Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eggplant Sandwich 

 لفّة بيتنجان
Laffat Betinjan


Vegetarians' paradise!


Eggplant makes easy but bewitchingly scrumptious sandwiches. They are quite popular in Iraq, eaten especially at dinnertime, the time for the smaller meal of the day (for lunch, more serious stuff is offered). Interestingly, Iraqi Jews used to eat it for the Sabbath morning meal, and they simply called it laffa (wrap sandwich), and they are the ones credited for making it a popular sandwich in Israel today, where it is more popularly known as sabich (but see a reader's comment below). 

Sabich, the name, is most probably derived from the word subuh 'morning', which hearkens to the old times of Baghdad when the sandwich was a Sabbath morning staple. (Have a look at Vered Guttman's interesting article)

To prepare laffat batinjan, piping-hot fried slices of eggplant with slices of tomatoes and pickles (especially amba 'pickled mango') are wrapped in the tannour-baked flat bread khubuz). Laffa, lit. a wrap, eventually gave its name to all types of sandwiches, wrapped and otherwise, such as when sammoon bread is used instead, by slashing it open and stuffing it. 

Khubuz

Sammoon is traditionally shaped into diamonds and baked in the commercial brick oven.
Iraqi sammoon (photo by Bryan Schatmaat)
















A Bit of History:
It is believed that the Eggplant has been growing in the Mesopotamian region since ancient times. According to the Assyriologist Jean Bottero, author of The Oldest Cuisine in the World, eggplant was one of the items offered to guests of the most famous feast held by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century BC (p. 103). 

Besides, in a monograph on the Assyrian vegetable drugs The Assyrian Herbal, based on 600 Assyrian cuneiform tablets, Campbell Thompson, the translator of these ancient Akkadian documents, is of the opinion that the plant pi(l)lu perhaps refers to Solanum Melengena L, eggplant. Pillu, at that time, he says, was also used to designate 'egg' and the mandrake fruit, which itself belongs to the same family as that of the eggplant. It is the 
nightshade (Solanaceae), a family of dubious history.


Mandrake fruit

The mandrake itself has long been associated with witchcraft and magic rituals and potions. It was mentioned as a ‘love plant’ in the Bible (Genesis and Songs of Songs).

In classical Arabic, the word luffah (لفّاح) designated both the eggplant and the mandrake. Medieval Arabic sources also called the eggplant badhinjan, a name we still use today. It is said to have originally been beidh al-jinn بيض الجن), that is 'eggs of demons', which may be linked to the ancient Assyrian name pillu 'egg', mentioned above.

In the medieval Arab-Islamic world, the eggplant was the least favorite vegetable among their physicians, who unanimously condemned eating it, and the bitterness of the vegetable has a lot to do with this. It was said to generate black bile, cancer, melasma (kalaf), and blockages.

But people ate it and loved it anyway. To gastronomes, it was the most acclaimed and inspiring vegetable. Medieval cookbooks offer a generous number of sumptuous eggplant dishes, the most famous of which were Buraniyyat named after Buran (d. 884), wife of Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’moun. Poetically, it was pictured as a black pigeon nesting in a vibrantly green orchard, with its emerald beak picking up sesame seeds and entrusting them in their ambergris gizzards.

Here are some verses by the famous tenth-century Abbasid gourmet poet Kushajim (in Kitab al-Tabeekh by al-Warraq, Chapter 45, my translation):

وللباذنج في الافواه طعم        كطعم الريق جاد به الحبيب
جمان ضمّه سبح عليه          زبرجدة تضمّنها قضيب
تميّز طعمه من كل طعم     فمعجله ومنضجه يطيب
وتاقت انفس الظرفاء طرّاً      اليه لانه شيء عجيب
فليس يعافه الاّ عيّ     وليس يحبّه إلاّ أريب

Eggplant has a taste like saliva a generous lover offers.            
A pearl in a black gown, with an emerald set on it, from which a stem extends.
In taste, ‘tis like no other, whether hurriedly cooked or done well.
Yearning for this little wonder, the witty in hosts hasten to it.
Fools only have no appetite for it. As for the smart, they just love it.

