Friday, April 18, 2014

Churek, Iraqi Yeast Pastry, 

and Spring Festivals of Ancient Times 

Impressively large, delicately sweet and aromatic, light and delicious. Lovely with tea or coffee.   

Iraqi Churek is most traditionally shaped like a wheel, about 12 inch across with a cross-like double axis; but it is also made into smaller flattish oval-shaped buns with no holes in them, stuffed with small amounts of dates or cheese and parsley.

Churek, along with the dry dunking cookies ka'ak كعك and bakhsam بخصم, are usually purchased from traditional specialized bakeries where sometimes churek can be seen hung on the wall on long nails for display. The oldest and most famous churek and ka'ak bakery is Ka'ak il-Seyyid كعك السيد, located on the main street of Baghdad, Shari' al-Rasheed. It was a family-run business, which started in 1906.            

Old photo of the the famous bakery Ka'ak il-Seyyid
In Iraq today churek is not particularly associated with any festivities, religious or otherwise. It is consumed year round, usually with afternoon tea. But churek is also known in other countries, where it is traditionally associated with Easter. In Greece and Cyprus, for instance, it is known as tsoureki, but it is shaped into braids. The Armenian variant is choreg and the Turkish is çöregi. Interestingly, its counterpart in traditional Eastern European Easter baking is the kulich/kolach. The Bulgarians, for instance, call it kolach, but they more traditionally shape it like a ring or a wheel, which is more like our chureck without the cross. The name is claimed to be of Slavic origin, closely connected with the bread’s round shape --kolo means ‘circle’.

Now, the Jewish challah (variants: chalah, hallah, cholla) is said to have affinities with kulich. For the Sabbath, this yeast bread is usually made braided. However, for Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), it is made round, to symbolize the yearly cycle and the wheel of time, which, etymologically, is in perfect agreement with one of the possible meanings of challah, Which is 'round'. 

It seems to me, therefore, that the etymological key to churek is its shape -- round. Going back to medieval Islam, jarq was a kind of bread shaped into rings. The name was undoubtedly the Arabized form of the Persian jarg ‘circle,’ from which charka ‘wheel’ was derived (today in Iraq, charikh is 'wheel').

Ultimately, however, this pastry with all these etymological variants associated with it may be traced back to the ancient Mesopotamian New Year festivities of the Akkadian mythical goddess Ishtar (Sumerian Inana ‘Lady of Heaven’).

Goddess Ishtar /Inana, with her symbol, star disc, in the middle

She was the most important goddess, daughter of the moon god Sin, and sister of the sun god Shamash. She was goddess of love, war, sexuality, and fertility in humankind. Interestingly, she was also described as goddess of the grains, which explains why women kneaded dough to make cakes to her. Her planet was Venus, she was called the Morning and Evening star, and her name was often strongly associated with the moon. Besides, due to her journey to the underworld to bring back her shepherd-husband Dumuzi (biblical Tammuz), she was also responsible for the mysteries of death and rebirth.

Ishtar's spring festivals celebrated the return of life, announced by the first New Moon of the season, around the end of March and beginning of April. In celebration of the goddess Ishtar and the New Year, special pastries were baked as offerings to her. Of these temple pastries, we are fortunate to have specific descriptions of round pastries called qullupu. The name is suggestive of their shape -- round, which used to symbolize Ishtar and her associations with the moon, as well as the circle and the wheel, which signified the cycle of the year and renewal of life. The term was derived from the Semitic roots kll and kly meaning ‘to complete’, and kull, ‘whole.’

Thus, we can clearly see affinities -- in etymology and shape -- between the ancient Mesopotamian qullupu pastries and the modern East European pastries kulich/kolach/challah and their counterpart tsoureki/choreg/çöregi, and the Iraqi chureck.

Ishtar’s fame spread far and wide. She had her Phoenician, Syrian, and Canaanite counterparts, and consequently most of the rituals and ceremonies involved in worshipping her were adopted and adapted, one way or another, in most parts of the ancient Old World. In the Bible, Ishtar was called Ashtoreth, and it is conjectured that the name of Esther, heroine of the Book of Esther, is a Hebrew rendition of a form of Ishtar.

Likewise, the name of the Christian feast ‘Easter’ is ultimately associated with the goddess Ishtar. Today, Easter, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon following March 20 celebrates the resurrection of Christ, just as Ishtar’s festivals, falling on the first evening of the first crescent moon following the Spring Equinox, marked the New Year by commemorating the resurrection of the god Dumuzi, Ishtar’s husband.

