Recently I was in Australia and one day found myself driving through a Jewish neighbourhood at lunch time. Having lived in Israel back in 1983 I have quite a fondness for Jewish food. Memories of Sabich came flooding back to me.
KIBBUTZ LIFE BACK IN THE 80’s
I lived on a kibbutz in Israel, in a small community. The kibbutz was called Neve Eitan. It was literally on the border of Jordan and we were warned to stay away as the road running alongside was set with landmines. We stuck firmly to the rules and in my entire time on that kibbutz, it never occurred to me to visit Jordan. Jordan was the barren land just beyond the barbed wire fence with skeleton death signs stuck to it every 3 or 4 metres.
Luckily since then, I have returned to Israel and did go to Jordan, visiting amongst other things, the infamous Petra and Wadi Rum back in 2008. It was all and even more than I could have expected.
Back at the kibbutz, each Sabbath, we had the day off. All volunteers could do as they pleased. There was a small town nearby and some very famous archeological digs too, called Beit She’an. There was also an oasis a short bus ride away where we would go and swim. This swimming hole was straight out of a Hollywood movie production – more beautiful than one could ever imagine. Date palms lined the water and it was in the middle of nowhere.
In November, at 40C it was the only place to be. Our kibbutz had emptied its pool because they explained it was winter. They got us to work hard enough but providing chlorine and keeping the pool going for us, out of season, was just too much to ask. Thank goodness we had this small oasis respite available and thank goodness we were young! There is no way I could do that now.
We were expected to work 6 hours a day, 6 days a week and in remuneration for our 36 hours of labour each week we earnt the equivalent of 5 American Dollars in shekels, 4 stamped airmail letters and a packet of cigarettes. I would barter my cigarettes for tins of sugar wax and peroxide and we would spend hours ruining our hair and burning our legs.
We were housed in basic air raid shelters and shared the other facilities with the rest of the kibbutz community.
EXCURSIONS TO DIE FOR
The biggest bonus of all however was the amazing excursions we were taken on, to various areas of Israel, including Masada, The Dead Sea, Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee.
We would all pile into a very old fashioned, paint peeling off, had-better-days-looking bus. The driver and one leader would climb in last and place 4 impressively large automatic weapons under the front seats and one under the driver’s seat. At first this would unnerve me, but after living alongside these military figures for 6 months, one quickly got used to it.
Driving along the roads, city and country, we would see that more than half the population we passed were dressed in military fatigues and both male and females were carrying their guns. There was immediate imprisonment for any soldier leaving their gun behind somewhere. So of course, absolutely everyone had their’s firmly planted in one of their hands at least.
There were various forms of labour on the kibbutz and they were extremely varied. Fortunately you could change around and have a go at many things. I started off in the kitchens, cleaning the dining room and sweeping the floors. I moved on to plucking chickens and peeling potatoes. This was truly hideous and in that time I soon chose to become vegetarian in order to get off the gross chicken shift. That was definitely worthwhile and my first-ever encounter with vegetarianism.
At some point I was moved to the Children’s House. It was certainly an experience but I definitely do not think it was good for the kids. At 6 weeks old, these little babies were taken from their parents and moved into the houses. There they were nursed and looked after by the community and the parents only saw them for a short period, less than an hour, each day. These kids all lived together with nobody in particular ever being their mother or father. I know for a fact that this practice has now ceased and in the few kibbutzim that still exist, the children remain with their biological parents.
From the Children’s House I then moved on to working in the hammer factory, as it was called. It was a huge tin shed where we put together hammers. In fact, the pieces came from other lands. American handles with Japanese heads. We had the serious job of fixing the two parts together. I don’t remember finding this job particularly rewarding but the shift started at 4am with a breakfast and a mid morning break and the job was over by midday when the real heat started to hit. The factory officially closed by lunch time due to the heat and gave me the ability to take off for an afternoon of adventure if I wished.
