It’s easy to see why sabich has a huge, homeland fan base in Israel. Packed in pita, this is a hand-held flavor bomb. It’s also great meze-style for sharing with friends and family, starring hot mango chutney, tahini sauce, fried eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber, and eggs. And of course, we add some fresh serrano peppers for that touch of spiciness.
At first glance, you might think sabich is just another riff on an egg and salad sandwich. What’s so special about that? You just swap slices from a loaf for pita bread, right? Well, that would be a fair assessment if it weren’t for two totally transforming additions. Amba chutney and tahini sauce. Then you’re talking sabich. And it’s very special indeed.
Amba — the life and soul of sabich
Sweet, sour, salty and spicy. And in our recipe, it’s pretty hot — and quick to make. With Iraqi Jewish roots, amba is best described as mango chutney. Ours is fired with green serrano chilies, soured with a little apple cider vinegar, and spiced with paprika, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, mustard seeds, and sumac.
Ah, sumac. That’d be a versatile, finely-ground, darkly brick-red spice that features widely in Arab cuisine. Up front, it’s got a soft, lemony freshness. But then there’s a much deeper, yeasty-ish umami that lingers longer. It can be used as a condiment, a flavoring rub, and to complement other spices in sauces and stews.
Amba’s intense flavors are such a bold contrast to those of the far milder eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, and eggplant. As a lively partner to those gentle tastes, our amba is definitely fiery. It may seem a touch too hot when you taste it solo, but it’s surprising how that heat chills out when it parties with all its sabich buddies.
Although amba is often tagged as a pickle or a sauce, I’d definitely class this as a chutney. Our recipe makes a little over 2 cups (0.47 l). And that’s just dandy because — like all fine chutneys and relishes — amba gives a pleasing lift to so many different foods. And it’s nothing — and I mean nothing — like a good, traditional Indian mango pickle. I mention that because I’ve seen sabich recipes that suggest using that particular pickle instead of amba. My recommendation? Don’t.
Tahini sauce. Mellow, rich, creamy — and essential
As a drinks-time appetizer, scooped up with little triangles of warm flat bread, homemade hummus has always been a big hit with me. And I’m equally wowed by the simpler tahini sauce that dresses our sabich. More to the point, just like hummus, it’s the perfect partner for the sabich’s pita bread. Just like cream cheese on a bagel, tahini and pita bring out the best in one another.
A mix of sesame seed paste (tahini), garlic, lemon juice and some thinning water, this sauce is as vital here as the mustard was on that apex hot dog of mine in long ago New York. Leave it out and you’ve missed the whole point of sabich — simple ingredients that work together to showcase one another in the best possible way.
A word about the eggs
Traditionally, these should be huevos haminados or ‘brown eggs’ of Sephardic Jewish cooking. Now, that term, ‘brown eggs’ doesn’t refer to the color of their shells. In our recipe, it’s the cosmetic ‘stain’ that’s imparted to the eggs as you hard-boil them with onion skins and tea. For me, this gives the peeled eggs a sort of exotic appearance because of the marbled pattern it creates on their surface. In our recipe, it doesn’t affect their flavor, but I think it adds a quirky conversation point to a happy sabich brunch. Worth it? For sure.
From street food to home food
Sabich might get trumpeted as a hugely popular street food in Israel, but I made this for eating at home — as opposed to roadside. Yeah, I get the street food vibe and all the groovy chatter about hawkers, stalls, and food trucks. Frankly, I’m over it. Come to think of it, I’ve been that way since my first visit to NYC three decades ago. That was when I had my first happy encounter with a proper hot dog. Can’t remember if it was a Sabrett or a Nathan’s. But nothing I’ve eaten on a sidewalk has ever come close to that love at first bite.
For the amba chutney — makes about 2 cups
- 4 serrano peppers roughly chopped, seeds and all
- 2 mangoes medium-sized, a little on the unripe side is ideal. Peeled, pitted, and sliced into rough 1-inch dice, taking care to keep all the juice.
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled and finely diced. Buy ones with a good covering of skin – and keep the skins to add to the water for boiling the eggs.
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 2 heaped teaspoons whole yellow mustard seeds
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sumac
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground fenugreek
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground paprika
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 3 heaped teaspoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- 4 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
For the tahini sauce
For the ‘brown eggs
- 8 eggs 2 per person, free-range, medium-sized
- 2 tea bags I used a strong, ‘English Breakfast’ variety
- 2 yellow onion skins use the ones from the onions for the amba chutney
For the eggplant, the tomato and cucumber salad, and the pita breads.