It has also been suggested that the crucifixion cross symbol in the ‘bouns’ (buns) of the ancient Saxon Feast of Eostre -- origin of the modern British hot cross buns -- harkens back to the ancient Mesopotamian cross, believed to symbolize the sun or the four quarters of the moon, one of Ishtar’s symbols. 

I have a very good detailed recipe for making churek in my Delights from the Garden of Eden, (pp. 107-8). Or follow this link for one of my reader's adaptation of my original recipe.
The traditional shape of the churek with four holes has also inspired the romantic name shibbach il-habyib (lovers' window).

Whether a 'steering wheel' or a 'lovers' window' they all end up being devoured as quickly as you make them. But since my recipe yields four large ones, I usually keep some in plastic bags in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days, and heat them up as needed, and freeze a couple for later. Just let them cool down completely, stuff them carefully in large plastic bags and freeze them. Next time you need to serve them, take them out of the freezer about an hour ahead of time, and then heat them up in the oven, medium heat, for 5 minutes or so. They will taste as if you've just baked them. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lent Dishes

From the Caliphs' Kitchens to Yours

Muzawwarat Recipes from Medieval Baghdad

المزوّرات: وصفات صيامية من بغداد الرشيد

Pureed Fava Beans Dip, Medieval Style
باقلا خضراء مهروسة

Gorgeous medieval Baghdadi dip that will put even hummus to shame.

It is no secret that Arab cuisine glorifies meat. No meal is rendered complete without it, even the host's hospitality is gauged by the amount of meat served. This has been the case all along, particularly in pre-modern times when vegetarian dishes were not considered real food. In fact, in medieval times a meat-less dish is called muzawwara (counterfeit) and sometimes kadhdhaba (false). Such dishes were usually offered before the main meat-dish. But they also proved quite handy when someone was sick, as they were believed to be easier to digest. As such, they were tolerated but not sought after. Medieval books preserved for us verses written in frustration by a sick poet who was ordered by his physician to stick to a vegetarian diet:

How can muzawwara my nourishment be?
Eating muzawwara is a falsity!
Vinegar and the trifling vegetable dishes are not for me.
Let the doctor get out of my way!
Say in doctors and medicine faith has gone astray.
Give me! Where is kebab? Where are the fried dishes?
The succulent roasts and the spiced meat? Bring them on! 


But most of all, the meatless dishes were in demand among Christians fasting during Lent, and the extant medieval Arab cookbooks do include a good number of them, the most interesting of which may be located in 10th-century cookbook by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq Kitab al-Tabeekh (كتاب الطبيخ). It dedicates the whole of chapter 46 to such dishes. It is given the title ما يأكل النصارى من الطعام المزور في الصيام (Counterfeit Dishes which Christians Eat during Lent). All made with chard, fava beans, beans, gourd, truffles, purslane, and the like. Some recipes show how to make shrimp and small fish relishes without shrimp and fish, how to make milk with coconut, omelet without eggs, harisa (rice porridge) with leeks instead of meat, or making stews thickened and flavored with ground sesame and almonds instead of meat.

Pureed Fava Beans Dip, Medieval Style
باقلا خضراء مهروسة

Here is a recipe I adapted from Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's tenth-century cookbook (see my English translation Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, Chapter 45, and Delights from the Garden of Eden, p. 132):

You can prepare this dip year round using frozen green fava beans, available at Middle Eastern stores, but also at major super markets (look for it in the Goya frozen vegetables section).

2 cups (12 oz) fresh or frozen fava beans
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
½ cup, finely chopped cilantro 

2 garlic cloves, grated
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup lemon juice
½ cup (2 oz) ground pistachio

For garnish: olive oil, olives, and basil or parsley 

1. Put fava beans in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium, and let boil gently for about 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain beans and reserve some of the liquid, in case you need it. When beans are cool enough to handle, peel and mash them with a fork. 

2. Sauté onion in oil until it starts to brown. Add coriander and cilantro, and stir briefly. Set aside 2 tablespoons of it for garnish, add the rest to the mashed beans along with garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, lemon juice, and ground pistachio. If mixture looks dry, add a little of the drained liquid in which beans were cooked or some extra lemon juice, to taste.

3. Spread mixture in a shallow bowl, and garnish with the browned onion, olive oil, olives, and basil or parsley.  Serve with warm bread.

