Can't believe it's already Australia Day (especially since my mum is a big #changethedate campaigner). For those who celebrate and those who don't, there's one non-controversial fact. Australia Day's the end of the summer holidays. So we're farewelling the holidays with a flavoursome, fragrant Middle Eastern chicken soup.
It's a Greek/Egyptian recipe from Melbourne grandmother Viviane Levy.
Everyone in her family loves this soup; Viviane’s 2 sons, her daughters-in-law, her 6 grandchildren. It’s the soup that says home to them. And now that I've eaten it, prepared by Viviane, and made it myself too, I can attest to what a wonderful dish it is. Healthy and filling, its flavours are exotic, but also homely.
You make a chicken stock, and add lemon, cardamom, turmeric and garlic. You prepare chicken mince balls – also flavoured with cardamom – and cook them in the soup along with some vegetables (potatoes, zucchini and artichoke hearts, if they’re in season, or if you live in a place where you can buy them frozen and don’t have to do all that grunt work peeling them.)
And you serve the whole lot over rice.
When you’re finished eating you sigh with contentment.
“It’s a whole meal in one bowl!” says Viviane and she’s right.
The end of the holidays makes me feel sad, even though it hasn't been much of a summer.
Still, I was lucky enough to spend a few days this week on the NSW Central coast, at Killcare, with my friend Karen and her family. It was an ideal beach house arrangement, with different friends coming and going around us, like the tides.
We were the principal stayers, along with 2 young kookaburras and a family of assertive magpies. We didn't love the magpies as much, and they knew it, so they warbled their gorgeous song to persuade us to feed them as well as the kookas.
It was so beautiful, rain and shine, that I didn’t want to leave. If you had a view like this from your work room, would you go? Would you get any work done, or just stare dreamily at the sea?
We swam and cooked when it was hot, and read and cooked when it was wet. Which it was, very! Karen watched the tennis and in a gap in the weather, I did my favourite coastal walk from Killcare through the national park up to Maitland Bay and onto Little Beach.
Maitland Bay is a jewel, one of the most perfect beaches in NSW; I’ll throw down the gauntlet and say possibly anywhere in the world. One of its best features is that it’s almost always empty even during peak holiday times.
This weekend when I reached it after jumping puddles and evading leeches I was shocked – shocked! – to find another person there. We almost gave each other a heart attack!
Back at Killcare, the rain set in again. What do you do at a beach house when the rain is pouring down in sheets? You grind spices. And you make Viviane’s soup.
Viviane has been Viviane Levy all her life. She was born a Levy and she married one.
Her husband Maurice was from the Egyptian capital Cairo. She was a Greek from Alexandria, which is also in Egypt, but was then one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities.
Born in 1937, Viviane speaks 5 languages – English, French, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew; a result she says of living in this polyglot, sensual seaside town.
Viviane’s parents Joseph and Fortunee came to Egypt from two Greek islands in the Ionian sea. Her father’s family came from Corfu, her mother’s family from Zakynthos.
There had been Jews on both beautiful islands for hundreds of years. But Viviane’s grandparents were among thousands of Jews who left Greece following anti-Jewish riots in 1891.
The riots started on Corfu after an 8 year old girl was murdered. Locals blamed the Jews, even though the murdered girl was herself Jewish. The riots lasted 3 weeks, left 22 people dead and spread from Corfu across to the other islands.
Viviane's family chose Alexandria because of its large Greek population and open outlook. Her mother’s parents lived there for more than 50 years and never learnt Arabic. Like everyone else, Viviane spoke to them in Greek.
Below: photos of Alexandria in the 1930s and 1940s when Viviane lived there.
The family were lucky to be out of Europe by the time World War Two began, for most of the Jews of Greece were murdered by the Nazis. It’s estimated that 91% of Greece's Jewish population were killed.
Two of Viviane’s uncles went to Greece to fight the Germans.
“Of course it was with the Greek army, they still held Greek passports. Yes, even though they were born in Egypt, we ‘belonged’ to Greece. In fact when we came to Australia in the late 1950’s, we entered on our Greek passports!” says Viviane.
Viviane was only a girl during the War, but says they had an awareness of what was happening in Europe and what Jews were enduing. Her uncles sent home photographs of what they saw as soldiers.
“I remember a photo with bodies lying in the street. I wasn't meant to see it, but I did, and I've never forgotten it.”
EGYPT AT WAR
Before and during World War Two, Egypt was a British protectorate. This was good for the Jews of Egypt, for it meant that while they experienced the war, they were not targeted as Jews.
The first attack on Egypt was by the Italian army, which ruled nearby Libya and invaded from there in 1940. When the Brits repulsed that attack, the German army invaded as well. Led by General Erwin Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, German troops fought their way across the African desserts to Egypt.
Alexandria where Viviane’s family lived was bombed. Egypt’s King Farouk left the lights on in his Palaces at night, refusing to obey blackout rules during Axis bombing raids.
