Sabich: Israeli fast food

Sabich, an Israeli fast food with origins among Iraqi immigrants to Israel, is the most insanely delicious street food you probably haven’t discovered yet. A great introduction to the emergence of sabich as a popular fast food item in Israel, several years old now, can be found on Yael Zisling’s Gems in Israel site. According to Zisling, there was originally no name for this fast food among Iraqi Jews in Israel. It was simply the typical food eaten on Shabbat morning.

Residents of Tel Aviv are quite passionate about their sabich. I enlisted Israeli journalist and travel writer Yuval Ben-Ami for navigational assistance. A friend of Yuval’s had recently talked up the stand at 2 Tchernichovsky Street sufficiently to prompt him to switch his allegiance. The Tchernichovsky Street sabich takeout joint, called rather literally Sabich, was packed at lunchtime. Common to a number of other sabich stalls, its owner has a sense of humor. Yuval translated a sign on the wall clarifying that orders of sabich without eggplant would not be entertained.

Firmly in the high-quality budget eats camp at around 15 shekels (about $4.35) apiece, a sabich lunch is a real meal. The main ingredient is fried eggplant. There are variations, of course, but other components include tahini, hummus, crumbled hard-boiled egg, salad, pickled mango, hot sauce, and pickled cucumbers.

Sabich is vegetarian. With the subtraction of the egg, it becomes fully vegan. Some enjoy sabich without the egg, while others love the egg for how it transforms in combination with the other flavors and gives the meal a real solidity.

It is easy to imagine sabich joining falafel and the burrito as a globally popular fast food. It’s just as easy to imagine the lack of quality and ingredient control that would come with a mass adoption. For now at least, this fast food sandwich, quite difficult to find outside of Israel, has not yet achieved globalized status. This is a situation ripe for entrepreneurial action.

10 Tips for visiting Bethlehem this Christmas

Those of us who travel to Bethlehem soon discover the huge gap between our happy Sunday School expectations and the heavy realities of visiting the West Bank in person. It’s not such an easy place to get to, though world interest makes Bethlehem far more accessible than say, Ramallah or Jericho.

Out of 133 destinations rated in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler, the West Bank’s little town of Bethlehem ranked the lowest. Sad but true, travel experts consider the birthplace of Jesus Christ to be the world’s worst travel destination, one that’s surrounded by a giant concrete wall with difficult checkpoints and generally tangled in a political rat’s nest.

Still, for those in search of a geographically-correct Christmas, Bethlehem offers a nice dose of nostalgia served with a serious side of political pondering. It’s also a bit of a circus, like Las Vegas with Franciscan monks and machine guns. In such a place, it helps to have a guide. In lieu of a bright star shining in the east, behold ten hints for helping you navigate the dark streets that shineth:

  1. Check the border situation constantly: security in Israel varies wildly. Peace or violence in one location does not pre-determine security in other locales, especially in Bethlehem. CNN, BBC, and US State Department travel alerts are interesting but rarely compelling. Instead, ask around in country. Learn to listen beyond the bias and get the inside scoop as to which entry points are ‘hot’ and which ones are getting less traffic. Which brings us to the next point:
  2. Plan a window of extra time: crossing into the West Bank is always a gamble. In some cases, you may not even make it, so don’t write “Bethlehem” into your travel planner between 10:00 and 12:00. Instead, plan a range of days and hope that your first attempt is successful. If not, try, try again.
  3. Hire a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates: When it comes to straddling a tumultuous border, get the best of both worlds: A Palestinian driver with Israeli papers (and driving a car with Israeli plates) is pre-cleared and faces far less hassle when crossing back into Jerusalem. They will also be much safer escorts for you while you are in the West Bank. Again, ask around and seek trusted insights from insiders.
  4. Avoid big bus tours: though safer in principle, taking a tour bus into Bethlehem is often a recipe for a painful wait at the border in either direction. Add fifteen minutes for every olive wood sculpture of the baby Jesus in your backpack. If possible, travel ultra-light (passport, camera and a bottle of water) and in small groups.
  5. Visit the Church of the Nativity backwards: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is anything but peaceful, with all the wailing Russian Orthodox pilgrims and nit picky clergy who voraciously guard their little corner. Take a second to relax your religious connotations and realize that you are in a major tourist destination with crowds like those at the Empire State Building or Dollywood. Visiting the church in reverse order–saving the Grotto of the Nativity for last–can help you skip some of the longer lines.
  6. Don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: I know, I know, that’s kind of the point, but know that it will be a Christian madhouse. Try going instead to visit first thing in the morning of December 24th, otherwise (insert joke about there not being any room in the inn, ha, ha.)
  7. Dinars or dollars: shekels have very little use in the City of David and most ATM’s disperse Jordanian dinars. Get some cash before you enter, or use US dollars. Again, the lighter you travel, the better.
  8. The Shepherds Fields of Bethlehem is a hoax: What? You mean the shepherds that saw a star shining in the sky and then heard angels singing, “Glory to God”–they weren’t actually hanging out on that specific hilltop that happens to be a ten-minute drive from the Church of the Nativity? No, sorry. The chapel and twisted olive trees are a nice reminder of a cool event, but it’s a Victorian-era invention for tourists like us.
  9. Bring a bible: The Book of Luke is probably the best and only guidebook to take with you. The book never gives false information about restaurants, opening hours, or directions, and offers some great context about the town itself.
  10. Keep apolitical: It sounds way obvious, but a trip to Bethlehem is not the time to show off your cocktail conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be assured, no matter what you say, you will offend least one person. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would put his foot in his mouth in Bethlehem, so better to shut it. Talk about the weather and delve deeply into your clueless tourist persona–on this border, it’s the safest way to be.

