Monday, April 4, 2016

Everybody Loves Salsa

 Mustard and Vinegar Sauce
خل وخردل


The perfect salsa for your grilled dishes:


In modern Iraq what first comes to one’s mind at the mention of the words sauce and salsa is a store-bought bottle of steak sauce similar to A1, which we use primarily with hamburger sandwiches. We think of salsa as a loan word and a foreign concept. Other store-bought sauces are more commonly known by their names, such as khardal (yellow mustard sauce), ketchup, and mayonnaise. Homemade dips and sauces are usually given names, such as hummus bi-thina, jajeek (yogurt sauce), etc.

The general consensus nowadays regarding the etymological origin of salsa and sauce is that they have been borrowed into English from Spanish and French, respectively, and that both ultimately come from Latin salsus ‘salted,’ which stems from sal ‘salt,’ which indeed is an important ingredient in making sauce and salsa (see American Heritage Dictionary 4th edition). BUT:

Etymology aside, serving dishes with some sort of sauce, relish, or condiment is an ancient custom going back to the ancient world. In one of the Babylonian recipes preserved on cuneiform tablets written around 1700 BC, there are directions for the cook to send the dish to the table accompanied with “garlic, greens, and vinegar” (Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamian Culinary Texts 12). 

Given the high level of sophistication the ancient Mesopotamian cuisine achieved, it is likely that these ingredients were presented in the form of a relish, or what we call today salsa, i.e. chopped and mixed with vinegar. Otherwise, there is no logic in imagining that these ingredients were actually presented to the aristocratic diners in separate containers, so that they munch on whole garlic cloves and vegetables, and sip vinegar from a bowl. In fact, judging from the Akkadian herbal texts and related medicinal practices, such relishes and sauces were indeed meant to function as appetizers and digestives.

Later on, the ancient Greeks and the Romans showed the same tendencies, as exemplified in Apiciusthe only cookbook which came down to us from classical antiquity, believed to have been compiled around late 4th or early 5th century AD. The book abounds with sauce recipes called oenogarum. They were served with all kinds of meat and vegetables, such as in the recipe “Herb sauce for fried fish:

Prepare, wash, and fry whatever fish you like. Pound pepper, cumin, coriander seed, laser root [asafetida], oregano, rue, pound again; pour on vinegar, add date, honey, defrutum [reduced grape juice], oil, flavor with liquamen [fermented fish sauce]. Put into a pan, bring it to heat; when it is simmering, pour it over the fried fish, sprinkle with pepper and serve. (Grocock and Grainger, Apicius 301) 
 
Evidently, the tradition of serving meat and vegetable dishes with the suitable dips and sauces continued well into the medieval times. In the Islamic-Arab medieval world, the general Arabic word used designating such condiments was إدام idam and صباغ  sibagh. To my knowledge, the earliest record occurs in the Qur’an (revealed between 610 and 632 AD), where the olive tree is said to provide people with oil used as sibgh (صِبغ) condiment (Al-Mu’minoun, Chapter xxiii: verse 20). Indeed, olive oil along with vinegar was deemed the most basic of all condiments. We still relish a dip of seasoned olive oil with bread, and think of it as being an exclusively Italian simple dip.

Now, we come to the earliest extant Arabic cookbook, which is al-Warraq’s tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook Kitab al-Tabeekh كتاب الطبيخ  . It covers the Abbasid cuisine from late eighth to mid- tenth century. This cookbook contains many recipes for condiments called sibagh (صباغ), which are similar to what we have in Apicius. They are served as dips and sauces with meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, as an aid to digestion, particularly with grilled dishes, as they were thought to be hard to digest. Fish was deemed especially bad for the digestion, due to its cold properties, unless aided with the suitable sibagh.

In al-Warraq’s chapter dealing with fish dips, the book explains that sauces cooked with asafetida, onion, and spices aid digestion and sauces cooked with raisins and pomegranate seeds whet the appetite and help purge the food out of the system fast. The best were sauces cooked with sumac and almond because they digest very fast.  

The gourmet prince Ibrahim bin al-Mahdi (d. 839), half-brother of Harun al-Rasheed, composed a poem on a perfect fish dish served with sibagh (al-Warraq, Chapter 33):

وطاه اتى في يوم قيظ بصحفة     وفيها من الشبوط كالجدي احمرا
قد احكمه شيّا وصير حشوه      كرفسا وكراثا وزيتا وصعترا
وهيّا له من بعد ذلك صباغه     عصارة رمان ولوز وسكّرا
وخلا ومريا وانجذانا وفلفلا      وزيتا ركابيا وجوزا وكزبرا
فجاء بها كالشمس لونا وبهجة     تعاطيك انجوجا ومسكا وعنبرا


On a hot summer day, the cook brought us a dish of shabbut (carp) fish, a golden kid-roast resembled.
Masterly roasted; with parsley, leeks, olive oil, and thyme stuffed.
Then its sibagh he made of pomegranate juice, sugar, and almond,
Vinegar, murri, asafetida leaves, black pepper, olive oil, walnut, and coriander.
He brought it in looking like the sun, a radiant delight, redolent with aloe wood, musk, and amber (My translation, in Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens)

Sibagh was sometimes served as a dip alongside the grilled or fried dishes. It was put in small bowls called sakarij. They were used communally by the eaters, which necessitated that they should stay clean. Diners were strongly cautioned against what today is called double dipping -- dip a morsel into the sibagh bowl, have a bite, and dip it again (as happens in one of Seinfeld's episodes). Such a person back then was disparagingly called القطّاع al-qattaa’ ‘the cutter.’

