The humble eggplant can’t get no respect. From Americans, at least. Try to conjure a dish starring the bulbous nightshade vegetable and, other than eggplant parmesan and the occasional lasagna (which, if we’re honest, we’re mostly in for the cheese), you’ll probably come up empty-plated. “People are a little weird about eggplant,” chef Michael Solomonov, a Philadelphia-based chef who has won four James Beard awards for his Middle Eastern cooking, told Extra Crispy.
But in Israel, eggplant is the star in appetizers and entrees, from baba ganoush to a standalone roasted version drizzled with raw tahini and topped with chopped pistachios. Iraqi-Israelis even eat thick, fried slices of it as a traditional Saturday morning breakfast, combined with hard-boiled eggs that have cooked in an overnight stew called t’bit.
And one entrepreneurial fellow, Sabich Halabi, who dreamed that his eggplant breakfast could make it big as street food, pioneered the best Israeli sandwich you’ve likely never heard of, now named after him. In the early 1960s he stuffed the components of his weekend brunch (plus some extras) into a pita, and the rest is culinary history.
Sabich (pronounced saa-BEEKH) is a beloved national dish, and stalls offering eggplant-filled pitas are found on streets countrywide right next to their peers, falafel and shawarma. But overseas, despite the fact that Israeli food is having a bit of a moment, sabich is an off-menu secret.
When asked why he doesn’t serve sabich at any of his many Israeli food eateries, Solomonov said sabich is just a little bit less marketable. “You’re like, alright, it’s a sandwich that’s full of fried eggplant, tehina (which you don’t know how to pronounce), amba (you don’t know what that is, try to describe mango pickle and it doesn’t sound that great), and hard-boiled egg—which could be awesome or gross,” Solomonov says. “They’re like, I don’t understand. Until you eat it, and then you’re like—oh my god, this is the most incredible thing ever.”
Are Americans ready for sabich? Probably not for breakfast, but maybe for lunch. A few Israeli chefs, such as Einat Admony of New York’s Taim and the crew behind Philly’s Hummusology, have imported the delicacy to the United States, sneaking it in between hummus and falafel options. And Solomonov has devoted a whole chapter to it in his recently published cookbook, Israeli Soul, even though you won’t find it in any of his restaurants. If you’re courageous enough to make sabich yourself, Solomonov shares two different eggplant preparations (one baked, one gloriously fried). Combine with slices of hard-boiled egg, tehina spread, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, and if you can find it (usually on Amazon or in supermarkets with a large Middle Eastern section), you won't go wrong with some amba (mango pickled with fenugreek), too.
Baked Eggplant (from Michael Solomonov's Israeli Soul)
- 1 large eggplant
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Stripe the eggplant lengthwise with a vegetable peeler and trim off the ends. Slice into 12 roughly half-inch-thick rounds. Toss with the salt and oil in a large bowl. Place the eggplant in a single later on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, or until tender. Turn the slices and bake for a couple minutes more to brown the other side. Let cool slightly before assembling.
Hakosem-Style Fried Eggplant (from Michael Solomonov's Israeli Soul)
- 1 large eggplant
- 4 tablespoons kosher salt
- Half-cup cornstarch
- Canola oil, for frying
Stripe the eggplant lengthwise with a vegetable peeler and trim off the ends. Slice into 12 roughly ½-inch-thick rounds. Sprinkle each of the eggplant slices on both sides with the salt and drain on a wire rack set on a baking sheet for 1 hour.
Pat the slices dry with paper towels. Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl. Dredge the eggplant in the cornstarch on both sides and tap off the excess.
Place a large skillet over medium heat and coat the bottom with oil. When the oil is hot, fry the eggplant in batches for about 2 minutes per side, or until golden. With a spatula, transfer the eggplant to paper towels to drain. Cool slightly before assembly.