Adeena Susman, celebrated cookbook author, was sitting on her deck the evening I FaceTimed her. She looks exactly like her author photos—casual and bright-spirited. Not long after our conversation began, she flipped the camera to show me the view from her rooftop deck. It was my first visual introduction to Tel Aviv.
“If you look to my far right and sort of out, you can see the ocean and a little off in the distance you see Jaffa [an ancient port city in Israel] and on the left, you see the Carmel market, Rothchild Boulevard, and modern Tel Aviv. Old and new. Side by side. A modern representation of Tel Aviv,” Adeena says, then she flips the camera back.
We spent the next hour discussing her cookbook, Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen.
How Adeena Sussman Learned to Cook
Though born in the United States, Adeena had been traveling to Israel for decades including living in Jerusalem for five years after college. After falling in love with her now-husband, she permanently relocated to Tel Aviv in 2015.
Her cooking was heavily influenced by her mother in childhood. As an Orthodox Jewish family, they observed Shabbat, or Sabbath, a day of rest which typically involves three meals; the most popular is the Friday night dinner.
In adulthood, her food has become deeply informed by her experiences at the Carmel Market, also called the shuk. The market bustles from morning to night, six days a week, with individual vendors willing to educate the would-be buyer if they take the time to listen. And listen Adeena did.
An experienced cook, she has co-authored 11 books, but Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen was her first solo endeavor. It was named the best fall 2019 cookbook by The New York Times, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine.
What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.
Q & A With Cookbook Author Adeena Sussman
Q: Why was it important for you to share Israeli cooking with the world?
I started working on it in the middle of 2017, right when I got married, and it was published in September 2019, but I think I’ve been working on it my whole life in some ways. I had already been writing about Israeli food and wine for a long time. It had been suggested for a long time that I write a book about it, but I didn’t want to feel like an interloper because I wasn’t living in Israel.
I met my husband and started spending large chunks of time here, so I wasn’t a tourist anymore, but almost a pseudo resident, then I moved here and the Carmel Market became a big part of my life, and there are lots of people who have written lots of books about it [Israeli food] but I was living here. Other chefs who’ve written about it live abroad and I was living here, so I knew there was a space I could fill and make this accessible for home cooks in the United States and elsewhere.
Q: What is one thing you wish people understood about Israeli cuisine?
That it is really a mix of many cultures that have come together and that the ingredient influences are multicultural. Modern Israeli cuisine is a combination of Jewish, Arabic, Ethiopian, Christian, and all the ethnic groups that contribute to the culture.
Modern Israeli chefs feel confident enough to combine influences, and they aren’t afraid to add their own unique touches. It’s not a straight line. Oh, this is a Moroccan or French dish, there are often lots of things mixed into to one dish. Like a tabbouleh salad with green papaya was influenced by workers from Thailand. The workers have influenced agriculture here which influences the food, and they grow papaya so now we have that.
It’s a mix and match of spice blends—a combination of the exotic and the familiar. The way that food is approached here is an indication of what life is like in in the area. It plays into the entrepreneurial nature of Israel.
The way I approached Sababa is my interpretation of these dishes, and flavors and how they can be used in different ways. What I don’t like is having something that is new to me and exciting, but I only know how to use it in one way then it gathers dust, sits on that back of the shelf. I wanted to push the envelope and experiment with all of these flavors, condiments in different ways, and that’s really the heart of the he book.
Q: What flavors define Israeli cooking for you? Basically, what are the fundamental elements of Israeli cuisine?
Fresh produce is an ideal and a value; you don’t eat out of season here. They are religious about it.
I would say lemon, spice, heat—food that feels infused with sunshine. Lots of spices—cumin, turmeric, warm spices like cardamom and cloves. It goes in all directions. Olive oil is a line through all the cooking here.
Q: I read an article where you talk about Shabbat—not necessarily observing it, but the idea of having food prepared to share with others. Can you tell me a little bit about what it means to host other people or entertain in Israel, and was it an adjustment for you?
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home where Shabbat was a really big focus. Time stopped when Shabbat started. As a result, I was very accustomed to preparing food for our guests.
A lot of Shabbat dishes are easy to make and leave on the stove. You aren’t supposed to work on the weekends, you’re supposed to relax, so the work is done ahead of time.
The way Israelis entertain is more casual than in the United States. You can just lay out a table of bread, salads, and dips, and it’s considered a meal. Or one big dish in a pot.
I like entertaining. People are every spontaneous here, and there is almost a social contract that if no one has plans then everyone has plans. I will put out the call that I’m making food and people will come over and watch the sunset on the porch and have a late lunch and cocktails. It’s a less formal vibe, which I enjoy, but you can also go a more traditional route if you want too.
I think Shabbat is really a set up that can work for anyone. The subject of my next book is Shabbat and it’s coming out in a couple of years.
Q: Finally, you write a lot about The Carmel Market, also known as the shuk, and how influential it is. What did you learn about shopping when you moved to Tel Aviv and Carmel became your home market?
You’re shopping at very specific vendors for different things. The person who is selling your food is an expert in what they are selling you. So, you need to give them the proper respect to learn.
The shuk can be intense. My first few months I was just in a place of learning. I stood back and listened a lot. "Can you pick the best for me?" "Can you pick the one that is ripe for me today, and one that will be ripe for me tomorrow?" "How do I do that myself?"
I would ask [the vendors] for one tip, or one thing I’d like to know. Learn from them. Ask questions and make sure you buy ingredients and put them in the proper cultural contents and pay attention to their origins. If you’re using Amba, talk about how it’s an Iraqi Jewish condiment. Look beyond just the flavor and try to understand what is going on with the ingredient. Putting it in a larger cultural context makes the act of eating that much more interesting and fulfilling.