 Makes 4 servings   

Halawa Dihiniyya: Iraqi-Style Fudge

حلاوة دهينية

Delicious dessert!
So steeped in scrumptiousness and history

Also goes by the names dihniyya and dihina, all derived from the name of the clarified butter (dihin hurr) traditionally used in making it, which gives it its characteristic enticing aroma. Nobody makes it at home. You can find it wherever traditional sweets are sold, but, without dispute, the best is purchased from the confectioners in the bazaars adjoining the Shiite holy shrine in Najaf, south of Baghdad, which explains why it is sometimes referred to as halawa Najafiyya. Indeed, visitors from outside Najaf are always expected to bring back with them boxfuls of it for family and friends.

Its ingredients are simple and basic, mainly flour, sugar, date syrup or honey, and clarified butter (dihin hurr), cooked in two stages, first on the stove, and then finished in the oven.

 From extant recipes going back to the eighth century- the time of the Abbasid rule - we know that similar desserts were made, albeit named differently. Back then they were called khabees (خبيص) and faludhaj (فالوذج). [see for instance chapters 93 and 94, in my English translation of Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's cookbook, Annals of the Caliphis' Kichens]. I have even found a recipe in 15th-century cookbook Kitab al-Tibakha (كتاب الطباخة) by the famous historian Ibn al-Mubarrid of Damascus. Interestingly, he even called it halwa duhniyya (حلوى دهنية). The 19th-century Lebanese cookbook Kitab Tadhkirat al-Khawateen wa Ustadh al-Tabbakheen (كتاب تذكرة الخواتين وأستاذ الطبّاخين), contains a recipe for khabees made with date syrup/sugar, p. 120.  So this dessert, even in name, has certainly been around for many centuries. One difference, though, prior to the 20th century no oven was involved in making it, just the stove, and while the neighboring countries abandoned it, the tradition of making it continued in Iraq.  

Here is how to make it (Makes about 15 generous squares):
(Recipe adapted from

1 cup milk
1 cup fat (I use 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup canola oil)
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons date syrup (may be substituted with honey)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
1 cup walnut halves

Preheat oven to 340 degrees F.

1. Put milk, fat, sugar and date syrup (or honey) in a small heavy pot. Stir and let mix boil until bubbly over medium heat (about 10 minutes). Then take the pot away from heat and right away start adding flour gradually, using electric mixer, like you do with cakes. Mix in cardamom.

2. Grease a 12x7x2 -inch pan (or approximate size), and spread the bottom with half of the coconut. Scatter the walnut halves all over it. Then, pour the batter, and cover its surface with the rest of the coconut.

3. Put the pan on the middle shelf, drape it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil, and let bake slowly for 40 to 45 minutes.

4. Take it out of the oven, and let it cool down completely on a cooling rack. Cut it into 15 squares and serve. Store the leftovers in a plastic container and keep in refrigerator, where it will stay good to eat for several weeks (if you can resist the temptation).


Indulge responsibly!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cauliflower is in! Kale is So Last Year!

قرنابيط مقلي 

Fried Breaded Cauliflower
Qirnabeet Maqli

I was thrilled to read the other day the Boston Globe article "Goodbye kale. Hello cauliflower." Admittedly kale rarely made it to my dishes but cauliflower, always has been a favorite. So here we go:

It has always been difficult to get people excited about cauliflower. We know it was cooked in the medieval Islamic world. Medieval Arabic books on cooking and botany do  mention it. It was called qunnabeet قنابيط and the florets were called zahr زهر 'flowers' and bayd بيض 'eggs', and was considered a type of cultivated cabbage كرنب بستاني). But it did not seem to have been quite popular. Their physicians had a low opinion of it. They thought it generated bad blood and that it caused rumbling stomach noises.  To avoid its harms the recommendation was to boil it twice with changes of water to get rid of the smell. They also recommended cooking it with fat meat and chicken, spiced with cumin, cilantro, and pepper, along with oil and salt.

Cooked the right way, medieval Arab physicians recommended it for cold related illnesses. Its stew was said to be good for coughs. They also believed that having the vegetable before drinking alcohol slowed intoxication. It also helped relieve hangover symptoms.

Medieval illustration of cauliflower, Italy
 And yes, the major culprit must have been the odor it emits when boiled. If you want to have your cauliflower and eat it, never boil it when you are expecting guests for dinner or when there are people around the house who are not forgiving enough. Boil it or steam it, and immediately drain it and get rid of the liquid, after that you will be safe to use it however you like.

