I'm convinced that one of the world's greatest sandwiches comes from the Middle East. And I am most certainly not talking about falafel. My obsession is the sabich, a pita sandwich stuffed with fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, tahini sauce, and Israeli salad and pickles. To me, it's not even a contest.
I've never really understood the fascination with falafel. In theory, I should love it—chickpeas are my favorite beans, and deep-fried...well, I love deep-fried so much that I'm now using it as a noun. But falafel has yet to win me over, with even the moistest versions way drier and more crumbly than I want. Pack it inside starchy pita, and...I just don't get it.*
* In case you're curious, I've eaten the best falafel New York City has to offer, and it didn't convince me. Some folks tell me that until I eat falafel in the Middle East, I should withhold judgment. That's fair, so I'm keeping an open mind and will try a recommended falafel anywhere, any time. Maybe one day I'll be converted.
Sabich, on the other hand. Oh, sabich. The Serious Eats office is a few blocks from Taïm, an Israeli restaurant run by the talented chef Einat Admony, where the focus is falafel. I've had the falafel there, and it's good (for falafel), but that's not what I order. My usual is the sabich, and each time I eat it, my devotion only grows stronger. It's drippy, it's messy, it's shamelessly moist and flavorful. There are creamy swaths, and squishy bits, and crunchy chunks, and tart bursts. It hails from Tel Aviv, where Admony is from, and is apparently the city's other beloved sandwich, a creation of the city's Iraqi Jewish community. As far as I'm concerned, it's Tel Aviv's only sandwich.
I'm lucky enough to have the one at Taïm within walking distance of work, but not everyone can be so fortunate, so I recently spent a day coming up with a recipe based on it. As you might imagine, there are many variations on this sandwich, including ones with potato shoved into the pita along with everything else, but I stuck to a Taïm clone.
First, let's look at the main components.
They include: eggplant slices, fried until tender and creamy; sliced hard-boiled egg; Israeli pickles; thinly shredded cabbage; amba, a pickled-mango sauce; pita bread; a simple Israeli salad of diced tomato, cucumber, parsley, and lemon juice; hummus; and tahini sauce.
I'll tackle each in turn.
For the eggplant, I cut an Italian eggplant, which tends to be denser and have fewer seeds than other varieties, into half-inch rounds, then fry it in oil until golden. As soon as they're done, I transfer the fried slices to paper towels to drain, sprinkling them with salt while they're still hot so that it adheres well. There are lots of tricks for purging an eggplant before frying, like salting the cut slices and letting the water seep out through osmosis. Some people say this is to remove bitter fluids; another explanation is that it's so the eggplant absorbs less oil during frying. I've never had an issue with bitter eggplant in all my time cooking, so I mostly don't worry about it. (Unless the eggplant is very mature and has big, hard seeds in it...but then it won't be a good eggplant anyway.) And, in the case of this sandwich, a couple of oil-rich slices are actually really delicious. So I just skip all the extra steps and fry the slices as they are.
The hard-boiled egg method I use is from Kenji, who spent an insane amount of time, and dozens upon dozens of eggs, to determine the best technique. In short: Start the eggs in boiling water, simmer them for 11 minutes, then shock them in ice. While there are no guarantees, the whites are less likely to stick to the shell when the eggs go straight into boiling water, instead of being dropped into cold water and then slowly heated. The ice bath stops the cooking more quickly and helps prevent the dimple from forming on the bottom of the eggs.
Then I stole a couple of Kenji's other recipes for this, including the tahini sauce (which he adapted from the chef Michael Solomonov's recipe) and the hummus. His version creates an unbelievably smooth, silky texture.
For the Israeli salad, I use a trick we often turn to when tossing raw tomatoes into a salad: I salt them first and let their excess liquid drain for 30 minutes. This concentrates their flavor, which is particularly important when you're working with less-than-stellar tomatoes...i.e., the tomatoes most of us get 99% of the time.
The remaining ingredients are most easily purchased. Pita is the easiest to find, though good pita, tender and fluffy, takes a little more effort, depending on where you live. Amba sauce, a tart preserved-mango sauce flavored with fenugreek, and Israeli pickles, which are spicier and more tart than American bread-and-butter pickles, can be bought from an Israeli or international foods grocer or ordered online.
Once you have all your components in order, it's just a matter of assembly. I start by smearing the hummus inside a split, warmed pita, then stuffing a couple of slices of fried eggplant on top of that. Then I drizzle in some tahini, followed by the egg slices and pickles, more tahini, the amba sauce, the Israeli salad, more tahini and amba, and then some shredded cabbage at the end.
Just...grab a napkin. Or 10.