January 18, 2020

With Adeena Sussman, Everything is Sababa

Adeena Sussman Photo by Dan Perez

On a recent trip to Israel, I sat with my friend Adeena Sussman and her husband, Jay Shofet, over incredible, home-style food at the tiny restaurant Azura in Tel Aviv. The menu changes daily and depending on seasonal availability. The restaurant is famous for long-stewed dishes, like okra in tomato sauce, eggplant and beef, and a beef stew that we shared, family-style. The kosher Turkish-Yerushalmi Tel Aviv outpost, an offshoot of the original location in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market open since 1952, opened in 2015. Its lunch service begins at 11 a.m. and continues until the pots are empty.

It is this kind of informal attitude — a commitment to serving what’s fresh and in season, and welcoming people with a pot of warm food like they’re family — that is reflected in Sussman’s own cooking, as well as events surrounding the launch of her new cookbook, “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Recipes From My Tel Aviv Kitchen,” which has been named to The New York Times’ list of the 13 Best Cookbooks of Fall 2019.

Last week, one of her recipes — Creamy Roasted Pappardelle — appeared in People magazine. Last Friday morning, she appeared on KTLA. Her pop-up last week at famed L.A. restaurant Animal was the first in four Los Angeles stops on her 32-stop promotional tour that ends just before Thanksgiving. 

Monday night’s event took place at the Beverlywood home of Jill and Matt Lefferman. After munching on small bites prepared by Ruth Hurwitz of Our Kosher Table from Sussman’s cookbook’s recipes — attendees sat rapt for a special hourlong interview with the author conducted by former Jewish Journal writer Julie Gruenbaum Fax, a friend of Sussman’s for more than three decades. 

“Items from the Israeli pantry will stick around and become part of the larger culture. We’re probably going to see shakshuka pizza on a Domino’s menu in five years.” — Adeena Sussman

Sussman presented observations and tips for cooking creatively in a way that suits individual lifestyles. For instance, if you buy store-bought hummus, Sussman isn’t going to judge, but suggested you top it with crispy brussels sprouts and put some lemon juice on it. She suggested that people read cookbooks like novels, that in slowing down they can understand the techniques. She said she “keeps it real” when it comes to stocking kitchen tools: a paring knife, a chef knife and serrated knife, plus a cutting board and a few pots. Although the book and her Instagram account have stunning photos, she said that 90 percent of the world’s best foods are brown, and don’t have to look beautiful to taste amazing. 

“People are really interested in cooking itself. They are hungry for tips and tricks and information and the fact that it’s wrapped in a story about Israel, and the recipes are so accessible, it’s all kind of clicking in a way I didn’t understand in advance that it would,” she told the Journal after the event.

Sussman urged the crowd “to bring all the amazing staples of the Israeli kitchen into your repertoire and use them in interesting ways.” Those staples include original spice blends that Sussman makes herself, as well as pomegranate syrup, fresh citrus, sumac, date syrup and tahini, which Sussman prepares in multiple colors: pink (from roasted beets), green (with ground herbs), yellow (with turmeric) and a smoky charcoal version (tinted by charred eggplant skins).

“Items from the Israeli pantry will stick around and become part of the larger culture,” she said, noting that items like a shakshuka kit, schug and amba are now being sold at Trader Joe’s. “We’re probably going to see shakshuka pizza on a Domino’s menu, in five years.” 

Sussman also revealed the influence of her late mother, Stephanie (Steffi) Sussman. Her mother constantly hosted people, Sussman said, and the Triple Ginger Persimmon Bread featured in the book is adapted from her mom’s recipe. And every year, Sussman bakes untold numbers of pies, pumpkin breads and other baked goods for the Pies for Prevention Thanksgiving Bake Sale, which supports a Ovarian Cancer Program. The sale was co-founded by Sussman and her sister, Sharon Wieder, in Steffi’s memory, and now has branches in 29 locations in the U.S. and Canada.

The audience audibly gasped as Sussman described her Turkish coffee-rubbed steaks, sour lime and pomegranate chicken wings and tahini blondies, and whooped in jubilation as the latter two were passed around to sample. 

What Sussman loves about Israeli cooking is that it’s bound to the seasons and has a “granular locality,” she said. Sussman’s own particular locality is the Shuk HaCarmel market in Tel Aviv, where she spends her early mornings checking out what’s fresh, talking to shopkeepers and customers about what they’re buying and why. She learned that some shopkeepers had been selling at the shuk for nearly a century, but their children and grandchildren, involved in high-tech or other industries in the bustling city, are not interested in running the family business. She felt a responsibility to share some of their stories, before they disappear, she said.  

In the book’s trailer, Sussman asserts Tel Aviv is the best food city in the world. 

“The quality of food is very high across the board. People have a really strong commitment to freshness. … For Jews in Israel, eating is a big part of our culture, informs big parts of Israeli life. There’s the start-up nation-y thing too,” she told the Journal, noting a proliferation of restaurant pop-ups in empty spaces. “There’s always something new and exciting. And because of Shabbat, so many people still cook at home whether they’re religious or not so there’s this weekly anchor of home cooking that may not exist in other places in the world.”

Sussman identifies as an improvisational cook. When people drop by she says she wants to feed them because that’s how she shows love. She encourages people to cook casually, considers recipes to be guidelines — suggestions to help you feel comfortable cooking. Or as her mother used to say, “There are no mistakes in cooking, just happy accidents.”

“Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Recipes From My Tel Aviv Kitchen,” is available on Amazon. Learn more about Sussman on her website.