Saturday, April 29, 2023
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
It's Soup Time!
Kubbat Hamud Shalgham
كبة حامض شلغم
Stuffed Rice Dough
Simmered in Cream of Turnip and Swiss Chard Soup
This is the mother of all kubbas. I am using the expression in the medieval sense, which is ‘the best of.’ I imagine, had 10th-century al-Warraq, author of Kitab al-Tabeekh (كتاب الطبيخ), known this dish, he would have called it ‘um al-kubab.’ Actually, one of the recipes in his book came that close to creating such a dish. In a shaljamiyya recipe (white stew with turnips), turnips were cooked in white sauce thickened with crushed chickpeas, ground almonds, milk, and rice. Lean meat was pounded into paste with spices, formed into kubab ‘meatballs’ and thrown into the simmering stew (Chapter 54).
This kubba is different from kubbat Halab in that dough is made from ground uncooked rice, pounded with meat. There is only one way to serve it and that is as kubbat hamuḍ shalgham. After shaping the kubba, it is simmered in delicious turnip and Swiss chard soup. The soup in this case is served as a main dish
Kubbat hamuḍ shalgham is everybody's favorite. As children, we had to beg our mothers to make it, since it wasn't an easy thing to do-- what with all the pounding and grinding needed. It was definitely not the kind of food to be cooked as often as we would have desired. However, in the age of food processors, making it is no big deal. Nowadays, rice flour can be purchased ready-made, and dough can be pulsed in the food processor in a few minutes. This might explain why in the Arab countries, a food processor is called sit il-bet (lady of the house).
In Iraq, this dish is a winter treat since turnips and Swiss chard are available in that season only. Still, some people do make it in the summer, using summer squash and mint. Incidentally, al-Warraq, in the same turnip stew recipe I mentioned above, also gave gourd (qar') as a substitute when turnip was not in season. The traditional Jewish Iraqi version of this dish is prepared with beets instead of turnips, which is also a very ancient vegetable used in stews as shown in one of the Babylonian recipes.
Both turnips and chard have been used in cooking in the region ever since antiquity. In one of the Babylonian stews, turnips were the principal ingredient. In Akkadian, it was called ‘laptu,’ from which the Arabic lift was derived (its other name saljam/shaljam/shalgham is a Persian loan word). During the medieval times, turnips were made into delicious white stews, sometimes adorned with spicy meatballs, as mentioned above.
|A turnip, Kitab al-Diryaq|
Turnip, a winter vegetable in Iraq, is believed to have the power to relieve cold symptoms. The sight of vendors selling turnips simmered in water and date syrup is quite common in wintertime. The aroma emitting from those steaming huge pots of turnips is unforgettable.
|Sketch is by Iraqi artist Suad Salim, see my post on Recipes from Baghdad|
|Chard, Dioscorides, Fi Hayula al-Tibb, translation by Hunayn b. Ishaq|
Hamuḍ Shalgham: What’s in a Name?
ما معنى حامض شلغم؟
The Iraqi name for this soup hamudh shalgham literally translates to ‘sour turnips,’ and to make it sour we add lemon juice or tamarind. It turned out, hamud shalgham, after all, is what it means -- soured turnips:
Originally, fermented soured turnips and their liquid were added to stews and soups for sourness and flavor. I discovered this while reading an entry on turnips in 10th-century Al-Filaha al-Nabatiyya (farming practices of the Nabateans/indigenous Iraqis) by Ibn Wahshiyya, a Chaldean himself, who in his introduction to the book claimed that it was an Arabic translation of ancient Babylonian sources dealing with their advanced knowledge on farming, originally written in Suryaniyya qadeema (Syriac). His comments on turnips included a recipe for ma’ al-saljam al-hamidh (sour turnip juice). The recipe uses peeled and diced turnips, turnip juice, and baked sour bread. While the bread is still hot, it is whipped into the turnip mix until it dissolves completely, with the addition of herbs like rue, mint, and parsley. The mix is left to ferment until it matures and sours. Ibn Wahshiyya says it is eaten with bread and its juice is made into a digestive drink. He also says the sour turnip juice is used in meat dishes to make the sauce deliciously sour.
So we make the soup, call it hamud shalgham, and we are completely oblivious to the long history of the indigenous ancient culinary practices involved in making it.
For the Love of Kubba
Sketch by Iraqi artist Suad Salim, see my post on Recipes from Baghdad
وكت دك الكبّة ‘ وعّو قَرندل
When it’s time for pounding kubba, “Wake up Qarandal!”
