Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sparrows' Heads in 

Pomegranate-Walnut Sauce

Rummaniyya b'ras il-'Asfour

رمانية براس العصفور

Typical Iraqi spicy and aromatic small meatballs called ras il-'asfour (sparrows' heads), simmered in delectable pomegranate sauce.
Nowadays in Iraq and Iran, similar dishes are more generally known by the Iranian name fasanjoun (فسنجون). Quite likely, the dish in Iran was originally named after Fisinjan, a Persian town, but this does not mean that it was an exclusively Iranian invention. Aside from the name, the dish itself -- meat of some sort simmered in sweet and sour pomegranate sauce and thickened with crushed nuts -- was a well established way of cooking in the entire medieval Islamic world. It was known as rummaniyya, after the fruit rumman (pomegranate), and we are fortunate to have a variety of such recipes, which were included in the extant medieval Arabic Baghdadi and Egyptian cookbooks.

Here is one of the recipes I found in the anonymous 14th-century cookbook Kanz al-Fawa'id (recipe no. 10, p. 15), which is also included in one of the copies of al-Baghdadi's 13th-century Kitab al-Tabeekh (British Library Manuscript, fol. 16 r, see image below):

Rummāniyya Mukhaththara (thickened pomegranate stew):
Cut pieces of meat are added to the pot with water. When the pot comes to a boil, the scum is removed, and meatballs of pounded meat, made as small as hazelnuts, are added. Use a small amount of liquid in the pot, so that when it is all done nothing remains but a little bit of a nice rich sauce.
Next, sour pomegranate juice is balanced with rose petal jam made with sugar, and is added to the pot along with some mint leaves. Pistachio is pounded to thicken the stew, a bit of saffron is added for color, and all the spices used in aṭraf al-teeb [medieval spice blend].The pot is sprinkled with some rosewater and saffron, and then it is taken away from the fire.
Fol. 16 r of BL MS of al-Baghdadi's 13th-century cookbook 
The small meatballs used in the recipe above were commonly known as bunduqiyyat (each made as small as a bunduqa 'hazelnut'). It is interesting to see how these small medieval meatballs found their way westwards to Spain and later on to Mexico and South America and retained their original name-- Spanish albondiga, whereas in the Middle East today, they are generally known as kufta/kefta/kafta etc., and in Iraq, sparrows' heads (ras il-'asfour). Interesting how things might change, and yet do not change!

Rummaniyya, in one of its medieval versions, survived in the Levantine cuisine, especially in Palestine, cooked with eggplant, and instead of the nuts, thickened with a bit of tahini.

Here is my recipe: (Makes 4 servings)

(Winner of the Guardian's Readers' Recipe Swap: Meatballs)
For the sparrows' heads (meatballs):
8 ounces ground lean meat
1 small onion, grated
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon each, allspice, ginger powder, curry powder, chili powder
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 cup toasted walnuts, pulverized in food processor until oily
3 cups water
¼ cup pomegranate molasses (available at Middle-Eastern stores)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon crushed cardamom
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon chili powder

12 ounces diced potatoes, lightly browned in some oil or brushed with oil and baked or broiled

1. To make meatballs: Combine all the meatball ingredients and knead lightly. With wet fingers, form into small balls (as small as sparrows heads). Shallow-fry them, or arrange them in one layer on a greased baking sheet, and broil or bake in a preheated oven 400°F. Turn pieces to brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Set aside. 

2. In a medium pot, fry onion in oil until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add turmeric and pulverized walnut and stir for about a minute. Add the meatballs, as well as the rest of the sauce ingredients. Stir gently, bring to a quick boil, and then reduce heat and let simmer gently for about 30 minutes, or until sauce is nicely thickened.

3. Ladle into a deepish plate and garnish with chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds when in season; otherwise, chopped red pepper will be equally nice.

Scrumptious served with white rice.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Winter Jams with Carrots and Beets

مربى الجزر ومربى الشوندر

Mrabbat Jizar, Mrabbat Shuwandar 

Charming jams, like the glowing embers  of a brazier on a cold wintry day. 

Beetroot Jam
Carrot Jam
We tend to associate jam-making with summertime, when the lusciously sweet fruits are most abundant. The humble winter root vegetables, unfortunately, easily escape our 'jamming' attention. But this should not be. Roots, like carrots and beets, though considered vegetables, are in fact quite conducive to jam-making.

