Best Cholent Ever? An Iraqi Stew
Tebit, a sticky, sweet chicken dish traditionally served on Shabbat, is gaining popularity—for good reason
Every Jewish community around the world developed its own version of a hot meal that conforms to the prohibition of cooking on the Sabbath: Ashkenazi Jews have cholent, Sephardic Jews have hamin, Central and Western European Jews have shalet, and Iraqi Jews have tebit. The trick for making all these dishes Shabbat-friendly is simple: You bring the pot to a boil on Friday afternoon, in the last minute before the Sabbath rears its holy head, and let it simmer until the next day. All these different versions of Shabbat stews, stemming from each and every corner of the Diaspora, have made it safely to Israel. But these days, the exotic and extremely sticky tebit is more popular than ever—and not only among Iraqi Jews.
Tebit begins with chicken, or more specifically, the skin—traditionally the skin of an entire chicken. The skin is then filled with a mixture of rice, chopped chicken, and herbs. In this respect, tebit is comparable not only to cholent but also to helzel, an Ashkenazi dish that also involves stuffing a chicken skin. But while helzel is made by stuffing the skin of a chicken neck, thus sometimes making it just one of the components of cholent, tebit is a whole meal in itself. After long hours of slow cooking, tebit’s rice mixture becomes the chicken skin’s whole world; it is not only filled by it, but the rice also surrounds it.
The recipes vary from region to region and have changed over time; some cooks nowadays stuff a whole chicken—the way Americans might stuff a turkey for Thanksgiving—rather than the skin alone. But the basic elements of the dish are the same.
Tebit, which has become a sought-after dish in Israel’s various home-cooking markets, operating mainly on Fridays and supplying take-out food for the weekend, is an excellent example of Iraqi cuisine as it contains two of its key ingredients: rice and the savory and fragrant baharat. This spice blend differs from country to country, and even the Iraqi baharat has various versions, with ingredients ranging approximately from seven to 16 different spices—usually including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, paprika, and black pepper.
As ethnic food grows more popular in Israel, tebit is increasingly in demand outside the Iraqi community. “Popular chefs, like Raphi Cohen, Haim Cohen, Avi Biton, and Aviv Moshe, who are all very high-profile celebrity chefs, suddenly discovered the food their mothers or grandmothers made,” explained cookbook writer and culinary editor Orly Bronshtein. “After cooking in French kitchens and specializing in European cuisine, they made it full circle and returned home. And it’s not only ethnic food that has become more popular, but also home-cooking. People want to eat healthier and cleaner, so they started cooking more at home. And what do they cook? What they know from their parents’ and grandparents’ home, or at least some version of that.”
Even though not all Israeli grandmothers come from Iraq, it seems there is something about Arab home-cooking that appeals more broadly than other cuisines. Ashkenazi Jews love hummus, falafel, kubbeh, and tebit, for instance—while the average Mizrahi Jew wouldn’t touch gefilte fish with a 10-foot fork. “Arab dishes are more suited to the environment, it’s what we know here,” said Bronshtein. “Everybody in Israel eats hummus, and the Israeli palate is used to spices like cumin. My father is Polish and my mother is Bulgarian, but we still eat lots of tebit and chraime at home. My daughters even prefer tebit to Ashkenazi cholent.”
Like any ethnic food, tebit also has many different versions, which conjure up heated debates about which is the original, authentic, or “true” recipe. For instance, some say tebit has to be made with tomato paste while others claim it can only be cooked with grated tomatoes. Each side, of course, is adamant that its version is the only true one, and emotions surrounding the dish can get heated—as evidenced by the long list of comments responding to Bronshtein’s short-cut tebit recipe published in Walla! Food. While many commenters compliment Bronshtein’s formula, after trying it at home, others are furious, claiming this is not real tebit—Bronshtein never claimed it was—and swear that their grandmothers were the only ones who ever made it the way it’s supposed to be made. “Of course the beauty of tebit is that you cook it all night long,” Bronshtein admitted. “That’s what makes it so soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. But chicken and rice don’t really need to cook all night long. They’re ready very fast, which makes tebit the only kind of hamin that you can actually make short-cuts to.” And, of course, short-cut recipes guarantee that many more people are actually going to attempt making it at home.
These days in Israel, tebit can be found in unpretentious workers’ restaurants, at weekend home-cooking markets, or at home-cooking catering services, but there aren’t really any upscale Iraqi restaurants to be found. One of the few modern Israeli restaurants that serves tebit is Tel Aviv’s Bistro Tchernichovsky 6. While the Bistro serves tebit only from time to time—when receiving special requests—the owner’s delicatessen and wine store, Adega, sells it almost every week as part of its Friday food-market, which holds various home-style specialties for home consumption. “Some of the people who buy our tebit are passersby who are looking for something tasty to take home for Shabbat,” said Eyal Meron, owner and chef of Bistro Tchernichovsky 6 and Adega, “but we also have nostalgic Iraqi clients, who remember the dish from their parents’ or grandparents’ house but don’t make it themselves. There are even Iraqis who come all the way from Jerusalem to buy our tebit.” Meron recalled one man who tasted his tebit and burst into tears: “This guy actually cried because it reminded him of his dead mother’s recipe, and after he finished crying he said that ours is better.” This, of course, is a huge compliment for a chef who doesn’t have a drop of Iraqi blood in him and wasn’t weaned on sticky rice, but learned how to make the dish a few years ago from an Iraqi friend’s mother.
Like Bronshtein’s short-cut recipe, Meron also doesn’t stuff a chicken skin, but cooks the rice with pieces of chicken (Bronshtein uses only the drumsticks, while Meron uses the whole leg, including the thigh). He does, though, cook his tebit all night long, as originally required. “I don’t stuff a whole chicken, so that customers can order smaller portions and don’t have to order an entire chicken,” he explained. And he doesn’t serve tebit in his restaurant on a regular basis for the same reason it isn’t served in other restaurants: “Tebit is home-cooking, it isn’t the kind of food you serve in a restaurant. It’s basically chicken and rice, and people won’t pay to eat chicken and rice in a restaurant, unless you give it some kind of a gimmicky name or sophisticated twist. Tebit is a simple dish, and that’s the beauty of it.”
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