Nirit first opened Sababa with her sister, Tal, as the town franchise to their successful Sea Point restaurant (now in its seventh year), but soon found that the clientele was quite different. Five years down the line, she now operates very independently and has rebranded her space Olami. "It's from olam, which in Hebrew means a universal, cosmopolitan kind of vibe but more on the global side of things," Nirit says. Despite changes to her menu and having her own style, she remains true to her roots.
A first-generation South African of Israeli immigrants, Nirit is heavily influenced by the memories and flavours of the food cooked in her family home and that of her grandparents. Her mom’s side of the family comes from Romania and her dad's side from Libya. “Both their parents fled from the war in Eastern Europe to Israel and then had all their kids there. So the food is Ashkenazi and Sephardi. It's quite basic, but it's a totally delicious mix," ‒ simple, wholesome food layered with rich culture and infused with flavours discovered from Nirit's many journeys abroad.
An interesting cross-cultural mix has taken place over the years in her Bree Street kitchen. "It's been amazing working with my team, but it took them so long to perfect some of my dishes because all these flavours were foreign to them, like using cumin and paprika," says Nirit. "It's about cooking with your heart and soul, so it is important to me that it all makes sense to their palates. There was a real exchange and introduction of new culture.”
Why food? It's second nature. At our family home, the kitchen is in the middle of the house and everything is around it. I can't think of doing anything else… the food, the cooking, it's like magic. I love it.
What are your earliest memories of food? My mom cooked us a meal every night. Food was always the one thing that we all came together for and shared. It's also such a primary need and the easiest thing with which we could communicate. That's how my parents showed their love. I was always with my mom in the kitchen helping her. My dad cooks on weekends and is influenced by his Libyan heritage. I have fond memories of his potato dish called mafhoom: stuffed potatoes with mince that are egg washed, dipped in flour, egg washed again, pan-fried, then layered in a pot and covered with a sauce of bahārāt (cloves, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper) and tomato paste and slow cooked. It's served cold with couscous. Oh God, that is power! And my mom used to make the most delicious bean soup with carrots and her own lokshen — like noodles, but she used to roll them all out and cut them in strips.
How often do you change your menu? It depends on supplies, but there are some signature dishes we can't take off. We do the cafe-and-deli style and catering. Sometimes people will order food for 30 people and I'll make that order with an extra 30 portions for the shop, so there's always something that's changing. That keeps me fresh. I'd go crazy with a set menu.
What is your signature dish? In the mornings, shakshuka is the winner. It's a North African dish of poached eggs in a spicy, robust, tomato-based sauce. It's brilliant. It's the simplest thing to make and you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Once you've got the base right, you can start doing different interpretations. People also love our roasted aubergines, despite the fact that in the beginning they didn't even know what it was. Now my vegetable and my meat bills are almost the same.
1 onion, diced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 red chilli (or a good few sprinkles of chilli flakes)
1 red pepper, diced in chunks
1 yellow pepper, diced in chunks
6 large overripe roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt
A pinch of freshly ground pepper
150ml to 350ml hot water
4 to 6 eggs
A sprinkle of cumin
In a pan, fry onions in oil until soft and caramelised. Add chilli, fry for a minute, then add mixed peppers, tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper and water last. Bring to the boil, drop the heat down to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, add more water. Balance tomato acidity with sugar. Crack eggs into the sauce while it cooks on low heat. Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes. Sprinkle each egg with a dusting of cumin. Serve with chunky, fluffy bread.
Olami, 231 Bree Street, Cape Town, 021 424 7480
This is an extract from ‘Cooked in South Africa’, an initiative of Wish Upon A Star, a non-profit fund-raising charity (Reg. No 2013/038478/08). Cooked in South Africa is about memories and journeys around food and will be on sale in leading bookstores with all profits from the sales going to children living with disability. Photographs courtesy of Felix Seuffert and Cooked in South Africa.