Mentioning Iraq and Israel together immediately brings to mind sabich or sabih (חיבס), the vegetarian sandwich that makes Tel-Aviv inhabitants go crazy: a simple pita bread, stuffed with a mix made mostly of eggplants, eggs, hummus, tahini and a spicy mango chutney called amba.
What is the origin of sabich?
While the falafel pita and the shawarma pita have spread all around the globe, at small fast-food restaurants in streets throughout the world, sabich is an Israeli dish originating from Iraq, that is mostly enjoyed within the borders of the country, and that dominates the local culinary scene.
As with many other dishes in Israel, the origins of sabich are contested.
One thing is for sure: sabich was originally the breakfast of Shabbat, eaten by the Iraqi Jews and especially by the Jews from Baghdad.
Having become a successful recipe in Israel, sabich tells the tale of the exile of the Mizrahi culture in a country where street food is celebrated.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, at the beginning of the 20th century, a third of the population of the city was Jewish.
At that time in Baghdad, before the end of the British mandate in Mesopotamia that occurred in 1932, the end of the monarchy, the wars, the Shoah, the creation of the state of Israel and the massive Jewish immigration to the Holy Land (alya), the Saturday (Shabbat) breakfast was king: fried or roasted eggplants with browned eggs called haminados by the Sephardi Jews, those boiled eggs that acquire that typical light brown color by cooking them on low heat for hours before and during shabbat, similar to the dafina eggs from the Moroccan Jewish cuisine.
These eggplants and eggs were sometimes accompanied by some boiled potatoes, often left over from the lavish dinner from the day before, at the start of shabbat.
All of this was covered with amba, an Iraqi chutney made with pickled mango.
Almost 60 years later, in the streets of Israel, all of these ingredients and more are found in a generously filled pita, forming one of the favorite sandwiches of the local street food: sabich.
There are three possible origins that can explain the birth and success of sabich in Israel.
A popular etymology theory suggests that the word sabich comes from the Arabic word صباح, pronounced sabah, which means “morning” since most of the ingredients in sabich are typical of an Iraqi Jewish breakfast.
Another possible origin proposes that sabich is an acronym of the hebrew words salat, beitsa, yotèr hasil, or ליצח רתוי הציב טלס, which mean “salad, eggs, (with) plus eggplants”.
But the most likely hypothesis would be the one of a man, an Iraqi Jew, born in Baghdad, named Sabich. Indeed, sabich has the same name as the founder of the first sabich stand in Israel, Sabich Tsvi Halabi.
Sabich Tsvi Halabi’s journey can be discovered through the sweet nostalgia of his wife, Rina Halabi. In December 2017, Rina gave an interview to the newspaper Haaretz, one of the 4 biggest national daily newspapers in Israel.
Here is Rina’s story. Sitting on a stool, like every morning at dawn, she is peeling hundreds of boiled eggs in the kitchen of the family’s sabich stand, that opened in the beginning of the 1960s:
“Our first stand was in Bar-Ilan Park at 60 Uziel Street, Ramat Gan, a wistful look in her eyes as she thinks of her late husband. He was born in Baghdad in 1938, made aliya in the early 1950s and died in 2012. Sabich was working in an iron molding factory when he saw a small kiosk an elderly couple had put up for sale for key money. The kiosk was opposite the last stop of the Number 63 bus, and drivers and ticket-sellers used to buy bourekas and wafers and drinks.
The drivers told Sabich they wanted something more substantial to eat, and he asked me to give him the leftover brown eggs from Shabbat. Like every Iraqi family, we ate a traditional breakfast of brown eggs that were cooked on top of the tebit – chamin – together with fried eggplant and salads. We ate the same thing back in Iraq.
We started with 10 eggs and a tray of fried eggplant. And the drivers, who were mostly Ashkenazim, loved it. The business started to take off. Sabich brought a petiliya (kerosene burner) and started cooking the eggs in pickle tins. I kept frying the eggplant at home. He would fill the pita with amba, a brown egg, fried eggplant and a simple vegetable salad of tomatoes and cucumbers.
When the business grew, and I had two kids at home by then, it was hard to keep on frying the eggplant at home. Sabich brought in a partner named Yaakov Sasson, though the food stand could barely support two families.
In the early 1980s, the Halabi family moved the family food stand to Derech Negba Street in Ramat Gan, where it operates to this day.
We’re modest people, we don’t need publicity. But we also felt a need to preserve Sabich’s memory
Sharon, their daughter, explained to the newspaper Haaretz that during the 1990s, her father tried to register the street dish that had become very famous as a trademark under his name. “But my father and his partner belonged to an older generation” explained Sharon. “They did not remember paying some fees, and meanwhile it became difficult to compete with dozens of sabich stands that were appearing all over the country. Once in a while, old people came here and remembered my dad. They were amazed at how all of this started.”
Although it is a Jewish-Iraqi dish, sabich has today become a core part of the Israeli cuisine.
What is amba?
It is tangy and is most often made with mangoes, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard, turmeric, chili pepper, sumac, cumin, fenugreek and salt.
The brown sugar balances the heat brought out by the chilies and the Cayenne pepper so as to get the right quantity of sugar and spices.
Traditional recipes for amba often require green unripe mangoes that have to be left to mature in the sun for a few days. But many cooks take the convenient shortcut of using ripe mangoes, fresh or canned, unsweetened.
Amba is similar to the mango chutney from Indian cuisine, called mango achar or mango pickle.
The main difference between amba and achar, used in all of the Indian regional cuisines, is that achar is made from pickled mango reduced to very small bits, to which are added ginger, chili peppers and turmeric and is often prepared with castor oil. Depending on the recipe, the acidity and spice levels as well as the texture may change.
In Iraqi cuisine, amba is often served on top of seafood, kebabs and eggs. Is Saudi cuisine, it is often served on a plate of appetizers with different kinds of bread, cheese, eggs and various meats.
Although not part of the ingredients of the traditional sabich, cheese is very often an option in Israeli sabich restaurants, and most of the time includes labneh, Bulgarian cheese, or cream cheese.
It is this dairy sabich that I most often cook at home, a version that our friend Nomik from Chicago, originally from Iraq, made us discover in 2004 when we were still living in the Windy City. This sabich is very simple to make and is a delicious alternative to the popular falafel and shawarma sandwiches.
This recipe is validated by our expert in Iraqi cuisine Nawal Nasrallah. An award-winning researcher and food writer, Nawal is the author of the definitive cookbook on the Iraqi cuisine Delights from the Garden of Eden.
- 4 pita breads
- 1 large eggplant sliced
- 4 hard-boiled eggs cut into slices (preferably browned eggs)
- 4 tablespoons hummus
- 4 tablespoons tahini
- 4 tablespoons amba
- 4 teaspoons harissa or z'hug (optional)
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
Add a large volume of oil into a deep skillet. Heat to 350 F (180˚C), and fry the aubergine slices on both sides until they are dark brown.
- Remove them from the oil, drain them for 10 minutes in a colander and then place them on paper towels to remove excess oil.
- Lightly warm the pita bread and split in half or cut on one side.
- Spread the inside of each pita with 1 tablespoon of hummus and 1 tablespoon of tahini.
- Stuff the pita with a few slices of fried aubergines and hard-boiled egg, then add 1 tablespoon of amba on top and 1 teaspoon of harissa or z'hug (optional).
- Serve immediately.
It is also recommended to add: Israeli salad cut in small cubes (tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley), and/or slices of tomato, large sliced gherkins, chopped onions, chopped parsley, boiled potato slices.