The Story Behind an Iconic Israeli Street Food: The Sabich

Hungry patrons of a small kiosk owned by Iraqi immigrants demanded something good to eat – and an Israeli street sandwich was born

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Fried eggplant.
Fried eggplant.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Rina Halabi sits on a tall stool in the kitchen peeling hundreds of hard-boiled eggs. Since she lost her husband, Sabich Zvi, five years ago, she has made it a habit to come every morning to the family’s sabich stand, which first opened in the early 1960s, to peel eggs or prepare the vegetable salad.

“Our first stand was in Bar-Ilan Park at 60 Uziel Street, Ramat Gan,” she says, a wistful look in her eyes as she thinks of her late husband. He was born in Baghdad in 1938, made aliya in the early 1950s and died in 2012. “Sabich was working in an iron molding factory when he saw a small kiosk an elderly couple had put up for sale for key money. The kiosk was opposite the last stop of the Number 63 bus, and drivers and ticket-sellers used to buy bourekas and wafers and drinks. The drivers told Sabich they wanted something more substantial to eat, and he asked me to give him the leftover brown eggs from Shabbat. Like every Iraqi family, we ate a traditional breakfast of brown eggs that were cooked on top of the tebit – chamin – together with fried eggplant and salads. We ate the same thing back in Iraq.”

“We started with 10 eggs and a tray of fried eggplant,” says Halabi. “And the drivers, who were mostly Ashkenazim, loved it. The business started to take off. Sabich brought a petiliya(kerosene burner) and started cooking the eggs in pickle tins. I kept frying the eggplant at home. He would fill the pita with amba, a brown egg, fried eggplant and a simple vegetable salad of tomatoes and cucumbers.

“When the business grew, and I had two kids at home by then, it was hard to keep on frying the eggplant at home. Sabich brought in a partner named Yaakov Sasson, though the food stand could barely support two families. Everybody would say, ‘Sabich, make me one,’ and the name sabich stuck.” Sharon, one of Rina and Sabich’s three children, who has followed in his father’s footsteps, says: “It’s funny. They used to say, ‘Sabich, give me one, and now they say, ‘Give me a sabich.’”

In the early 1980s, the Halabi family moved the family food stand to Derech Negba Street in Ramat Gan, where it operates to this day.

In the 1990s, Sabich Halabi tried to register as a trademark the street food that had become known by his name. “But my dad and his partner were from another generation,” sighs Sharon. “They didn’t remember to pay the fee, and it also became hard to compete with the dozens of sabich stands that popped up around the country, and later abroad as well. Today you can find sabich places in America and Thailand. Every so often, older people come here who remember Dad, and they marvel at how it all began.”

Sabich has become an integral part of the limited canon of Israeli cuisine – perhaps in part because, unlike falafel and hummus, which have become symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its origins are easier to deal with. The Halabi family has given few interviews. “We’re modest people, we don’t need publicity,” says Rina. “But we also felt a need to preserve Sabich’s memory, and when Tami came with her book – we didn’t know her before – I was moved to tears.”

The Jewish Arab

Tami is Tami Shem-Tov, a children’s author and former journalist who recently published the children’s book “Saba Sabich” (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, in Hebrew). The book tells the story of how this popular street food was born – including the story of the first sabich stand in Israel – as young grandchildren ask their grandfather Sabich why he has the name of a food.

“It’s a very personal book, but also a public one,” says Shem-Tov. “Sabich became a national food, but it’s also the name of my father. My father made aliya alone from Iraq in the early 1950s because they wanted to draft him into the army there. His family joined him later on. When he came to Israel he was told, like all the olim with Arab names, that he had to changes his name. Sabich in Arabic means ‘dawn,’ the first ray of light, and a lot of people who were named Sabich or Sabichiya became Zvi or Zviya. But my father refused. Even though when he was born, he was also given a Jewish name, Ezra, he wouldn’t change his name, and he kept the name Sabich. He always said that he was Arab. Jewish-Arab, but Arab.”

Dr. Yahil Zaban of Tel Aviv University’s literature department says the book “deals with cultural appropriation in Israel and with the erasure of the ethnic identity of Mizrahi Jews. The grandfather is depicted at first as an almost laughable figure – an old man with the name of a food, which is practically the classical hegemonic stereotype. But as the book goes on, this position is eroded – He insists on keeping his name, and the name that they sought to erase from Israeli culture not only becomes a source of financial success, and something that brings the family together around the tradition, it also becomes a symbol of the new Israeli culture.”

Regardless of any literary or sociological traditions, the Halabi family’s sabich, the sabich started by the original Sabich, is one of the best I’ve ever tasted in Israel – the perfectly fried eggplant, the way Sharon mashes the hard-boiled egg evenly throughout the pita, the perfect amounts and arrangement of all the other key ingredients. And if you’re really lucky, you might also get to taste Rina’s homemade sambusak, which has a thin dough and is filled with spicy crushed chickpeas. A real delight made by the First Lady of the House of Sabich.

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