By Rachel Myerson
Schnitzel in Israel is a big deal. Like, a bigger deal than people realize. Or, at least, a bigger deal than I realized before I moved to Israel from the UK seven years ago.
Straddling the line between street food and fast food, schnitzel is something that many Israelis — especially kids — eat every day. Be it warmed in the oven from a frozen packet, homemade and shallow fried, picked up in a pita from a street-side stall or as a reliable choice at almost any restaurant. Gourmet schnitzel sandwiches are fast becoming a country-wide food trend, too.
Schnitzel did not start out as an Israeli dish. It originated as either the Italian cotoletta alla Milanese or the Viennese Weiner schnitzel — both breaded, pan-fried veal cutlets. The Israeli version was adapted from the latter, and was introduced by immigrants from central Europe decades before the country was established.
Veal has always been extremely hard to come by in Israel, but chicken and turkey are plentiful and cheap — a logical substitute.
While the protein pick is the biggest deviation from the original dish, there are other ways that Israel made schnitzel its own. Notably, it’s fried in oil, as opposed to butter, due to kosher dietary laws, which prohibits the mixing of dairy and meat — so no soaking in milk before frying, like Weiner schnitzels, either.
Israelis also like to mix sesame seeds into the breadcrumb coating. Despite extensive research however, I’ve yet to find a definitive reason why. It isn’t surprising, though, given the widespread culinary use — from sprinkled on challah, mixed into za’atar or ground into tahini. Plus, they add a good crunch.
Lastly, schnitzel is so damn popular; every butcher in Israel carries the “schnitzel” cut: thinly sliced or pounded boneless chicken breasts, ready for coating. In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks attributes this to a program run by the Ministry of Absorption in the 1940s, which taught housewives how to prepare simple recipes with easily accessible, cheap ingredients.
I think the opportunity for customization has something to do with schnitzel’s success, too.
Breadcrumbs can be swapped for matzah meal come Passover, spices and seasonings can be added to the coating according to taste. It’s the perfect canvas for experimentation. You could cut your breadcrumbs with falafel mix for some Middle Eastern spice. Or tenderize your chicken with a pickle juice brine.
You can also make vegetarian schnitzel, like cabbage schnitzel. Then again, you can always keep it simple with this classic Israeli schnitzel recipe. Because, yes, there is such a thing. Anyway you fry it, it’s classic and delicious Israeli fare.
For the marinade
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 heaping Tbsp of good quality mustard
3–4 garlic cloves, smashed
Fresh ground pepper
2 pounds boneless chicken breast, very thinly pounded
2 cups unseasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Fresh ground pepper and sea salt
3–4 lemons, halved
Good quality mustard (optional)
Combine eggs, mustard, garlic and pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken and mix until the chicken is completely coated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a shallow bowl, mix together the unseasoned bread crumbs and sesame seeds. Season with fresh ground pepper and sea salt.
Dredge chicken breasts in bread crumbs, patting slightly to help them stick.
Pour oil into a medium skillet to about 1 1/2 inches high. Heat oil on high heat until very hot and add chicken breasts, adding just two to three at a time (depending on their size). Do not overcrowd them in the pan. Reduce heat to medium and fry until golden brown on each side and chicken is completely cooked through. Repeat with remaining chicken.
Remove chicken from pan with a slotted spoon and place on a serving plate lined with paper towels, until all chicken is fried.
Serve immediately with fresh lemon and mustard.
Published by The Nosher, a 70 Faces Media brand.