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Tel Aviv’s ‘Pita Nazi’

Sabich, the ultimate Israeli street food, has made a legend out of quirky store-owner Oved Daniel

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Oved Daniel serves sabich at his Givatayim shop. (All photos Doron Farhi)

While hummus, falafel, and even shawarma are known around the globe, the ultimate Israeli street food—sabich—remains one of the country’s best-kept secrets.

Sabich is a pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs (traditionally haminados, which are the brown eggs from Sephardi-style cholent), hummus, tahini, and vegetable salad, while some versions contain boiled-potatoes as well. Pickled cucumbers, chopped parsley, and onions seasoned with purple sumac are usually added, as well as a Yemenite hot sauce called skhug, and amba—a thick yellow sauce containing pickled mangoes, fenugreek, and turmeric.

Making sabich sounds simple enough, but preparing it just right is an art form that few truly master. And the truest master of this culinary art is Oved Daniel, Israel’s most revered sabich-maker, who declares without false modesty that he is the Diego Armando Maradona of sabich. For 27 years, Oved—like Maradona, he’s generally referred to by one name—has been dominating Israel’s sabich scene from his little corner on Sirkin Street in Givatayim, a small city bordering Tel Aviv. During that time, his establishment has become an institution that customers flock to from all over the country. But now, the man who is as much a legend in the world of sabich as Maradona is on the soccer field has granted a highly coveted franchise to two young men, Maor Ben-Tov and Aviv Shary, who this month opened the very first branch of Oved’s Sabich in Tel Aviv proper.

Growing up in Givatayim and being weaned on Oved’s Sabich, Ben-Tov and Shary always wanted to open a branch of their favorite street-food stand. After studying at Tadmor School of Culinary Arts and Hotel Management in Herzliya, working at several restaurants, and pestering Oved about it for no less than three years, their dream finally came true. On the first Friday of November—following a grueling two-month apprenticeship at Oved’s original stand—Ben-Tov and Shary opened their place on Karlebach Street. On the back of their black employee uniforms they have printed Oved’s slogan that shamelessly advertises “the best mana in the universe.” Mana in Hebrew means portion, dose, or serving, and the word is used in reference to a pita-sandwich, as well as when talking about heroin—which tells you how Israelis think about sabich.

“People come to eat here from all over the world, and many want to open a branch in the States,” Oved boasted. “And what do I tell them? That it can’t be done! You can’t find the right ingredients in America, and you can’t import them without jeopardizing the quality. If opening a branch in Israel is hard, opening one in America is virtually impossible.” Even inside Israel, it turns out, it’s not easy to open a sabich stand; as in soccer, not everybody roots for the same team.

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As opposed to hummus or falafel—Arabic dishes adopted by Israelis and exported around the world—sabich is a local concoction. The core ingredients can be found in the traditional Shabbat-breakfast of Iraqi Jews, but the idea of putting them into a pita and eating them as a sandwich is 100 percent Israeli. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Israelis consume everything in a pita, from schnitzel to Nutella. Nevertheless, the credit for this ingenious development is usually given to one Sabich Halabi, an Iraqi immigrant who opened what is believed to be the first sabich stand in Ramat Gan in 1961. Though Oved claims (perhaps jokingly) that the name is an acronym for the Hebrew words for salad-egg-more-eggplant, others believe it was named after Halabi, or at least stems from the Arabic word sabach, meaning morning.

sabich

Today sabich is popular all over Israel, although it’s more widespread in the Tel Aviv area, especially in Ramat Gan and Givatayim, to the east of the city. And in recent years, sabich has become so popular that some local gourmet chefs have created their personal upscale version of it, and many cafés in Tel Aviv serve a sabich-inspired sandwich, placing the eggplant and egg inside whole wheat or rye bread. But Oved would never do such a thing.