Both vegetables are winter crops in Iraq, and people use them in salads to give them a vibrant color to make up for the absence of tomatoes (summer vegetable). We enjoy beets boiled as a snack, and the resulting liquid is sweetened with some sugar, and with a squeeze of lemon, it turns into a refreshing delicious drink, we pickle it, and made into jam. 

As for carrot, we munch on it as a snack food, dice it along with lamb and turn it into a spicy flavorful rice dish. We turn it into golden jam, and a delicious sweet called halawat jizar (حلاوة جزر), home-made or purchased from the confectioners.          
Buying carrot halwa from the market-place  

A Bit of History:

It looks like it was on the land of ancient Mesopotamia that the first beet stew/soup (known as borscht in Europe) was cooked, as recorded in one of the three excavated Babylonian recipes, written around 1700 BC. It is quite possible that the Iraqi Jews' modern custom of cooking stews with beets has its roots deep down into the Babylonian times.     

The Babylonian cuneiform tablet with stew recipes (1700 BC). Courtesy of Yale Babylonian Collection
This beet dish is one of the 25 stew recipes inscribed in the cuneiform tablet above. The recipe is called "Tuh'u-beets," and it goes thus:

"Leg of mutton. Meat is used. Prepare water; add fat. Peel the vegetables. Add salt, beer, onion, arugula, coriander, samidu (?), cumin, and beets. Assemble all ingredients in the cooking vessel and mash leeks and garlic. After cooking, sprinkle the resulting stew with coriander and raw suhutinnu (?)"  

The kind of beets used in such an ancient recipe should not be different from the beets we use today, even in name. We read in Dictionary of Assyrian Botany (by Campbell Thompson, 1948) that in the ancient Mesopotamian region it was called ‘shumundar,’ it was as red as blood, and has a spinning-top shape (pp. 49, 51).

When we come to the medieval era, although the extant Arabic cookbooks do not have any recipes with beets, only turnips, their books on botany and horticulture do make mention of it, as shamandar (شمندر), sometimes occurring as jughandar (جغندر) and jukandar (جكندر), and recipes are given for how to pickle it. It is my guess that the intense color of the beets discouraged serving it in dishes, which were more often than not served as communal meals handled with the fingers. The stains on clothes would have been too  tough to wash off, indeed. 
Illustration of a woman harvesting beets. From the late 1300s Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval European health handbook based on 11th-century ِArabic book Taqweem al-Sihha تقويم الصحة  (Maintenance of Health)
by the famous Christian physician and native of Baghdad Ibn Butlan (أبن بطلان) 

As for carrots, while I could bot find any references to it in the ancient Mesopotamian records, there is ample evidence that it was a popular root-vegetable in the medieval Arabo-Islamic world, including Baghdad. Of the cultivated carrots, there was mention of red and orange carrots -- juicy, tender, and delicious, which poets compared to carnelian, rubies, flames of fire, coral reeds, and gold. The yellow carrot was described as being thicker and denser in texture than the red-orange variety; and white carrot must have been parsnips, described as aromatic, deliciously sharp in taste, with a pleasant crunch. Carrots were eaten raw and cooked.

 Illustration of a farmer harvesting parsnips (below: harvesting carrots). From the late 1300s Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval European health handbook based on 11th-century Arabic book Taqweem al-Sihha تقويم الصحة  (Maintenance of Health) by the famous Christian physician and native of Baghdad Ibn Butlan (أبن بطلان) 

Many recipes were preserved in the extant medieval Arabic cookbooks. Al-Warraq’s 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook, for instance, gives recipes for cold carrot dishes, called salayiq (صلايق); condensed puddings of khabees (خبيص); jams murabba  (مربّى), and drinks sharab (شراب), which were believed to invigorate coitus. In fact, both beets and carrots were thought of as aphrodisiac foods. 

Nowadays, both roots are highly valued as powerhouses of nutrients, and exploring their culinary possibilities is well worth it. 
For inspiration, visit World Carrot Museum and Love Beetroot , and of course the following jams. 

Here is how to make them:

The same method and amounts can work for both, except for the flavorings. I like to use cardamon and a bit of rose water for the carrot jam, and cardamom and a bit of vanilla for the beet jam, but feel free to experiment to your liking.

For the beet jam, I just peeled the root and cut it into thin slices. 

