Sabich is an Israeli street food of fried eggplant, hard boiled egg, and (sometimes) boiled potato stuffed in a pita, and that’s before all the fixings. This circus in a bread pocket offers sundry launching points for exploration. In this post, I mix it all up into a deconstruction of miso-glazed eggplant with amba gel and sesame snow; roasted cauliflower hummus; sumac roasted potatoes with cured egg yolk; and mushroom bacon. Like Israel itself, this dish a lively and warm mix of tradition, innovation, and pursuit of harmony.
First, some more on traditional sabich and its history. Here’s sabich, falafel’s eclectic underground younger sibling:
It’s got a few basic ingredients, but the melange quickly turns into a crowded and rocking party with the addition of amba (pickled mango chutney), hummus, tahini (sesame paste), Israeli salad, marinated cabbage, pickles, onions seasoned with sumac, and schug (a Yemenite hot sauce).
Sabich’s origin is an inherently Jewish story.
“The sabich’s roots lie in the wave of Iraqi Jews who fled their native land in the wake of anti-Semitic violence in the 1940s and 1950s. Large numbers of the refugees ended up in the newly formed country of Israel, with many settling in the town of Ramat Gan, generally considered to be where the sabich originated. On the Sabbath, when no cooking is allowed, Jews in Iraq would often eat cold meals of long-cooked eggplant, steamed potatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. After picking up the tradition and bringing it to Israel, Iraqi vendors who saw opportunities available from selling fast food began rolling up all the ingredients in a single pita. Open-air stalls selling sabich began to open throughout Israel in the 1950s and ’60s; the inexpensive and filling sandwich quickly became one of the nation’s go-to blue-collar lunches.”
Hybrid Power: The Iraqi-Israeli Sabich | Saveur
The origins of the name are unclear, but there are several compelling theories. The first is that it’s named after Sabich Halabi, an Iraqi Jew said to have opened the first sabich stand, in Ramat Gan in 1961. I favor an alternative explanation more tenable, that it’s a simple Hebrew acronym (Israelis love acronyms): Salat (salad) + Beitzim (eggs) + Chatzilim (eggplant) = Sabich, or in the original, סלט + ביצים + חצילים = סבי”ח Don’t forget that breathy, guttural khhh at the end! That’s no ordinary ‘h.’
Another plausible theory comes from 1701 Kitchen in London’s West End, who serve their own deconstructed sabich that partially inspired mine. (I’m dying to eat there. As of this writing, they seem to be one of two genuinely modernist kosher restaurants that I count.) They suggest that sabich comes from sabah صباح, or “morning” in Arabic, when the dish is traditionally eaten.
I had my first taste of sabich in the Tower of David archaeological citadel courtyard in Jerusalem’s Old City and have been dreaming of it since.
When planning a meal themed around Israeli cuisine recently, I knew I wanted to start with sabich as an appetizer, but in a form more suited to a dinner table than a street corner. With so many different components, preparations, flavors, and textures, sabich lends itself very well to interpretation. In particular, my Asian and Modernist Cuisine influences had a strong hand in shaping this dish. I was excited to brainstorm, and honestly pretty nervous about how it would all come together. Each part stands on its own and can be prepared as a separate dish, or as components in this composed dish. I’ve included all the instructions below, some as precise recipes, some more general guides.
So yallah, here we go, piece by piece.
For many eggplant dishes, I like to prepare the eggplant by drawing out extra moisture, although this step is optional here. The night before, slice the eggplant into 1/2-inch rounds, sprinkle each side with kosher salt, lay them out sandwiched between paper towels on a baking sheet, and put the whole thing in the fridge. After salting overnight, rinse the remaining salt off the eggplant and blot dry. For some eggplant recipes, I might even go over each slice with a rolling pin to squeeze out even more moisture, but it wasn’t necessary here.
Although I love cooking sous vide, I wanted this eggplant roasted. I adapted Kate Williams’s sous vide + broiler miso-glazed eggplant recipe for a purely oven-centric approach, and modified the glaze to my taste.
Preheat the oven to 400°F and prepare the glaze by mixing together in a bowl:
- 1/4 cup miso (fermented soybean paste, use white or brown)
- 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice cooking wine)
- 2 tablespoons sake (another kind of rice wine, more potent)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- pinch of kosher salt
Line a baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Brush the eggplant slices in the glaze to coat each side and lay them in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast for 35-40 minutes or until browned and caramelized, flipping halfway through and checking occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.
Amba is a chutney-like condiment of pickled mangoes, fenugreek, and turmeric. It’s got a kick to it and isn’t to everyone’s liking, but it’s authentic and there’s nothing like it. A sabich purist would not tolerate an amba omission. This was the only component of my dish that wasn’t made from scratch. I used store-bought amba, made in Israel.
