Adeena Sussman is simmering a wine-braised pot roast when I walk into her Tel Aviv apartment at 9 A.M. In the past month, this is her first time cooking — really cooking, that is — aside from “dozens of pink tahini demos,” she jokes. She’s been busy crisscrossing the United States promoting her new cookbook.
“I felt this primal need to make a meal,” Adeena, author of “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen,” says as she stirs the vegetables stewing alongside the roast she’ll serve friends for lunch the next day. “Cooking anchors me to the place I’m in, and I wanted to sear things and smell things in my kitchen.”
The morning I visit Adeena, who is an old friend, she is back home for a Tel Aviv minute. It’s a break to come home to the seaside apartment near the Carmel Market she shares with her husband; she’s between stops on her four-month book tour. “Sababa” is Hebrew slang adopted from Arabic that translates as “it’s all good” or “everything is awesome.”
Indeed, “sababa” seems a good way of describing Adeena’s life right now and the acclaim her book is receiving. Since its publication last month, the stellar reviews have come so quickly that Adeena, who is 48, is having a hard time keeping up.
“Sababa” has been named one of the best cookbooks of the season by pretty much every food list of note out there: The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, Eater, Epicurious and Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. Her recipe for creamy roasted-tomato pappardelle has been featured in People magazine, and her tahini-glazed carrots have won a flurry of likes on the Instagram account of The New York Times Cooking section.
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There have been television interviews, a profile in The Wall Street Journal, book talks, as well as demos to sold-out crowds and high-end restaurants on both coasts serving “Sababa” menus for the night.
And then there are the book’s fans, hosting “Sababa” dinner parties and cooking Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah meals from the tome, sharing the scrumptious and photogenic products of their labor like lemony roasted cauliflower, chewy tahini blondies, jeweled rice and harissa honey chicken on social media.
“People are excited about it — the community aspect is big somehow,” Adeena says. “All this attention wasn’t expected. I hoped and thought I had written a book people would want to cook from, but the rest is a crapshoot. You can put all the pieces in place and anything can happen. So many amazing cookbooks come out every year.”
She has co-authored 11 cookbooks, mostly with celebrity authors and chefs (most notably her collaboration with model Chrissy Teigen on New York Times No. 1 best-seller “Cravings” and her best-selling follow-up, “Hungry for More”). But “Sababa” is Adeena’s first major solo cookbook.
I met Adeena several years ago when she was still living in New York and on assignment writing about Tel Aviv’s restaurant scene. We fell into a fast friendship and I vividly remember sitting with her in Midtown Manhattan at a Korean restaurant for lunch on a winter’s day three years ago. She told me she had just signed with an agent, so we scribbled out possible titles for the book on a napkin — “Sababa” among them.
Back in the present, when we sink into her couch to ponder the journey of this book that reads like a memoir with luscious recipes, I remind her that exactly five Rosh Hashanahs ago, we were sitting on a couch in my then-home in Massachusetts, talking about what might happen in the new year. I had told her I had a good feeling about what might lie ahead.
A few weeks later, she met the man who’s now her husband, Jay Shofet. At first it was a long-distance relationship: Adeena based in New York with a full-throttle career as a cookbook co-author and recipe developer for the Food Network and others; and Jay living in Tel Aviv. She moved here in 2017 ahead of their marriage.
A foodie quid pro quo
Israel isn’t new to Adeena. She lived in Jerusalem in her 20s for a few years and speaks Hebrew. She kept up her Israeli connections through visits, particularly in the food community, and is close friends with stars including food writer and TV personality Gil Hovav and baker Uri Scheft. She loves the local food scene and knows it well, and it has been good to her in return. For a cookbook written in English, “Sababa” has won a surprising amount of attention in the Hebrew media.
When she started visiting Jay here, Adeena began her morning ritual roaming the alleyways of Tel Aviv’s renowned Carmel Market for the day’s produce. California-raised and New York-trained, she tells me she found herself applying her American culinary background to Israeli cooking — and the book is a product of that fusion.
“As soon as I got back I did a huge shuk shop,” says Adeena, her face brightening at mention of the market. “It was such fun to go to the shuk with the book and show the vendors; they’re all very excited — both for themselves and for me. It’s like a homecoming.”
“Sababa” can be read in some ways as a love letter to the Carmel Market. Adeena, who’s as gifted a writer as she is a cook, opens the book with these words: “In a city full of night owls, I am among the earliest of risers. Tel Aviv is a place of sizzling days that can leave you wilting, of beach jaunts and afternoon naps and dinners out after the sun slips behind the Mediterranean Sea. But on mornings like this, just after the light begins to drift in through the wispy shades, the city feels like it belongs only to me. So I leave my husband sleeping and sneak out of the bedroom, grab my two-wheeled plaid shopping cart, slip out the door, and make my way the short distance between our apartment and the entrance to the Carmel Market.”
But for those who know her well, “Sababa” is also a tribute to her late mother Steffi Sussman who, along with Adeena’s paternal grandmother, taught her how to cook and host — and how to be in the world. Among the 120 recipes in the book is one by her mother called “overnight chicken soup” that cooks for at least 12 hours. She adds a Yemenite option — add the Yemenite spice of hawaiij in the final hours to “lend the most wondrous mildly spicy flavor and sunshiny hue to your broth.”
“In general, my cooking personality has been in the service of other people till now — although all the people I’ve written with have given me credit,” she says. “These recipes have my own personal stamp and personal stories, and are infused with stories of my immigration and acclimatization here in Israel and the part the shuk has played in that. I really just wanted to write a book people would actually cook from.”
