Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fast food in the home #1: Sabich

I love making facsimiles of street food more than I like eating the real thing. Those who remember the CJD panic of the 1990s will recall the stories about how eating hamburgers served from little carts will turn your brain to fondue, and I don't know about you, but the whole thing caused me to come to one particular conclusion and to behave in one particular way. The conclusion I came to, which was rigorously founded on a basis of no evidence whatever, was that the government had probably tightened up safety standards on the production of hamburger meat (75% less death-dealing prions by volume!). The pattern of behaviour I adopted, which would seem to be at odds with my conclusion, was that I have never, ever eaten a hamburger from a street vendor. I had never eaten one before CJD came along, but the CJD scare caused me to decide not to as a general rule of life, just as at some point back there I decided that I was never going to become a Mormon. Just because street vendor hamburgers might conceivably be a tiny bit safer now, or at any rate those who make them might conceivably face stiffer penalties for delivering bad ones, that's still no reason to eat one. Unless the vendor can produce, like, a signed letter from the Minister for Health confirming that the burgers are prion-free. Then at least my legal guardians will know who to sue when I'm on a ventilator.

But there are other kinds of street food than hamburgers. I am a big fan of pretty much anything that gets served in pita bread, for example. This is the bit where I should start talking about great fast food I have eaten from around the world, but unfortunately I haven't been all over the world. However, I know some well-travelled people, including my friend Peter Crawley, who is a theatre reviewer for the Irish Times, God help him. Apart from being very intelligent and an all-round good bloke, one of the fine things about Peter is that he once called Chris de Burgh a talentless git, and in return for thus speaking the truth to power he earned the mono-browed one's undying hatred. Peter went to Israel a while ago and came back raving about sabich, a vegetarian fast food. I am normally wary of anything that involves aubergine, but Peter was so eloquent that I asked him to recap his experience for us. Here he goes:

"I'd arrived for a cultural press trip in Israel late at night, and boarded a cheap shuttle bus for Ben Yehuda Street, where I was staying in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, it deposited me in Ben Yehuda street in Haifa, about 100 km away.

Still, I did get to build up an appetite touring through a few ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods en route, where small boys in black suits played with iPods in the blazing sun and street posters depicted Barack Obama as a new Yasser Arafat, smiling beneath a superimposed keffiyeh.

I was famished by the time I got to Tel Aviv, an expensive taxi ride later. The hotel receptionist sent me downtown to a network of narrow streets where she told me "Israelis go to eat" and I was advised to get some shawarma - a kebab, basically. By the time I got there that stall was long closed and the only option was the sabich vendor who didn't seem to keep any sort of reasonable hours.

I had no idea what sabich was, to be honest, and the place could have looked a whole lot cleaner. But even at that hour it seemed popular and I have an instinctive admiration for any name that lends itself to weak puns and that practically needs to be hissed if it's pronounced correctly.

I got a sales pitch from a fast-talking Israeli-Arab, nonetheless, who loaded up a pitta bread with mysterious squidgy contents from a simmering pot (which I presumed was potato) and then layered it with hummus, harif, cucumber and tomato salad. He paused dramatically over a trough full of a viscous orange-coloured sauce. "Do you want amba?" he asked. "Ok," I said. "Are you sure? You'll get sweats in the night. You'll wake up wanting more." "Um, alright?" I said.

The first bite felt like a conspiracy of mush, loosely held together in the floury pitta, full of new flavours. It filled the mouth, soft and tender. You had to eat slowly. It demanded to be savoured. It was everything I needed when I needed it and I knew too that the satisfaction it brought was also probably unrepeatable - I'd never be as hungry, or as relieved to have arrived somewhere safely, or have been as adventurous given more familiar options.

Thank you Peter. The cheque is in the post. My own recipe is adapted from one I found on the most excellent blog of Michael Natkin, and I chose it because it doesn't involve potatoes, a vegetable I had too much of as a kid and now actively avoid.

You will need (for four people):

A packet of good pita bread - the pita you get in Asian shops tends to be bigger and cheaper than the stuff you get in supermarkets, although it can sometimes disintegrate on you.

2-3 large aubergines, peeled and cut into slices about 1 cm thick

Four hard-boiled eggs, quartered. (for perfect hard-boiled eggs without grey yolk, place eggs in cold water, bring to boil, boil for minute, turn off heat, leave for ten minutes and cool under the tap). If you want to make vegan sabich, leave out the eggs.

Good hummus, either shop-bought or your own

Tahina (optional)

2 red onions, sliced

1 cucumber, peeled and finely diced

Plenty of cherry tomatoes
, finely diced

Some topped, tailed and sliced radishes (optional

The chopped leaves of about five sprigs each of flat-leaf parsley and mint

Mango pickle. Not mango chutney, which is usually sweet, mild and jam-like, but mango pickle, which is sour, hot and fenugreeky - the Israeli product, amba, is apparently a puree, but the only kind I can get is Indian or Pakistani and has chunks of mango in it, but the spicing and general effect is the same. It should be a bright orange colour.

Red wine vinegar

Olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Toast and split your pita in advance, because if you try and assemble this with freshly toasted pita you'll drop it.

2. Make a salad with the onion, cucumber, tomato, parsley and mint. Wait until the last minute to dress it, so it doesn't wilt.

3. Sauté the aubergine slices a few at a time in olive oil, until they're nicely browned. The aubergine will first absorb all the oil, but as it cooks it will give up the struggle and the olive oil will ooze out of it again. You can keep the slices warm in a warm oven (50C) if you like.

4. Serve dressed salad, pita, hummus, tahina, eggs, fried aubergines and pickle in bowls and let everyone assemble a mighty sandwich.

5. Eat, accompanied by ice cold beer, preferably at the end of a long journey.

This meal, as Peter says, is the source of many rivalling recipes and theories and claims: 'I never thought conflict in the Middle East would spill into a very filling sandwich.' For the record, he didn't get night sweats and neither will you, probably. But you will want more.

Before I finish: the tomatoes in this particular sabich were outstanding, and came from J & M Craig. I bought them at the Edinburgh farmer's market. Best tomatoes I've had this side of the Mediterranean; eating them, you were reminded that tomatoes are actually a fruit.

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