In Iraq it is typically a winter vegetable, and we usually fry it breaded or cook it as delicious delicate stew. I prefer to prepare it with the small meatballs we call ras il-'asfoor راس العصفور 'sparrow's head', as you see in this photo based on a recipe in my Delights from the Garden of Eden, p. 220.

Fried Breaded Cauliflower
Qirnabeet Maqli

For a snack or a side-dish, I love to prepare it breaded and fried, but you can certainly broil it to avoid the frying. Just brush or spray the pieces with oil and let them broil, turning once to cook both sides. The egg-and-crumb coating makes it deliciously crispy from the outside, leaving the inside soft and succulent. It almost melts in the mouth. 

Breaded cauliflower with red-pepper jelly and sprigs of rishshaad (garden cress/pepper grass)

Here is how to make it (about 6 servings): 

1 medium head of cauliflower, broken into florets
2 eggs, beaten
Bread crumbs seasoned with salt, chili powder, ground ginger, and black pepper (¼ teaspoon of each for 1 cup breadcrumbs)

Oil for frying

1. Cook cauliflower in salted water, or steam it,  until just done, avoid overcooking. Drain it and let it cool off. 

2. Dip the florets in beaten eggs first, and then coat them with breadcrumbs.

3. Fry in 2 inch-deep hot oil until golden brown, turning once to allow to brown on all sides, a few minutes. Drain on a white paper towel put on a colander or a rack to prevent pieces from getting soggy.

Serve hot as a snack or with meat dishes.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Edible Greetings: Giant Sesame Cookies

برازق بالسمسم

How about making greeting cards, rose-scented and thoroughly delicious?

I always had fond memories of the giant sesame cookies I used to love when I was in my homeland Iraq. After many attempts I finally got the right texture of the cookie as I remember it. Then, the idea of using them as edible ‘greeting cards’ hit me, inspired by their huge size. The kids just loved them. I would make the ‘cards’ and they do the greetings. And the recipients of these edible cards, our friends, could not be any happier. Unfortunately, they are so tempting, that there is very little chance for them to stay intact longer than the time it takes to read them. Nevertheless, enjoy!

(Makes 20 large cookies)             

½ cup butter, and ½ cup canola oil
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon each of vanilla, ground cardamom, and ground fennel seeds

4½ cups all-purpose flour
2 rounded teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

½ cup coarsely ground pistachio or walnuts
¾ cup honey, heated
¾ cup sesame seeds

For glaze (enough for 10 cookies): 1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon rose water
About 4 tablespoons milk

Preheat oven 400°F

1. With a mixer, beat together butter, oil, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla, cardamom, and aniseed, about 2 minutes.

2. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt, and add them to the creamed mix all at once. With a wooden spoon, stir them in a circular movement until well incorporated. Then knead lightly and briefly until the mixture gets together and forms into a ball.

3. Divide dough into 20 golf-ball size pieces.

4. Put nuts, honey, and sesame seeds in three small separate bowls (heating honey will make brushing it on the cookies much easier).

5. While holding a dough-ball, dip it in nuts first allowing its bottom to pick up as much nuts as possible. Then put it on a cookie sheet (no need to grease it). Flatten it with the fingers to ¼ inch thickness, shaping it into a disc about 4½ inches wide (tip: I use the hamburger ring-mold as a guide to make an evenly-shaped round). If wished, crimp edges by pinching with thumb and index finger. Brush the disc with honey, and sprinkle it generously with sesame seeds. Repeat with the rest of pieces. Leave space between them to allow for expansion. You might need 2 to 3 cookie sheets.

6. Bake the first batch in the middle of the preheated oven about 10 minutes, then take it up to the top rack, and put the second batch on the middle rack. In about 5 minutes, check on the top rack. The cookies are done when they nicely brown. Repeat with the other batches.   

7. With a thin pancake turner, carefully transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. Let them cool completely.

8. To glaze the cookies, mix powdered sugar, rose water, and enough milk to form a glaze of spreading consistency. Pour it on the cookies, and set aside until set. Using melted chocolate, decorate the surface with greetings or messages or whatever you fancy. 


كيكة الفواكه المجففة

Kekat il-Fawakih il-Mujaffafa

Delicious cake, full of goodness. Do not give it away! 