For the carrot jam, I used my fun new kitchen gadget the Spiral Vegetable Slicer (from Kitopia).Usually it does a very good job on slicing veggies into enticing strands, but it worked perfectly for my carrot jam. Previously I used to slice the carrot thinly or shred it in the food processor, but the carrot strands I got with this slicer were really beautiful.

Great news!
Kitopia has offered readers of this blog a special 30% discount when purchasing the Spiral Vegetable Slicer, which I used for making carrot jam, from amazon.
Just click on this link veggie noodles and use the code: NAWPROMO at the checkout of amazon.

Thanks Kitopia!!    

1 pound carrots or beets (amount weighed after peeling and cutting or slicing)
cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup water 
2 tablespoons honey
3 whole pods cardamom
1/4 cup walnut halves, optional 
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon rose water
1 teaspoon vanilla

(See my comment above on flavorings)

1. In a medium heavy pot, layer carrots or beets with sugar. Add water, cover the pot, and set aside, overnight. The sugar will melt and the vegetables will release a lot of their juices.  

2. Put the pot on medium fire. Add honey, cardamom and walnut (if used). Fold the mix gently and let it boil quietly, skimming the froth if needed, about 20 minutes. Five minutes before the jam is done, add lemon juice and the flavorings. 

To test for doneness, put a drop of the syrup in a small plate. If the drop keeps its domed shape and does not go flat, the jam is done.          

Let the jam cool off completely, and keep in the refrigerator. Lovely with butter or cream cheese, or sour cream. You can even enjoy it by itself as dessert. The beets and the carrots will have a scrumptiously chewy bite to them.   

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ishtar's Love Potion: 
Rosewater Scented Spicy Date Cake

For Valentine's Day, do the overworked Cupids a favor and make this cake. Even more potent than their arrows!

Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna) is the ancient goddess of love, fertility, and sexuality in the ancient Mesopotamian culture. She is the prototype no less of a host of seductress goddesses, known in later times and other lands, such as Astarte, Hathor, Venus and Aphrodite. Aphrodite was the one who gave her name to all the foods and dishes, which enhance sexuality, the libido boosters, the Aphrodisiacs. 

The Assyrian Ishtar

Inanna  holding dates

Now, in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, Ishtar was closely associated with the date palm, it was her symbol and abode. She was often called 'The Lady of the Date Clusters', and her lover and spouse, Dumuzi/Tammuz (prototype of Adonis), god of food and vegetation,  was called 'The one great source of the date clusters'.

To the ancient Mesopotamians, the date palm and its fruit were important products economically. The dates were valued for their great nutritional value, and it made sense to associate them with Ishtar and her beloved husband, and to believe that they were highly Aphrodisiac. In fact, we still believe so. Grooms, for instance, are advised to eat one pound of dates on the day of their wedding.      

Woman, Goddess, and Date Palm

The ancient Mesopotamians knew how to make cakes. Some surviving cuneiform texts even give the proportions for cakes with fruits, including dates, to go to the temple and the palace. So I believe goddess Ishtar must have eaten a lot of such cakes.

This scrumptious cake is in honor of the 'Lady of the Dates' Ishtar, who definitely knew quite well what dates can do.

Here is how to make it:

(I adapted this recipe for my book Dates: A Global History (UK, London: Reaktion Books, 2011). I also make it with prunes/dried plums. Equally delicious!)

For the cake:
1½ cups (10 ounces) whole seedless dates
1¼ cups brewed black tea
½ cup oil (such as canola)
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla
2½ cups all-purpose white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon, cardamom, each
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, cloves, each

For the filling and icing:
1 pint heavy/whipping cream, divided
½ cup plus 1 heaping tablespoon of powdered sugar
1 tablespoon rose water
½ cup brown sugar, packed
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ounces pecan or walnut halves, lightly toasted
1 ounce, shredded unsweetened coconut  

Preheat oven 375°F

1. Put dates and tea in a small pot. Bring to a quick boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes, or until dates soften (but not mushy). Drain the dates, but reserve the drained liquid. Let them cool off to room temperature. Cut the drained dates into small pieces, and add enough cold water to liquid to make it measure ⅔ cup.

2. In a big bowl, put oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, and beat for 2 minutes. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Stir the flour-mix into the egg-mix, in two batches, alternately with the measured date liquid. Stir in dates. Divide batter between two 9-inch round baking pans. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until surface feels firm to the touch. Let them stand for 10 minutes and then invert on a cooling rack.