“And a book that people want to read,” adds her husband Jay, who has now joined us in the living room. Adeena says one surprise is how many people tell her they’re enjoying reading the book as much as cooking from it.
“Yes, maybe that didn’t dawn on me because the stories came straight from my life here and experiences with my family cooking,” she says. “The headnotes are quite autobiographical — the bulk of the writing is something between a memoir and something more experiential, as opposed to explaining the roots of a dish with dates and geographical marking points, although there is that too.”
She says the book is also a reflection on where Israeli cooking stands right now, even if it’s interpreted through her American lens.
“Being an outsider in culinary culture has helped me in this process. I could stand back and look at [spices and condiments] like harissa, schug, tahini, amba and pomegranate molasses and think about how to parse them in terms of flavors and utility, as opposed to how to use them traditionally,” she says. “I want any Americans who read the book to know that if, for example, you have a bottle of pomegranate molasses, you can use it not just in traditional stews but that it’s a tart, sweet thing, perfect to shellac a chicken wing.”
Just like coding
As Adeena explains it, one can honor the provenance of each ingredient but at the same time not be bound by their traditional uses.
She breaks down her own science of recipe development for me: “It’s like developing lines of code — I know if I take a cup of onions, chop a certain size and cook in a certain kind of oil for a certain amount of time, that it will yield a line of code, and recipes are an aggregation of lines of code. So swapping in pomegranate molasses for honey is a way I make a program my own.”
She cites her chewy tahini blondie recipe as an example: it uses local flavors of tahini paste and cardamom: “You look it at and see an American suburb and taste it and say Middle Eastern shuk — and I love that duality.”
Of course, in the Middle East even the politics of food is fraught; specifically, the question of cultural appropriation — as in Israelis claiming traditionally Palestinian or Arab dishes as part of their own national cuisine.
“One of this book’s attributes is that it’s focused on the home kitchen and my personal story,” Adeena says. “So I’m not trying to wave the flag for any political view or point of view except for mine.”
She believes it is important to acknowledge where recipes are from, though. Doing that, she says, “you can de-charge the conversation and go a long way. Why would I try to deny the fact that knafeh is an Arab dish? How would that benefit me or anyone? So I don’t,” she says, referring to the salty-sweet popular dessert.
As she puts it, “Everyone is entitled to a voice in the culinary conversation.”
The first thing you notice when holding a copy of “Sababa” is its colorful collection of photos, all shot and processed in Israel. “It was important to me to work with an all-Israeli photographic and creative team because they added an intangible Israeliness to the book,” Adeena explains. Dan Perez, who does food photo shoots for Haaretz, was the work’s photographer.
“The light of Tel Aviv is so beautiful,” Adeena says, mentioning “small details like a crumpled b’te’avon [bon appetit] napkin. And Nurit Kariv, our stylist, brought dishes and fabrics from her home, and even people’s opinions about dishes, the Israeli reaction to the food as they perceive it, all came together in a special way.”
Jay is also digesting what he calls “an outpouring of love” for Adeena and “Sababa.” “Everyone who knew Adeena a little tiny bit feels incredibly close and proud of her,” he says. “I really think it’s a perfect storm of Adeena’s recipe development, the timing is right and Israeli food is trending.”
Adeena is also delighted that her book is being embraced by kosher cooks. She grew up in Palo Alto in the ’80s, in one of the Californian city’s few Orthodox families. Although she is no longer observant, it was important to her that her family — including her sister — would be able to cook from “Sababa,” so she made sure all the recipes are kosher.
We finish our conversation back at the kitchen counter, sipping cool glasses of date-sweetened almond milk (a “Sababa” recipe) and scraping bits of roasted garlic out of an iron skillet.
Adeena murmurs: “Food is good.”
Recipe from ‘Sababa’: Freekeh Vegetable Soup
Adeena Sussman writes: It’s not all palm trees and hot beaches; Tel Aviv has a winter, too,bringing hard rain and strong winds that practically make you beg for a bowl of soup. Freekeh (smoked, cracked wheat) adds both body and flavor to this one. Though most wheat in Israel is imported, a small amount is harvested locally every spring. In Arab communities, prized young green wheat is picked and dried in the field over wood to create freekeh (pronounced “freaky” in Israel), a beguiling grain that can be used a million ways (though some of the freekeh I buy here is local, much of it is imported from Turkey).
If you throw in a little extra, its starch makes the soup grow thick, so that one minute you have a normal broth and the next you’re looking at almost-porridge ... but in the best possible way.
The freekeh adds just a wisp of smoky flavor, as though a blown-out match had passed through each spoonful for a second.
1 cup freekeh (cracked or whole)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, diced
1 medium kohlrabi, rind and tough outer membranes peeled off, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
3 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups vegetable or chicken broth, plus more if needed
2 medium zucchini, diced
1 Parmesan rind or 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (optional)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh za’atar or oregano
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
Chopped fresh herbs (za’atar, parsley, chives, or scallions), for garnish
Serves 6 to 8
Total Time: 55 minutes
Place the freekeh in a medium bowl, cover with cold water, and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large (4-or 5-quart) saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened (8 minutes). Add the kohlrabi and carrots and cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to soften (5 minutes); season generously with salt and black pepper. Add the garlic and cook one more minute. Drain the freekeh, rinse it with cold water, and add it to the pot.
Add the broth, zucchini, Parmesan rind if using, za’atar, salt and the cayenne. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the soup is thickened, 25 to 30 minutes (or a few minutes longer if you’re using whole freekeh instead of cracked freekeh). Remove the Parmesan rind, season with more salt and black pepper to taste, divide among bowls, garnish with herbs, and drizzle with olive oil.
From “Sababa” by Adeena Sussman, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Adeena Sussman