Just as people make pilgrimages to the “Soup Nazi” in New York for more than the quality of his soup, Oved’s lasting popularity and ever-growing cult status isn’t due solely to his tasty sabich or even the terms he coins, but to the way he talks to his customers and the entertaining, albeit ridiculous, show he puts on. Customers who know the language and rules for ordering feel right at home, but unsure stutters might get disapproving glances from Oved’s employees or other customers, especially if one’s ignorance is holding up the line. The proprietor loves discussing “the field of sabich” and never pardons his puns. In fact, he has basically invented his own language, composed of expressions from the soccer-world mixed with his very-own “sabich verbs,” like “onionize” or “saladize.” Oved doesn’t ask if you want more eggplant—he’ll ask whether he should “eggplantize” you. If the answer is affirmative, you will then have to determine which of the six degrees of eggplantization you would be interested in: light, medium, heavy, massive, aggressive, or militant. When he asks what the score is at the derby (a soccer game between two local rivals), he’s actually asking how much amba and skhug you want: Since Maccabi’s team color is yellow, it represents the amba—an Iraqi version of Indian mango-chutney—while the red team, Ha-Poel, symbolizes the hot-sauce. If you answer “2-0 for Ha-Poel,” that means you want two teaspoons of hot sauce and no amba. (No amba is considered a no-no, but note: Amba is something you sweat out; you won’t be able to go on a date for at least three days after consuming it.)

For Oved, who grew up playing soccer, the game is a metaphor for life, and for sabich: “I used to be a soccer player and I could have been a great one,” he said. “Making great sabich requires the same characteristics as being a great soccer player: understanding of the game, control, accuracy and sharpness. The only football player that ever had all four attributes is Maradona, and I have them in the field of sabich.”

The question is, do Ben-Tov and Shary have them? “I gave them all the instructions and guidance they need. If they succeed in getting the flavor even 80 percent right, that’s good enough,” said Oved with typical modesty. Still, many find the fact that Oved’s name is now attached to a place other than his own snack-bar quite shocking, if not outright blasphemous, but you can’t blame a man for keeping his word. “I promised,” is Oved’s rationale for his surprising business expansion. “I know their families and I have known them since they were kids. They talked about opening a branch for years and I always told them, if you’re serious and find a place, we’ll do it. They proved that they were serious, so I had to keep my promise.”

Aviv Shary
Aviv Shary at the new branch

A visit to Oved’s new branch four days after the opening revealed obvious similarities to the original store in Givatayim, like steamed pitas (Oved’s method of keeping them warm and soft) and young vendors attempting the classic Oved lingo rather nervously. “Before we opened I was worried sick,” said Ben-Tov, 23, regarding the immense pressure of filling Oved’s shoes. “I felt pains in my chest and couldn’t sleep. But now I’m not nervous anymore. Oved himself came by and was happy, so I’m more relaxed now. His feedback obviously is the most important to us. Our goal is to make Oved proud.”

Some of the customers I met at the new branch were students from the nearby Ironi Alef high school, who seemed happy with the product. Customers who came to compare new-Oved with original-Oved were less impressed. “The arrangement inside the pita isn’t very good,” complained Aya Cohen from Givatayim. “My mana wasn’t harmonious, all the eggs were at the bottom. Also, the eggplant was too seedy and too dry. All in all, it wasn’t bad but Oved needs to come over for some fine-tuning.”

Sefi Zisling from Tel Aviv was more optimistic: “I’m not flying at the moment like after eating at Oved’s, but it was nice. There’s room for improvement and I think it’s too early to tell. These guys need to gain confidence, and obviously that takes time. People like eating at Oved’s because he creates a certain kind of atmosphere. He makes you feel like he’s giving you love inside a pita. That’s what they need to learn.”

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Interesting – can’t wait to try it next time i’m in Israel….

Dana kessler – please write more often!

Underdogdave says:

Enjoyed this piece very much but did you have to mention eggplant?! I hate eggplant , my wife’s father once told me “you will never be a true Israeli until you like eggplant”.Well I’ve been here 24 years and i still hate it.

Motek Hadas Hall says:

Great article,nice to see Givataim get a mention for once!

Maurice says:

Wow, never heard of this guy until now. Thanks for the good story!

That made me crave for a Sabich right now.