Eggplant illustrated in 14th-century Tacuinum Sanitatus, based on Taquim al-Sihha (تقويم الصحة) by Ibn Butlan, 11th-century Arab Christian physician from Baghdad  



To lessen the harms of eggplant, the medieval physician al-Razi (d. 923) for instance, recommended parboiling it before incorporating it into the dishes, as this would get rid of most of its harmful stuff. The best way for cooking it after this initial step was frying it in light oils such as almond oil or sesame oil. He also recommended peeling and slashing the eggplant then stuffing it with salt and soaking it in cold water for a while, before using it. Grilling was not recommended because it would not rid the eggplant of its bitter, hot, and sharp taste. This explains the absence of recipes for grilled eggplant in extant medieval sources. The closest recipe we have to our modern baba ghannouj was a 13th-century Buran dish, in which fried eggplant was mashed and mixed with garlic, coriander seeds, salt, and yogurt (in Kitab al-Tabeekh by al-Baghdadi).

In Iraq today eggplant is a summer crop, which though quite popular, is still maligned, such as when people lose their temper, they put the blame on eating eggplant; or cautioning distressed people against eating it; otherwise it will cause hives.



Eggplant illustrated in 14th-century Tacuinum Sanitatus, see above caption

Here is how to prepare the eggplant to make sandwiches with it:


Fried Eggplant
بيتنجان مقلي
(Betinjan Maqli)

(Makes 5 to 6 servings)

Eggplant slices simply fried in oil can get quite oily. To prevent them from soaking up oil like a sponge, sprinkle the slices with a little flour before frying them as this will help block most of the pores. Our medieval ancestors used to do the same thing.
           
1 large eggplant (about 1½ lb)
About ¾ cup flour for coating
Oil for frying

For assembling sandwiches:
2 tomatoes, sliced
1 garlic clove, grated
¼ teaspoon chili pepper
¼ cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or vinegar
½ cup drained yogurt (aka. Greek yogurt), optional

1. Cut off stem of eggplant, and peel it lengthwise to give it a striped look. Cut it into 2 parts crosswise, and then cut each part into ¼ in-thick slices lengthwise.

2. Soak pieces in salted warm water and top with a plate to keep them submerged. Set aside for 30 minutes. Soaking the eggplant in this way will prevent it from absorbing lots of oil while frying.

3. Drain eggplant pieces, and coat them with flour on all sides. Fry pieces in ½ in-deep oil until golden brown, turning once,  about 7 minutes. Drain on a rack or in a colander to prevent fried pieces from getting soggy.

4.  Brown tomato slices in a small amount of oil. Or use them raw.    

5. Arrange eggplant pieces on a big platter in one layer. Arrange tomato slices on top. Sprinkle them with garlic, chili pepper, parsley, and lemon juice or vinegar. Dot with drained yogurt if wished.

Serve the arranged platter as a side dish by itself, or make into sandwiches by filling a piece of bread with some of the layered vegetables.




Breaded Eggplant

(Makes 5 to 6 servings)

As in the previous recipe, this way of preparing and frying the eggplant yields crispy pieces, with the minimum amount of oil absorbed. In the 13th-century Andalusian cookbook Anwa’ al-Saydala (p.145), slices of eggplant were parboiled in salted water first, left to drain, and then dipped in a batter composed of white flour, eggs, black pepper, coriander, saffron, and a small amount of murri (fermented sauce, similar to soy sauce); and fried 

1 large eggplant(about 1½ lb)
2 eggs, beaten
1¼ cups breadcrumbs seasoned with ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and ¼ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)

Oil for frying
For garnish:
¼ cup parsley chopped
1 medium tomato, thinly sliced
Fresh hot chilies, or any kind of pepper
          
1. Cut off stem of eggplant, and peel it lengthwise to give it a striped look. Cut it into 2 parts crosswise, and then cut each part into ¼ in-thick slices lengthwise.

2. Soak pieces in salted warm water and top with a plate to keep them submerged. Set aside for 30 minutes. 

3. Drain eggplant pieces, and dip each in beaten eggs, then coat with seasoned breadcrumbs. When both sides are well coated, press each piece down against the crumbs in the plate with your palm, and then turn it and press down on the other side.

