A Taste of All Worlds

Ruth Sirkis' home in Ramat Aviv is in a small lane and is surrounded by a garden but it is hard to miss - the aromas of baking fill the street. Her kitchen lives up to expectations: it is very large, with lots of wood and lots of cabinets. The oven and refrigerator are large and modern, and in the middle are small plastic storage units laden with spices, dried beans and "everything there's nowhere to store," she says.

The kitchen suits someone who has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her cookbooks, at least two of which have become the bibles of Israeli cooking. In the course of the interview Sirkis takes a beautifully made apple cake out of the oven. Two weeks ago she published a new cookbook: "Me'asia Be'ahavah" ("from Asia with love," R. Sirkis Publishers). Like her previous ones, it is clear, comprehensive and useful. There are simple explanations of how to make sushi, miso soup, egg rolls and skewered meat with peanut sauce.

All the recipes are written in what she calls Tommy Lapid paragraphs - a detailed description of the recipe in a separate, prominent paragraph on the side, as devised by Tommy Lapid who hired her to write for the women's monthly, At. She became a regular at the popular magazine. In 1986 the two brought out the book "Paprika" together.

Sirkis was a pioneer in the world of cooking and cookbooks in Israel. "After all, what did have back then?," she says, laughing. "There weren't even recipes. Every woman knew how to make one or two things and swapped" with friends."

"Julie and Julia," about the American cookbook writer Julia Child, who introduced French cuisine to an American audience, opened recently at Israeli movie theaters. Sirkis says her own story is similar to that of Child. Her husband, too, was a diplomat, and she followed him to a foreign city - in the case of Sirkis that was Boston, not Paris.

"I also spent four years in a foreign place and had to find something to interest me. In 1966 I contacted Maariv," the mass-circulation daily, "and they told me that a women's magazine was starting up one floor below them. They agreed to give me color pages, and my husband Rafi photographed the food. When we moved to Los Angeles Lapid wanted us to continue. That's how Israel discovered the existence of all kinds of foods and restaurants."

Sirkis' romance with the Far East began in 1971, when her family stopped in Japan and Hong Kong during a flight to Israel. "Another, astonishing world was revealed to us, and the whole time I was writing for Israel and collecting recipes."

While living with her family in Los Angeles Sirkis wrote a syndicated weekly column that appeared in Jewish periodicals across the United States, with kosher recipes. The column led to the publication of two books in English, "A Taste of Tradition" and "Popular Food from Israel."

"At that time Israelis were eating mainly hummus and Bavarian creme," she recalls. "We returned in 1972, and two years later the Zmora Bitan publishing house and asked me to translate "A Taste of Tradition" into Hebrew. She offered to write a new cookbook instead.

"Mehamitbah Be'ahavah" ("From the kitchen with love") was published in 1975. She does not provide exact figures, but it has been reprinted every year since, and far more than half a million copies have been sold. Sirkis says the publishers did not dream of that kind of success.

"Cooking was nothing back then, it wasn't even considered something that could be written about."

That same year her children's cookbook, "Yeladim Mivashlim," was also published, to great success. Many adults today grew up on its recipes for chocolate balls, pancakes and no-fail chocolate cake. Sirkis also presented cooking programs on Educational Television.

"After those two books Rafi and I wanted to be entrepreneurs. We founded a joint publishing house with Zmora Bitan Modan called "Bayit Vagan" that published my cookbooks and others. Later we established R. Sirkis Publishers. "I really love to cook. Food is a mirror of many things, but life is always more important. I'm not 'Mrs. Cookery.' In the 1990s I barely wrote any books. In retrospect I know that this was a period when my mother was ill and I was busy with family matters. I was also a publisher, bringing out books by Phyllis Glazer and Faye Levy. I've never viewed writing cookbooks as a demanding career. It's my fun, it's work that is a hobby and I learn a lot from it."

Sirkis studied social work and worked in the field for a while. Her husband, Rafi, was an engineer by training. Before his assignments an economic attache at Israeli embassies he was the first to import fax machines into Israel.

"I loved social work but people kept telling me, 'Stay at home, you have children.' I entertained a lot at home, it was natural for recipes to develop and I am glad I had the sense to do something with them."

You have a new book of recipes from the Far East. Why now?

"Mostly because now ingredients from everywhere are available in Israel. I've always liked Asian food. French cooking is long and involved - there are no shorcuts and no changes. Asian food, however, uses many ingredients but it is prepared quickly and is served immediately. This is food that is part of an all-encompassing experience, part of the sights you see in the East. This doesn't happen on your first visit, but rather later on.

"In Taipei, in Taiwan, for example, the apartments are very small, tiny, so everyone buys food outside. The prices are accordingly low. You go down the street and it's as though you're walking through a family kitchen. In South Korea women sit on the curb and cut meat with scissors, and they don't have a work surface because there's no room.

"We love the East. After all, by the end of the 1970s we had already published "Habishul Hasini" ("Chinese cooking"). We had to make do with the ingredients that were available in Israel at the time. In recent years, because of Rafi's work, we've been traveling there a lot again. We're good food travelers. We always ask our hosts to take us to the authentic places, where locals eat. We don't look for fancy restaurants.

"Israelis like Chinese food," she continues, "and in Israel there are just as many Far Eastern as Middle Eastern restaurants. I don't have a problem with people putting local ingredients into sushi, in defiance of the purists. They can serve sushi with schnitzel, hummus or mayonnaise. That's the whole idea with food, that it undergoes transformations and change and naturalization - it's a mirror of culture."

When she looks at the great leap forward made by Israeli culinary life in recent decades she has a sense of satisfaction.

"There are excellent ingredients everywhere. All supermarkets have every possible seasoning. And in regard to Asian food, there are many kinds of rice noodles, sesame oil, sauces. Families eat out a lot and that's wonderful - going to a restaurant is no longer an event."

When you started writing cookbooks they were almost alone on the shelf. Today there are dozens.

"This means there has been wonderful development. When I visit all kinds of shops around the world there are entire walls of cookbooks, so why not here? There is more abundance, and there is room for them all."

In her books the measurements will always be in cups, half cups and tablespoons. "I write for home cooks," Sirkis declared. "In the past I wrote only in the feminine form [Hebrew is a gender-inflected language], and I've been scolded for that. In retrospect it's a little silly on their part - women used to be in the kitchen more than men. Today I address everyone, men and women, and I want it to be easy for them. Also, sometimes I don't reject reasonable shortcuts to make things easier: After all, if the basis for a soup is fish stock, it isn't always possible to stand around straining it several times and to use fresh ingredients. I allow use of natural fish soup powder as much as possible. Organic soup powder of every sort is also suitable. I use simple measurements, but I respect those who are particular about weighing ingredients down to the last gram. For pastry chefs, for example, that is important to them."

For her latest book Sirkis had help from her granddaughters and from friends, who came to her home every week and tried recipes for sushi, tofu and noodles.

She has three children: Tami lectures on cooking and entertaining and has written a cookbook herself. Nurit is writing a doctoral dissertation on Jewish ethnography and studies the relationship between Judaism and art. Her son Danny is studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

"He and Nurit keep strictly kosher and are close to religion, and I respect that. I have special drawers in the house for their utensils. I am very family-oriented and they taste everything. It was a lot of fun to work on this book. Every day I cooked for groups of friends and my granddaughters. They took turns coming over. It was an adventure and afterward the living room looked like a very messy restaurant kitchen. Now I can say I had very practical focus groups, which was not necessarily the case in the previous books. But that's the whole beauty of food, that it also has a social side."