Of course the amba can be served as-is as a condiment, but I was looking for something with a little more bite. Because of the limitations of using gelatin when keeping a kosher diet, I’ve been experimenting with different formulations of hydrocolloids (gelling agents). As I mentioned in my last post, some of my cooking requires high precision, and this recipe is the perfect example. I use a cheap digital scale that measures to a .01 gram resolution to weigh my hydrocolloids.
For most bases that you’re looking to gellify, I’ve found that a ratio of 0.6% (0.006 times the weight of the base) agar agar and 1.2% (0.012 times the weight of the base) locust bean gum in combination form a gel that is nicely firm with adequate elasticity. Agar agar alone will result in a very brittle gel that has, to me, an unpleasant mouthfeel.
For a smoother final texture, strain the amba in a fine-mesh strainer or chinois. Weigh out around a cup of amba using a regular kitchen scale, remembering to tare (zero) the scale. I prefer weighing in grams for this purpose. Multiply that weight by 0.006 for the amount of agar and by 0.012 for the amount of locust bean gum. For example, if you have 193 grams of amba, you would end up needing 1.16 grams of agar and 2.32 grams of locust bean gum. Weigh out the prescribed amounts of agar and locust bean gum and add to the amba.
As you might know from using corn starch as a thickener in sauces (because it, too, is a hydrocolloid), some hydrocolloids require heat to activate. Bring the amba mixture to a boil on the stovetop or in the microwave (under 3 minutes at full power should do it). Stir up the amba mixture and pour into silicone molds. Let set for at least two hours (once they reach room temperature, they can be transferred to the refrigerator. Carefully pop the gel out of the molds to serve.
Here the traditional tahini of sabich takes the form of snow. I whisked tapioca maltodextrin (also called N-Zorbit M) into about 3/4 cup sesame oil together with a pinch of salt until I had the right consistency. Start off with a ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part maltodextrin, by weight (don’t measure this by volume, because the starch is so fluffy it takes up a lot of volume) and adjust as necessary.
Whenever you see “ash” or “dust” or “snow” on a modernist cuisine menu, chances are it was made with tapioca maltodextrin, a tapioca-derived starch that has a very low density (high surface area and very fluffy) and a special helical (spiral) molecular structure, one side of which is hydrophobic (water-repelling) that binds to fats and the other hydrophilic that binds to water. Because of the maltodextrin’s low surface area, when mixed with oil, the oil becomes bound up and the oil droplets are kept apart from each other, leaving a dry, powdery consistency. In the presence of heat or water (like in your mouth), it melts back into oil. It’s a neat trick and a great opportunity for culinary deception or novelty. You may not realize it, but you’ve encountered this before if you’ve ever seen “modified corn starch” on a list of ingredients. It’s used as a bulking agent and also to sequester liquid fat in a dry cake mix, for example.
Roasted Cauliflower Hummus
I’ve been using cauliflower a lot the last few years and have found it to be so versatile. In different forms it becomes an excellent substitute for other foods. You’ll be sure to see various incarnations on the blog in the future. Here, I use roasted cauliflower as a stand-in for chickpeas in the traditional hummus. When planning new recipes, I like to do a lot of research, compare other recipes, add my own influences and time-tested techniques, and synthesize them into my own. Cara Mangini’s recipe is a great starting point.
Cut a head of cauliflower into pieces of equal size so they roast evenly. Toss with olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper. Roast on a foil-lined sheet at 450°F around 40 minutes until tender and caramelized. When roasting vegetables, I err on the side of caution in checking frequently to avoid burning, and turning them over once or twice during the roast.
Puree in a blender or food processor (my high-powered Waring Xtreme blender made it incredibly smooth; a food processor would be better for a chunky texture) with:
- 2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon honey
- a garlic clove or two
- a pinch of sea salt
Taste and adjust ingredients as necessary. If you want a thinner consistency, blend in more olive oil. For a finer presentation, you can strain in a chinois.
Sumac Roasted Potatoes
The inclusion of boiled potatoes in sabich is debated, but formative experiences are powerful – my first sabich had potatoes, so that’s my sabich. In this presentation, I wanted my potatoes to contribute more texture – crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Sumac provides a tangy, lemony flavor (you can also spot it in za’atar), and I temper this brightness with smoked paprika.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Wash and slice potatoes (you can peel them first if you like), toss in olive oil, lay out on a foil-lined baking sheet with cooking spray and sprinkle with equal parts salt and sumac, and half as much smoked paprika (make sure to sprinkle both sides). If you’re new to sumac, you might want to start off light on the seasoning, but I like to be pretty generous with it.
Roast for 30-40 minutes, checking and turning every so often to prevent burning, until the potatoes get a nice dark, brown, and crispy exterior. Pop a few in your mouth. You deserve a snack at this point.