“My grandparents’ house was bombed too – and hit! I don’t know whether it was by Germans or Brits. I was too young to ask. All I know is that after that any people who had family in Cairo left Alexandria. And that’s what we did. The women and children went to Cairo; the men stayed behind to work.”
Viviane pauses to reflect.
“I'm not sure that it would have helped anyone. If the Germans had broken through, they’d have reached Cairo as well,” she says.
In fact, the German troops were dug in at El Alamein, only 150 km from Cairo. But after 2 years and 2 massive tank battles, Rommel was not able to push through. The Brits chased his troops out of Egypt, to Tunisia. By 1943, the civilians of Egypt, and especially its Jews, were safe. The opposite was true for the Jews of Europe, who were being murdered in vast numbers in 1943 and 1944.
After the war, Viviane’s family learned the remarkable story of the Jews of Zakynthos, the beautiful Greek island in the Ionian sea which had been mother’s family home.
There were 275 Jews on the island when it was occupied by Italian troops in 1940. They were not in mortal danger until late 1943, when Fascist Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the German army invaded.
By June 1944 the Nazis were gathering Jews from all the Ionian islands and taking them by boat to mainland Europe. From there they were deported to the death-camp of Auschwitz.
Two days before the boat was due to arrive at Zakynthos the German military Commander demanded a list of the island’s Jews from Zakynthos Mayor Loukas Karrer.
The Mayor consulted with the island’s main religious leader, the Greek Orthodox Bishop Chrysostomos. They went together to the office of Nazi Commander Alfredo Litt.
LIST OF NAMES
The Bishop explained that the island’s Jews were Greeks just like everyone else and lived peacefully on Zakynthos. This, as you can imagine, didn’t cut much ice with a German military officer. He insisted on being given the list of names.
The Bishop then handed him a piece of paper containing only two names. His own and that of the Mayor. Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Karrer.
The courage necessary to do this was extraordinary. At the same time as they were defying Litt in the Governor's office, the Jews were being hidden in homes around the island.
Meanwhile the boat arriving to take the Zakynthos Jews was found to be already filled with Jews from Corfu and Cephalonia. Those poor souls were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, while the Jews of Zakynthos were hidden by their neighbours.
No one betrayed the Jews in hiding and when German troops left Zakynthos four months later, in October 1944, all 275 of the island’s Jews were alive.
In 1953, an earthquake devastated Zakynthos and most of the island’s records were lost, so it is difficult to confirm details in this story.
But one thing is certain.
The Jews of Zakynthos survived the war, while most of the Jews from the surrounding islands and mainland Greece were murdered.
In 2003, Viviane Levy went to Zakynthos on a “roots tour” with extended family from Australia, Israel and France. There are almost no Jews left on the island today, so they visited the Jewish cemetery, where they found the graves of friends and relatives. They visited statues of the Bishop and the Mayor, which had been built on the site of the town's historic synagogue.
“It was fantastic. So moving. To say there are no Jews here and if you want, take one of us…” Viviane shivers.
In 1953, after the Zakynthos earthquake, the first boat to arrive with aid came from Israel, with the following message:
“The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their mayor or their beloved bishop and what they did for us.”
By the 1950’s Viviane’s family could see no future in Egypt. Life was becoming more difficult for them as Jews and also because her father worked for a British company. Relatives in Adelaide sponsored them to come to Australia.
They arrived by boat in 1958. Viviane was 21 years old and found a job at Myers in Adelaide. She often made trips to Melbourne to see friends in the much larger Jewish community there.
One night in 1961 Viviane was in Melbourne and went out in a big group. One of the other girls was Iris Levy.
She took one look at Viviane, and saw sister-in-law material.
Iris went home, woke her mother from her sleep and said, “I've found a wife for your son.”
The match-maker was just 16 years old, but the rest, as they say, is history.
Iris made sure the two knew about each other. Her brother Maurice met Viviane in May. By July they were engaged and in November 1961 they married.
This soup was one of Viviane’s husband’s favourites, as the recipe originally came from his mother.
“It’s also my children’s favourite soup and my grandchildren’s favourite too!” says Viviane happily.
Her sons begged her to teach their wives how to prepare it. When we photographed in Viviane’s kitchen, it was very festive, with daughters-in-law, grandchildren, plus aunts and cousins, all watching and helping.
Chicken soup with Lemon, Turmeric and Cardamom
1. chicken stock, 2 litres
Viviane prepared her stock with chicken frames, cardamom and salt -- but you can make it any way you like! I also added veges, a chicken stock cube, a little chilli. The Food is Love recipe can be found here.
Chop the following vegetables into large chunks:
- 3 large potatoes, in chunks or 8 small whole potatoes
- 4 large zucchini
- 6 frozen artichoke halves, cut in half again (This is optional, not all Viviane's family like artichokes, so she doesn't always add them)
- 2 cups white rice
- 4 cups water
- oil and salt
Viviane cooks rice the following way. Ratio is 2 cups water: 1 cup rice.