Etymologically, one of the medieval meanings of sibagh was ‘a dip,’ from the verb sabagha صبغ  'to dip.’ Interestingly, this term was also applied to the Christians’ rite of baptizing children, and explains why John the Baptist, for example, was given the name Yohanna al-Sabbagh يوحنا الصباغ.

It turns out the word ultimately derives from the ancient Mesopotamian language. In the Akkadian dictionary, the verb sapu (variant saba’u) means ‘to soak, drench.’ Interestingly, this also sheds light on the meaning of the name of an ancient religious group that still exists in modern Iraq, the Sabians (الصابئة). In the Iraqi dialect, they are called Subba, followers of John the Baptist, who choose to live close to rivers.    

To resume the subject of sauces and dips, as we come to the thirteenth century, we notice some kind of development. In al-Baghdadi’s cookbook Kitab al-Tabeekh, sibagh recipes given were no longer poured all over the cooked meat and vegetables. Instead, they were presented as separate appetizers to be eaten with bread. According to al-Baghdadi, they were given between dishes, to cleanse the palate, sharpen the appetite, and aid digestion.

In the rest of the extant medieval Arabic cookbooks, which belong more or less to the same era as that of al-Baghdadi's, such as the Aleppan Al-Wusla ila ’l-Habeeb الوصلة الى الحبيب by the Syrian historian Ibn al-‘Adeem and the Egyptian Kanz al-Fawa’id كنز الفوائد, we come across condiments known by the name صُلص/ صلوصات suls/ sulusat (singular صَلص sals).

From the many recipes given in these books, we realize we are dealing with condiments — in content and function — similar to those of sibagh. However, from the sulusat recipes we infer that the dips and sauces started to be made smoother and uniform in consistency. The ingredients were pounded in a mortar until they resembled marham (ointment), as one of the recipes specified. The cook was also instructed to adjust the liquid added until the mixture attains قوام الصلص qiwam al-sals (sauce consistency), which I take to be neither runny nor too thick, the eater should be able to pick up some of the sauce with a piece of bread. Some of the sauces were meant for immediate use, such as the one prepared by mixing yogurt with pounded garlic and mint. Others were sealed in containers for up to a month. In one of the recipes, the prepared sauce was kept in one-time-use bottles because the sauce would mold after the bottle was opened. Here is its recipe from the Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa’id, recipe no. 491, called sals Kamili (صلص كاملي), most probably after the Ayyubid King al-Malik al-Kamil, who ruled 1218 to 1238:



12-century glass bottle, probably Syrian.
Credit: MET Museum, 2005,318,
Friends of Islamic Art Gifts, 2005 
Recipe for Sals Kamili:
Take the very tender leaves from the tips of citron stems (qulub al-utrunj), soak them in fine-tasting water, and then [drain them and] take one part, and pound them in jurn al-fuqqa’i. Take a similar amount, by weight, of chervil (baqdunis), and another similar amount of rayhan turunji (lemon balm). Pound them in the same manner, and mix them all; sprinkle on them crushed Andarani salt (rock salt), and squeeze in what is needed of lime juice.

Empty the sauce into glass bottles, and seal their surfaces with sweet olive oil. In each bottle, there should be an amount enough for a single table. Before serving the sauce, [a mix of] galangal, ginger, cloves, and black pepper—all crushed, are sprinkled on it to give it a delicious flavor. Some people choose to use it without adding these spices (My translation). 





It is still unresolved whether the suls dipping condiments were indigenous to the Middle Eastern region, etymologically and in substance, or whether they were an imported concept during the time of the Crusades. However, I venture here to side with the former. The condiment in all its varieties has a long established history in the region. Besides, the name, after all, might not necessarily have been Latin in origin (from salsus and sal). In the major medieval Arabic dictionaries, salas (pl. suls) is descriptive of the consistency of ‘soft mud,’ which indeed is applicable to the consistency of the sauces, described above. 

Clearly, the history of salsa needs to be revised in light of what is being discovered of the medieval Arab cuisine. Meanwhile here is a simple medieval recipe to enjoy for a condiment, usually served with grilled meat, from al-Baghdadi’s thirteenth-century cookbook كتاب الطبيخ Kitab al-Tabeekh. It is called Khal wa Khardal (vinegar and mustard): 




Take sweet almonds, skin them, finely pound them, and mix them with very sour vinegar, adding enough of it to thin down the mix. Finely pound mustard seeds and add, as much as you wish of it to the the almond mix, along with the spice blend atraf al-teeb (My translation).     

Mustard and Vinegar Sauce
(Khal wa Khardal)
خل وخردل
This is my adaptation of this recipe: 

            ½ cup (2 ounces) whole almonds, toasted and cooled
            1 cup (2 ounces) chopped parsley
            2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
            ¼ cup olive oil

            ¼ cup vinegar
            2 tablespoons mustard sauce
            1 teaspoon thyme or za'tar
            ½ teaspoon salt
            ¼ teaspoon black pepper
           
1. Put almonds, parsley, and garlic in a blender or food processor. Blend, adding oil gradually until mixture is well pureed.
 
2. Add vinegar, mustard, thyme, salt, and pepper. Pulse mixture for a few seconds to blend.

Delicious with all kinds of grilled meat. 



Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eggplant Sandwich 

 لفّة بيتنجان
Laffat Betinjan


Vegetarians' paradise!


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

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

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

Khubuz

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
















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

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


Mandrake fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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


Fried Eggplant
بيتنجان مقلي
(Betinjan Maqli)

(Makes 5 to 6 servings)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Breaded Eggplant

(Makes 5 to 6 servings)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FEAST OF THE BIRDS

وليمة الطير

Thanksgiving Stuffed Bird, Iraqi Style

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Chicken before stuffing


















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

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

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

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

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

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



Enjoy!