4. Fry pieces in ½ in-deep oil on high to medium-high heat until golden brown, turning only once, about 5 minutes. Drain fried pieces on a rack or a colander to keep them crisp.

5. Arrange pieces on a platter, garnished with parsley, sliced tomato, and pepper slices. Serve as a side dish or make into sandwiches, as described above. 




Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FEAST OF THE BIRDS

وليمة الطير

Thanksgiving Stuffed Bird, Iraqi Style

Sorry birds! It is us humans who are feasting, but you will be remembered in good health, I am sure.
Dijaj Mahshi دجاج محشي
  

Surprise your turkey this Thanksgiving and make it happy with a delicious aromatic stuffing ‘Iraqi style.' Besides the cavity, the bird is stuffed underneath the entire skin, as well. A bonus: The skin will come out scrumptiously crisp and flavorful. Worth trying! 

learnt this beautiful way of stuffing chicken from my friends in Mosul, in northern Iraq. I was invited to dinner, and there it was in the middle of the table an impressively plump bird, I thought it was a duck at first, and was quite amused to learn that it was just an ordinary chicken given the royal treatment.

Later on, I discovered, so much to my surprise, that stuffing chicken between the skin and the meat is not an entirely modern technique. In the 13th-century Andalusian cookbook Anwa’ al-Saydala (انواع الصيدلة في الوان الاطعمة), there is a chicken recipe called Al-dajaj al-‘Abbasi الدجاج العباسي (Abbasid chicken), which as the name indicates, is a loan dish from the medieval Baghdadi cuisine. The initial instruction in the recipe is to stuff the chicken between the skin and the meat, as well as the cavity (p. 23). 

More details on this method are given in the 13th-century Syrian cookbook Al-Wusla ila'l-Habeeb الوصلة الى الحبيب في وصف الطيبات والطيب (by Ibn al-‘Adeem 2: 525--26). After the chicken is dipped in hot water and feathers removed, and before opening it up, the skin was separated from the meat by blowing very hard through the neck. For still undetached areas, a skewer was pushed through the neck, and the skin was carefully separated.


Abbasid chicken, detail from 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat (13th-century), F 1954.101, Smithsonian Institution  

Here is the recipe. Amounts are for a small turkey or a large plump chicken:    

Mixture for rubbing the bird:
½ cup vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
For the stuffing:
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, grated
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ cup each of frozen peas, diced carrots, and chopped mushrooms
1 cup diced potatoes browned in 1 tablespoon oil
½ cup raisins
½ cup toasted slivered almonds
2 teaspoons baharat (use link for recipe), or garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon of each cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and chili pepper (or more chili)
2 cups uncooked rice

½ cup yogurt, for coating the bird
Preheat oven 425°F

Chicken before stuffing


















1. To prepare the bird:
Wash it and rub it with vinegar and salt inside and out and let it stand for 30 minutes. Drain and dry. Then rub it with lemon juice. Mix the spices and rub them onto the bird inside and out, and then place it, bottom down, in a colander fitted on a bowl, at room temperature, until ready for stuffing.

2. In a large skillet, saute onion in the oil until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and turmeric in the last minute. Add peas, carrots, and mushrooms. Pour in about ¾ cup hot water and simmer on medium heat about 10 minutes, or until liquid evaporates. Mix in browned potatoes, raisins, almonds, garam masala (baharat), salt, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and chili pepper.

3. Cook plain white rice until just done, the grains should still be firm and separated. Gently fold it with the vegetable mixture.

3. To stuff the bird:
Hold the bird with one hand and with the fingers of the other, starting with the neck part, separate skin from flesh, going down slowly all the way to the thighs, taking care not to pierce the skin with your nails. This will create a pocket to hold the stuffing.   

Pat the cavities dry with white paper towels and fill the regular belly cavity very well with the stuffing (the rice is already cooked and would not expand). Sew the cavity closed. Then fill the pocket you have created with as much filling as it can hold, pushing the filling down to the thighs, the breast area, the wings, and the back. Sew the neck opening closed to prevent filling from coming out. Discard any filling that came into contact with the uncooked bird while filling it.

