From the cover of “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen” by Adeena Sussman
From the cover of “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen” by Adeena Sussman

American immigrant’s Israeli cookbook showcases culture through flavor

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For those who already have Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem” on their shelves, along with Einat Admony’s “Balaboosta” and Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s “Zahav” and “Israeli Soul” — well, one might ask, is there really a need for another Israeli cookbook?

In the case of Adeena Sussman’s “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen,” the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Even Solomonov says so himself, in the foreword: “The pages of this book ooze with her passion for the romance and beauty of Israeli cuisine … She is Israeli by choice, and in that I think she has a unique perspective on what is special about this culture and cuisine.”

Israelis are taking notice, too. In a recent phone conversation, Sussman said that much to her delight and surprise, a few Israeli press outlets had contacted her. She assumed they’d have no interest in what an American immigrant had to say about their cuisine.

Adeena Sussman (Photo/Evan Sung)
Adeena Sussman (Photo/Evan Sung)

Sussman was raised in an Orthodox home in Palo Alto. When Sabbath-observant visitors came to town and were looking for a place they could eat a kosher Shabbos dinner, it was often her parents, Stan and Stephanie Sussman, who offered to host.

“Food was always something that was around, obviously to nourish but also to entertain and make people feel at home,” Sussman said from Tel Aviv. “The food I grew up eating was delicious but very homestyle. My mom worked full time, but we did have a lot of guests, and so my mom kept the food simple and streamlined but really delicious.”

It’s a style that Sussman often emulates. While her mom would roast a chicken rubbed with paprika, onion and garlic powder, Sussman’s Israeli version is rubbed with za’atar, served over sumac-tossed potatoes.

“It’s simultaneously very homey and very yummy, but adding an element of surprise,” she said.

Sussman spent five years living in Jerusalem in her 20s, when she left to join the culinary industry in New York. She had a suspicion that she might return some day.

“Having grown up in a religious Zionist household, that love of Israel never left me,” she said. “But the way I approached that love and the place definitely changed in interesting ways.” Even though by her 20s she was no longer observant, “I still understand why people love to go to the Kotel. But Mahane Yehuda [open-air market] is my spiritual home in Jerusalem.”

In a nod to her heritage and in memory of her mother, Sussman made “Sababa” a kosher cookbook. It also allows her sister, Sharon, to cook from it. (For many years, the sisters did a Thanksgiving pie fundraiser for ovarian cancer prevention in honor of their mother, who died in 2006; it was a topic of this column in 2013).

She did return to Israel in 2015 after she met her now-husband, Jay, an American expat who has made Tel Aviv home for years, and she split her time between Israel and New York for the next few years. By then Sussman had already co-authored 11 cookbooks, including two that made the New York Times bestseller list: “Cravings: Hungry for More” with model and actress Chrissy Teigen. In between cookbooks, Sussman had long followed and written about the constant evolution of Israeli cuisine, authoring one cookbook about tahini and the myriad ways it can be used.

She said the hardest part of writing “Sababa” was relearning how to write in her own voice, since she was so used to writing in the voices of her coauthors.

When she decided to make the permanent move to Tel Aviv in 2018, it was her literary agent who suggested she write an Israeli cookbook. It wasn’t a tough sell, especially since she lives so close to the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. She quickly became a regular at the market. “I guess you could say I came to Israel for love but stayed for the shuk,” she writes.

On the other hand, she wondered whether she was legit enough to add to the growing canon of Israeli cookbooks — a matter, she joked, she could spend hours discussing in therapy.

“I was uncomfortable with being an interloper,” she said. “But I had a sense of belonging very quickly. I embraced the Carmel Market and it embraced me. What ended up working the best was allowing myself the platform to have my cooking be the star, even though it’s been influenced by other cuisines.”

That describes her recipe for Israeli street corn — Mexican street corn gone Israeli. Za’atar, labneh and feta are substituted for the chili powder, crema and Cotija (see recipe below). And her tahini caramel tart, garnished with labneh whipped cream, is “the Gal Gadot of tarts,” she said.