3. When completely cool, divide the cakes into halves, and fill the layers with whipped cream made by whisking together 1¾ cup whipping cream with 1 heaping tablespoon powdered sugar and rosewater. Do not put any whipped cream on the face of the cake because it will be covered with the icing, prepared as in the following step.

4. In a small saucepan, combine brown sugar, 1/4 cup heavy cream, and butter. Bring to a boil, on medium heat, stirring to allow sugar to dissolve. Boil gently for about 4 minutes. Let it cool off completely. Stir in 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla, until smooth. It should be neither too thick nor runny in consistency. Use immediately.

5. Spoon the icing on the top layer of the cake and make it look like swirls. Arrange the pecan or walnut halves and sprinkle with the coconut. Or decorate it whichever way you like. Keep refrigerated for about an hour and then serve.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Halawat Sha'riyya:

Sweet n'Golden Vermicelli Noodles 

Iraqi Style

حلاوة شعرية

May your days be as sweet and luscious as Halawat Sha'riyya! 

Sha’riyya (also called sha'eeriyya in some Arab countries) is wheat-noodles, similar to angel hair pasta. It is mostly sold in form of balls (also called ‘nests’, see photo below), available at Middle Eastern stores (sometimes labelled ‘thin noodles #1’). For savory dishes, we break it and drop it into soup pots as a thickening agent, or fry it and let it steam with rice, as garnish. And in this enticing dessert of halawat sha'riyya, where it is the main ingredient, we keep the strands relatively long.

The earliest reference I was able to detect for the term sha'riyya/sha'eeriyya was in the 15th-century Syrian cookbook Kitab al-Tibakha (كتاب الطباخة)  by the famous scholar Ibn al-Mubarrid. However, in all probability the pasta he mentioned referred to an orzo-like variety as the name indicates that the pieces looked like barley grains sha'eer (شعير). Sha'riyya and sha'eeriyya designating hair-like pasta must have evolved some time later.

Making thin noodles has a long history in the the Middle East. In the eastern and the western parts of the medieval Islamic world, many types of pasta, dried and fresh, were already familiar foods, the most prevalent  of which were itriya and rishta.

Medieval cook preparing rishta, detail(Arthur M. Sackler Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution. S1986.221
Itriya (إطرية) was described as thin strings of noodles made with stiff unfermented dough (fateer). References to it in cookbooks reveal that it was usually available as dried pasta. We are lucky to have a recipe for making it in the 13th-century Andalusian cookbook Fidhalat al-Khiwan: Semolina or regular flour was made into stiff dough with water and a little salt, and then rolled out thinly on a rectangular board. It was then cut into thin strings, and each string was rolled between the palms as thinly as possible. These strings were left to dry out in the sun (al-Tujeebi, p 91). As for rishta (رشتة), according to the 10th-century physician Ibn Sina, it was the Persian name for itriya, called so because it looked like fine strings. Other sources; however, do point to the fact that whereas itriya was dried noodles, rishta was used fresh.

Whether fresh or dried, these noodles were incorporated into the medieval stews, soups, or eaten as a main hot dish cooked with meat, as we do with pasta nowadays. We also have recipes for cooking them as sweet thick puddings with milk and butter, and sweetened with honey. These sweets came under the category of muhallabiyyat, as in al-Warraq's 10th- century cookbook Kitab al-Tabeekh (Chapter 98). In this book, we also have documented the earliest recipe for a noodle dish. The recipe comes from the famous Baghdadi 9th-century singer Ishaq bin ibrahim al-Mawsili.It involves a rich chicken stew (al-Warraq, chapter 72).

Cooking noodles: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.  S1986.221, detail

Whereas the name rishta is still in circulation today, itriya fell out of use, and it is unsettled as to what it means, although it seems to have had a remarkably long history in the Middle East and the southern and eastern Mediterranean regions. According to 11th-century Arab scholar al-Biruni, itriya was called itreen in Latin and Syriac. From non-Arab sources we know that before the Latin itria was mentioned in Galen (second century AD), it was itrion in Greek.