Place the prepared bird on a greased broiler pan and coat it with yogurt. Bake in the preheated oven for the first 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F, and continue baking (allow 30 minutes for each pound). While bird is roasting, baste it occasionally with the dripping juices until it is nicely browned. Let it rest for about 15 minutes before carving. Remove threads and serve on a platter surrounded with any remaining stuffing.



Enjoy!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Aromatic Spicy Fish Dish with 

Yellow Rice and Raisins 

Mtabbaq Simack 

مطبّك سمج 

It's 'real food' time!

In just 30 minutes, you can have a feast, one that is truly delicious, satisfying and healthy.


Traditionally, the fish is layered with the rice and raisin mix, and hence the name mtabbag simach (layered fish dish). I make it simpler by just arranging the fish pieces and the raisins on the rice itself. To make it lighter, I broil the fish instead of frying it.Start by cooking the rice, and in the meantime prepare the raisin mix. Ten minutes before serving the dish, start broiling the fish, and there you have it! 

Fisherman


A Bit of History:

During the Sumerian times in ancient Iraq, fish was an important source of food, and fishing was considered a respectable profession. In their records, there were freshwater fishermen and saltwater fishermen. Different methods for catching fish were mentioned, such as using harpoons, nets, and wires. 

Gold lapis lazuli fish



Fish was consumed fresh and smoked. The roes were preserved separately and eaten as a delicacy. They were the caviar of the Sumerians. From fish they made the fermented sauce 'siqqu' for both kitchen and table use, similar to the oriental fish sauce.





By the third millennium BC, full use was made of fish. It was salted and dried, a method that is still in use nowadays in the marshes of the south. The marsh dwellers nowadays call it gbab (apparently derived from Arabic verb qabba ‘dry out’). They de-salt it and cook it with rice, in a dish they call masmouta.


Detail from the Standard of Ur

Existing ancient Sumerian artifacts show fishermen carrying big fishes, as in this detail from the Standard of Ur, where the fishes are threaded through their gills. interestingly, Iraqi fishermen today still carry fish in a similar manner. 

Allusions to fish were made in the Sumerian hymns and incantations. A hymn in praise of the goddess Ishtar of Uruk associates the goddess with fish. It joyfully credits her for prosperity and plenitude. Thanks to her the channels were filled with fish. Another hymn describes a festival in honor of Ishtar: the table was laden with butter, milk, dates, cheese, and seven fishes. 

Interestingly, during the second half of the reign of Hammurabi (second millennium BC), mention of fish noticeably decreased in texts, and the word ‘fishermen’ was synonymous with ‘lawless people.’ One of the reasons could be that people escaping justice at the time used to find refuge in the southern marshes, the homeland of fishermen. This was by no means an indication that people stopped consuming fish. The Greek historian Herodotus (d. 425 BC), for instance, in the account of his visit to Babylon (I: 200) mentions that there were tribes in Babylonia who ate nothing but fish.



Sumerian miniature fish fountain 
Fish from the river Tigris was highly valued by the medieval Baghdadis because they believed that the best fish came from running cold-water sources, with stony riverbeds. Euphrates followed in excellence. Top quality fishes were shabbout (Barbus grypus) of the carp family. Al-Biruni (d. 1048) says its name in Syriac is shabbuta شبّوطا and shibuta شيبوطا (Kitab-al-Saydana 396). Next in excellence comes bunni (Barbus sharpeyi), and zajr (anthopeterus), a large fish with small scales, now called dhikar. All these varieties are still swimming in the Tigris and Euphrates, albeit in much smaller numbers.

Medieval Verses on Fish by Kushajim

أبيات في السمك لكشاجم

Here are verses on fish composed by the famous Abbasid gourmet poet Kushajim (d. c. 961), as depicted in al-Warraq’s 10th-century cookbook (Kitab al-Tabeekh, Chapter 11, my translation in Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, pp. 113-14):

يا ربّ نهر متأق ملآن          جم المدود مغمر معان

من كل مختار من الحيتان        الزجر والشبّوط والبنان

كالطلع مجنيا من الجنان        أو كقدود أذرع الغواني 

      What a glorious river, over-brimming, bountiful, submerging, sweet, and flowing
      Teeming with the choicest fish, zajr, shabbut, and bunni,
      Like fresh dates of orchards or lusciously contoured arms of beauties.


