The cover of Oded's book
I learned today that Oded Schwartz passed away on the night of 1 August after a long battle with cancer. I did not know him well, but what what I did know I liked enormously. I was fortunate enough to interview him for Woolworth's Taste magazine and a version of the following profile appeared in the December issue of 2010. Afterwards he sent me his granny caramelized rice pudding recipe to make for my mom because I had mentioned that she too loved rice pudding. He was that sort of man. A real mensch. My heart goes out to those who loved him. Rest in peace, Oded. You will be missed.
Oded’s Kitchen is a wonderland of glass jars and bottles and bowls filled with magical concoctions, some achingly exotic, other soothingly familiar. I spoke to Oded Schwartz about heritage and loss, adventure and the most comforting alchemy of all.
I have always believed that when we leave the country of our birth, and become citizens of the world, we adapt, we pick up the mannerisms and the ways of our adopted countries. We pass as one of them. These chameleon-like attributes stand us in good stead. But our taste buds always betray us. Our taste buds remind us of our past. And if we honour these flavours we remain authentic. Oded Schwartz confirms my belief. Seeing him in the kitchen of the shop Oded’s Kitchen in Salt River, Cape Town, where he cooks and conjures, he could be mistaken for having been born and raised in South Africa. Right down to his pair of Crocs. Albeit, deliberately mismatched Crocs - a nod to his bolder, more creative side -but yes, he sports the favourite footwear of the South African male species. But then he speaks and his accent has the warm Isreali inflection of the country of his birth and the baritone elegance of the English, alongside whom he lived for most of his adult life. And now he is here, offering innovative twists to old familiar chutneys, jams, relishes and syrups, pates and puddings. But it is preserves that he is passionate about.
‘My early childhood memories of life in Israel are of preserving. My mother was a fantastic pickler and everything she pickled was delicious. Come the end of Summer, or the beginning of Autumn she would always be in the kitchen, peeling, chopping, pickling. The taste I most associate with my mother is that of pickled aubergines. They would be steamed or boiled and stuffed with fresh celery, carrot and garlic before being pickled in a weak salt water solution, where they would begin to ferment. I loved these pickles, and I loved the juice they were pickled in even more. I would drink this naturally fermented juice in small amounts poured ice-cold from the jar in fridge on a hot day. It has a very special sourness that you can’t get from anything else. When I left Israel as a young man and went to study and live in London I missed those things. I missed the taste of home. So I started reproducing them in my own kitchen in London. And now I reproduce them here.’
Most of Oded’s recipes are old family recipes, the food and the preserves he makes are adaptations of his mother’s recipes. I question his use of bacon in a dish, and ask if his Jewish mother would approve of such a thing. ‘Yes, in fact she would have approved,’ he tells me, ‘We’ve been secular Jews for three or four generations. And I’m very proud of it. My grandparents rejected religion. And I followed them. So I ate pork as a child. I was lucky to be born in Haifa. Haifa was always a very mixed city, you had Muslims, Jews and Christians all living together. I remember a little alley, the alley of St Jonathan. And there was an Arab butcher who made and sold the most wonderful German-style sausages like bratwurst, and my mother would buy pork from him. As secular Jews we celebrated all Jewish festivals, but instead of going to Shul or Temple, we would honour our heritage and our culture by preparing and eating traditional dishes.
While my food associations of my mother are savoury in nature, like the pickled aubergines or the small artichokes she would peel and serve with lemon juice and a bit of olive oil, my granny’s are sweet. My granny used to make a sweet caramelized rice pudding. Which she served with grated lemon rind. She would also, when she really wanted to spoil me, make semolina dumplings served with melted butter and sugar. As a family we are gluttons.’ He laughingly, approvingly tells me.
I wondered if his interest in food was encouraged when he was a child? If his mother and his grandmother saw his potential? If they noticed his ease in the kitchen? Did they recognize a kindred spirit? Sadly not. While they may have influenced him, and instilled a passion for flavours in him, his encouragement came from an aunt. ‘A good Jewish boy doesn’t become a chef, he becomes a lawyer or a doctor. But I’ve been cooking since I was eight, even though I wasn’t encouraged to do so. I was always a listening child. A lonely, listening child. My aunty Yeva studied in Paris. And her food was extremely elegant. And I think that if I have any elegance in my food, it is thanks to her. She used to take care of me for short periods of time when my mom was ill. And it was she who told me the stories the stories about places and food and different cultures. She instilled in me a love of fine things. ‘
In a fragrant kitchen in Cape Town, Oded honours these women; his grandmother, his mother and his aunt. As he does the country of his birth, the country of his adult life, and the country he now calls home. He makes snoek pate and Rooibos panna cotta. And he pickles. Respectfully. With love.
Oded’s Kitchen (Do visit. I'm sure that his spirit lives on.)
The Old Biscuit Mill