It seems to me that the location where it was most widely used is the key to its meaning. The Jerusalem Talmud, which dates back to 5th-century AD, mentions “a kind of pasta known as itrium was common in Palestine from the 3rd to 5th centuries” (Silvano Serventi, Pasta, p. 17). As early as the 8th century, the famous Arab linguist al-Khalil bin Ahmed in his dictionary Al-‘Ayn describes itriya (إطرية) as the specialty food of Ahl al-Sham, that is, people of the Levant in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Now, in the medieval lexicon Lisan al-‘Arab (s.v. طرأ) these people were called Turiyoun (طوريون), i.e. from al-Tur (الطور) al-Sham. And hence itriya

Recipe for Halawat Sha'riyya:

(Makes 6 servings)

2 tablespoons butter plus 2 tablespoon oil (such as canola)
6 ounces (175 g) vermicelli wheat noodles (about 7 balls)
2 ¼ cups hot water
A pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon rose water
½ cup broken walnut pieces, toasted
For garnish: 2 tablespoons coarsely ground pistachio

1. Melt butter with oil in a medium heavy pot. Slightly crush noodle balls between your fingers and add them, stirring constantly until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Carefully pour in hot water, and add salt. Stir, and bring to a quick boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, until the noodles start to soften, 4 to 5 minutes.

2. Add sugar, cardamom, rose water, and walnut. Stir until sugar crystals dissolve. Let the pot simmer, covered, on medium-low, stirring 2 or 3 times, until moisture is absorbed, noodles look glossy, and sugar starts to stick to the bottom of the pot (12 to 15 minutes).

3. Immediately, spread it on a platter, and give it a generous sprinkle of ground pistachio. Serve it warm. Leftovers may be refrigerated and heated for 30 seconds in the microwave when needed.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Iraqi Geymer

قيمر عراقي
Clotted Cream, Iraqi Style

Luscious! All it needs is a piece of warm bread and honey or date syrup (dibis), to be washed down with hot tea:

Geymer, also pronounced qeymer, is the skimmed solidified upper layer of the simmered and then cooled off buffalo or cow’s milk; but buffalo milk yields thicker and richer cream. It is a very traditional breakfast treat with a very long history in the Middle East. In Egypt it is better known as qishta (قشطة), literally 'the skimmed'; and in the Levant it can go for qishta or qaymaq (قيمق also pronounced أيمأ or أيمع), which beyond doubt is a direct borrowing of of the Turkish kaymak, which in turn is said to have a Central Asian origin in the word kayl-mak (meaning: melt, and molding of metals) and other variants. The first documented mention of the Turkic qaymaq is in Mahmud al-Kashgari's 11th- century dictionary on languages of the Turks ديوان لغات الترك.          

As for the Iraqi word geymer, although it is generally assumed to have been derived from the Turkish kaymak, I have a strong hunch that for etymology we have to look somewhere else, namely the Sumerian and Akkadian languages of ancient Iraq. Based on The Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary, Sumerian ga is 'milk', and mur/ imru mean 'to become thick or solid', and this is what geymer really is all about.

Quite possibly it was one of those words that circulated among the indigenous inhabitants of Iraq but did not make it to the surviving records of medieval times.

I remember we used to have geymer for breakfast almost every day especially in winter (people were still oblivious of cholesterol back then). We used to buy it early in the morning from the neighborhood grocery store, or from the door-to-door female peasant vendors. 

Geymer sellers in Baghdad in the 1920s 

As they go from one street to another, balancing their big trays of geymer on their heads, they would periodically announce their merchandise at the top of their shrill voices, "Geymer Yooo." They would cut slabs of cream with a knife, sometimes with a safety pin, and as a treat, would pour on it some milk.

Geymer Recipe

We scoop geymer with a piece of bread or make it into a sandwich with date syrup, honey, or jam. A winter breakfast treat may be geymer and kahi, which is thin sheets of unleavened dough (similar to Egyptian fateer dough), folded and baked, and eaten drenched in light syrup, and decked with a generous slab of geymer. Kahi is usually purchased from specialized bakeries. 

Geymer is quite easy to make. All it needs is patience. 

1. Have ready equal amounts of heavy or whipping cream and whole milk. To make 4 servings, use 1 pint (2 cups) heavy/whipping cream and 1 pint (2 cups) whole milk. You may use the empty heavy cream container to measure milk, to have equal amounts of both.  
2. Put milk and cream in a heavy pot (8 to 9 inches in diameter). Give the milk a gentle stir and simmer it on slow fire until it starts to rise a little bit, but do not let it boil over, so you need to watch it (about 30 minutes, do not stir the pot while simmering).  