When it’s time to eat the kubba, “Let poor Qarandal sleep.”
An Iraqi proverb said when people feel used. They would be called when their help is needed, but none would think of calling them back when the time comes to share the fruits of their deed. And what dish to choose better than the elaborate kubba?
Here is how to make Kubbat Hamud Shalgham:
Making the kubba balls (about 16 balls):
12 ounces lean beef, ground
2 cups (12 ounces) rice flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
About 4 tablespoons cold water, depending on how moist the meat is
1 recipe kubba filling, see my previous post on kubbat Halab
Prepare the dough: mix together ground beef, rice flour, salt, and pepper. In three batches process the mix in a food processor, adding cold water in tablespoons through the spout. A ball of dough will start forming and revolving within 2 to 3 minutes. Repeat until all is done. The final dough will be pinkish in hue, pliable, and of medium consistency.
Make the kubba balls by taking a piece of the dough, size of a golf ball, flatten it into a thin concave disc (a wok-like disc)-- you need to make it as thin as you possibly can to avoid ending up with tough kubbas -- and put about one tablespoon of the filling in the middle. Gather the ends to close it, and roll it into a ball between the palms. Remember to handle the dough with slightly moistened fingers. It sometimes happens that while shaping the dough tears at places, especially when you are trying to make it as thin as possible. The way to fix this is to take a small piece of dough, flatten it between your fingers, slightly wet the torn area, and patch it. Put the finished pieces on a tray, in one layer. And use when the soup is ready.
Preparing the soup:
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons oil
3 medium turnips, (about 1 pound) peeled and cut into 1 inch-cubes
4 to 5 big leaves Swiss chard (about 3 cups chopped), chopped with the stalks
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste, optional, if you want the soup to be red
½ cup rice soaked in water for 30 minutes and pulsed with the water in a food processor
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon (¼ cup or to taste), plus ½ teaspoon sugar
1. In a large pot, sauté onion in oil until it starts to soften. Add the turnip pieces and fold together, about 5 minutes. Toss in the Swiss chard, and fold. Fold in coriander, turmeric, and tomato paste if used. Pour in hot water or broth to cover them by about 5 inches, and mix well. Add the pulsed rice, stir well; also add salt, black pepper, lemon juice, and sugar. Bring the pot to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until turnip is tender and soup starts to slightly thicken. Stir occasionally to prevent the soup from sticking to the bottom of the pot, about 20 minutes.
2. Drop in the prepared balls of kubba, stir the pot carefully, and let it boil gently for 20 minutes to allow the kubbas to cook.
The Story of Joha and Turnips
قصة جحا والشلغم
|A 17th-century miniature of Joha, whom the Ottomans called Mulla Nasreddin|
Joha is a popular comic character in Islamic folkloric literature. While at times he is shrewd and funny enough to play practical jokes on people, he is also presented as a naïve person who easily becomes the butt of numerous jokes. The following is my favorite:Once Joha went to pay homage to the Caliph, and as the custom required, he took with him a present. It was a basketful of nabq/nabug نبق, which is fruit of the lote tree (sidr tree), which are the size of small cherries. Nabq was, and still is, by common consent, a very humble fruit.
|Nabq, fruit of the lote tree|
Friday, June 11, 2021
Medieval Arabs Ate Sandwiches Too!?
We all bought into the theory that the inventor of the sandwich was John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich of England (1718 – 1792). The story goes that he was the one who started the trend when he asked for his meal to be served between two layers of bread. John Montagu was an avid gambler, or a workaholic, according to another account, who chose to forgo the traditional proper table-dinners that would have interrupted whatever it was he was doing and, more importantly, to keep a hand free.
|Fourth Earl of Sandwich|
The speculation is that soon enough people around him started to imitate him, to have that same 'thing' that Sandwich had, and that was how food consumed this way acquired the name ‘sandwich,’ with the first documented English sandwich recipe appearing in the 1773 English cookbook The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying her Table by Charlotte Mason:
|Mason, Lady's Assistant, p. 427|
Well, as far as naming goes, this is all plausible, but the fourth Earl of Sandwich was definitely not the first one to have his meal this way. Food must have conveniently been eaten this way from ancient times in the Near East, where bread was baked in a variety of ways: flat ones and risen and spongy ones. They were variously made leavened and unleavened, large and small, and many more. Depending on how they were made, there was the clay oven tannūr for the leavened flat bread, the larger communal brick oven for baking puffed and spongy bread, and the metal plates (saj) for the large and thin bread varieties.
