"In Israel, it's always on the table. When you're young, you want to show your parents you can have as much as they have so you challenge yourself to have a little more and build up your tolerance," recalls Shuki Rosenboim, co-owner of Melbourne's Very Good Falafel.
While you can find zhug everywhere in Israel, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries, it's originally from Yemen. It's spelled many different ways, from zhug and zhoug to s'hoog in Hebrew, and it's also called sahawiq in Yemeni Arabic.
Make your own malawach (get this recipe here) and serve it with a side of zhug for a kick.
There are as many different zhug recipes as there are families, but the main ingredients are usually fresh chillies, garlic and coriander. You'll often see green zhug, but the chilli sauce also comes in different shades of red and brown, depending on its ingredients.
Gili Nachum was born in Israel and his background is Yemeni Jewish. At The Black Yard in Ormond, he serves jachnun with his brown zhug.
"In Israel, it's always on the table. When you're young, you want to show your parents you can have as much as they have so you challenge yourself to have a little more and build up your tolerance."
"You have to apply the four elements, spicy, salty, sour and sweet. It's not just spicy chilli, my recipe also has coriander, garlic, cardamom, cumin, paprika, salt, sugar, oil and a touch of lemon," he explains. "It's important for it to be balanced."
His recipe has been in his family for generations, but he toned down the heat a little for the Australian palate.
At Very Good Falafel in Brunswick, Rosenboim's zhug is bright green thanks to a lot of coriander and green chillies. "I got my recipe from a friend. His grandfather is originally from Yemen and that's his recipe. His father used to make a lot and give it to all of his friends. My family never made it, we used to get it from him," he says.
Both Nachun and Rosenboim say they eat zhug with pretty much anything that isn't sweet; meat, roasted vegetables, hummus, fish, bread, soups, salads, etc.
At Very Good Falafel, you'll find it in the falafel pita, on hummus and in some salads. "People always ask for it and we happily give them a small plate of zhug on the side. A lot of other places charge for it, but I'm proud that we don't. Everyone can come and have as much zhug as they want," he says.
Zhug’s versatility makes it more and more popular around the world, and not just in Israel and Middle Eastern restaurants and homes.
She now makes it at home with green chillies, cardamom, black pepper, garlic, caraway seeds, olive oil, lemon and coriander from her garden. She prefers it not too fiery, with grilled octopus, fish or meat.
"I've put it in soups. It’s nice to liven up a lentil winter soup; quite unexpected and quite enlivening."
Sometimes, zhug makes its way into dishes at her restaurant. "I've put it in soups. It’s nice to liven up a lentil winter soup; quite unexpected and quite enlivening," she says.
Zhug is easy to make at home with a mortar and pestle or with a food processor. While it's possible to keep it in the fridge and even freeze it, fresh is best.
With its spicy kick and well-balanced flavours, it's no wonder chefs and home cooks are adding zhug to their cooking arsenal. "It's the best chilli sauce the humankind came up with," sums up Rosenboim.
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