4. Away from heat and in a draft-free warm place, put on the pot a colander turned upside down to create a dome on top of the pot. Cover the pot, with the colander on it, with a blanket, and leave it for about 6 hours (the outside of the pot should no longer feel warm to the touch). The function of the colander here is to prevent the rising condensed steam from falling down to the surface of the milk-cream mixture.

5. Remove coverings and colander, put the lid on pot, and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours.

6. Run a knife around the entire edge of the solidified top to dislodge it from the pot. Then use a pancake flipper to push the disc down from one side to let it fold into a half disc. This will enable you to have a neat slab of geymer. Transfer it to a slightly deep dish, and drizzle with some of the remaining milk. Serve immediately along with warm bread and jam, honey or date syrup, or refrigerate it for later use.

7. Repeat the same procedure with the remaining milk. Whatever milk remains from the second time you can make yogurt with it. 

Iraqi Folk Song

أغنية عراقية شعبية

Since Geymer is white, creamy, and luscious, comparing the beloved's cheeks to geymer is a common metaphor in Iraqi folkloric songs and poems. I recall a song, in particular, in which the lover vows to make his beloved's geymer-like cheeks, his breakfast.

يم العيون السود ما جوزن أنا       خدّج الكيمر أناأتريّك منة

Of you, black-eyed beauty, I will not let go,
Your luscious geymer-cheeks, they will my breakfast be.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lahm b-'Ajeen

Arabian Counterpart of Italian Pizza

لحم بعجين

It is what it literally means—‘meat with dough’. Well-loved carryout food in the Levant and Iraq, simple, practical and delicious. Equally ubiquitous in Turkey, where it is called lahmacun, which no doubt is a direct borrowing of the Arabic, etymologically and culinarily. 

Lahm b-'ajeen apparently had a long history in the Arab regions, and it seems to have first originated in the Levant. The earliest recipe I could lay my hands on occurs in 13th-century Aleppan cookbook Al-Wusla ila ‘l-Habeeb (الوصلة الى الحبيب في وصف الطيبات والطيب) written by the well-known Syrian historian Ibn Al-'Adeem (d. 1262). The recipe is just one line long, but it certainly points to our dish, "Meat is cut, spread on flattened discs of dough, and then put in the brick oven furn.” (p. 2:556)  

However, in Iraq this food seems to have been kept on the back burner for a long while. When I was still a kid in Baghdad, not many people knew of it. We used to get it by order from the neighborhood bakery owned by an Armenian, but his version was very basic. The topping consisted of just meat, onions, salt, and black pepper. By the seventies, though, popularity of this delicious bread picked up and many small bakeries specialized in making it were opened in the major cities of Iraq to meet the increasing demand. It comes out of their brick ovens sizzling hot, lusciously moist and tender, and dripping with the melted fat of meat. Delicious surely, but unfortunately too greasy.  

This food is too good to pass, and why should we. We can make it  ourselves, equally delicious but much healthier. It is indeed fun to make but definitely not a dish to whip in 30 minutes. But I assure you it would be time well invested.

Recipe for making lahm b-'ajeen:   

First we need to prepare the dough (the 'ajeen part):

2 tablespoons dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup warm water
9 cups (2¼ pounds) bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup oil
3 cups warm water

1. Dissolve yeast and sugar in ½ cup warm water, set aside for 5 minutes.

2. Put flour and salt in a big bowl. Make a well in the middle, and pour yeast mixture along with oil and water. With a wooden spoon, incorporate liquids into flour in a circular movement. With slightly oiled hands, knead dough for about 5 minutes. The final dough should be of medium consistency. Oil dough on both sides and set it aside, covered, in a warm draft-free place for 45 minutes or until well risen. 

Now to the meat part (lahm):
While waiting for the dough to rise, prepare the topping:

3 medium onions (about 2 cups), finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste (one 6-ounce can)
1½ - 2 pounds ground lean meat (beef or lamb, or a mix of both)
¾ cup chopped parsley
2 medium tomatoes (about 1½ cups), finely chopped
1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup (may use lemon juice instead)
2 teaspoons baharat (spice mix, follow link for recipe)
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon chili pepper, or to taste

Sauté onion in oil, about 5 minutes (just enough to soften it), and then stir in tomato paste until it emits a nice aroma, about a minute. Set aside until it cools down to room temperature. Then mix in the rest of the topping ingredients.     