The preferred medieval method for cooking the fish was frying. They believed it was easier on the digestion, and helped alleviate its harmful effects. Fried fish was prepared by sprinkling it with flour and salt and frying it in sesame oil. Sour based sauces and dips called sibagh صباغ were always offered with fish dishes to further aid the digestion. Vinegar was the basic ingredient used in most of these sauces to which might be added garlic, onion, mint, parsley, mustard, caraway, thyme, raisins, walnuts, almonds coriander, pomegranate seeds, or sumac.

A specialty of the Abbasid Prince Ibrahim bin al-Mahdi (d. 839), half brother of Harun al-Rasheed,  was to put a huge live fish in a basin filled with juice of red grapes and leave it there until it drinks as much as possible of the juice. The fish was then cleaned and roasted, and served with sauce (sibagh) made with wine vinegar, parsley, mint, and caraway.

Fish tongues were a treat. Hundreds of them would be cooked as qarees (fish aspic). Another recipe prides itself on baking a fish, which results in a roasted head, poached middle, and fried tail. The recipe ends thus: For each part, prepare a sauce that goes with it, so that nobody would suspect that the whole fish was actually cooked as one piece, God willing (al-Warraq, Chapter 33).

Nowadays, more or less, the same types of fish still swim in the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, mainly shabbout, bunni and gittan (Barbus xanthopterus). 

Iraqi woman selling fish

Bunni fish
There is the huge ‘monster of Tigris,’ the bizz (Barbus esotinus), which is sometimes called ‘Tobias’ fish’ in English. It is usually sold in pieces.


Bizz fish

These are all delicious white-flesh river fishes, except for one thing: their tiny thorny bones. One has to be very careful eating them, that is why they are better eaten with the fingers rather than utensils. This seems to have been a concern since ancient times. Here is an ancient Sumerian proverb, which incidentally sheds light on this issue:   

            My husband heaps up (grain) for me,
            my son metes it out for me--
            Would that my darling husband would pick the bones from the fish (for me).
           
The speaker is a  woman who had it all, but still pines for the times when her husband used to do those personal, caring, little things for her like picking the fish bones for her before eating it. Nowadays, such a woman might win our sympathy, but the Sumerians meant this to be a sarcastic comment on unreasonable selfishness.



Masgouf

One of the most popular ways for preparing fish in Baghdad is by grilling it as masgouf, a method, which in all probability goes back to the times of ancient Mesopotamia. It is usually prepared by professional fishermen along the bank of the river Tigris.



When prepared at home,fish is traditionally served fried, stewed, and baked in the domed clay oven tannour or the oven, seasoned with tamarind or pomegranate molasses, and served with bread and/or rice (plain white, yellow, or brown with cinnamon). However, yellow rice is the most popular, it looks pretty, quite aromatic, and what's more, it is easier to see the tiny white bones with it. I prefer to cook this dish with the boneless salmon (Heaven!), but feel free to substitute with whatever fish you fancy.  
  
Here is how to cook it: (Makes 6 servings)
For the rice:
3 tablespoons oil (such as canola)
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 cups rice, if aged variety is used, such as basmati, it needs to be washed and soaked for at least 30 minutes, and then drained and used
3½ cups water
1½ teaspoons salt
4 cardamoms pods, keep whole
1 cinnamon, 1-inch stick


For the raisin mix:
1 medium onion, chopped
1½ teaspoons curry powder
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¾ cup raisins
1 teaspoon crushed noomi Basra (dried lime)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons hot water


For the fish:
2 pounds salmon, skinless boneless fillet, cut into 6 strips
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon yellow mustard


1.To make the rice: In a medium heavy pot (preferably non-stick), put all the rice ingredients, and let them boil, covered, for 7 to 10 minutes on high heat, until all visible moisture evaporates. Reduce heat to low and let it simmer for 20 minutes. Fold rice gently 2 to 3 times while simmering to allow it to fluff.

2. To prepare the raisin mix: In a medium skillet, sauté onion in oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in turmeric and curry powder in the last 30 seconds. Add the rest of the raisin-mix ingredients, and stir and cook for about five minutes. Keep warm.

