I first tasted sabich in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. I’d become so obsessed with the idea of tasting one, in fact, I made a point of seeking out as many as possible, managing just three. That number looks a bit more impressive when you consider that I went on a mad dash around the city in the few hours I should’ve spent packing for the airport, and I was eating sabich right up until I buckled into my seat.
I’ll fill you in on the sandwich before we go any further. It starts with a soft, round proper Israeli pita, not those cardboard slippers we get in the supermarkets, which is warmed (not toasted), and split for filling. Inside you’ll find sliced potato, hard boiled egg, fried aubergine, pickles, salads and sauces, including amba. That’s a sweet and tart sauce consisting of mangoes and spices and it basically makes the sandwich.
Anyway, on the morning of our flight, I’d had enough and set off to a place called Frishman sabich, which is named in just about every list of the Absolute Best Sabich in Tel Aviv. I got up early, waited for them to open like a loser, ate a brilliant but not mind-blowing sabich and immediately wanted to find another one. So I did, and it was rubbish, and I wanted to cry because I couldn’t end my morning sabich binge, my last meal in Israel, on such a crushing sandwich low.
I went back to the hotel a miserable lady but when I got there, a random person I had met on the trip was waiting there for me, with a sabich. I know. We‘d discussed the sandwich the day previously and she’d gone out of her way to buy one and bring it to me. Such a generous, thoughtful gesture from someone I barely knew.
Problem is, I was full. I’d just eaten two sabich, see. Not wanting to let her down, I ate some, and OMAG if it wasn’t the best few mouthfuls of the whole freakin’ trip. This was, I told her, a very special sandwich, and I would, therefore, save it and take it with me, to enjoy on the plane while I laughed as they attempted to pass me their shitty plastic tray full of broken glass and dog turds.
I hadn’t thought about getting it through security though, and let me tell you, security at that airport is no joke. I actually fear writing anything here so let’s move onto the fact that they let the sandwich through. I remember re-wrapping it carefully, placing it gingerly into the grey tub, pushing it gently onto the rollers and sending it off through the scanner like Moses down the river in his basket. I watched the security guy’s face as he stopped the conveyor belt, pulled it back inside, smiled, then sent it on. Phew.
As soon as I got through myself I grabbed the now-soggy paper bag and scarfed that sabich like it was the last I’d ever eat. None I’ve eaten in London have lived up to that example. I’m also ashamed to say I can no longer remember the name of the lady who so kindly gave it to me, or indeed where it was from. Thank you again, my Sabich Saviour.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to make them, then, and I think part of it was the fear of cooking from increasingly distant memories, which I should know by now is almost never hard. The amba is sweet, sharp and vaguely musty, and the zhoug a lightning bolt of green, all zippy herbs and chilli heat.
I’d love to go back to Tel Aviv one day, a thrilling city which I barely explored, incredible food I rarely got to eat, legendary nightlife I touched with my fingertip and a beach I sat on for an hour. These sandwiches are a glimmer of that sun-soaked city on a freezing afternoon in South London, and for now, that’ll do me just fine. For now.
Makes 6 pitas with leftover amba and zhoug (a very good thing)
For the amba
Amba is a sweet and sour mango sauce which probably arrived in Israel with the Iraqi Jews and is a common topping on sabich and falafel. It really makes this sandwich.
2 unripe (green) mangoes (you should have no trouble finding these in the supermarket…), peeled and diced
5 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
1 heaped teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large pinch turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 tablespoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon vegetable or groundnut oil, for frying
In a small saucepan, gently heat the sugar with the lemon juice and vinegar, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the mango pieces along with 200ml water and simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the pieces are very soft (you will blend the sauce). In a separate, small frying pan or saucepan, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the garlic and cook very briefly, stirring, for 30 seconds or so. Add the turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and some salt and mix well. Transfer to a blender and whizz until smooth. Set aside to cool.
For the zhoug
Zhoug is a Yemenite chilli sauce which is fantastic with pretty much everything, including grilled meat and fish.
Large bunch of coriander and stalks
Slightly smaller bunch of parsley and stalks
5-10 green chillies (depending on their heat and your tolerance)
8 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon caraway seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Juice of 1 lemon
2 large pinches of salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a pestle and mortar, crush the cumin and caraway seeds. Add the salt and crush the garlic too. Transfer to a food processer with the herbs, lemon juice and chillies and blend to a paste. Add the oil and blend again. Check for seasoning.
For the sandwiches
6 small, round, soft pita
1/2 small white cabbage, finely shredded
1 carrot, grated or cut into very fine strips
1/2 red onion, finely sliced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Vegetable or groundnut oil, for frying
First, cook the aubergines by cutting into 1 cm slices, then frying in oil. I used a cast iron skillet for this, with oil to a depth of 1cm. Remove the slices when they are golden on each side and rest on kitchen paper.
Cook the potatoes in salted water. Drain, cool a bit and slice.
Cook the eggs by covering them with cold water. As soon as they start to boil, time them for 5-6 minutes (small-large), then transfer to a bowl of cold water. Peel and cut in half or slice.
Make a salad by mixing the cabbage, carrot, onion, olive oil, vinegar and some salt and pepper.
To assemble the sandwiches
Warm the pittas, but don’t toast them – they should be soft and pliable. Cut the top off and stuff with the ingredients and sauces. Direct into mouth.