T-Bird says:

I’ve been living in Israel for a while now and heard people go on and on about sabich. I never really understood what the big deal was. thanks for clarifying

Torah Believer says:

First article here at Tablet Mag without a gratuitous reference to sodomy?

disqus_FnsZdW9xkH says:

Interesting use of the word “nazi”. I guess to you folks enough time has elapsed so that it’s safe to make “nazi” an innocuous word to use in polite company. What next, some oven jokes? You people have no sense of shame at all and that’s the sad statement in all of this.

Nice! I live down the block from the Givatayim branch – printed this out and gave it to Oved himself last night. Suffice it to say, I was not offered a free mana…

T-Bird says:

It’s not “you folks”, it’s Seinfeld. And mind you, the soup-nazi joke is almost 20 years old. get with the program.

Maurice says:

Perhaps we should just brush the word under the carpet although personally I understand the ‘reference’ which is perfectly valid in the context of the article. Why on earth should anyone be ashamed? Ridiculous.

Maurice says:

But in the best possible taste!

disqus_FnsZdW9xkH says:

I live here and I’m well-aware of Seinfeld’s soup nazi. And the last that I looked he’s an entertainer, beholden to himself and not a news entity. For you to lecture me on this is the height of hubris and typical of someone with your mentality. It was wrong for Jerry Seinfeld to do it–though millions found this antic funny–and it’s wrong for Tablet to do this. What shall I get over, the trivialization of the word “nazi”? The history associated with that entity? Tell me? I’ll tell you what, genius, how about I make some rape jokes after your daughter gets accosted and you tell me if they’re funny. They will be because my jokes aren’t lame like your sense of humor. They’re top-ical, sardonic, better than Sarah Silverman. OK? What a pinhead.

What a maniac! Go on then tell us a rape joke and see if we laugh.

Quite surprised to see some of the comments here, a good article,local color with cheeky sense of humor. The only part I found offensive is Oveds adulation of the notorious cheat and handballista …….that is Diego Maradona.

There is also a great Tel Aviv sabich on Tchernikovsky street, just off Allenby.

disqus_FnsZdW9xkH says:

Are you stupid or just dumb. I said “what if”, genius. I’m trying to make a point that you can understand and even though I simplified it and broke it down to its most basic elements you still didn’t grasp the simple issue. What is it like to be such an idiot? Answer me just how blissful life is for someone so stupid as you. Dope. I’m running out of names to call you, all accurate. Go away you insignificant person. And regarding Seinfeld, I’m sure that you watched the shows but i doubt that you knew what to laugh at. Thank goodness for live audiences and laughtracks, so that way you would also know when to laugh. I’ll let you have the last word. You’re a punk and you relish such opportunities just so you can tell yourself in simple language that you really “showed me”. Enjoy..

How can I be stupid ,dumb and a genius , please explain I’m a ‘dope’.

disqus_FnsZdW9xkH says:

The word “genius” was used in the same way that someone might say “wise guy”. In Hebrew, if someone calls you “chochom” when lecturing you.or during a heated exchange, that doesn’t mean that the person being treated to a lecture is “smart”.It’s a method of talking in a condescending way. But you knew that. Maybe. Or you have Asperger’s Syndrome and a tendency to take everything as it’s said literally? Why can’t you just say that it’s true, the use of the word “nazi” in this idiom trivializes something important and why don’t you just recognize that its use in this context is insensitive? Is your ego so big that you need to dig your heels in the sand? Maybe I’m too sensitive? No, I’m not. A Jewish publication ought to have a sense of propriety about such things. I wouldn’t be having this exchange on facebook or in a New York Times or other non-Jewish forum. “Tablet” is a Jewish site, news about Jews. What’s wrong with having better standards? The answer is nothing and the answer is that you’re wrong and I’ve answered 9it for you so that you don’t have to lose face. You’re welcome.

ask a silly question ……

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Tel Aviv’s ‘Pita Nazi’

Sabich, the ultimate Israeli street food, has made a legend out of quirky store-owner Oved Daniel

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