3.Now the fish: turn on heat of the broiler. Line a shallow baking pan with aluminum foil, and drizzle it with half tablespoon of oil. Arrange the fish pieces on the pan leaving space between pieces. Brush them with half the mustard and half the honey, drizzle with the remaining oil, and sprinkle with salt.


Broil the fish for 5 minutes, then turn over the pieces, brush them with the remaining mustard and honey, and let them cook until surface is crisp and golden, about 5 minutes, or until flesh is flaky when poked with a fork. Immediately, spread the rice in a big platter, arrange the fish pieces on the rice, and spread the raisin-mix between and around the fish pieces.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Himmas Kassa: The Mother of all Hummus

The Oldest Documented Recipes for Hummus

 حمّص كسا

 وصفات عربية قديمة للحمّص بطحينة 


 A fourteenth-century recipe for Himmas Kassa (mashed/pounded chickpeas); for source, see caption below:

Recipe from 14th-century Kitab Wasf al-At'ima al-Mu'tada (augmented version of al-Baghdadi's 13th-century Kitab al-Tabeekh, p. 113; Manuscript copy  in Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Qawmiyya, no. Taimur Sina'a 11, originally copied from 14th-century MS now in Topkapi Saray Humayuni.
Translation of the Recipe:
Take chickpeas and after they boil, pound them finely with vinegar, olive oil, tahini (sesame paste), black pepper, atraf teeb (spice blend), mint, chervil, and dried thyme. Add [and continue pounding] shelled walnut, hazelnut, almond, and pistachio, as well as Ceylon cinnamon, toasted caraway seeds, coriander seeds, salt, lemon preserved in salt, and olives. Stir all to blend, and them spread [on a plate] and set aside overnight, and eat it. It will be wonderful, God willing. 


This recipe and several variations on it occur in other cookbooks belonging to the same period. The following Himmas Kassa is from 13th-century Syrian cookbook Al-wusla ila'l-Habeed fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wa'l-Teeb (Winning the Beloved's Heart with Delectable Dishes and Perfumes) by famous historian Ibn al-'Adeem of Aleppo (d. 1262) , pp. 2:718-19.               




The recipe is more or less similar to the one quoted earlier, albeit with more details, especially important are the ones provided at the end of the recipe: After the hummus is spread, the recipe mentions that it should be drizzled with a lot of olive oil, with chopped chervil/parsley (baqdunis), sprinkled on it, along with cinnamon and crushed rose buds. Interestingly, the recipe suggests that the dish will look quite nice if some whole boiled chickpeas are also put on the top. Such details would surely make it look so much similar to the way hummus is traditionally garnished in our time, but of course minus the chili pepper, which came later to the region.




An important detail also tucked at the end of the recipe is about the dip's consistency: it has to hold its shape and should not run down when picked up with a piece of bread. Like today, this food was offered as an appetizer: a cold dish -- a dip with bread -- to be consumed before the main hot dishes. 

Five more recipes are included in the 14th-century anonymous Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa'id fi Tanwi' al-Mawa'id (Infinite Benefits of Variety at the Table), recipes no. 610, 613, 616, 617, 618. Here is one of them:


The recipe this time does not use nuts, but it is also garnished the same as the one above it: It is spread in a shallow bowl, and sprinkled with black olives, crushed toasted hazelnut, a bit of spices, rue, and mint.

Unfortunately, after the 14th century, there was a long period of silence, until we approach the second half of the 19th century. A Lebanese cookbook entitled Kitab Tadhkirat al-Khwateen wa Ustadh al-Tabbakheen (The Mater Chef's Culinary Memento for Housewives) by Khaleel Sarkees (1885) contains a recipe called Hummus Mutabbal bi'l Zait:    



The recipe uses the basic ingredients that make up our traditional dip Hummus bi'Taheena: chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini. The recipe specifies that it should not be runny in consistency, and that after it is spread on a plate it is sprinkled with sweet-tasting olive oil and finely chopped chervil/parsley. 

The name itself, Hummus Mutabbal (حمص متبل), might be translated as spiced chickpeas, but since the recipe does not use any spices, I am more inclined to interpret mutabbal as 'ground', for indeed this is the original meaning of the Arabic word t-b-l (تبّل) 'to crush, to grind.' 


