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One of Israel’s Most Popular Street Foods Has a Fascinating Jewish History

What started as Iraqi Jewish breakfast transformed into the most crave-able Israeli street food.

Okay, first things first: many of you are mispronouncing the name of this Israeli street food classic. That “ch” ending is pronounced like the “ch” in Chanukkah, with the stress on that second syllable, with the whole word coming out “sah-BICH.”

Now, what exactly is a sabich? The delectable dish is composed of thinly sliced fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg and tahini, though it can also include such items as chopped salad, pickles, amba (a curried, pickled mango sauce) and more. This combo was the classic Shabbat morning breakfast for Jews of Iraq, since all of these items could be eaten at room temperature.

Traditional Jews don’t cook on the Sabbath, so there are two options for the foods that can be eaten on Saturday. Either they must remain heating through the entire night on Friday — such as cholent, hamin, or for an Iraqi Jew, t’beet — or they need to be eaten at room temperature. In Iraq, Jews would serve these dishes as a Saturday brunch buffet, with everyone selecting the items they wanted to eat.

When the Iraqi Jews moved to Israel, primarily in the 1950s, they continued eating their standard Shabbat breakfast. But one change that happened followed a wider trend in Israeli society. The buffet items were stuffed into a pita pocket, thus turning it into an informal sandwich. In her cookbook, “Sababa,” Adeena Sussman refers to sabich as part of “the trinity of pita-bound street foods Israelis can’t live without.”

While deep frying eggplant might not provide the healthiest way of consuming it, a sabich sandwich provides a more balanced meal option than the other street foods. And with the widest array of different ingredients, it also excites the palate with its combination of distinct flavors.

Those ingredients also exemplify what chef Michael Solomonov, in “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” calls, “the world in a pita.” Though the core of the sandwich derives from Iraq, many individual ingredients come from other regions. Some spice their sabich with North African harissa or Yemenite zhug. Though less traditional, some include bulgarit (a Bulgarian cow’s milk cheese that is similar to feta).

A commonly quoted story is that the first to sell sabich as a street food, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, was a man named Tzvi, whose nickname was Sabich. Ignorant customers unwittingly transferred his name to the dish itself. But Sabich is not a commonly heard nickname for Tzvi, and it seems more plausible that he got the nickname from the food, rather than vice versa. Most likely, that “origin” was just a way of underscoring his claim to be the originator of the dish, as opposed to his rival, Oved, from the neighboring city of Givatayim.

Photo credit Shimi Aaron

Such rivalries and arguments are legion in Israel, and a more believable origin is that the name derives from the Arabic word sabach, meaning morning, which is when the Iraqi Jews ate it. This is also the most widely claimed explanation among those who study food, from Gil Marks to Janna Gur.

Like so many other aspects of the sabich sandwich, however, the true source of its name will likely remain secret for a very long time. And who cares, so long as it tastes good?

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