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Flavors from the Shuk: An Interview with Adeena Sussman

An interview with Adeena Sussman about her new vibrant recipe book inspired by Tel Aviv's Carmel Market.

Adeena Sussman’s new cookbook, Sababa, is a bestseller packed with gorgeous photos and stories from the Carmel Market (Shuk HaCarmel) in Tel Aviv, and fantastic recipes that even the most maladroit cooks (like me) can tackle.

Born in California, Sussman moved to Tel Aviv in 2015 and is famous for her daily visits to the shuk, where she spends her mornings chatting, shopping and watching as a way of learning. She has a gift for getting vendors and chefs to open up, and has amassed a collection of recipes from people with a variety of backgrounds. As such, Sababa is a primer on the mechanics of the shuk, Israeli lifestyles and traditions. Rachel Barenbaum talked with Sussman about her experiences, exploring and revealing Israel’s diversity through its food.

Adeena, can you tell me about your early memories of the shuk? When did you fall in love with the market? Did it draw you in right away?

No! I would say the opposite. My earliest memories of the Carmel Market were super negative. As someone who spent more time in Jerusalem growing up, Mahane Yehuda was much more comfortable. The Carmel Market reveals itself to you in layers. It is not the Platonic ideal of a European market in any way. There is nothing polished about it. It is extremely gritty. There are birds flying around, there is smoking and yelling. There is a lot going on. And I think to really understand the history of the market and the people who work there, and what is available there, you have to spend time there.

I did not expect that answer.

Yes, my first impressions were just really tentative. It was not a place that I took to immediately. But living here, being able to spend a lot of time there, I was able to have a different experience and understand the market. Just the experience of seeing the micro seasonality of Israeli food and observing how different the market is on different holidays all added to that understanding. Obviously the market is closed on Jewish holidays, but on Muslim holidays the Shuk has a lot of empty stalls and a lot of stalls are short-staffed because a lot of the people who work there are Muslim. It is really a little window into how Israelis of different extractions observe holidays.

For me, because I view so many things through a culinary lens, the Shuk is a way for me to get an understanding of what daily life in Israel is like for people of different religions, colors and points of view.

What is it about the shuk that you love now?

The produce isn’t wrapped in tissue paper. It is a very real produce market. The people are real. For better or for worse, the conventions of ‘customer service’ aren’t on display. People are just selling their wares. Obviously I have deep relationships, and because I’m a journalist I stand around asking a lot of questions and observing interactions. There’s just a lot happening there.

Over time, I found people were more willing to open up about their lives if I asked them about their family history or asked if this was what they envisioned doing with their life. In some ways those are Western questions, but people appreciated my interest and curiosity. And after my first 20 visits, people realized I wasn’t just a tourist on a long vacation, that I lived there. Then I noticed a difference in the way people treated me and spoke to me.

Let’s talk about the all important subject of schug (a Yemeni condiment). You call it ‘one of Yemen’s greatest contributions to Israeli cuisine.’ I couldn’t agree more. You describe it as “a riot of tender green herbs, dried spices and fresh hot chilies blended into an incredibly versatile condiment.” In my own experience, no two schugs are alike. Can you talk to us a bit about the variations? And how did you arrive at your recipe?

Yes, but the common denominator of most schugs is heat. Mine has cardamom, which is a little unusual, but like a lot of my recipes, they can look familiar but taste different. For example, my tahina blondies. They might look conventionally Western, but when you bite into them, they can transport you to this place where I live.

With schug, it is a bit of a make your own experience. You can make it as spicy or garlicky as you like. If you don’t like cilantro – which I can’t really understand! – you could use more parsley. Schug in its ideal form is so fresh and green and bright, but it is not something that is made daily. Think about a hot sauce in your fridge. The color can fade but it can still be spicy. Schug is the same. In a Yemenite restaurant, the schug is not being ground or processed every morning. But it is an anchor of Yemeni cooking – and it has to be spicy.

There is red schug, green schug. Peppers vary in spiciness. If you’re making it in the States you can use serrano peppers or jalapeno peppers. In Israel, because there are so many foreign workers from other countries, you can find all different kinds of peppers but not always hot peppers.

Let’s look to harissa. American recipes for harissa always include exotic peppers. But in Israel, most harissa is imported from Morocco or Tunisia. This is because there are so few dried peppers available – unless you specifically go to specialty Mexican markets. I made my harissa the way an Israeli shopping in an Israeli market would make it. That means plain old dried red peppers and roasted peppers and spices.