When I first cam to the US I was puzzled by the jokes about fruitcakes, and how they are the most recycled Christmas items, as my past experience with fruitcakes in Iraq was quite to the contrary. At Christmas time our Christian neighbors used to send us a plateful of fruitcake slices, deliciously aromatic, studded with raisins and chopped walnut and dates. Year round, simpler types of fruitcakes baked in loaf pans were always available for purchase from bakeries, or often baked at home in bundt/ring pans.

Admittedly, some of the fruitcakes I have tasted do indeed need to by recycled: no flavor, too sweet and dense, with way too much dried fruits, most of which artificially colored. It does not have to be made like this. A fruitcake with balanced texture and taste is the most wonderful cake, packed with goodness, what with all the natural fruits and nuts it contains.

After many attempt over the years, I managed to come up with this recipe, which is not cloyingly sweet, with reasonable amount of fat, and deliriously aromatic.

4¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 rounded teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¾ cup vegetable oil (such as canola)
1 ½ cups sugar
6 large eggs (= 1 ¼ cups)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1⅓ cups milk

6 cups (2 lb+4oz) dried fruits like raisins, chopped apricots, figs, dates and prunes
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
½ cup finely shredded unsweetened coconut
1 cup toasted walnut, broken to pieces
½ cup ground toasted almond
Preheat oven 375°F

1. Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

2. In a big bowl, beat oil and sugar, about 2 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, about 3 minutes. Mix in vanilla.

3. Add flour mixture in 4 batches alternately with milk. Do not over mix.

4. Put the prepared dried fruits in a big bowl, and mix them with the coconut, ½ cup of the walnut and the ground almond.

5. Add the dried fruit-mix into the cake batter and mix with a large spoon.

6. Grease and flour the baking pan. For this cake, I usually use one long loaf pan 16-by-4-by-4½ inch. Two regular loaf pans will also do. Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with the remaining ½ cup walnut. Spoon the batter into the pan and level the surface.

7. Bake in the preheated oven for about 70 minutes or until golden brown, and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

8. Take the cake out of the oven and put the pan on a rack and let the cake cool completely in the pan. Then invert it and set it aside for a couple of hours before slicing it.

If wrapped well, this cake can stay good in the refrigerator for more than a week. It also freezes very well. I usually slice the cake into serving size pieces, wrap them individually in plastic wrap and keep them in the freezer, and use as needed.

For more on the history of making fruitcakes in ancient Iraq, with Sumerian recipes, go to my website

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pomegranate Sherbet

Sherbet Rumman شربت رمان


A Song to an Unhappy Little Girl from Basra: 

Hey Ho, my Little Pomegranate! Hey Ho my Darling

'Hela Ya Rummana, Hela Yumma'

هيلا يا رمانة هيلا يمة

'Tis the season for pomegranate, so enjoy its fresh addictive succulent crunchiness while you may.

Pomegranate tree, 13th-century folio, 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat
by al-Qazwini.
W. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian  

A lot of praise has been heaped on pomegranate in the West of late, touting it as an almost miracle food. But in the Middle East its virtues, both nutritional and symbolic, were acknowledged from ancient times. Read here, for instance, for more.

Thrice mentioned in the Qur'an, pomegranate is believed to have been grown in the gardens of Paradise. According to the Islamic lore, when the Prophet was asked about it, he said, "There is no pomegranate which has not within it a seed of the pomegranate of Paradise."

Assyrian cylinder seal showing the Tree of Life, which appears to be a pomegranate tree. Link   
Ancient Sumerian plaque featuring a dates and pomegranates, both symbols of fecundity (Iraq Museum)  
From ancient times, people in the Middle East have been preserving pomegranate to use when not in season. The seeds were dried whole and stored. For cooking purposes, the juice is cooked down to rubb (رُبّ), called molasses or syrup in English. A recipe from 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq describes how to make it:

Choose ripe sweet-and-sour pomegranate with red seeds. Extract and strain the juice and put it in a clean soapstone pot. Boil it on slow fire until it is reduced to a third of its original amount then strain it and store it in glass jars. (my translation, Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, p. 490)

However, to enjoy it as a sweet refreshing drink, called sherbet in Iraq, pomegranate juice is usually preserved as a syrup, to be diluted with chilled water whenever needed.

This sherbet is not to be confused with the Western ice cream 'sherbet', although basically the latter did originate from this Middle Eastern drink (see for instance Jeri Quinzio's Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, pp. 6-7). Back in medieval times, such sweet chilled drinks were served at the end of the meal as they were believed to aid digestion.

