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‘As I drink kefir I can almost feel my buba’s warm hand on my shoulder’

Allan Preiss recently discovered the gut superfood and wondered if it was the same as the kefyeh his beloved grandparents made for him in his Caulfield childhood. This piece was originally published through Plus61J and is republished with permission from the author.

I DISCOVERED KEFIR about two years ago when I got caught up in the gut health craze. The kefir I read so much about is made by using grains to ferment milk.

As a child I drank kefyeh, which my buba made in summer. I wondered if this was the same drink.

Probably not – she didn’t use grains.

I ordered kefir grains from eBay and a small package arrived a few days later. Inside was a zip-lock bag containing the grains and a set of instructions – mix the grains in a glass container with a litre of milk (preferably full fat), cover with a tea towel and leave for 24-48 hours. Then strain out the grains and drink the kefir.

Forty-eight hours Iater I poured the kefir into a glass and took a sip. And with its sour and slightly fizzy taste the memories of a Melbourne childhood lived in an old, run down-house in Caulfield came flooding back. It was a house in which never less than 10 people lived at any one time – me and my parents, my buba and zaide, my 10-year-old aunt, an uncle who was all of three years older than me, my buba’ s sister and boarders. There were always boarders.

This was a home of Holocaust survivors and their children. There was great sadness in that house, yet it was a happy home. Noisy, lively, energetic. People were coming and going, dropping in knowing there was always room for them at our dinner table.

Even back then in the 1950s, Caulfield had a large Jewish population. Every Friday evening and Saturday morning people dressed in their Shabbes best would walk past our house on their way to the nearby shul. We’d be swinging on the front gate. I don’t know how but they knew we were Jewish. “Gut Shabbes,” they would call out. And we would similarly reply.

On Sunday, the shochet (ritual slaughterer) who lived at the end of our street would come and slaughter the chickens my buba brought back from the Victoria Market where she shopped every Friday after work.

Almost every night we ate lokshn mit yorkh (chicken soup with noodles) followed by boiled chicken. That was it. Every night at the dinner table my zaide sat reading his Yiddish book – a Shakespeare play translated into Yiddish or Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Or JJ Singer, whose brother Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature despite writing exclusively in Yiddish. My zaide always said JJ Singer was the superior writer.

The meal over, my buba goes to the fridge and takes out a pint of milk and a small jar of sour cream. She puts them on the sink. With her back to us I can see the cord from her hearing aid snaking its way to the pocket of her blouse where the battery pack sits. It’s the size of a small iPhone.

She takes the aluminium foil tops off the bottle and jar and pours some milk into a glass.

“Vus tistu buba?” (What are you doing?) I ask in Yiddish, the language we spoke at home and the only language I could speak until I went to kindergarten.

“I have to tip out some of the milk so I can fit in the sour cream,” she answers.

I watch closely as she tops up the bottle with sour cream.

“Why do you need sour cream?”

“That’s what turns the milk into kefyeh,” she explains patiently.

In the background I can hear dominoes being banged down on the glass top of the table in the other room. Zaide and Mr Lipschitz, a boarder, are playing dominoes again. They play as if their lives depend on the outcome.

They are furious competitors but never exchange a cross word or even an angry glance. The ghettoes, concentration camps and Siberia taught them what was important.

Buba places the bottle on the window ledge.

“When will it be ready?”

“A few days. Quicker if the weather is warm.”

Every day I ask her, “Is it ready yet?”

“Nokh nisht”(not yet), she would reply, checking the bottle for any lumpy signs of fermentation.

Then one day she says to me, “S’iz grayt” (It’s ready).

“I want some.”

“No. It’s got to go into the fridge first to get cold.”

I am impatient. But my buba, who indulges me in everything else, doesn’t budge.

“Hob gedild” (be patient), she counsels.

And then, on a hot summer evening, it’s ready.

A big bowl of boiled potatoes and a jug of ice-cold kefyeh are put in the middle of the table and we help ourselves.

You cannot imagine how good a bowl of boiled potatoes can taste when washed down with ice-cold kefyeh. Tam gan-eyden. The taste of paradise.

To this day I don’t think I have ever eaten any meal with as much relish as those potatoes with kefyeh.

Two years later, in 1956, my buba and zaide bought a milk bar and delicatessen on the other side of town. I was bereft. A nuclear family was not for me. Two years later my buba died.

My mother never made kefyeh. I don’t know why. She made all the other traditional Jewish foods my buba taught her.

I make kefir every week. There’s always some in the fridge.

No-one else drinks it.

As a token gesture to gut health my wife adds a small amount to her breakfast cereal most days.

Our two boys and daughter-in-law aren’t big fans and it’s too sour for our grandchildren. Thank goodness they like the other traditional foods I prepare for them. Maybe down the track they too will lovingly prepare these delights for their children and grandchildren.

So, I drink the kefir on my own and I can almost feel my buba’s warm hand on my shoulder as she gently encourages me to have just another bite of potato washed down with a gulp of kefyeh.

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