Put water in pot with a little oil and 1 teaspoon salt, and bring to the boil. When it's bubbling add the rice and cover. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and stir from time to time, till the water’s evaporated and it’s fluffy. (Viviane says the crust on the bottom is the tastiest part!)
4. CHICKEN MINCE BALLS
- ½ kilo chicken mince
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup breadcrumbs (can grate in some carrot and potato for a gluten free alternative)
- Spices: ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cardamom, 1-2 teaspoons garlic powder, or ½ teaspoon crushed garlic.
Mix till it’s a rollable consistency. Make golf ball sized balls.
5. Soup spices
- ground turmeric - 2 teaspoons
- citric acid - 2 teaspoons or juice of 1 lemon. You can add more, want it quite lemony!
- ground cardamom - 2-3 teaspoons
- 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
- To finish: 2-3 tablespoons dried mint
NOTE re SPICES
If you grind your own spices, in a spice grinder or by hand with a mortar and pestle, they will be fresher and also have a much stronger taste. Ground spices that sit in a jar for a long time tend to lose their oomph. I recommend grinding your own if you have the time. But you will need less!
1. Bring soup to the boil. Add the spices: 2 teaspoons ground turmeric, 2 teaspoons citric acid or juice of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon crushed garlic, 2-3 teaspoons ground cardamom. (Use less if you are grinding the spices yourself.)
2. Throw in chicken balls and potatoes. After 5 minutes add the rest of the veges. You can cook the meatballs and the vegetables in 2 separate pots if you don't have a pot large enough and join everything in a serving bowl at the end.
3. When veges and chicken balls are cooked, add 2 tablespoons dried mint - it could actually be more. Viviane added a lot!
To serve: put rice in each bowl, then add veges and chicken balls and ladle soup on top.
Soup will be yellow, lemony and delicious. And also comforting.
MADRID TEST KITCHEN
In her kitchen in Madrid, Candice was very happy with this soup.
“This soup is delicious! And not terribly difficult either. It’s a ‘keeper.’ ”
She reduced the quantities, as she's only feeding two people, using 250 grams of minced chicken, a large zucchini and two medium potatoes.
“There wasn't a lot of guidance on the quantity of broth needed. I ended up with a lovely brew, although not enough to cook the veggies and meatballs at the same time. I think that was for the best because they have different cooking times.”
Candice says she’s been using cardamom a lot lately, perhaps because she’s currently enthralled by Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook.
“Cardamom crops in many of the recipes. And I just adore the stuff and went heavy on it for this recipe. I tossed some pods in the pot when I made the broth, then added the ground cardamom to the finished soup. I also used generous amounts in the mince."
"I used a generous amount of mint at the end, which really brings the whole dish into focus.”
SYDNEY TEST KITCHEN
Miyuki in Sydney was very excited to try this, as it reminded her of a Japanese soup she makes with chicken stock and balls of minced chicken, but using very different spices.
She found it easy to prepare and added extra garlic and lemon, since she loves those flavours. So does her daughter and they liked this soup a lot and are keen to make it again.
Miyuki’s husband also liked it, but he’d tasted Viviane’s version, which he said was somehow richer and smoother. It obviously takes a lot of practice to become as perfect at these dishes as the grandmothers!
But with a dish as tasty as this, practice is also enjoyable :-)))
CENTRAL COAST TEST KITCHEN
This was perfect Killcare beach house fare! Karen I both found it simply delicious, and we both had seconds.
I ramped up the spices, perhaps the result of becoming used to high impact Asian soups like laksas. Grinding the spices on the spot also gave it a big flavour boost.
Beach houses don’t always have everything you need, so my first try was also a test of making do… and doing well!
I didn’t have any dried mint, so I added some fresh mint and some dried oregano and thyme and dill – all good.
Didn’t have breadcrumbs either so I substituted some grated veges. This is a trick taught to me by another Food is Love grandmother, Marysia Segan, which produces a good result and is also gluten free.
Grate in some potato and carrot. I used about half a carrot and half a potato, till the chicken mince became less moist and was able to be rolled into balls.
VERDICT: Make this soup! I agree with Candice in Madrid, it’s a keeper. In fact, I might make some more tonight.
I was photographing for this blog, using my NEW iphone, when it fell from my hand, into the soup. Yep right in.
I was in a panic, as you can imagine, and back in Sydney the next day, I was sent to the East Gardens shopping centre, where there are 3 phone repair outlets. I was like Goldilocks. One didn't have time for me, another didn't have parts for me, and then at the Dr Boom phone shop on the ground floor, John had time and parts. And he fixed my phone. Thanks so much John!!! This is a shout out to you!
Go along if you have a problem, John will look after you.
Neither of us could believe that the phone came back to life, without a new screen or battery, and also that it photographed its moment in the drink. That photo is the last thing it saw glug glug glug before I fished it out. Amazing, huh?
Might change the name to Miracle soup! Or miracle phone... Either way, stay well, and lucky, till next week.