- 4 eggplants or aubergines, peeled in stripes and cut into 1-inch thick rings. I used a potato peeler to get a pattern of lengthwise stripes about 1/3-inch apart
- 1/2 pound cherry tomatoes halved
- 1/2 pound cucumber peeled in stripes and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
- 1/2 ounce fresh parsley finely chopped, stalks and all
- 1/2 ounce fresh cilantro finely chopped, stalks and all
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 lemons quartered
- 6 pita breads plain, white. 11/2 pitas per person is about right for this meze-style sabich.
Make the amba chutney
- This takes about an hour or so to make and then cool, so it’s the place to start. That’s good because you can prepare the eggs at the same time.
- So, set a medium size saucepan onto a low heat and add the chopped mango, all its juice, and the salt. Stir, and let it cook low and slow until it just begins to barely bubble. Add the serranos, onion, garlic, sugar, mustard seeds, and apple cider vinegar. Take some care to stir it all occasionally on that low heat, so the onion melts down into the mango – about 5 minutes. Good.
- Now stir in all the remaining spices – sumac, fenugreek, paprika, cumin, and turmeric. Let the pan just barely simmer for another 5 minutes. You’ll find the mango chunks starts to break down a little as you watchfully stir the pan, and that the whole mix will be pretty thick. I say watchfully because you want to keep the mixture gently stirred just enough to stop it sticking to the bottom. Also, you’re not looking for a puree here, but rather to keep some texture in your amba chutney.
- Now stir in the water, and let the pan come up to a very slow simmer. As soon as that happens, cover the pan with a good-fitting lid and let it simmer away very gently – and I mean very gently – for 25 minutes. Give it a few slow stirs as its simmering to make sure it doesn’t catch on the bottom.
- Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and let it slowly cool right down. Once cooled, pour into a serving bowl. Done.
Make the ‘brown’ eggs
- Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover them with cold water. Add the onion skins and the tea bags. Bring the pan to a boil on high heat, and then let it run on a low-medium heat at a softly rolling boil for 5 minutes. Drop the heat to low and let the eggs slowly simmer for about an hour – while you make the amba chutney. Then drain the eggs, let them cool, peel them, and put them in a serving dish.
Make the tahini sauce
- This is really easy. Add all the ingredients to a mixing bowl and use a whisk to thoroughly combine them. You’re aiming for a consistency of a good tomato ketchup. To achieve that, you might have to add a little more tahini paste to thicken the sauce, or a little more water to thin it down. Transfer the sauce to a serving jug.
Prep the salad
- This is even easier. Mix together all the ingredients – except the parsley and cilantro – in a serving bowl. Season to your taste with salt and pepper. Then garnish generously with the parsley and cilantro. Add the lemon quarters around the edges. Done.
Cook the eggplant
- The slices need to be batch-fried hot and fast in olive oil. Hot and fast is the key here. Also bear in mind that you want the eggplant to be ready just in time for serving your sabich. That means you’ll be cooking it as the pitas are warming in a low oven.
- So, set a good-sized, deep skillet on a high heat and add the olive oil. As soon as it starts smoking a little, add the eggplant slices in single layer. Watch out here – there’s going to be a fair bit of spitting, sizzling hot oil as the slices hit the skillet. Fry each side for 3 hot minutes – keeping that heat on high.
- Frying the eggplant like this will give the slices a deep golden colour with some darker spots of charring, and, importantly, will prevent them from absorbing too much oil.
- As soon as both sides are fried, use a slotted spoon to quickly remove them from the skillet, and lay them evenly on kitchen towel. Stick to the same process for the next batch – hot, fast, and out onto the towel to drain and cool a little.
Warm the pita breads
- While the eggplants are frying, the pitas just need to be warmed in a pre-heated, low oven (150F / 70C) for about 6 minutes, until they just begin to puff up into that classic pillow-pita shape. As soon as that happens, remove from the oven and wrap them lightly in a dish cloth to keep them warm.
Bringing it all together
- I think it’s grand to serve this meze-style with everything arranged on a large platter, and the amba chutney and tahini sauce presented alongside. People can then casually help themselves to ‘build’ their sabich.