Tel Aviv-based food writer and recipe developer Adeena Sussman radiates a golden glow — and not just because the California native’s ginger-colored hair refracts every ray of Mediterranean sunlight.
What Sussman emits is a natural warmth and ease and generosity of spirit, which is captured in her approach to food and shared in the pages of her brand new cookbook, “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen.”
What, you may wonder, is the meaning of sababa — and why did Sussman choose the word as the title of her book?
Sababa is derived from Arabic and translates loosely to mean “everything is awesome,” “everything’s cool” or just “cool” — in the non-temperature-related sense.
“I wanted to use a Hebrew word,” Sussman said, “but Hebrew is quite a complicated language and…a lot of the food words are hard for Americans to say. I wanted something that would flow off the tongue and be onomatopoeic to the life that I lead here. Sababa just nailed it for me. I say it many times a day. Other people say it to me many times a day. It’s like:
‘How are you?’
‘I’ll take a half a kilo of this.’
“You can say it 10 times without twisting your tongue,” she said. “And it’s fun to say.”
Sussman grew up visiting Israel with her family, and lived there on and off in her late teens and twenties before heading to New York City where she lived and worked for many years. She recently made the permanent move to Israel after marrying an American-born longtime Israeli. Sussman has written 11 cookbooks, mainly as a co-author, including Chrissy Tiegen’s “Cravings” books and the bestselling “Sprinkles Baking Book” with Candace Nelson.
“Sababa” is entirely her own — a culinary reflection of her life in Tel Aviv, where she lives in an apartment that’s steps from the the Carmel Market, one of the city’s great shuks. The market is so important to Sussman’s life, work and food that it seems like an actual character in her book.
“It feels that way, and it is that in my life,” she agreed. “It’s a family member, it’s a leitmotif of my life in Israel; it’s my community. It’s a place that gives me great comfort and happiness. I feel at home there; I feel welcome there; I have friends there. It’s really an important part of my life, and what we call in Hebrew klita, which is absorption, which is a part of acclimating to life in Israel, because although I had a long life of spending time here, moving to a new country — even though I spoke the language and knew how to spend the money and all that stuff — at the end of the day I was living in a new place and changing my life dramatically, and [the shuk] became and remains a constant in my life, and a place I just love going to.”
Sussman refers to the market as her playground, a place where she can pick up anything that’s in season and talk to vendors about herbs and spices; their uses and ethnic origins; and understand a little more about the international flavor of Israel.
She noted the people from all over the world, many who are not Jewish, work in the Carmel Market. “They play a part in my book as well,” she said. “One of the nicest elements for me of life in the shuk is that several of my favorite vendors and people I’m friendly with are Arab and Palastinian. It’s something I didn’t really know about the Carmel Market before I moved to Tel Aviv. On days of Muslim holidays, the shuk can feel quite empty because not only are a lot of the vendors out to observe the holidays but a lot of people who transport the food to the shuk are on vacation so a lot of the Jewish vendors don’t have their usual stock.”
This observation helped Sussman to advance her own ideas about co-existence and life in Israel, she said. And it’s that co-existence and cultural melding — among Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and people who came from countries all over the world — that helped shape Israeli cuisine.
But for Sussman, the character of Israeli food is derived at least as much from the country’s character than from the places its inhabitants came from. “If I had to define Israeli food,” she said, “I might try to shy away from attributions of nationality and talk more about national culture. To me, Israeli food has a looseness to it, it has a spontaneity to it that’s similar to Israeli culture: It’s very lemony, it’s very sunny and bright, it’s got spice. it’s complex but not complicated.”
It is also very much affected by Israeli ideas about hospitality, she explained. “So this whole concept of salatim, having all these salads in the fridget that you can just pull out and serve to people, one of the main differences in my life in Tel Aviv to New York is that there’s much less of a scheduled quality to life in Israel, so people are much more apt to stop by unannounced or call and pop by. And the idea that you have all these delicious foods that you’ve made that are in the fridge that you can just pull out to feed and nurture and entertain people, I think it’s just part of the culture.”
Religious culture plays an important role as well. Stews and dips and salads can be made in advance, so people don’t have to cook on the Sabbath. “I think a lot of the cultural influences, at least from a Jewish perspective, are subtle and they’re informed by the morrays of life in Israel.”
Sussman says that while she’s a huge fan of the canon of existing American-Israeli cookbooks, from Joan Nathan to Michael Solomonov to Einat Admony, she wanted to do something a little different with “Sababa.”
“I’m a home-cook recipe developer. And I always look at ingredients and think, how can I play with these while keeping them true to themselves?” she said.
So while she includes what she thinks of as requisite recipes that are cornerstones of an Israeli kitchen, such as hummus and baba ghanoush and pita, most of the recipes, she said, “reflect the duality of my life in Israel.”
As an example, she refers to a recipe in the book called “Sour Lime and Pomegranate Chicken Wings”. “I would not say that I’m the first person to apply an international flavor palate to a chicken wing, but when I saw Persian limes at the market, I like Persian foods and I had made some stews, but I thought ‘What are these about, and how am I going to use them in a way that’s going to be fun and delicious?’ I crushed them up in my spice grinder and all of a sudden I had this tart, sour powder that was amazing and worked so well to cut the richness and the fat of the chicken skin of the chicken wings.”
After rubbing the wings with the powder, to which she added turmeric, cumin and garlic, she bakes them then brushes them with pomegranate molasses.
“Both of the things that I used on the wings are of Persian origin,” she said, “but I use them in a way that allowed me to make them my own, and make them feel at home in my own house. And that’s how I like to approach cooking in general.”
The wings are one of Sussman’s favorites from the book. Another is the Pomegranate Negroni. “It’s just so good,” she said, “because pomegranate juice has that tanic, sour quality. I once was out of Campari but I had bitters, so I just combined the two to make my own ‘Campari’ out of pom juice and bitters, and I used white vermouth and gin, and it just came out so good, everybody just loved it, it was so refreshing. That really reflect the way I play with ingredients.”
Sussman said her food is surprising to Israelis. “I’m often shocked that people haven’t thought of the things that I’ve thought of,” she said. “They make sense to me; they don’t seem crazy.” For example, the book contains a caramel sauce made with tahini, and blondies with tahini, which also have two kinds of sesame seeds and cardamom.
“I hope that I’ve provided some fun and insight while still respecting the basics here,” she said. “I don’t want to be this swashbuckling culinary imperialist who’s just coming in and being like, ‘Oh, let’s use this this way.’
In other words, Sussman would like readers of Sababa to come away with a greater understanding of Israeli “classics” and also feel liberated to use ingredients in ways that excite them, the way she does.
Whether you choose to make a traditional dish or an Adeena Sussman original, it’s really more about the way you serve your meal than what you serve.
“I think that my personality and my food are similar in that what I try to telegraph to other people is a great sense of comfort and ease and relaxation. I think you want the food that you make to match the mood that you’re trying to create and the feeling that you want people to experience when they’re in your home.”
That feeling, if you follow Sussman’s lead, will most definitely be “Sababa” — everything is awesome.
Liza Schoenfein is senior food writer at the Forward. Follow her on Instagram @LifeDeathDinner