Sussman will talk about “Sababa” in several Bay Area appearances in the next month. On Sept. 8, she’ll be at Omnivore Books in San Francisco at 3 p.m. (free). On Sept. 10, she’ll be at the Contemporary Jewish Museum at 12 p.m. (included with admission) and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto at 7:30 p.m., interviewed by me ($30 entrance fee includes a book). She’ll also appear with fellow cookbook authors Einat Admony and Leah Koenig in an evening called “A New Year of New Jewish Flavors” at the JCCSF on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. ($30).

Israeli Street Corn

Serves 4

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes

Israeli corn season is short but, as of late, sweet. Versions more like the summer corn I grew up eating—juicy, sugary-sweet, and almost bursting with juice—are slowly making inroads where varieties more commonly associated with animal feed used to be the norm. I’ve always loved the creamy, spicy, juicy, savory, and sweet contrasts in a bite of Mexican-style corn, and this adaptation—using labaneh, feta, and za’atar—is out of this world in both looks and taste; it’s messy and hands-on, and I’ve had this as a light lunch on more than one occasion. It’s so simple yet so packed with contrasting flavors, and people really do go bonkers when they try it.

Israeli Street Corn from “Sababa” (Photo/Courtesy Penguin Random House)
Israeli Street Corn from “Sababa” (Photo/Courtesy Penguin Random House)
  • 4 ears corn, shucked
  • ⅓ cup labaneh (homemade or store-bought), or plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lime, cut in half
  • ¾ cup (3 ounces) finely crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon Za’atar Spice Blend (page 28 or store-bought)
  • 1 small jalapeño, seeded and finely diced

Preheat a grill or grill pan over high heat. Grill the corn, turning occasionally, until charred in sections, 6 or 7 minutes total. While the corn is grilling, whisk together the labaneh, cilantro, olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Zest half of the lime into the yogurt mixture. Pat the feta dry if it’s on the wetter side and scatter it on a plate. Brush each grilled corn cob with about 1½ tablespoons of the yogurt mixture, then roll each cob in the feta, pressing so the cheese adheres. Sprinkle each cob with za’atar and a little bit of jalapeño and zest the remaining half of the lime right onto the corn. Serve zested lime halves with the corn.

Za’atar Spice Blend

Makes around 1 cup

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes

An herb with a pedigree that goes back to the Bible, za’atar, or hyssop leaf, is at the heart of the blend of the same name. Herby, tangy, nutty, and slightly salty, the blend elevates every dish it touches. Every spring, when za’atar grows in abundance, Arab and Palestinian women dry reams of it on rooftops and patios before grinding it with sesame, salt, sumac, and, occasionally, thyme for a homemade version they use all year. There are different styles of za’atar all over the Middle East; some are much tangier due to the amount of sumac added; some have more sesame seeds or salt. I found making my own to be a revelation, because I could control exactly how much of each element I wanted in the mix. Microwaving herbs to dry them is another discovery; it removes the moisture while leaving the herbs bright green. You can sometimes find za’atar fresh at farmers’ markets or well-stocked Middle Eastern stores, but fresh oregano is a worthy stand-in; dried herbs also work really well here, too.

  • 1 cup picked fresh za’atar or oregano leaves (or 6 tablespoons dried oregano)
  • 3 tablespoons dried marjoram
  • 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 4 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon ground sumac
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt

If using fresh za’atar or oregano, arrange it on a towel-lined plate and microwave in 15-second intervals, stirring between intervals, until dry and crumbly, 2 to 2½ minutes. Crumble the leaves by hand or in a spice grinder until almost fine (the way dried herbs look), then combine in a medium bowl with the marjoram, sesame seeds, thyme, sumac, and salt. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Recipe reprinted from “Sababa” by arrangement with Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019, Adeena Sussman.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."