Once we had stayed a while on the kibbutz and the leaders knew you were a reliable worker, you could ask to be moved or try other jobs. I got to work on the ranch where we rounded cattle on horses. The property was a little way away, and the land had once been Syrian but was now part of Israel. I know this because the leaders were very proud to tell us how they had taken this land from them.
THE FISH LAKES – before the term ‘fish farming’ was known or used
However, my very favourite job of all was when I got to work in the fish lakes. We had 4 large perfectly rectangular lakes and each one was meant to hold a certain breed of fish. Somehow they had become muddled though and we had the job of sorting them. Weird right? How the hell do you sort them?
At this point, I have to say that I am very sad that I do not have my slides to be able to digitize them and put the photos online of this completely fascinating process. But I will do my best to explain here what we did.
Firstly we were all given huge waders to put on so we could stand in the lakes waist high. There were about 12 of us in the lake and we formed a large circle, all holding part of a huge net. Next there was a tractor with a conveyor belt running up to a long platform on the top of the tractor around 4 metres off the ground. Down from the engine of the tractor came this enormous plasticized pipe about 18 inches or 45cm in diameter. Once the engine was turned on, the pipe started sucking in water like a vacuum. It drew up gallons every second and pulled the fish in along too. We would tighten the circle, walking the net slowly closer and closer to the pipe which was being held by a couple more people firmly within the net, until no fish could escape.
Here is a photo I found from a guy called Ewan’s blog. He was on the same kibbutz 12 years after I was there. The fish lake in the photo is much, much larger than the ones existing in my time. The pumping tower contraption is similar but it is not on top of a tractor and these guys are in posh wetgear. Well, we don’t have anything fancy like that! On the bottom left corner you can see one fish tank. We had four tanks, one on each corner.
Meanwhile, up on the platform would be 4 to 6 people. 2 or 3 each side of the conveyor belt where it flattened out. As the fish rolled along the conveyor belt they were grabbed and thrown down below the tractor into one of the 4 tanks. These huge portable tanks, the size of large rubbish skips were below, one on each corner. Each one designated to a different kind of fish. At the time, the most prized fish were the St Peter’s which I have since learnt also carry the name Tilapia. I believe there were also carp but the other two types allude me. What I do remember however, are the catfish.
CATFISH – an unknown quantity
Catfish are a fish unlike any other. Firstly, I have to say, they terrify me. They have large, sharp, poisonous spines and when we were up sorting on the top of the tractor, if a catfish spewed out of the pipe, all women were told to stand back. Although we all had thick, heavy duty gloves on, it took the strength of a larger man to be able to grab them without being hurt by their vicious swishing and their dangerously sharp spines. These fish are the ultimate movers. They can actually slither more than a kilometre over land to get back to water. How they know where the water is, is nobody’s business!
These catfish were doomed. They were killed on the spot and due to the conveyor belt and the vacuum pipe not stopping for a second, everything was done at lightning speed. These catfish, I hate to say, were dealt with very quickly, too quickly in fact, often not killed properly. Stabbed and then thrown down to the ground. Although we were about 100 metres from the lake, if the fish were still slightly alive, which sadly, they often were, and although they had been thrown from a height of 4 metres and were badly injured, many of them managed to make it back into the lake. It was phenomenal and this part of the job I absolutely abhorred.
I had been led to believe that catfish were not an edible fish but since then I have learnt otherwise. They are quite delicious although if they are farmed from any of the Asian countries, they are known to be extremely toxic and actually it is forbidden to sell them in Europe. Sadly, they are still sold there under the name of Pangasius, Basa and Vasa and everyone should be aware they are doing themselves a terrible disservice as these Asian farmed catfish are completely full of chemicals, hormones, steroids, antibiotics and general pollution and human waste. There are a few You Tube videos available where you can watch the terrifying way they toxify the fish being farmed in Viet Nam. I swear to you, that once you view one of these, you will never, ever put even a morsel of Asian bred catfish in your mouth again. And beware… many supermarkets sell a Seafood Marinara Mix which contains these fish in them. Australian Woolworths are one of them. Many restaurants when offering a fish ‘n’ chip menu are also using these very affordable fish to everyone’s detriment.