The chickpeas are always pounded or mashed to make this particular dish. Besides, ground spice/spices are usually called tabil/ tawabil; and quite likely this could be the reason why tabboula/tabbouli was called so in the first place, since tabboula is not tabboula if it is not chopped finely. Indeed, the word can be traced all the way back to the ancient Mesopotamian times, when 'tabilu' meant 'ground' in the Akkadian language (Jean Bottero, The Oldest Cuisine in the World, p. 57).


In the Levant today, some cooks still call this appetizer by the name mutabbal hummus, and its 'cousin' made with eggplant, mutabbal badhinjan, instead of baba ghannouj, which confirm my hunch that mutabbal basically designates 'mashing and pounding'.         

A Hummus bi Tahina Recipe, with a Bit of History:

They dug a pit in the sunlight.
Then Gilgamesh went up on the mountain.
He poured out his chickpeas into the pit.
"Oh, Mountain, grant (me) a dream…"
(Epic of Gilgamish, quoted in Martin Levey, Chemistry and Chemical Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia, p.50)

Both sesame (Akkadian 'samsamu') and chickpeas  (Akkadian 'amusu') were valued field cash products, grown in abundance in the entire ancient Fertile Crescent region. Sesame oil has always been an essential food item in their diet until recently. As for chickpeas, their nutritious value has always been acknowledged, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where it was chosen as one of the victuals he carried with him on his journeys.

In the medieval times, other potentialities were attributed to chickpeas such as aphrodisiac ones. It was believed to possess the three essential elements required to achieve this Viagra-effect. Food has to be hot in nature, it has to be nutritious and moist enough to increase sperm, and it has to have the power to generate enough wind to fill and stiffen the veins of the ‘equipment,’ as explained in the medieval Arabic books on dietetics and botany.


Chickpeas simmered to tenderness, lablabi. This is a very traditional snack food in Iraq, simple, basic, and very ancient, no doubt. As for tuning it into a dip by combining it with tahini (rashi, in the Iraqi dialect, derived from classical Arabic rahshi, all mean 'crushed'), the written documents can only take us as far back as the 13th century, but dishes like hummus must have been prepared much earlier than that, so that by medieval times it was already a staple with a lot of variations.


 

The above recipe from the first cookbook in the history of modern Iraq Recipes from Baghdad, 1946, is a basic hummus recipe for an appetizer, which seems to have already become the hallmark of the mainstream Middle Eastern-Arab cuisine.       

Now to my recipe: Although hummus, fresh or canned, is readily available in stores, homemade variety is definitely tastier and cheaper. You may use whole chickpeas, which you soak and cook yourself. However, canned chickpeas can be very handy if you want to make hummus in just five minutes. For a smoother texture, use dried yellow split chickpeas (dried split peas will give similar taste, and they do not need to be soaked overnight).

1½ cups (12 oz) chickpeas, soaked overnight (will make about 3 cups mashed chickpeas); or two 15.5-oz cans of chickpeas, drained and washed
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 teaspoon ground cumin, optional 
½ cup fresh lemon juice 
1 teaspoon salt, less if using canned chickpeas
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ to ¾ cup tahini 

For garnish: olive oil, olives, chopped parsley, chili powder, sliced tomato, 1 tablespoon whole cooked chickpeas (optional)

1. Boil the chickpeas until tender, and then drain them, but reserve some of the liquid..  

2. Put cooled down chickpeas or canned ones in a blender or food processor, and purée for a minute or two. If canned chickpeas look rather dry, add about ¼ cup water. Then add garlic, cumin if used, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. Add tahini, and blend for a minute or two until mixture looks smooth, lighter in color, and of spreading consistency. If it looks rather dry, add a small amount of the reserved liquid or just plain cold water. Check for salt and lemon juice. Refrigerate at least one hour before serving.

3. Remedies for not so perfect hummus:       
*If it is a little thick and heavy in texture, add some cold water or reserved chickpeas liquid, and adjust seasoning.

*If the consistency is good but it still needs more tartness, use a little of unsweetened lemonade powder. 

*If the taste of chickpeas still overpowers, add a little more tahini, until you get a balanced taste.