In general, I wanted the recipes to be reflective of how Israelis are cooking in Israel today. My schug is just made with things I pick up in the shuk all the time. Often, I make it when I have bought too many fresh herbs. I always have tons of garlic around the house. I just love it.

You touched on this earlier, but I want to go deeper. One of the most impressive parts of this cookbook is the sheer number of kitchens you visit and chefs who taught you to make their dishes or specialties. Can you tell us how you met so many amazing cooks and how you convinced them to share their kitchens with you?

Most of the people I cooked with were not Shuk habitués. They were people who I had befriended through my life in Tel Aviv, or through the food industry. They were food writers or chefs that I knew from my life here. For example, Jonathan Borowitz of M25. I have been going to his restaurant for years. And I am not the kind of person who announces her profession when she walks into a restaurant. For my wedding, a bunch of my guests came to Israel and went to eat at M25. He recognized them, knew them from the food industry. When they told him they were there for my wedding, he realized who I was and we started talking, became friends. I love the lemon condiment he serves, and he was happy to share the recipe with me because we’re friends.

I’m not so enamored of the idea of top-secret recipes. I think recipes are meant and made to be shared. While they can be intellectual property, I have always been generous with my recipes and people have always been generous with me. Also, I think Israel is a country of storytellers. A friend of mine offered to teach me how to make one of her specialties and it turned out her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. She told me the story as we cooked together.

Recipes connect generations in Israel. For someone like me trying to move into Israeli culture, and to learn about the vast array or people living there, cooking was a great way to do that.

There wasn’t anyone I asked to cook with me who said no. And I was surprised at how many people offered to share their recipes. Once they heard that I was working on the book, a lot of people near me who are restaurateurs or writers or chefs, familiar with the process and came forward and offered to share their recipes.

They could see your passion and excitement.

Yes, I think so. Once I cooked pita with my stepdaughter’s father-in-law. He makes pita every Friday at his house. I watched him go through his process. He’s a wonderful man and I was just enamored at how he made it with this electric coil machine. Now of course I see them around everywhere. But at the time, it was all new to me. And just the fact that people are making pita at home, it is so rare in the US. But in Israel, people make pita and challah at home all the time. And through the process of baking with him, I learned about his history, how he started making bread.

Every time you get to cook with someone in their kitchen you end up with more than you started with and conversations can go in all sorts of directions. Things you don’t expect come out.

Adeena Sussman

What is your favorite ingredient?

Tahini. It’s a little bit of a cliché at this point but I just love it. I love peanut butter and it is the Israeli peanut butter. It is sweet and savory. Also, from the sociopolitical perspective it is fascinating. The best iterations are made by Arabs and Palestinians and happily purchased by Israelis without the ambivalence that defines other interactions.

Nablus is a great center of tahini making. There have been incidents between Israelis and Palestinians in Nablus in the past – but when it comes to tahini, it’s all good. Israelis love to buy tahini from Nablus. Everyone has their favorite brand and it is an accepted fact that the best tahini is made by Arabs and Palestinians. It is an example of cultural and commercial coexistence that I don’t see often and just really like.

What is your favorite spice?

Cardamom. I did not love it growing up. Like olives. I was not a briny olive fan as a kid, but living in Israel you can’t help but love them. Or cardamom.

Living in Israel, I like ingredients and foods that can play in a lot of environments. Tahini can go sweet or savory and is shelf stable. Cardamom can be used in meat or desserts, or in my cold brewed coffee with cinnamon sticks or schug. I love them.

Were there any recipes you left out that you wish you had included? Or are those for the next book?

I did leave out a few recipes. I didn’t put in a cholent recipe. I just hadn’t gotten to the best version and connected it to the best story – yet. I love cholent and I want to represent it well.

I believe 90 percent of the world’s best foods are brown! So I wanted to make sure it was one of the best brown foods ever presented to an American audience.

Also, I had a fun ice cream sundae with sumac roasted pineapple. And I made a chocolate sauce from my Israeli chocolate spread and topped it all with crushed Bamba. That didn’t make it in because I already had so many desserts. But I love it.

There were a few others, and I’m working on another book, so I’ll have a chance to include them in that.

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