But there is a more important reason these catfish are not farmed in Israel. The Jewish religion does not allow seafood or fish which are bottom feeders to be eaten. Catfish are classified as bottom feeders and therefore are avoided by all kosher Jews.
The Sabbath or Shabbat in Yiddish
On Shabbat we did not have to work. It was a total day of rest and in the evenings a film was always put on for us. This was the event of the week and one film that will always stand out, is Midnight Express. It was already 5 years old but it was new to me. Who would have thought that just two months after leaving Israel, at the end of 1983 that I would be offered my first job as a flotilla hostess in Turkey? Did the film put me off? Not for a second. Always one for adventure, I was completely excited to be going to such a fascinating country.
MY SABICH ON THE SABBATH
I did have a little routine on the Sabbath at the kibbutz. It became my thing. Whilst the others sat under the date palms sipping beers I would be overcome with a desire for the tasty morsels that my favourite little street vendor had waiting in town.
My devout hankering for a Sabich became my raison d’etre and I dreamt about taking off to find my special little glass trolley man. Most often I would find him on the same corner but occasionally he would have wheeled his mean little machine to another part of town and I would have to frantically run around looking for him. I became obsessed with his delectably fresh pita breads, which he stuffed for you on order.
I could visualise the soft pita bread, smell that tahini sauce and taste his fabulously delicious fare long before I got to him.
His falafal were to die for. So very moist and soft, freshly made and deep green as you bit into them. Not oily at all, but dripping in tahini sauce and tabbouleh oozing out of the freshly baked pita bread with every bite. I will never forget them as long as I live.
However, the lesser known but really fabulous Sabich is what I most often craved and felt it totally worthwhile to make the 90 minute trip to eat one on the spot.
Sabich is not so famous but actually I have no idea why. The flavours meld so well together and it’s an extremely easy sandwich to make yourself. As I am not into oily food, I do opt for grilling my aubergine but if that is too difficult, then frying the eggplant slices in oil is actually the authentic way to make this in any case.
Once the eggplant is cooked, it can be put together in seconds. It is a totally scrumptious kind of sandwich and I have no idea why I didn’t start making these at home years ago. They are now firmly on our favourites list.
I do hope you will enjoy the lesser known Sabich.
- 1 eggplant cut into lengthwise strips
- Vegetable oil
- 2 Pocket Pita Breads if possible, otherwise some pide or lavaş wrap breads.
- 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced or halved
- Thickly sliced wedges of 2 medium sizedcooked potatoes (boiled or fried)
- Finely sliced green and/ or purple cabbage
- Grated carrot
- Sliced cucumber
- Sliced lettuce,
- Finely sliced onion, preferably red onion
- 2 Tbsp chopped parsley
- Finely sliced pickled gherkins
- Tahini Sauce ( see recipe below)
- Salt the eggplant strips and leave sitting flat on a plate for 20 mins or so
- Pat them dry after letting them sweat
- Either grill them on a barbecue or fry them gently in minimal vegetable oil until slightly golden
- If using pita, slice the top off and toast very gently till warm and a little golden
- If using other bread, gently warm it ready to fill
- Layer the bread with eggplant, then place slices of potato and then the boiled egg
- Salt and pepper as desired
- Add salad
- Generously sprinkle on pickled gherkins
- Generously pour on tahini sauce
- Grab a napkin before biting into it!
- 3 cloves garlic
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 cup tahini paste
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- ¾ cup or more of hot water
- Place the garlic with the salt in a blender, blitz till fine
- Add the tahini paste, lemon juice and water
- Blitz again for 20 seconds until well blended
- Test for taste, adding more lemon juice or salt as necessary
- The consistency should be runny but thick, similar to a pancake batter