Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls

Eggplant with Tahini and Crushed Walnuts

A Springtime Luncheon with Chef Shimi Aaron

Chef Shimi told us how he regularly skipped school to be with his grandmother in her kitchen. He told us how they made kubbah (meat-stuffed dumplings) together. He told us how she gave him an education in spices and a love of feeding people. He told us that she never revealed the secret of his truancy and their rendezvous in her kitchen. 

For Rachel and I, interviewing Chef Shimi Aaron at last week’s WIZO Queen Esther Purim Luncheon was like reuniting with a long-lost brother. The three of us sat on a stage in the courtyard of the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel in Bel Air. We were bathed in warm sunlight, olive branches waved in the slight breeze, water flowed in the fountain behind us. As Chef Shimi spun tales of his Israeli childhood, we were transported to the kitchen of his Egyptian-born grandmother Allegra. 

Chef Shimi told us how he regularly skipped school to be with his grandmother in her kitchen. He told us how they made kubbah (meat-stuffed dumplings) together. He told us how she gave him an education in spices and a love of feeding people. He told us that she never revealed the secret of his truancy and their rendezvous in her kitchen. 

When Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Bill Addison discovered Chef Shimi’s babka, he bestowed upon him the title Babka King. In his review in the Times, Addison raved about the “beautiful, ornate babka” and the fillings of “chocolate ganache and hazelnuts or halva and pecans, rolled and cut to reveal striations and then twisted into curvy braids, sometimes scattered with rose petals and candy citrus zest.”

While babka is an Eastern European food that is very popular in Israel, Chef Shimi revealed that the rose petals and candy citrus zest are an ode to his grandmother Allegra. “She always smelled of rose water, because she couldn’t afford perfume. And she was always collecting orange peels to candy.” 

While meeting Chef Shimi Aaron is like being with a long-lost brother, attending WIZO events is like being with family. For the past six years, Rachel and I have been inspired by the growth of the Western Region of the Women’s International Zionist Organization under the invincible leadership of Gina Raphael and Rinat Newman. They lead a group of wonderful women dedicated to the cause of helping the less fortunate in Israel. Many of them are transplants from Israel, Australia and South America, places where WIZO has a long and storied history. Over the years, these women have managed to raise substantial sums of money to support the day care centers, senior centers, youth villages, homes for battered women and other social services that WIZO provides in Israel. 

For Rachel and I, one of the joys of being involved in this worthy cause is making friendships with so many admirable women. Breaking bread around the table leads to wonderful conversation and connection. Of course, over this lunch created by Chef Shimi, we tore fluffy freshly baked pita and dipped into his earthy hummus studded with whole garbanzos. He made the most satisfying sweet and sour stuffed onions served over a bed of dreamy, creamy labne. He served a whole grilled eggplant, smashed and splayed and smothered with tahini dressing and scattered crushed walnuts. His coarsely chopped Israeli salad was bright and crunchy and so refreshing.

THE BABKA KING CROWNED OUR QUEEN ESTHER LUNCHEON WITH AN EXQUISITE SERVING OF CHOCOLATE GANACHE BABKA SERVED WITH VANILLA ICE CREAM AND GARNISHED WITH CITRUS CANDY AND LITTLE PINK ROSEBUDS. 

Of course, the Babka King crowned our Queen Esther luncheon with an exquisite serving of chocolate ganache babka served with vanilla ice cream and garnished with citrus candy and little pink rosebuds. 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Chef Shimi should be very gratified by this week’s recipes—grilled eggplant with tahini and crushed walnuts and rough Israeli salad. 

We were inspired by the fresh simplicity and perfect combination of flavors. We hope you will be too. 

Eggplant with Tahini and Crushed Walnuts

2 large eggplants
1/3 cup avocado oil or vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Kosher salt and pepper
1/2 cup crushed walnuts
1 teaspoon za’atar

Tahini Sauce
1/3 cup tahini
1/2 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons cold water
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Cut the eggplant in half lengthways, leaving the green stalk for decoration.
  • Use a sharp knife to create a diamond shaped pattern on the cut side of each eggplant half, without cutting through to the skin.
  • Place the eggplant halves, cut side up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  • Drizzle the oil over the eggplant, then sprinkle with garlic powder, salt and pepper.
  • Roast for 30 to 35 minutes until the flesh of the eggplant is golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • Combine the tahini paste with lemon juice, water, garlic powder, salt and pepper to form a smooth thick dressing.
  • If the dressing is too thick, slowly add water to thin out.
  • To serve, drizzle tahini over the eggplant, the sprinkle with crushed walnuts.

Rustic Israeli Salad

One bunch basil, washed and dried
Six radishes, thinly sliced
Two Persian cucumbers, sliced on a diagonal
3 plum or Roma tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
8 assorted mini bell peppers, seeded and thinly sliced
3 stalks green onions, chopped finely
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

• Arrange vegetables on a large platter or in a bowl.

• Dress with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. 


Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Upcoming events include a Sharsheret Passover Cooking Webinar. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC 

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