Schnitzel is having a moment.
The tenderized, breaded, and fried slices of meat—most commonly known in its Viennese version, Wiener schnitzel, made from veal—have taken on a variety of forms in the current foodie revival. Chicago’s Bohemian House, helmed by chef Jimmy Papadopoulos, serves a decadent pork-schnitzel sandwich topped with the ever-trendy oozing duck egg; in Atlanta, The Optimist has a skate-wing schnitzel on its menu as a recurring special.
But it’s chicken schnitzel that’s been making the most headway on menus across the country.
The chicken version of the Eastern European dish, some food scholars believe, owes its inception to European Jews, who were seeking a more affordable but still kosher spin on veal- and pork-based versions. In the beginning of the 19th century, German and Austrian Jewish immigrants brought this version to Palestine, where it eventually became a staple because it is easy to source and produce. Today, chicken schnitzel is widespread in Israel, popular among Jews and Israeli Arabs alike. According to Atsuko Ichijo and Ronald Ranta, authors of the 2015 book Food, National Identity, and Nationalism: From Everyday to Global Politics, schnitzel became the perfect example of the “Israelization” of certain foods. It is widely available in Israeli supermarkets’ frozen-foods sections; a 2017 survey by the Israeli Brandman Institute shows that 40 percent of the surveyed families rank chicken schnitzel as their No. 1 choice for a family meal. And it has also penetrated the Israeli fast-food scene, being sold alongside falafel and sabich sandwiches, stuffed into a pita or baguette with hummus and salads: HaShnitzelia, a fast-food schnitzel-centric chain open since 2004, has 52 branches all over the country, and it’s not the only one.
When Shaya, Alon Shaya’s New Orleans restaurant, was named Best New Restaurant at the 2016 James Beard Awards, chicken schnitzel was already a bestseller on its menu. Shaya, whose chef de cuisine, Zachary Engel, recently won another Beard award, this time in the Rising-Star Chef category, positions itself as a “modern Israeli” restaurant. The schnitzel is a lunchtime favorite, served in a sesame challah with harissa mayonnaise and shaved pickles. “We sell about 30 of them a day for lunch,” Shaya told me. “People just love it.”
Shaya was born in Israel; his family immigrated to the U.S and settled in the Philadelphia area when he was 4. “My mother and grandmother would make schnitzel regularly in Israel, so it had an important nostalgic aspect to our family,” he said. Israeli schnitzel, according to Shaya, “is made with chicken and seasoned with lemon and parsley throughout the country, the way my mom made it for me.” There’s also a spicy accent to it: “Eventually, the Yemenites in Israel started making it, and they began to use sesame seeds and hawayij—a turmeric, cumin, and black-pepper-based spice mix—in the batter.” When Shaya travels to Israel these days, schnitzel is always on his itinerary. His restaurant’s schnitzel borrows from both his childhood nostalgia and the more recent Israeli twists on the sandwich. “The challah bun is soft enough to allow the crispy texture of the chicken to come through, the harissa mayonnaise adds spice, and pickles add a great acidity,” he said.
Israeli schnitzel is a recent addition to New York’s dining scene, too. At Jack’s Wife Freda, a partially Israeli institution that recently expanded to a second Manhattan location, chicken schnitzel is a crowd favorite for dinner. Twelve Chairs, another popular Israeli-owned establishment, opened a second location in Brooklyn two years ago and took the schnitzel with it, serving it with Israeli salads or mashed potatoes: “Schnitzel is a childhood dish for every Israeli kid,” said owner Shimon Maman, who moved to New York from an Israeli moshav 20 years ago. “Growing up in Israel, when you came back from school, a plate of warm schnitzels would wait for you for lunch.” Serving it in the restaurant, he notes, “sends you right back to your childhood and to your mother’s kitchen.” It is, of course, a hit: “Some customers come just for the schnitzel, and even though our menu is varied, they will not try anything else.”
Some American restaurants stick to the classic Israeli recipe or offer a high-end version. In Laguna Hills, California, Ironwood serves up a $21 Jidori chicken schnitzel entree, the crispy chicken breast served on beech mushrooms and drizzled with a preserved-lemon emulsion—a far cry from the homey, simple schnitzel Maman holds so dear.
Other restaurants get more creative with the dish’s fast-food potential. Los Angeles eatery Schnitzly offers no fewer than eight versions of chicken schnitzel, from “Italian” (infused with thyme and basil) to “chili,” coated in fiery red-pepper flakes; all of them can be served in a wrap, roll, pita or baguette, and all of them are kosher. Owners If’at and Haim Levi are Orthodox Jews from Israel who recently purchased the place. Haim has been cooking in the restaurant for a few years and now plans to add more flavors and options as Schnitzly evolves. “Our customer base is very varied,” said If’at, “from Amazon delivery guys to Jewish families, Israelis, and even young students who come in hungry at 1 a.m., as we’re open late.”
This is, undoubtedly, the beauty of the Israeli schnitzel: It’s nostalgic yet cosmopolitan, kosher, fast, and convenient, and instantly comforting. And now, Americans don’t even need to have an Israeli grandma to call it their own.
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.