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'Israeli Soul' Offers A Taste Of The Country's Street Foods

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Michael Solomonov became famous for his interpretation of Israeli cuisine.

MICHAEL SOLOMONOV: And I'm the chef and co-owner of Zahav Restaurant in Philly.

SHAPIRO: He and Zahav have won a bunch of awards. So did the Zahav cookbook. Now Chef Solomonov has a new cookbook called "Israeli Soul."

SOLOMONOV: With "Israeli Soul," we want you in an apartment, a tiny apartment in New York, to get just as much pleasure as if you were roaming around the streets in Jerusalem.

SHAPIRO: These are not restaurant-style recipes. They're the kinds of street food that Solomonov likes to eat when he visits Israel - falafel, shawarma, flaky, savory pies called bourekas.

SOLOMONOV: The spinach ones are spiral.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Yeah.

SOLOMONOV: The feta ones are triangles. The mushroom ones are triangles. The potato ones are (laughter) rectangle, you know? But that's what I get, like, when I get off the airplane. And they're - and the bags are, like, greasy, and they're just amazing.

SHAPIRO: Solomonov grew up between the U.S. and Israel. The Israeli boarding school he went to had kids from Russia and Ethiopia. Many Israelis have only lived in the Middle East for a couple generations. So Solomonov explains that Israeli cuisine is really lots of different cuisines mashed together in one tiny patch of land. To demonstrate, he shows us how to make a quintessentially Israeli dish at a friend's kitchen in Washington, D.C.

SOLOMONOV: So we're going to make schnitzel sandwich and pita, which is like - it's a very iconic Israeli dish in the sense that it is schnitzel, which comes from Europe. And we put hawaij in there, which is the generic word, the Yemenite word, for curry. And then we're going to put amba on it.

SHAPIRO: Which is a mango kind of...?

SOLOMONOV: Which is - exactly, which is like a mango pickle, which comes from the Iraqi Jews, but from India. And then we're going to serve it inside a pita, which is totally Arabic, you know?

SHAPIRO: So when you talk about Israeli cuisine, you're making a dish that has elements of Eastern Europe, Yemen, Iraq, India...

SOLOMONOV: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...The Arab world. This sounds like (laughter) everything thrown into the soup pot.

SOLOMONOV: Exactly. Chicken schnitzel stuffed inside of a pita so you can drive a car, talk on the phone, smoke a cigarette while eating a sandwich is what actually makes it Israeli.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING)

SHAPIRO: He pounds a chicken breast thin. You could use other kinds of meat or even vegetables, like zucchini. He dips the chicken into beaten eggs flavored with the Yemenite spice mix, hawaij. Then, a coating of matzo meal, not breadcrumbs.

SOLOMONOV: And it produces this super thin, really sort of unadulterated crust. And the egg wash acts as this sort of, like, brine or sort of marinade, which is awesome. And then you're not doubling up on, like, flour bread crumbs.

SHAPIRO: Especially if you're going to eat it in pita.

SOLOMONOV: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Another Middle Eastern touch? As the chicken sizzles in the pan, he sprinkles on the green herb mix, za'atar.

SOLOMONOV: We put it on absolutely everything. It's sort of like the salt and pepper.

SHAPIRO: So this is something that your parents would make, you would eat as a kid.

SOLOMONOV: This is part of, like, your birthright, I think, as, like, an American Israeli. This is what you do. When my mom would be out of town, and my dad would pack my lunch, he would go Wonder Bread, butter, cold schnitzel sandwiches for lunch, which at the time would embarrass the hell out of me. Now, best thing ever.

SHAPIRO: Solomonov's grandparents came from Bulgaria, so schnitzel has been part of their family repertoire since long before they moved to Israel after World War II. The sizzling, brown schnitzel goes into a fluffy, warm pita. Then it gets some embellishments.

SOLOMONOV: You don't need to, like, bedazzle with tons of things.

SHAPIRO: OK.

SOLOMONOV: You just need a couple good ingredients.

SHAPIRO: Tomato, cucumber, the mango relish called amba and sesame sauce, tehina.

That's beautiful.

SOLOMONOV: Squeeze of lemon.

SHAPIRO: Your dad has a history with sandwiches. He owned Subway franchises, right?

SOLOMONOV: Yeah. So my dad owned a Subway sandwich shop in Pittsburgh. And then, when we moved to Israel, he had two of them in Haifa.

SHAPIRO: How does he feel about the fact that you're now famous and successful for, among other things, making sandwiches?

SOLOMONOV: He loves it. You know, I was, like, a sandwich artist for him as a child.

SHAPIRO: You were assembling the Subway sandwiches?

SOLOMONOV: Yeah. I was the worst employee too. He definitely - he might have fired me.

SHAPIRO: No za'atar, no amba...

SOLOMONOV: (Laughter) No.

SHAPIRO: ...No tehina...

SOLOMONOV: No, not at Subway.

SHAPIRO: ...No hawaij.

Family history and world history in a handheld bite. Michael Solomonov's new cookbook, with co-author Steven Cook, is called "Israeli Soul."

(SOUNDBITE OF WILD YAKS' "PARADISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.