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.
The sandwich 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.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to make one, and I think part of it was the fear of cooking from increasingly distant memories. 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 with incredible food. 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.

Sabich Recipe

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

1 aubergine
3 potatoes
6 small, round, soft pita
3 eggs
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.


I am currently finishing my PhD – a hangover from my life before food. People that know me in real life are sick of hearing about this, and will have stopped reading after that first sentence (if they bother reading this site at all). It is a horrendous experience, the PhD, even as a writer. The sheer scale of the workload is terrifying, overwhelming, and it makes me break down into a wobbly fit every time I think about how much I haven’t done yet.

It’s very weird, too, swapping constantly between academic and creative writing. The former is all about clearly stating facts and results, but my PhD is also quite theoretical, so it’s mind bending and headache-inducing too. Then I have to stop doing it for a while and write something about a lunch I had in Azerbaijan at the home of a little Russian lady, recreating the atmosphere, describing the scene, conjuring memories of the food. My brain is doing some serious acrobatics and you know what? I’m KNACKERED. Thank heavens for this blog where I can just let the words spew out of me (sorry).

Still, it’s my fault, because I chose to do the PhD in the first place. The point of me telling you this is that I am cutting out all non-essential activities, like having fun in the kitchen. Usually, I might spend an hour or so making something nice for lunch – now I scuffle back and forth to the fridge in my pyjamas, grab whatever is inside and eat it. I barely have time to slap together a sandwich. Gasp! As if I ever just ‘slap together’ a sandwich… I can’t believe you would think that.

Clockwise from top: Guajillo, Chilli de Arbol, Pasilla, Mulato.

The problem is, the no cooking thing is not sustainable. Not for me, anyway. Food is my life. I will become depressed. So, I am stockpiling brilliant things that I can stick in the fridge and sort of blob on top of bowls of rice with chicken and veg or whatever. Hello, then, to harissa.

It’s a mongrel recipe because we basically just dug around in the cupboard – the bit right at the back where you can feel the spiders’ webs – until we found the rustling packets of dried chillies. Hands came back clutching smoke-laced Ancho, spiky Chilli de Arbol, fruity Guajillo and the curious, squat Mulato. We also roasted some good old regular fresh chillies and a pepper and mixed the lot with cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway and garlic… it’s punchy.

You could use any mixture of chillies you like I suppose, as long as what you have at the end is something so full of flavour you can just stir small amounts into other dishes, spread it on a sandwich, mix with yoghurt or mayo, use it to coat chicken wings… whatever. Would it be easier to go and buy a jar of harissa? Sure, but where’s the therapy in that? This way, I enjoyed the scent of smoky chillies curling around the kitchen; I roasted peppers until sweet and blackened, then slipped off their skins; I dry-toasted spices, sucking up the citrusy scent of coriander seeds, then I whizzed it all together and I felt better. I felt better before any of it had even passed my lips.

Harissa Recipe

This fills a 350g jar.

1 dried Ancho chilli
1 dried Mulato chilli
3 Chilli de Arbol
2 dried Guajillo chillies
1 dried Pasilla chilli
1 red pepper
5 regular mild fresh chillies (not cayenne but the ones you get in supermarkets. What are these called, please?)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
5 cloves garlic, peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon rapeseed oil (yeah this was a bit random, so you could just use 2 tablespoons of flavourless oil, like groundnut)
2 teaspoons good sea salt

Soak the chillies in boiling water for at least half an hour. It’s easiest if you weigh them down with something like a plate or bowl, to stop them bobbing to the surface. Once soaked, remove the stalks and seeds.

Char the peppers and fresh chillies over an open flame until blackened all over. I did this on my hob (watch them and turn frequently) but you could do it under the grill. If you roast them in the oven, the flavour of the red pepper would be stronger and might overwhelm everything else. Once they’re blackened, wrap them in cling film for five minutes (this makes the skin easy to peel) then, peel and discard the stalks and seeds. It’s easiest if you run them under the tap while you’re doing it.

Add the chillies to a blender with all the other ingredients and whizz to a paste. Keep in a sterilised jar in the fridge.