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! 


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.


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. 

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.