Cooking as Wartime Comfort
On October 6, 2023, after a festive Shabbat and Erev Simchat Torah meal with my family in New Jersey, I fell asleep full and happy, of course unaware of the new reality we would wake up to the following morning. When news began streaming in about the brutal Hamas attack in southern Israel, I had already been out of Israel, where I live, for over a month, midway through an American tour for the launch of my new cookbook, Shabbat.
It would take days for the full magnitude of the situation to take shape, but the horror and shock were immediate. With another six weeks remaining of my book tour, during which I was slated to talk almost nightly about the relatively lightweight topic of Israeli food, I had to ask myself: Could I continue? And should I?
It turns out I wasn’t the only Israeli abroad feeling lost. For a number of Israel-centric social media food personalities, including those who left the country years ago, October 7 compelled them to reconsider whether skillets of baharat-spiced meatballs and fluffy loaves of challah had any place on social media at all—and how they should move forward on their platforms.
“At the beginning, my hands felt really tied,” said Sivan Kobi, the 45-year-old creator of the Sivan’s Kitchen Instagram account, which has close to 250,000 followers. “I was just sitting on my tuches scrolling and crying,” said the married mother of four. Partially to help process her own emotions, she pushed through her confusion, returning to social media a few days later with an emotional video supporting Israel while Hamas terrorists were still inside its borders. That post exposed her to internet vitriol like she had never experienced before.
“It hurt me a lot, and there was a lot of block-and-delete,” Kobi said. “But I also had some good conversations with people that I think opened their eyes.” At the same time, she realized she had a chance to comfort her audience through cooking.
Within days, she began posting recipes, from savory one-skillet dinners inflected with Israeli spices to a chocolate cake enhanced with Israeli Elite brand instant coffee, doubling down on her commitment to use her platform to showcase the breadth of the country’s cuisine.
“Cooking and baking are my therapy, and I thought, if I need it, maybe other people need it, too,” said the Israeli-born Kobi, who moved to Los Angeles with her parents—an Iraqi Jewish mother and Ashkenazi father—at the age of 4 and has lived there since.
The child of Jewish bakery owners, Kobi began making custom cakes for friends about 10 years ago. On a lark, her daughter started to post her recipes—for cakes and savory creations—during the pandemic. She has found a devoted following with comforting, sunny, Mediterranean-infused food, including a delectable Lemon-Pistachio Olive Oil Bundt Cake.
Since October 7, Kobi has traveled throughout the United States and to Canada to lead challah bakes for large groups of women. “It feels good to be doing something productive that helps people heal,” she said of connecting in person with other Jews.
Like Kobi, Ruhama Shitreet took time to find her footing after the terror attacks. “Initially, I was just in a fog,” said Shitreet, the Boston-based creator of the Instagram account Ruhama’s Food, which has more than 330,000 followers. “I wanted to speak up for my country, but I’m not Noa Tishby,” she said, referencing the Israeli-born television producer and former Israeli special envoy to combat antisemitism who has been extremely vocal and visible in her Israel advocacy—both before October 7 and after.
Shitreet, who is of Iraqi descent, relocated to New England from Israel for her husband’s job 17 years ago. The mother of three turned a longtime passion for homestyle cooking into a wildly successful online presence. On Instagram, she’s become known both for creative comfort food, like Roasted Cauliflower With Green Tahini, as well as her Israeli-accented English voiceovers that accompany her videos.
Within a week of the terror attacks, she decided to channel her love of Israel into the most comforting Israeli dish she could conceive of—One Pan Chicken and Ptitim (Israeli couscous). “Cooking is my therapy,” Shitreet voices as she measures and mixes on Instagram, “and in this difficult time, I make food that connects me to my homeland.”
“It was painful, but in that voiceover I made to go with the recipe, I spoke from my heart,” she told me. “People wrote me, thanking me for bringing light into the darkness.” That post garnered more than 500 mostly supportive messages.
There have been harder moments, too, like the reaction to her first post after the attack—a single Israeli flag—that resulted in her losing 5,000 followers. “I was shocked, but my husband said that eventually I would receive more love because I stood up for my country,” said Shitreet, who in addition to her social media career works as the Hebrew language specialist at a local Jewish day school.
With every post, Shitreet gains more clarity about her role in these challenging times. “I learned that my people need me especially on tough days,” she said. “My recipes and my smile remind them that Israelis know how to bring joy and look on the bright side.”
And what of my own book tour? Immediately following the attacks, I began refashioning some of my events as fundraisers for Israel. A book signing at Seed & Mill Tahini in Chelsea Market in New York City became a bake sale co-organized with The Jewish Food Society. Many prominent Israel-connected chefs, including Einat Admony, Jake Cohen, Lior Lev Sercarz, Eden Cohen and Ben Siman Tov (aka Ben Gingi), donated baked goods, books and other items for sale.
A dinner I co-hosted with Chanie Apfelbaum, of Busy in Brooklyn fame, as part of the New York City Wine and Food Festival became a fundraiser for United Hatzalah, Magen David Adom and the Hadassah Medical Organization.
In short, I opted to carry on with most of my previously scheduled appearances. It ended up being a deeply meaningful experience, allowing me to connect live with thousands of people in Jewish communities around the United States and Canada, most of whom I had only interacted with online.
Now back in Israel, I’ve resumed my own Instagram cooking and posting, using my platform to share the dual experiences of sadness and joy that Israelis know all too well.
Lemon-Pistachio Olive Oil Bundt Cake
For the cake:
4 large eggs at room
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup olive oil
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 full package (3/4 cup) vanilla instant pudding
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup crushed pistachios
Zest of one lemon
For the icing & topping:
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and gradually add in the sugar, oil, lemon juice and water, all the while whisking.
3. Sift directly into the wet mixture the flour, vanilla pudding and baking powder.
4. Add the crushed pistachios and zest from one lemon. Mix and combine till you get a nice, smooth batter.
5. Generously grease a Bundt pan and pour in the batter. Tap the pan twice to release any air pockets. Bake for about 55 minutes or until the edges of the cake begin to recede from the pan.
6. When the cake is in the oven, prepare the lemon icing by whisking the sugar and lemon juice; cover until it’s ready to be used.
7. Once the cake is fully cooled, drizzle with icing and top with extra crushed pistachios and lemon zest. The cake can be made ahead and frozen; for best results, store in refrigerator. Can be kept on the kitchen counter for about four days.
One Pan Chicken and Ptitim
2 pounds boneless
chicken breast, cut into cubes
1 cup uncooked Israeli pearl couscous (ptitim)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons sumac
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon date syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
2 1/2 cups boiling water
Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 420°.
2. In an oven safe pan or dish, scatter the couscous and then top with the chicken cubes. Add the salt, turmeric, sumac, garlic powder, tomato paste, date syrup and olive oil, then mix to combine. Spread the chicken and couscous mixture evenly in the dish. Pour in the boiling water.
3. Cover the dish with slightly damp parchment paper and then top with a layer of aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and parchment paper and bake uncovered for 15 minutes more.
4. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Adeena Sussman is the author of Shabbat: Recipes and Rituals from My Kitchen to Yours and Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen. She lives in Tel Aviv.