Asia and Australasia - Meera Freeman

Asia and Australasia - Meera Freeman

By
Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702865
Photographer
Mark Roper

Australia

You cannot take part in a cooking class in Melbourne without coming across the name Meera Freeman. Synonymous with Vietnamese, Moroccan and Italian cuisine, it often surprises people to find out that Meera actually grew up in a strong and vibrant Jewish home.

‘My mother brought me up telling me I could do anything I wanted if I put my mind to it,’ Meera says. ‘I always had a creative streak, I used to draw and I used to like to cook and play with things.’

Meera remembers cooking in her mother’s kitchen from the age of five, experimenting with cakes and biscuits before moving onto more complicated fare like toffee when she was at school. However Meera’s memory of her mother in the kitchen isn’t one of a teacher but rather a manager, fitting in the family meals amongst the many responsibilities she had during that time.

‘I remember Mum coming home from work and she’d take off her gloves and hat and she’d make a cake and then go into her office, she was very quick and she wasn’t patient to show us how to do stuff,’ Meera recalls.

Meera’s mother was a lawyer, a highly unusual role for women in the 1950s, and would come home at the end of a long day to cook a meal each night for her three children, her husband and her parents, who lived with the family. And it wasn’t always just the one dish either, as she would often be called upon to cater for individual tastes.

Meera’s father was from Poland and his preference was for plainer meals, his favourite being rare steak, free of spices — particularly pepper, which he hated.

On the other side of the spectrum, Meera’s grandparents were from Palestine and London via Russia, and so Meera’s mother would cook them their particular favourites too, with Meera remembering her grandfather’s preference for an Israeli breakfast of cheese and vegetables. The household also always had fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance, sourced from Meera’s grandfather who would bring back the produce from his job as a fruiterer. It made for a very culturally interactive household, filled with dishes using the freshest and highest quality ingredients.

‘I remember when we were kids, we’d have mangoes and custard apples and fruits that nobody had ever heard of,’ Meera says.

It often surprised many of Meera’s contemporaries that her mother wasn’t of Eastern European heritage at all and in fact lived quite an Australian life, having grown up in country Victoria. Because of this, Meera’s mother’s tastes tended towards local foods, rather than traditional Jewish fare.

‘Mum liked simple things; she liked bread and butter and bananas, she would have been happy with that,’ Meera says. It was Meera’s father’s influence that brought Eastern European cooking into the home. Along with recipes swapped with girlfriends and the experimentation with meals that Meera’s father had enjoyed during his childhood, Meera’s mother soon imbued the home with the smells and tastes of shtetl life, despite the family not having any real connection to this past.

Meera’s mother’s kneidelach, or matzah balls, for Passover soon became a family favourite. Using the traditional recipe of matzah meal and egg, Meera’s mother added an unusual twist: they were stuffed with friend onions and some remaining chicken taken from the soup, so that when the matzah balls were broken open in the broth during meal time, a delicious surprise would emerge. It’s a recipe Meera still creates for her extended family to this day.

Jewish festivals were also an important time and Meera and her sister continue to make their mother’s gefilte fish. Meera believes she has inherited her mother’s innate skill of replicating a dish based on taste, which was the reason for her dishes being so memorable and culturally true each time.

And no celebration was complete without the appearance of a cake. Whether it be her famed cheesecake or poppyseed cake, or a banana and walnut chiffon cake that was perfect for Passover and light as a feather, Meera’s mother’s food was always in abundance and there to be enjoyed.

‘Her food was divine,’ Meera recalls.

When she was 18 years old, Meera moved to Jerusalem where she lived for seven years, residing in an apartment down the road from the Ben Yehuda market and the old city. There Meera discovered an amazing produce market housed in an old convent where she picked up seasonal ingredients such as figs and artichokes that had been brought down from the neighbouring villages.

Her apartment block was filled with Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian neighbours who were new arrivals from France, and it was from them that Meera first learnt how to make couscous.

For Meera, who has a photographic memory, picking up new languages has always come naturally to her. She is fluent in six of them, learning some dialects ‘when I find the need’.

‘I like to get to the source of the cooking that I do, a lot gets lost in translation,’ Meera explains.

Her affinity and fluency in a multitude of languages meant she also had an automatic window into new cultures and traditions, wherever she chose to reside.

‘Because I speak so many languages fluently, I morph into somebody else and I think it all goes with it, you just become somebody else momentarily … I always fitted in,’ she says. But while Jerusalem was the place where she learnt to live on her own for the first time and manage her own household, her father’s Middle Eastern background and her knowledge of the region meant the experience wasn’t a total culture shock. Italy was to provide the real eye-opener for her.

‘That was fabulous,’ Meera says of her time visiting the country when she was 21 years old. ‘I discovered what real ravioli tasted like … I remember going to this restaurant out of Florence and having real ravioli with spinach and ricotta and having a bistecca alla Florentina that was extraordinary.’ Her tastebuds were tweaked and so she moved to France, living there for two years, one of which she spent in a country village where she foraged for seasonal produce and found an affinity for cheese.

By her own admission, cooking was a talent that came naturally to her, one that she had inherited rather than studied. Her ability to reproduce dishes she had tried or seen only once meant she could experience first-hand the varied cuisines that surrounded her.

When Meera returned to Australia after her time in France, her aptitude in French saw her take up a position at the Bank National de Paris, where nights were spent wining and dining on elaborate dishes and desserts.

Soon she was married and working in her husband’s business selling Italian furniture, where again her language and cooking skills were put to good use. She would often find herself creating beautiful Italian meals for her clients as a way to further entice them to buy her product and ‘dream the dream’.

But when she left the business, she wasn’t aware that these side meals were the real drawcard for her clients, and they weren’t going to allow her to give them up so easily.

So, after much cajoling, she invited a client and two others to an Italian cooking class at her home. What began as a one-off activity turned into classes and meals that ended up running for 36 weeks in a row and before long, these clients were raving about Meera and her culinary talents to their friends.

‘Within six months I was doing classes four nights a week, full time,’ she says. ‘I would take out four recipes and we would make them all in an hour and a half and we’d eat for an hour and then they’d go home, it was very social.’

‘It was about keeping them amused and telling them stories.’

The cooking classes continued and Meera also tried her hand at running a Vietnamese restaurant before she began travelling again, this time to Morocco. It was a love affair that was to open up a whole new culinary world for her.

Her affinity with Arab culture from living in Jerusalem put Meera on a firm footing in this new environment. Coupled with her fluency in French and Arabic, Meera quickly ingratiated herself into the local communities, taking cooking and travelling tours across the country.

As she had already done with her walking tours of Melbourne’s little Vietnam in Richmond, Meera ensured she made the locals feel at ease with her presence so that soon, they were treating her as a friend, not as a tourist. And along with her exposure to their world came Meera’s replication of their traditional meals.

‘All the Muslim communities are very similar and the South-East Asian communities are very similar too,’ Meera explains.

‘When you have the language you soak it up like a sponge, almost by osmosis without even knowing. I’ve been fortunate really.’

For Meera, cooking is an extension of the creativity that has always been within her since she was a little girl, experimenting with cakes in her mother’s kitchen.

‘[Cooking] is an art form,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it’s a chore but it gives people pleasure.’

Meera says she doesn’t have a preferred cuisine, though Italian and Moroccan dishes are what she tends to lean towards, while Asian food is what she cooks for others. And as far as Jewish food is concerned, it is a cuisine that will always be dear to her and hold a special place in her heart and memory.

‘My mother always taught me that everybody’s the same, and they are,’ Meera explains. ‘It’s community, it’s sharing.’

Recipes in this Chapter

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