Wrong switch, gets Delta fighter jet escort

Don’t slip!

A Delta Airlines pilot accidentally activated a hijacking alert on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv. As a result, Israeli fighter jets were scrambled to escort the plane “safely” to Ben Gurion Airport.

The fighter jets lingered briefly over the airliner and its 100 passengers … ultimately for no reason. Then, they escorted the plane – and probably a confused flight crew – into Tel Aviv. A technical malfunction, apparently, kept the pilot from communicating with the airport’s tower.

Nobody was hurt in this bizarre event, according to Israeli transportation ministry official Dani Shenar, and an investigation will be launched.

Israeli Airport Security Makes American Performer Dance to Prove his Identity

When the famed American dance company Alvin Ailey arrived in Israel, one of the troupe was singled out by airport security because of his Muslim name. That’s nothing new in a place where security concerns trump political correctness.

But this particular situation didn’t stop with the usual searches and passport verification. The dancer, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, was asked to perform a dance in order to prove his identity. After being held in a holding room for a few minutes, a different security official asked him to dance again. Jackson claimed that another security official told him it might be wise if he changed his name.

Jackson received his name when his father converted to Islam. He is not religious and is engaged to a Jewish woman whose family he intended to visit while in Israel. Despite being taken aback by the treatment, Jackson said that he did not plan to pursue any sort of official complaint. However, the story has been picked up by the Israeli press and commentators have complained about the negative image the story has caused for their country. Source.

A Peek into the Future of Dubai

Today, the city of Dubai announced it has purchased the Queen Elizabeth 2, “one of the world’s most majestic cruise liners,” to convert into a luxury hotel. The QE2 will be completely renovated and parked at the world’s largest man-made island, Palm Jumeirah. The restoration process will stay true to the original design of the ship, and a museum will be built inside to educate visitors on the liner’s legacy.

What’s else in store for the booming city of Dubai? Here’s a quick rundown of current, future, and conceptual projects in the United Arab Emirates’s oasis in the desert.

We talked about it earlier today, but the outrageousness of the resort complex dubbed The Cloud makes it worthy of another mention. Nadim Karam, a Lebanese architect, presented this resort-in-the-sky concept at the International Design Forum in Dubai last month. The actual resort will resemble a cloud floating 300 meters in the air, with slanting support beams that look like sheets of rain. Take that, Sandals! [Stage: Concept]

Who needs Disneyworld when you’ve got Dubailand? Announced in 2003, this super-sized mega theme park (the builders prefer to think of it as a true city) will consist of six poorly named “worlds”: Attractions & Experience World, Retail and Entertainment World, Themed Leisure and Vacation World, Eco-Tourism World, Sports and Outdoor World, and Downtown, each containing a total of 26 “sub-worlds.” Downtown will feature the world’s largest shopping mall, called Mall of Dubai. Coffee lovers unite: the Mall of Dubai will eventually feature the world’s largest Starbucks. [Stage: Under Construction]

Bigger is better, and Dubai has its sites set on the sky with the Burj Dubai. When construction finishes in 2009, the Burj Dubai will most likely be the tallest “land-based structure” (which includes buildings and towers) in the world. Why most likely? “The projected final height of the Burj Dubai is officially being kept a secret due to competition,” according to its Wikipedia entry. Makes sense — why announce an official height when you can just continue building if someone else announces a larger project? Clever. [Status: Under Construction]

Italian-Israeli architect, David Fisher, unveiled in April a 68-story “spinning tower” he hopes to see join the the Dubai skyline in the future. Unlike existing structures that have a single revolving floor (San Antonio’s Tower of the Americas comes to mind, among many others), “[e]ach floor would rotate independently, creating a constantly changing architectural form,” says the Wall Street Journal. This is by far the coolest concept building I’ve found, Dubai or not. It reminds me a bit of Jenga, only…you know…much cooler. [Status: Concept]