What Is Schug? The Story Behind The Sauce

Schug (a.k.a. zhug, zhoug, or zhough) is a Middle Eastern condiment made from roasted green peppers, spices (including parsley, cilantro, and mint), and olive oil. It can be considered a hot sauce or chili paste, depending on its consistency. And schug can be used as a dip, sauce, or spread. Its story is as rich as its bold, savory flavor. Let’s dive into schug’s history, flavor profile, and uses to fully appreciate what makes this condiment so special.

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Schug history

Schug originated in Yemen. Yemen is located at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and the country has a somewhat different history and culture from the rest of the region. Yemen’s unique cuisine is one area where the differences are most noticeable.

Yemenite cuisine developed differently because of the Turkish Ottoman occupation, which resulted in the country’s food culture being influenced by imported pungent spices and foreign cooking styles.

One of the staples of Yemenite cuisine is a sauce called sahawiq. Sahawiq is the Arabic word for sauce, while schug is the Hebrew word for it. Both refer to the same condiment; schug is the name used by Jewish Yemenites. Schug is sometimes spelled zhug, zhoug, or zhough. Another name for it is daqqus.

Yemen had a Jewish population since the time of King Solomon. Yemenite Jews are the descendants of soldiers sent by King Solomon to safeguard spice caravans. In 1950, thousands of these Jews were airlifted into Israel and brought with them a vibrant food culture, influenced by their former homeland. They brought many dishes that have now been integrated into Israel’s cuisine, including schug.

Because it is a spicy condiment — a variety of hot sauce — it relies heavily on chili peppers, which originated in what is now Mexico. When Christopher Columbus returned to Europe from the New World, he brought with him chili peppers. Those peppers would spread along the different trade routes throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their heat became popular all over the world.

These days, schug is not limited to Jews from Yemen or just to Yemen. You will find it being used all over the Middle East, and it has recently begun to make inroads in the United States. With increasing exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine, more Americans are experiencing and enjoying schug.

Schug flavor profile

The standard green schug comprises parsley, cilantro, and sometimes mint ground to paste with chili peppers and olive oil. The equipment for making traditional schug consists of two stones, a large flat one that acts as a mortar and a smaller one used as a pestle.

Other typical ingredients include fenugreek leaves, lemon juice, and olive oil. Schug can also be loaded with spices like cumin and cardamom. Garlic and salt are essential as well. The result looks very similar to chimichurri sauce and has many of the same flavor elements.

Schug contributes an intensely savory and herbaceous blend to your meal and is highly aromatic. Aside from the common green variety, you can find a red version and one that includes cheese in Yemen. In Israel, there is a red and brown schug. The brown version contains tomatoes.

Is schug spicy?

Schug contains chili peppers, so it is typically spicy; however, the spice level can vary significantly and depends on the amount and type of chili peppers used. It’s all up to the cook and what they want. Some variations are relatively mild, while others are searingly spicy. Keep in mind that it is supposed to be hot.

Common uses

Like most hot sauces, schug is a general-purpose condiment. While it goes well with many savory dishes from Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, it can also work with savory Western dishes. Use it on falafel and add it to your hummus or on shawarma.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on December 14, 2022 to include new content.
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