Now, it's shape and bake time: 

1. Position one of the oven shelves at the lowest level if oven is electric, and put on it a pizza stone or an inverted baking sheet. If oven is gas, remove the lowest shelf, and place the pizza stone right on the oven floor. Position the second shelf at the highest level, and preheat oven 420°F.  

2. As soon as dough rises, punch it down and divide it into 20 pieces, which you shape into neat balls by tucking in the sides with slightly oiled hands. Place portions on a lightly-oiled surface..

3. Since the dough does not need to rise again, you can start shaping and baking right away. Lightly cover work surface and rolling pin with olive oil, and roll out a dough portion into a disc about 7 inches in diameter (or rectangle), about ⅛ inch thick. Place the flattened dough on a piece of parchment paper, a little bigger than the dough disc. Spread about ¼ cup  of the meat mix on it. It should cover the surface in a thin layer, leaving a slight border uncovered. Lightly brush uncovered border with olive oil. (If parchment paper is not available, use greased baking sheets).

4. Immediately, and with the help of a small bread peel (or a solid piece of cardboard or wood or anything similar). Slide the disc into the hot stone or the inverted baking sheet. Dough is not supposed to puff like pita bread, and it will take about 8 minutes to bake. You can bake 2 or 3 at a time depending on oven or pizza stone size. While this batch is baking, start working on the other batches. You might transfer half-baked ones to the upper shelf, and put some new ones on lower shelf to expedite the procedure.  


6. As soon as you take the baked ones out of the oven, stack them with the parchment paper, in a big paper bag, lined with a kitchen towel or paper napkins, and partially close the bag. Or use a large container (see photo to your right). The parchment paper will prevent the topping from sticking to the bottom of the piece above it.

Best when eaten hot right from the oven, but also good at room temperature. Any leftovers may be refrigerated or frozen, and warmed up in the oven. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Kubbat Timman كبّة تمّن 

aka, Kubbat Halab كبّة حلب 

Iraqi Rice-Balls, Stuffed and Fried

Elegant Counterpart of Sicilian Arancini

Crisp and golden bundles of delight:
Rice is boiled in a large amount of salted water, flavored with a bit of saffron, and cooked to perfection. Then it is drained and kneaded into dough, stuffed with spicy meat-mix, shaped, and fried to golden crispness. Yummy!

This is an Iraqi specialty, a delicacy usually reserved for festive treats and elegant presentations. Although the name kubbat Halab might link it to the Syrian city of Aleppo, to my knowledge, no other Arab country prepares it as we do. I once made it for friends from Aleppo, and they said they have never seen anything like it before.

The beginnings of today’s art of making the stuffed foods of kubba, of which this Iraqi specialty is just one kind, can be traced back to the Baghdadi medieval kitchens where cooks experimented with this sort of complex cooking technique, with great success. We know this from some of the recipes included in al-Baghdadi's cookbook كتاب الطبيخ written in Baghdad in 1226. In his collection of recipes, the much-loved meatballs, called kubeb كُبب (singular kubba كبّة), were given several playful twists by stuffing them with other ingredients, thus turning them into little balls of delightful surprises.

For instance, in a dish called Makhfiyya (the hidden), whole cooked egg-yolks were enclosed in spicy paste of ground meat, and shaped into balls. In Rutabiyya (meaning 'cooked with dates'), paste of ground meat was formed into date-like balls, stuffed with peeled almonds, and simmered in broth. When served, the dish was garnished with real dates filled with almonds, to further confuse the diners. In another dish called Bunduqiyya ('like hazelnuts'), paste of seasoned ground meat was shaped into small balls, as small as hazelnuts, filled with mashed cooked chickpeas, then simmered in broth.

Also included in al-Baghdadi’s cookbook was Naranjiyya (i.e. looking like naranj 'orange'). Meatballs were made as large as oranges, and then they were coated with egg-yolk and dipped into the stew-liquid several times until they acquired the color orange; which brings us to the now ubiquitous Sicilian arancini (singular arancino, from ‘arancia’ Italian for ‘little orange’), which are large stuffed balls of cooked rice, breaded and deep fried until they are golden brown, so that they look like oranges. 

Balls and cones of arancini
It is quite likely that the medieval Arab Naranjiyya might have been the inspiration behind this Sicilian specialty. Actually, I have seen it repeatedly mentioned that it was invented in the tenth-century during the time of the Arab rule, and that it was similar to foods based on recipes known in the Middle East during the Middle Ages (see for instance, Arancine, by Francesca Lombardo). Indeed, this might well have been the case as cultivation of rice, saffron and citrus fruits, among many other plants, was initiated by the Arabs when they ruled the southern parts of Spain and Italy. However, I have yet to find medieval recipes or more specific references to this kind of stuffed food.   


