Before my recent move to Israel I imagined the food in my new home to be something of a mix between a Jewish deli and a Middle Eastern falafel stand. And while this has proved to be not entirely off-base, schnitzel did not fit anywhere into my expectations.
Though, largely unacknowledged by American Jews, schnitzel – a thinly pounded, breaded, and fried cutlet – is one of the de facto national dishes of Israel. “Schnitzel, not falafel, became to Israelis of all ethnic backgrounds what hamburgers, fried chicken, and pizza are to Americans,” writes Gil Marks in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
Here schnitzel is so ubiquitous, both in fine dining and in cheap lunch spots, that one of the common words for boneless chicken breast is, simply, schnitzel — because what else would you use that cut of meat for? And indeed in German the word schnitzel means cutlet.
But what accounts for the popularity of schnitzel in Israel? Many people will tell you that it was simply a dish brought by Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria. While this is part of the explanation, it’s not quite the full story.
There is some debate as to whether schnitzel originated in Italy with Cotoletta alla Milanese or in Austria with the more widely known Wiener Schnitzel. Whichever is the case (and it is likely that both are somewhat true) it has been around for centuries. Marks writes that immigrants from central Europe to Palestine introduced schnitzel to early kibbutzim during the beginning of the twentieth century. The simple dish that could be made in a pan (few people had ovens at the time) became a common shabbos meal, as it could easily be made the day before it was served.
Fast forward to the 1940s, the War of Independence, mass immigration and food shortages, marked by rations and regulations. Marks says that it was during this period that “The new Ministry of Absorption taught the diverse housewives from across the globe how to prepare various simple recipes made from readily accessible, inexpensive items,” including schnitzel and the tradition stuck.
On her website Israeli food writer Janna Gur explains that “In Israel, [schnitzel] is made of chicken or turkey breast — an invention born out of necessity, when veal was nonexistent and poultry was government-subsidized and more readily available.” Chicken is still subsidized by the government and today schnitzel takes many forms in Israel, although it is still almost exclusively made from chicken or turkey. The breadcrumbs can be unseasoned or doctored with paprika, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or a number of spices depending on preference. For Passover schnitzel is breaded with matzoh meal instead of breadcrumbs.
When it came time to make schnitzel for myself I turned to Joan Nathan’s Classic Schnitzel recipe from “The Foods of Israel Today”. Simple and to the point, this is the essence of Israeli schnitzel. I tried it with homemade and purchased breadcrumbs, unseasoned and with paprika and sesame seeds. Served with an Israeli salad of cucumber, tomato, and onion, they were all equally good. Although it’s best fresh, enjoy the leftovers the next day cold, reheated, or — the ultimate Israeli way — in a pita with hummus.
Classic Israeli Schnitzel
Makes 6 Servings
6 boneless, skinless turkey or chicken breasts, sliced thin (about 1½ pounds)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
Vegetable or soybean oil for deep frying
2 lemons, sliced in wedges
1) Place one cutlet at a time inside a large plastic bag. With a meat mallet, pound the turkey or chicken slice as thin as possible and season well with salt and pepper.
2) Spread the flour on a flat plate. Break the eggs into a pie plate and beat well. Put the bread crumbs on a third plate.
3) Pour the oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of 1 inch and heat over a medium flame until almost smoking.
4) Dip each turkey or chicken breast in flour, then in egg, and then in bread crumbs.
5) Fry the schnitzels for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
6) Drain the schnitzels on a plate lined with paper towel. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Note: You can also bake the breaded schnitzels in a 350-degree oven for a few minutes ahead of time. Then, just before serving, deep fry quickly to crisp the outside.
• Reprinted with permission from Joan Nathan’s “The Foods of Israel Today.”