One with her cookbook, Adeena Sussman’s Sababa is a way of life.
Words by Meryl Fontek
Photos by Dan Perez
Styling by Nurit Kariv
Light floods into Adeena’s living room. A palette of cool tones, accented by, of course, produce from Tel Aviv’s nearby Carmel Market, otherwise known as Shuk HaCarmel, or more casually, the Shuk. A seafoam colored ceramic bowl rests at the edge of her white countertop overflowing with cherry tomatoes of varying shades of red, which according to Adeena, are especially sweet right now. Her coffee table is artfully strewn with lifestyle and culinary magazines alike. Tucked amidst the stacks of low piles are flashes of yellow, the spine of her own Sababa cookbook. At the center of it all, is a flat woven platter of citrus fruits. Oranges, clementines, grapefruits, and a few rogue avocados bask in the morning sun filtering in through the sliding deck doors. By this time, it’s around 10 o’ clock in the morning and the Mediterranean Sea sparkles in the distance.
Earlier that day, a Wednesday morning in February, as we strode up and down the unusually clear alleyways of the Shuk, a few common words were heard. “Adeena, Adeena! It’s been a while! Did your book come out? How was Florida?” Adeena has just come back from a week in Miami at SOBEWFF (South Beach Wine and Food Festival). Everyone in the market felt her absence.
We pass the butcher shop owned by M25, the culinary new kid on the block drawing visitors through the unique nature of choosing your own cut of meat. A concerned butcher emerges from beyond the counter, meets us in the street, and asks if all worked out last weekend. Adeena thanks him profusely for providing two last minute steaks for her husband moments before the restaurant was closing for Shabbat. I don’t know who looked more relieved by Jay’s fortuitously timely arrival at the shop, Adeena or the butcher.
What does a typical day for you look like?
Adeena Sussman: I wake up early. My husband, Jay, is usually still asleep and I sneak out of the room. I tend to check instagram right away, sometimes while I’m still in bed. I’ll then go upstairs and make coffee. In the summer, I like to wake up and go straight to the pool. I’m a huge electric scooter fan. I’m Wind obsessed. I’m going to buy myself a scooter this year. If I don’t go to the pool right away, I’ll make myself a french press coffee. That’s coffee number one of the day. I like to do work early in the morning. Morning is the best time for me to write. I don’t really read the paper, I read it online. My brain doesn’t work at night. I’m not the kind of person who can cram from 11 pm to 2 am.
I usually go to the Shuk afterwards. Depending on what project I’m working on, I’ll either be buying ingredients or meeting someone to show them around the market. I spend a lot of time in the Shuk, shopping and schmoozing with the vendors. Once I’m done there, I’ll come home and either be in a cooking or writing phase for a project. If I’m cooking, I’ll be in the kitchen taking notes.
Taking notes, as in creating new recipes?
AS: During the day, if I’m cooking, it’s always for work. That’s why I really never make myself lunch. And when I say ‘working’, I mean on a new project. I just got a new contract for a book post Sababa, all about Shabbat foods. So, I’m researching and reading a lot about how Israelis cook on weekends, Shabbat plus a peek into the Friday brunch craze.
So, are you making your own recipes for the upcoming book?
AS: Yes! So on Fridays, I now go and cook with someone who makes food for Shabbat.
Since Sababa came out, I’ve been fielding a lot of requests for interviews and collaborations. I’m trying to figure out how to manage all of that. Then, I’ll break for lunch. I prefer going out for lunch rather than dinner. I think restaurants are more chill during lunchtime.
What do you like to have for lunch?
AS: I like to keep things veggie centric for lunch. I will often snack on falafel. For breakfast I usually have eggs with roasted cherry tomatoes, avocado, and feta with toast and a coffee. Or I’ll have my cold brew and almond milk. I like savory breakfasts. I’m not a very sweet tooth person in general. Around mid-day, I’ll go to Caffe Tamati for the best hafuch (cappuccino) in the Shuk. Miki named his coffee shop Tamati, which means my little dove, after his wife. Catching up with Miki everyday keeps me grounded. I work alone and from home, so being able to have a set time to go and chat with someone is important. I’ll often have lunch with someone who is visiting from abroad or local people from the food community here. The days go by very quickly for me. I’m not super regimented about a schedule. But, I do have my daily to-do lists with food infused throughout.
How do you find the social environment in Tel Aviv?
