, who brought with them their own cuisines from across the sea to create a Calcutta-Jewish taste that was totally unique.

Triangle-shaped pastries called sambusas and cheese puffs known as mamousaks were treats that sporadically appeared in Moroccan cooking, yet featured heavily on Jewish-Indian tables.

‘I remember the chicken cutlets, I remember how [my grandmother and aunt] cooked the fish,’ Ivan says. ‘I loved the food, it's tasty food.’

And for Jewish festivals, traditional meals were given a distinctive Indian flavour, such as the triangular pastry treats served on Purim, known as hamentashen. In Calcutta, the pastry was instead rolled into the shape of a cigar and in lieu of jam, they were filled with dates.

While India may not seem like the easiest place to observe the Jewish festivals in terms of accessibility to produce and kosher practices, Ivan says that in actual fact, the country’s rural sensibility made it all the easier.

‘The benefit of being in India on Passover was that the Parsis, who were religious Muslims, made the matzah, making the dough, rolling it out, putting it in the tandoor,’ Ivan explains. ‘You’d have these matzahs coming out just the way they would have done it in ancient Egypt. It was the most delicious, pliable bread.’

To help combat the stomach bloating that usually came hand-in-hand when eating matzah, Ivan’s grandmother would prepare a dish known as halem, which was made with stewed dates that were then pressed through muslin, resulting in beautiful, golden treacle. After adding walnuts, this treacle was put on top of the matzah to create the ultimate Passover dish.

For Ivan, growing up in India meant being surrounded by a multitude of cousins, as his grandmother was one of eight siblings who all subsequently each had eight children themselves.

By 1948, more than half of his family had moved to Israel. In 1955, wanting to create a better life for his children, Ivan’s father relocated his family to London, with the rest of Ivan’s Indian clan soon following, including his grandmother.

Despite this migration to a decidedly more Anglo-Saxon lifestyle, Ivan recalls that his family’s eating habits, and the taste of his grandmother’s cooking, remained unchanged.

‘I didn’t realise until only recently that she had a mud oven, so she went from a mud oven in India to an electric oven in London and her cooking never changed,’ Ivan says. ‘It always came out amazing.’

Ivan’s grandmother soon passed on her skills to her extended family, teaching them to cook the traditional Indian-Jewish meals. And despite the occasional foray, like his mother’s experimentations with spaghetti, Ivan’s family continued to be surrounded by the food from their childhoods.

‘It kind of flowed on, I was really lucky to be exposed to it,’ he says.

At the age of 21, Ivan decided to move to Australia, migrating on his own to Melbourne. He had never written down a family recipe so instead, the food he ate was ‘off the shelf, in the pan, rubbish and dangerous’.

By all accounts, his talents in the kitchen took a while to shine through, recalling how ‘even cooking an omelette was like scrambled eggs’.

But when he met his future wife and they decided two years later to marry, Ivan’s parents made the move to Australia to be with them. And along with his mother came all the foods that he so treasured from his youth in India.

‘The food I used to have was back again,’ he says.

It was to be short-lived — about one year after moving to Australia, Ivan’s mother passed away.

‘I didn’t realise what a gem she was and how generous she was with her time and love and everything else,’ he says. ‘All the recipes went. She had them and I didn’t and she hadn’t taught me anything. I really did end up cooking from memory.’

At first, Ivan and his wife shared the cooking, but when the couple planned to host a friend for the first time in their new home, Ivan discovered his wife in tears, adamant she couldn’t cook a thing.

So, having recently purchased a Malaysian cookbook, Ivan set about making nasi goreng and soon discovered he had some cooking skills after all.

‘I realised I could actually combine things and I understood how they went,’ he says. ‘It had never occurred to me that I could actually do that. That was really the first time that I realised that I could actually cook.’

Soon, their first son was born and Ivan’s wife resumed the mantle of home chef as Ivan returned to work. But on Sunday nights, it became tradition for his sister and her English husband to visit. It was on these occasions that Ivan would cook one of his famous curries, slowly bringing his brother-in-law around to these newfound spices and creating a weekly custom that lasts to this day.

Ivan says that his dishes and his cooking style have evolved over time, as he’s learnt to combine ingredients and create new and innovative tastes. He says that when he cooks, he does so based on flavours and not cuisines, and now looks at the dishes from his childhood as his own, rather than something inherited from his family.

‘I got to this stage that I realised, I actually own this,’ he says. ‘I’m not really cooking what they’re cooking, it’s in my memory.’

But when he does re-create a dish from his grandmother’s repertoire, such as her stuff ed tomatoes or her Friday night chicken soup with vegetables called marag, he is filled with the memories of being with her, in her kitchen and the times they spent together.

‘The realisation that I had so much love from my grandmother, it chokes me to think of it. I really, really felt love and I felt treasured by her.’

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