From air drops to bus stops: How Sabich became Israeli

Course Specific
Apr 5
3 mins

Hard boiled egg. Mango sauce. Fried Aubergine. Tahini. Salad. 

These ingredients may not seem like obvious bedfellows, but when stuffed in a pita, this simple formula, known as Sabich, is often referred to as Israel’s most popular native dish.   

Now, we know the word ‘native’ is a contentious one at the best of times - but when you put it in the context of the Levant, it becomes even more delicate. 

Sabich is known to be the only true Israeli dish actually created in modern Israel… but when looking deeper into the history of the dish, we could argue that it is both Israeli and not Israeli, Arab and not Arab. Both and neither.

So if we really want to understand the roots of this dish, we need to look beyond Israel, beyond the Levant, to 1950s Iraq when the operation of ‘Ezra and Nehemia’ took place.

In the first half of the 20th Century, Iraqi Jews started to become unsettled, caused by the spreading of anti-semitic propaganda and the rise of Nazism in Europe. Anti-Jewish attacks became more and more frequent in Bagdad with a loss of the sense of safety and security that Jews had in the region for thousands of years.

This came to a head during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when scores of Iraqi Jews were arrested and persecuted, and in September of the same year, a Jewish Iraqi was publicly executed for apparent treason.

These events led many Jews in the area to flee to Israel, seeking to emigrate in hopes of a more peaceful life elsewhere. The emigration of the large population of Iraqi Jews to Israel became known as Operation Ezra and Nehemia. By 1951, around 120,000 Jews were flown out of Iraq only leaving a small population of Iraqi Jews behind.

The Ezra and Nehemia airlift was seen as a humanitarian success for the Israeli government. However, it did not mean that Iraqi Jews had found themselves in a totally hospitable new environment. The creeping sense of ‘us and them’ took hold once more, and manifested itself in all walks of life - even through food.

The Iraqi Jewish cultural theorist, Ella Shohat, recalls the abuse she received from her Ashkenazi classmates in the film Forget Bagdad. Food was used as a signifier of ‘otherness’  as she was frequently referred to as ‘Iraqit Mesreecha’ or ‘Stinky Iraqi’ for her lunch of eggs and Mango sauce (or Amba) - a precursor to the Sabich.

After a few decades, the cultural differences between the groups started to blur as the modern ‘culture of Israel’ began to welcome greater diversity than it did in the 1950s. Nowhere was this new ethos of mixing backgrounds clearer than at a stall run by an Iraqi Jewish man named… Sabich.

The legend goes that this man had a kiosk across the road from the final bus stop on a popular route. Here Mr Sabich sold bourekas, wafers, and drinks to bus drivers and ticket sellers. Over time his patrons grew tired of these dry pastries, and began asking what it was he was eating, requesting a bite of his leftover brown eggs from Shabbat. 

Like most Iraqi families, Sabich’s family ate a traditional Iraqi breakfast which consisted of stewed eggs stained brown, eaten with fried eggplant and Amba. 

As more and more drivers and ticket sellers heard about this unusual concoction, Sabich started to add more local Israeli elements, until the modern sandwich (named after its creator) was perfected.

Given the fortunate positioning of his stall, this cultural hybrid served in a pita travelled far and wide, transported by the travelling drivers who always came back for more.

Unfortunately for Mr Sabich, he never thought to trademark the name, and before he knew it, ‘Sabich’ carts had popped up across the country (and now the world). Despite this, his name lives on, now standing in as a signifier of Israel’s mixed culinary and cultural history.

So when we ask what the true origin of this ‘Israeli’ dish is, the answer is not so simple.

Just like a bus route, the road Sabich has taken to reach us was a winding one.

But even if the last stop on the route ends in Israel, the passengers it picked up along the way represent a host of different cultures - just like the country itself.

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