AS: In New York City as a freelance writer, I felt a real pressure to show up at things and go to events. But, I don’t feel that here as much. I’m also not as entrenched in the local food scene in Tel Aviv like I was in NYC. I don’t get invited to so many things and I really enjoy that. I have kind of gotten used to the style of spontaneity Israeli socializing is known for. In NYC, everything was so planned and scheduled. Being spontaneous was scheduled two weeks in advance. In Tel Aviv, there’s a social contract of spontaneity. As a result, life happens and flows more easily. You wind up leaving time for things. This new sense of freedom when it comes to plans has unwound decades of anxiety that I didn’t even know I had been experiencing.
Does this mentality bleed into your hosting style?
AS: It absolutely informs the way I cook and the kind of things I like to make. Sababa is designed for spontaneous gatherings. The fact that you can make something and then call people and just say, ‘I made a huge pot of whatever, come over’ and people will show up is a very Tel Avivian mentality. That wouldn’t happen in NYC. That’s a really special facet of Israeli life that’s woven into the social fabric here that I enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that people don’t have plans here, it’s just that they’re more open. There isn’t an LA style flakiness. But, if you don’t want to do something you can just say, no thanks I’m going to relax today, and people get it.
What are some of your early memories having to do with food?
AS: I grew up Modern Orthodox in Palo Alto, California, where there weren’t many other Jews, so my mother cooked a lot and we hosted often. She baked challah every Friday. Even though it was California in the 1970s and 1980s, we weren’t like Alice Waters going to the farmer’s market every week. My mom made tuna casseroles and we had hot dogs for dinner once a week. Her real focus was getting creative for our Shabbat meals. She didn’t grow up religious and food was not a focus in her home. Once she met my father, she learned how to cook and how to cook kosher at the same time. Her two bibles were the New York Times cookbook and the Chabad Spice and Spirit cookbook.
I enjoyed the fact that we always had people around and it wasn’t a big deal. I learned how to have people in my space without feeling suffocated or like my space was being invaded. Understanding how to take space when you need it. When you entertain you don’t always have to be talking to everyone. Making people feel at home is oftentimes giving them space as well. These are values that my sister and I learned very early.
I think there is a continuum between Californian and Israeli food. Like for example, the seasonality of things, the freshness of produce, and the types of things you can find in sunny cultures. When I moved to Israel, there was already something that felt very familiar.
Tell me about Sababa. How long did the process take you?
AS: It’s interesting, as I work on my second book, I realize what a disadvantage I’m at now. Sababa is a compendium of my whole life of cooking. It’s my first solo cookbook. It’s all the things I make all the time, all the tips and tricks I use everyday. I’d say it took about a year of hardcore cooking and many tests and retests. I made certain things 20 or 30 times to make sure the recipes were right. Also, everything was intended for the United States so all my recipes had to be cooked there. The flour and sugar are different. So we had to use local products and make sure the recipes came out the same. It’s called cross testing. But, it was worth it because people are really cooking. I don’t repost all that I’m tagged in on Instagram. But, seeing all the things people are making from Sababa is amazing. That’s the most fun part of the whole process. The book really is a reflection of having lived in two countries.
Let’s talk about the power of food, beyond taste and eating.
AS: For me personally, I am someone who is a very nurturing type. So in that sense, giving, in any capacity is something I connect with. Also, food can satisfy people in a way that words often cannot. I can just put out food and don’t need to say anything. Cooking is both a pleasure and a sickness. You want so badly for people to like what you’re making.
How would you define the Israeli cuisine of today?
AS: I think Israeli food is still trying to find its own identity. The cuisine is both a combination of ethnic influences that landed in Israel, and Arab and Palestinian flavors. But, what defines the food here is how modern Israel has put a unique twist on traditional foods. It can be as simple as when Eyal Shani substitutes chickpeas for lima beans in his masabacha dish. Today, you can get a pita with ceviche topped with a beet relish in the Shuk. The Israeli touch is putting an unexpected twist on classic dishes. It’s not about culinary bells and whistles. But rather, combining flavors that make sense together. The DNA of Israeli cooking is to acknowledge and be aware of ethnic origins of a dish. But, to not be bound to stick to them.
Why do you think people are drawn to Israeli food?
AS: It’s healthy, plant based, and not generally meat focused. The flavors used to make things spicy are green chili, garlic, and cilantro; ingredients that we’ve all had before. A lot of the recipes from Sababa look familiar but taste exotic. That’s what modern Israeli cuisine is all about, taking something you recognize and then surprising you.
Like a kind friend, Sababa guides you through each recipe with a sense of confidence that is simultaneously comforting and motivational. Promising that your very best attempt is absolutely good enough. With one hand on your handlebars, Adeena is a guiding light in and out of the kitchen. With a smile on your face and the warm Mediterranean breeze in your hair, you slowly realize that Adeena has already let go and you’ve been riding on your own.
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