Comforting family fare
The first thing cook Nirit Saban tells me when I phone her is that she can’t speak, and that I should phone back. Five minutes later she has finished making an “old-school potato salad” with soft-boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, garlic, olive oil, lemon zest, mayo, chives and parsley. She says her gran makes it with “tons of mayo and cooked carrots”, but she doesn’t like cooked carrots.
Nirit and her sister Tal Smith own and cook in the Sababa restaurants in Sea Point and in Bree Street, Cape Town. (Tal had just given birth to a boy the day before.)
The sisters have also just written a cookbook, Sababa (catch-all Hebrew slang for approval, such as “awesome” or “great”), with many of their favourite Middle Eastern and Mediterranean recipes.
The book shares many of the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi’s 2012 bestselling Jerusalem cookbook, which is hardly surprising as Saban and Ottolenghi share a Jewish heritage.
Saban says, when she prepares food in the Bree Street restaurant, she is just “doing what I’ve been brought up doing”; most of the recipes do have a home-made quality. Compared with Ottolenghi, there are also fewer ingredients to gather and prepare, which, especially on a Monday night, is to be welcomed.
One of the best recipes in the book is for ministra, and it is one I will make until I die. It is an intensely flavoured, slowly simmered tomato soup made with tomato paste, chopped fresh tomato, tinned tomatoes, stock powder and flavoured with paprika and cayenne.
Saban says her father, Herzl, would make this soup on a Sunday night. He would slowly start to peel two cloves of garlic (her father is a firm believer in the power of garlic as an immune booster). She remembers the whole house smelling of the soup while it was being made.
Once the soup has simmered for a while, penne and cubed potatoes are added and if that is not enough starch, Herzl serves his soup with bread. They also suggest grating some parmesan into it, if you feel like it. It is even better the day after. The pasta will have swollen up, like caterpillars, and the potato broken down into a mash.
Sababa also has a good recipe for chicken soup and one for the great comfort food magadreh, a dish of rice, lentils and fried onion.
In Cape Town’s city bowl, the crowd is young and prefer lighter meals for lunch, whereas in Sea Point, the food is “heavier” and there are more orders for catering and dinners for home. “All the parents worry that their kids are not eating enough,” says Nirit.
With the Sabans, it is all about food: “Food was always the thing that brought us together,” says Saban, adding that mafrum, tirshi, and couscous were the Friday night dishes that brought everyone in the family together when they had been away somewhere.
Saban says they eat couscous regularly because it is perfect for soaking up the stews that Libyans like to cook. Their father moved from Tripoli to Israel in 1948, and his mother, Toni, still cooks only Libyan food. When they are having couscous, Hava, their mother, almost always makes tirshi, a mash of boiled courgettes, carrots and butternut. Olive oil, garlic, paprika, cumin and lemon are then mixed into the glossy orange mix.
To complete the meal, there is the labour of love that is mafrum. This is a “deeply Libyan” dish in which large potatoes are sliced lengthways almost all the way through and then stuffed with, among other things, ground beef, chopped coriander and parsley, garlic, cayenne, paprika, nutmeg and cinnamon. These are crumbed, fried and then simmered in a tomato sauce flavoured with paprika and garlic.
I imagine, ahead of lunchtime, there must be more prep to do in the kitchen, which Saban has been running for three years. “Right now I"m just going with the flow. You just have to do what you know, and cook what you love to eat. And do it with all your heart … and people just love it.”
If you already own Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, then Sababa (Jacana) is the perfect companion to provide a comprehensive guide to Middle Eastern meals.