Writing the Sababa cookbook was something I put my hand up for a few years ago, before there was even talk of gathering the recipes in book form. They had me at the first bite of takeaway bourekita, and I knew Russell’s photographs would be top, but what I love most about Sababa is the lack of pretension and hype; they just get on with making good food. Then there’s the heritage aspect. It’s maybe not obvious at first glance, but this book can’t help but touch on the culinary legacy that culminated in Sababa.
During the writing I immersed myself in general ‘Sababa-ness’, which was easy since my desk happened to be a short walk away from Sababa on Bree. I would pick up my morning coffee – the complimentary date ball speared with a toothpick and lodged in the lid like an antenna – and test my self-restraint on Nirit’s famed rugelach, their shiny glaze and chocolate pinstripes beckoning! Let’s just say I came to know the lunch buffet very well.
And because Sababa is simply one point on a long thread of Saban family history, the point at which everything comes together, I went along to Shabbat dinner to meet Tal and Nirit’s parents and siblings. After singing prayers, sipping from the communal cup of sweet Kiddush wine and tearing off pieces of Kitke bread, we sat down to a parade of Toni Saban’s signature dishes. Toni is Tal and Nirit’s paternal grandmother and all of it was cooked by their mother, Hava – she of Cape Town’s best chicken soup.
Hava shies away from talking up her cooking. The most she offers is that it’s about feeling, ‘I can’t tell you how much salt, if I tell you one teaspoon you might not like that much salt…’ Tal joined in to say her grandmother operates in much the same way, ‘Often I’ve tried to get recipes off my gran – she doesn’t have recipes, she doesn’t know recipes, she just cooks. Because your ingredients are always different you need to know how to adjust your recipe. So everything is done with a sense of taste, an understanding your ingredients and knowing how to fix things when they’re not right.’
First came Chraime, fish with a paprika-garlic-lemon sauce that looks like a fiesta on a plate, then Mafrum, mince-stuffed potatoes in a hot, spiced tomato sauce, with couscous, tirshi and green salad. As we dished up, Hava told me her mother always served lots of salads, ’70 percent of the plate was salads and only 30 percent was meat.’ – it sounds a lot like the lunch spread at Sababa.
Her uncle apparently had a way with this green salad that no one else could get right, and I’ve heard Tal say the same about her mother’s tomato salad with toasted pine nuts and chopped dill, also on the table. There were pickled aubergines too. ‘So much aubergine is eaten in Israel – it’s like the national vegetable!’ teased Nirit, who needs no prompting to drop in a perfect sound byte or an original food description. ‘And dates are like the aubergine of the dessert world!’ she added later, over a tray of plump Medjool dates.
Over dinner I saw food served with confidence and enjoyed by an engaged group of people with strong family bonds. But probably the family member who made the greatest impression is Herzl, Tal and Nirit’s father. Inbetween arranging proteas in an enormous glass vase and passing his grandchildren between coo-ing grannies, he offered a firm handshake and a ‘Shabbat Shalom’. The majority of the Saban family recipes come through Herzl, from his mother, so it feels natural that he has a presence in the kitchen. Still, I didn’t expect the level of commitment he shows towards brunch.
On a Sunday (his day off) Herzl wakes up early to source bagels, croissants and fresh rolls, each from a different baker – he is particular about quality. (This extends to his weekday sandwiches – he brings back suitcases of beef salami from Israel and invested in a meat slicer.) Then he sets about chopping Israeli and fruit salads that through their fine uniformity hint at his discipline. He extracts pith-free grapefruit segments and ruby seeds from homegrown pomegranates and fries haloumi fingers or eggs to order. All his children have to do is take a seat at the table. Are you having I-wish-he-was-my-dad feelings yet?
It was intriguing to see such a strong father figure nurturing through food. Not only is he the man who arrived in a foreign country and worked hard to build a good life for his family in a material sense, he is also the father who will take his children to taste the best boureka in Haifa so they may store it in their memory as a gastronomic and cultural reference point.
It’s these stories, like the search for the best boureka or visiting Israel, that forges a connection with the reader, so when conceptualising the content I felt strongly they be included. There were also important notes on cooking rice, salting aubergines and buying paprika that needed to be accessed easily when cooking and other levels of copy that draw us in, like the pull-quotes from Nirit. Thanks to Marius Roux, the design deals with the differentiation of text beautifully.
Tal led the storytelling, so I would meet her – my dictaphone and notebook in hand – at one of the Sababa stores, and sometimes Nirit would join too. Through our conversations I hoped, not only to gather the necessary research, but also to better understand Tal and Nirit’s individual voices, personalities and turns of phrase, because although the introduction is in the third person, for the rest I would be channeling the two sisters.
Through our time together I saw we shared similar views on chopping and ratios and seasoning, something perhaps I knew instinctively when I offered to write it. Because when something resonates and inspires, it flows. And as Herzl says about cooking (and everything else), ‘Do it with your heart or don’t touch it.’ This book was written with love.
When Tal finally had a chance to read it, her mail was confirmation that I’d achieved what I set out to. ‘I absolutely LOVE the way you have put this together. I have been sitting with a non-stop smile on my face while reading…’ wrote Tal when I sent her the final document. And on the date of the launch, ‘…thank you again for all the time and energy you spent with me and my family. You captured everything so perfectly and I feel it is so true to who we are.’ My job was done.
Photographs by Russell Smith