Syrup for Pomegranate Sherbet  شربت رمّان

Sherbet Rumman

In Iraqi this is how the syrup is traditionally prepared. It is usually diluted with chilled water and some ice cubes, but using plain soda would be nice, too. The syrup is not cooked down like the molasses, which helps preserve the fresh delicate taste of the pomegranate.        

2 cups pomegranate juice
3 cups granulated sugar
¼ cup lemon juice

Use a juicer to extract the juice from pomegranate seeds (discard rind and membranes before juicing, to prevent the drink from getting bitter and acrid).

Gradually stir in sugar into the juice, and let it dissolve completely. Then add lemon juice and mix well. Bottle the syrup and seal it with wax, or just keep it in the refrigerator.

To serve, dilute the required amount with cold water, along with ice cubes or crushed ice.

Extracting pomegranate juice in the old days of Baghdad

A Song to an Unhappy Little Girl from Basra:
Hey Ho, my Little Pomegranate! Hey Ho my Darling
'Hela Ya Rummana, Hela Yumma'
هيلا يا رمانة هيلا يمة

Pomegranate is mentioned in many Iraqi folk-songs. Check out, for instance, this coyish one:

When pomegranates hovered around me,
Lemons came to my rescue.
O that sweet one, I do not want him.
Take me back home.  

Amorous depiction of the pomegranate in songs is an age-old tradition in the Middle East. Listen, for instance to one of the Songs of Solomon (7:12):     

Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, 
If their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

But pomegranate is also used as a term of endearment, as in this charming children's song, which highlights the precious love a father has for his daughter. Its origin is the southern port city of Basra, where the medieval Arabian Nights's famous seafarer Sindbad used to embark on his fascinating voyages. The Arab sailors' 'Hela' is the equivalent of the English sailors' 'Hey Ho'.    

Hey Ho, my little pomegranate!
    Hey Ho my darling.
Who is the unhappy one here?
    Hey Ho my darling.
Our pretty little girl is the unhappy one here.
    Hey Ho my darling.
And who is to make her happy again?
    Hey Ho my darling.
Her father will make her happy again.
    Hey Ho my darling.
He is the one who made her gold earrings.
    Hey Ho my darling.
And a ring and a necklace.
    Hey Ho my darling.

هيلا يارمّانة               هيلا يمّة
من هيّة الزعلانة؟        هيلا يمّة
الحلوة الزعلانة           هيلا يمّة
منهو اللي يراضيها؟     هيلا يمّة
أبوها يراضيها            هيلا يمّة
صايغ تراجيها            هيلا يمّة
محبس وكردانا           هيلا يمّة

I have a fried who, in celebration of her birthday asked for a song, just a song. My husband and I sang for her a traditional Iraqi song, a favorite of ours, but now I think I really should have chosen this one for her.

She once reminisced to us how when just a little girl, she used to slice canned pitted olives and wear them as rings on her tiny little fingers. Then she would proceed on nibbling at them one after the other until they were all gone. In my mind, she will for ever be that little girl.

So here's to you Michal!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Warm Memories of Summer in a Jam Jar of Cantaloupe:

  Mrabbat Batteekh

مربة بطيخ

A bowlful of aromatic succulent sunshine for a gloomy wintry day.   

In Iraq this jam is exclusively homemade, and I am not aware that it is made anywhere else. People start making it towards the end of summer while the sun has not lost its intensity yet. After the jam is done boiling, it is usually taken up to the flat roof of the house, and is spread in kind of large shallow containers. A cover of thin muslin cloth is used to keep the jam clean from dust and flies. After a week or so under the heat of the sum the jam will thicken, with syrup like honey and chunks of preserved fruit delightfully sweet and chewy. Like this, the jam will keep for a very long time even without refrigeration.   

The following recipe does not require the jam to mature on the roof top, which is good news, but make sure the cantaloupe pulp is firm and not on the mushy side, so that the fruit stays chunky.
1 pound cataloupe pulp
1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup walnut halves
3 cardamom pods 
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Cut cantaloupe into chunks, layer with sugar and walnut in a heavy medium pot, add the cardamom pods, and set aside overnight.