It is my assumption, though, that arancini and even the Iraqi Kubbat Halab might well have originally been the creations of the resourceful cooks who found a practical and delicious way for using cooked-rice leftovers, but evidently the Iraqi cooks took it notches up. In today's Italian cuisine, arancini is plain honest easy-to prepare food, stuffed with whatever is on hand; quite popular as comfort snack food.   

Kubbat Halab on the other hand is one of the most refined Iraqi stuffed dishes, which requires a certain level of expertise; shells meticulously shaped as thin as possible and exquisitely filled with meat stuffing, redolent with the aromas of allspice and baharat spices. 

Here is how to make kubbat Halab

Making dough for kubbat Halab might prove to be rather tricky at the beginning. I remember when I first started experimenting with it, the finished kubbas were soft, and took some odd shapes. To make successful kubbat Halab you need to watch for two things:

1. The best rice choice would be a variety which tends to be a little on the sticky side such as jasmine rice, but basmati rice will still work. Some people choose to add beaten egg to the dough as a binder, but this will soften the texture, and the kubba loses its characteristic crunchiness.

2. Let rice boil gently in a big amount of salted water, and watch it and test the grains for doneness. Undercook the grains and they will not bind into dough, overcook them and they will be a ruined mush.

First of all, prepare the filling:

1 ½ pounds lean ground meat
2 tablespoons oil
2 medium onions (about 9 oz), finely chopped

1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon baharat mix
¼ teaspoon chili pepper
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup slivered and toasted almond
¼ cup currants or chopped raisins

Heat oil in a big skillet and cook ground meat, stirring occasionally, and breaking down any lumps with the back of a spoon. When moisture almost evaporates, add onion and stir until transparent, 10 to 15 minutes, total. Add the rest of the ingredients in the last five minutes of cooking, and fold gently. Set aside to cool off. 

Kubba stuffing ready to use
Now, prepare the rice dough:

2 cups (1 pound) rice, washed, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
10 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon turmeric or saffron
½ teaspoon cinnamon or a small cinnamon stick
¼ cup cornstarch
Oil for frying (such as canola)

1. Bring water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the drained rice along with salt, saffron or turmeric, and cinnamon. Give the pot a good stir, and bring it back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and let the rice boil gently in the partially covered pot, gently stirring twice or thrice. The rice grains should be cooked in about 15 minutes. Start testing after the first 10 minutes of cooking. Take a few grains and eat them, they should be cooked but still intact, not chewy, and not mushy. Do not let rice overcook.   

2. Strain rice in a metal colander. Put the colander with the rice back into the pot and cover it with the lid, and set it aside until it is cool enough to handle.

3. Transfer rice to a big bowl, and discard the cinnamon stick if used. Sprinkle cornstarch on rice and knead with slightly moistened hands until mixture is combined into dough.  

4. Have a bowl of cold water nearby. Handling with slightly moistened hands, take a small amount of dough, size of a small lemon, and shape it as follows (like the American football or rugby ball): 

Hold the ball of dough in one hand and hollow it with the thumb of the other hand until you get an elongated oval shell about ¼ in. thick and 3 in. long, it does not have to be perfect. Fill and close the opening, and roll it gently between the palms to make it look like an egg with two pointed ends. Moisten your fingers whenever dough feels sticky. Put the finished ones on a big tray in one layer.

5. Fry the filled kubba in 1-inch deep hot oil, turning once, until golden all around, about 7 minutes per batch. Put the fried pieces in a large colander lined with white paper towels, and let them cool off a little before serving. Alternatively, you may spread the paper towels on a rack and put the fried kubbas in one layer to cool off. This way you prevent the kubba from getting soggy.

Serve with lots of salad and bread, or make into sandwiches with slices of salad vegetables, and pickles. Pickled mango (‘amba) with diced tomato is especially good with this dish (see my website for pickle suggestions).

(Makes 22-24 pieces) 

Kubbat Halab: A diamond in the rough, waiting to be discovered!  

When are we going to see such trailers serving the scrumptious Iraqi elegant version, kubbat Halab? 

A food trailer serving the Sicilian arancini