Cured Egg Yolk
Hard boiled egg had to be represented, but I wanted to bring it out of the foreground while still having a potent presence. Grating cured egg yolk over the potatoes allowed me to impart a great, creamy egginess without the grainy or custardy texture of a hard boiled egg (which I love in other settings). Here again, Asian technique found its way into my Israeli dish. This variation uses a salt cure, when cured with miso, it’s called tamago miso tsuke.
I’ll be elaborating more on cured egg yolk in its own post in the future, but for now, here are the basics. Prepare an ample bed of kosher salt and sugar (in a 2:3 ratio) in a small, deep baking dish. Crack a few eggs and separate out the yolks, gingerly rinsing off the whites under running water. Nestle the yolks in the salt, ensuring they don’t touch each other, and completely cover them with more of salt and sugar mixture, making sure to pack it around the yolks, leaving no space. Cover and let cure in the refrigerator for a week.
Unbury the yolks, rinse off the salt and sugar mixture, and blot dry. Place yolks on a cheesecloth-covered rack and place in the refrigerator, or (if like me, your fridge space is scarce) wrap each yolk individually in a cheesecloth and hang in the refrigerator to dry for 2-3 weeks until dry and firm. When it’s done, the cured egg yolk is a very versatile topping grated over many foods.
Ok, so neither mushrooms nor bacon (obviously) is canonical to sabich. Once I was pushing the envelope, I pushed outside the ingredient list. With its chewy, crispy texture and smoky, sweet, umami (savory) goodness, the mushroom bacon holds its own really well in this complex dish. Think of it as a guest star in an ensemble series.
There are lots of ways to approach a vegan bacon. You can make it out of seitan or tempeh, smoked mushrooms (oyster or shiitake mushrooms are great for this), even chickpeas or eggplant. As for the marinade, you can experiment. You might start with a ratio of 1 part smoke : 3 parts sweet : 4 parts sour : 4 parts umami/salty. You can use whatever you like for these dimensions (e.g., brown sugar or maple syrup for sweet, cider vinegar or rice vinegar for sour, etc.). Then cook whatever way’s appropriate: bake, fry grill, etc. In this case, I used regular ol’ button mushrooms and a simple marinade from Kim at Fit for the Journey.
Preheat the oven to 400°F and prepare the marinade:
- 2 tablespoons tamari (or other similar soy sauce. I like Bragg’s Liquid Aminos)
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon liquid smoke (you can substitute smoked paprika if you need to)
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
Slice mushrooms, toss well in the marinade, and let soak for 10-20 minutes. Transfer to a lined baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes. As always, keep an eye on these and stir them up every 10 minutes or so to make sure they don’t burn. Bake to your desired doneness – you might want less done and more chewy, more more done and more crispy. You might want to make extra – it’s hard not to snack these all away.
So how did it all come together?
To assemble the dish, I work my way around the plate. Place the amba gel first and lay overlapping rounds of eggplant leading away from it. Save the sesame snow for right before serving! Since it’s water-soluble, it will melt into whatever moisture there is on the surface of the eggplant. You can probably spot a few instances of this in my pictures.
Picking up where the eggplant ends, swoosh a swoop of cauliflower hummus (in food plating, the swoop is the new dollop. See how to make one here). Next up to finish the perimeter is a series of overlapping potato rounds. Grate the cured egg yolk (or sprinkle if grated in advance) over the potatoes. Pile some of the mushroom bacon in the middle. Right before serving, sprinkle sesame snow over the eggplant and amba. You might need to refresh the snow and fluff it up with a fork or whisk if it’s been stored for a while.
So that’s how the dish came together, physically. But how does it all go together? Pretty well actually. The eclecticism of the traditional sabich is preserved in the mix of chewy, creamy, crispy, and melty textures. The flavors, too, arrive as an ensemble of savory, tangy, piquant, and vegetal sweetness, to pick a few. Each part of the plate works on its own. For example, the crispy/creamy/tangy/smoky of the potatoes is balanced by the chewy/salty/mildly sweet cured egg yolk. When taken all together, there are myriad combinations of components to try together, and they generally complement each other.
Apparently, it makes a nice visual, too. I was honored to have this dish chosen as the inaugural cover image of Jewish Men Who Cook, a group dedicated to showcasing the creativity and skill of us Jewish men, dispelling the myth of balabustas (housewives) chasing the men out of the kitchen. Go check them out, get some culinary inspiration, and break down some stereotypes!
One last thing, which is that I’m not the only food blogger posting Israeli cuisine today. Over on Instagram, The Ghetto Gourmet organized a campaign to show support for Israel through its food during the present crisis. I’m proud to be one of many who #loveISRAELfood. To me, this sabich dish embodies the nature of the campaign and Israel’s spirit of innovation. Sabich came about after Iraqi Jews came to Israel to escape anti-Semitic violence. Sadly, anti-Semitism and its attendant violence continue. Israel is home for all Jews, and there’s nowhere else to escape to. I pray for an end to the incitement and terror directed at Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.