Cook on medium-low heat, stirring gently to let sugar dissolve completely, skim as needed. Let jam boil gently until syrup is thick and cantaloupe is translucent, about 30 minutes. Add lemon juice in the last 5 minutes. Test for doneness by putting a drop of the syrup on a dry and cold dish. If you tilt the dish and the drop does not go flat but keeps its domed shape, then jam is ready. Let it cool off completely, and put in a jar. Refrigerate and use as needed.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

 Twisted Sesame Rings, Simeat

Bagels of Baghdad 


Traditional savory pastry rings, encrusted with sesame seeds, Baghdadi version of the Jewish bagels

Simeat are well known throughout the eastern Mediterranean countries. Despite some differences, they are all shaped as rings and are generously encrusted with sesame seeds.

The authentic varieties, like Iraqi simeat, are closely related to bagels, in that they are poached in hot water before baking. In fact, the name of these pastries originally came from this practice because the root verb samata (سمط) means ‘dip briefly in hot water.’ This is a baking technique deeply steeped in history. In one of the extant medieval Arab cookbooks, a recipe for ring cookies called ka’k instructs that the dough be shaped into rings, which are first carried by a rolling pin and dipped briefly in boiling water and then arranged on a tray and baked in the brick oven called furn.

In Iraq, they are shaped into attractive small twisted rings, encrusted with lots of fragrant toasted sesame seeds, crispy in crust and chewy in texture. They are bought from wandering vendors who arrange the simeats on baskets in tall piles and carry them on their heads.


Simeat makes an excellent light snack. Here is an easy way to make them without having to parboil them before baking. (Makes 28 pieces)
3 tablespoons dried yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup (250 ml) warm water
10 cups (2½ lb/ 1.25 kg) bread/strong flour
1 tablespoon salt
¼ cup (60 ml) oil
3 cups (715 ml) warm water
For glaze: 1 egg-white whisked in 1 tablespoon water
Sesame seeds, dry toasted, for sprinkling
1. Oven heat 450°F/ 230°C/ gas mark 8.
2. Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1 cup (250 ml) warm water, and set aside for 5 minutes.
3. In a big bowl, combine flour and salt. Make a well in the middle, and then pour in yeast mixture, oil and 3 cups/715 ml warm water. Incorporate liquids into flour in a circular movement using a wooden spoon. With oiled hands, knead for 6 to 7 minutes until you get a smooth dough. Let rise in a warm draft-free place for about 1 hour.
4. Punch down dough, and divide it into 28 portions. Let it rest for about 10 minutes, covered.
5. On a slightly oiled surface, form into simeat rings as follows. Divide each piece into two parts. Roll each part into a rope about 9 in/23 cm long (if dough feels elastic and springs back, let it rest for 5 minutes). Lay 2 ropes next to each other, and wind one rope around the other. Curve twist into a circle, matching ends to form a continuous ring. Make sure to seal the ends very well to prevent them from opening while rising and baking. Put shaped pieces aside on a flat surface. After making about five, brush them with the glaze, and dip each, face down, in the toasted sesame. Arrange rings on a greased baking sheet. Leave space between them to allow for expansion. Repeat with other batches.
6. Let rise in a warm place for 40 to 45 minutes, covered with a kitchen towel.
7. Bake in the middle of the preheated oven. To create a good crust, spray simeat and oven with water. Repeat about 2 to 3 times, for the first 5 minutes. Total time of baking is about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately or let pieces cool off in a wicker basket or on a rack. Cooled ones can be kept in plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer. Heat in the oven as needed.
I sometimes break away from tradition and make simeat with cheese, olives and herbs. Quite tasty and aromatic.
Here is how to make them:
Herbed Simeat with Cheese and Olives
Prepare dough as given above. After dough rises, punch it down, and add to half of it the following:
¾ cup (4 oz/115 g) pitted/stoned and chopped olives
½ cup (2 oz/60 g) crumbled feta cheese or shredded mozzarella cheese
¼ cup (½ oz/15 g) each chopped fresh mint, parsley, and dill
Knead the ingredients into the dough. Let it rest for 10 minutes, and then divide it into 14 portions. Shape and bake as described above.
(Recipe from my cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden)

Read about simeat, and much more, in 

‘Delights from the Garden of Eden’: Author Explores Rich History of Iraqi Cuisine. With recipes for Simeat: Twisted Sesame Rings, Simmered Fresh Black-eyed Peas, and Okra Stew. (Canada, Sept. 18, 2013)   

By Laura Brehaut, Editor for Postmedia Network's Lifestyle and Health channels.