|Baking Khubz in the tannūr|
|Excavated remains of a brick oven furn in ancient Mesopotamia Tell Brak|
|A baking thin sheet of flat bread, called marquq, shrak, lawash/lavash, etc.|
|An ancient Egyptian baking scene|
A medieval cook kneading bread dough
Thus it follows that in a region so impressively rich and varied in making bread, it should come as no surprise to learn that the documented history of the sandwich and its culture in the Near East began much earlier than the eighteenth century in Europe. While the first English sandwich recipe appeared in the1773 Lady's Assistant, in the surviving medieval Arabic cookbooks many sandwich recipes were included as early as the tenth century. In fact, based on the references and descriptions of sandwiches in medieval Arabic literature, their origin can be pushed even further back to the eighth or ninth century, which was the beginning of the golden age of the Baghdadi cuisine. For instance, in al-Masʿūdī’s tenth-century Murūj al-Dhahab, a poem by the famous Abbasid poet of Baghdad Ibn al-Rūmī (d. 896) describes how to construct a sandwich, which he calls wasṭ (وسط), in which the stuffing is put between two layers of bread. Here is how he describes it:
AS for recipes, the earliest ones occur in Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s 10th-century cookbook, Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh, chapter 23 (my English translation, Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens). In this chapter, five recipes are given with a bonus food poem. In these five recipes, sandwiches are made in three different ways:
1. A thin flat bread similar to today's marquq (lavash) is spread with layers of finely chopped ingredients (meat, vegetables, herbs, etc.), and then seasoned and tightly rolled. The sandwich is served sliced into pinwheels, called bazmaward, a name of Persian origin. It was also called muyassar wa muhanni ميسر ومهني (i.e. delightful and easy to eat).
2. Another type of sandwich is called wast (pl. aswat اوساط); it is similar to the one described in Ibn al-Rimi's verses.
3. The third type is called wast mashtour (وسط مشطور), which is an open-faced sandwich. This one, al-Warraq tells us, was made by no less than the Abbasid gourmet Prince Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi himself (d. 839), who was half-brother of Hārūn al-Rashīd. The recipe describes how the crusty edges and top of a brick-oven bread are first sliced off, and the face is spread with a fermented condiment, called binn, and then slathered with walnut oil. It is toasted on a grill set on a brazier, and after smearing it with yolk of soft-cooked eggs, and grated cheese if wished, it is good to eat. Here is the recipe as it occurs in al-Warraq's Arabic edition:
What is even more exciting is the fact that Ibn al-Mahdī supplemented his recipe with a short poem describing it, which in effect is an artistic representation of the dish itself -- second best to today's camera images. Here is his poem:
What a delicious sandwich on the brazier I made,
slathered with binn and walnut oil!
Fragrant and shining, as if the binn I used
with ambergris and musk was embalmed.
Of nigella seeds I put what it needed,
as for fennel, I did sprinkle some.
Olive oil I made sure to add,
for it gives a luscious coating and a saffron-glow.
Smeared with egg yolks, with cheese sprinkled,
looking like speckled embroidered silk.
As colorful as striped silk it looks,
exuding musk and camphor.
The taste, luscious as pure honey,
for the best of aromatic spices I did use.
Here is a recipe for you to try:
Use cold [cooked] meat of two legs and shoulders of a kid or lamb. Finely shred the meat into thread-like pieces. Choose whatever you like of leaf vegetables, excluding watercress (jirjīr) and endives (hindibāʾ). Finely chop them until they resemble sesame seeds and mix [part of] them with the shredded meat. Set the mixture aside.
Now choose good quality sharp cheese, scrape it with a knife, and collect the scraped cheese. Coarsely grind walnuts and add them [with the cheese] to the [set-aside meatless] chopped vegetables. Also add some chopped herbs and rue. A portion of the chopped vegetables should have been set aside unmixed with the meat. Next, peel and chop some olives and add them to the [meatless] chopped vegetable mixture.
Spread a soft and large ruqāqa [similar to lavash/markook bread], cover it with some of the meatless vegetable mixture and sprinkle it with seasoned salt. Next, spread the meat and vegetable mixture [to which you should have added] some spices. Then arrange a layer of eggs sliced lengthwise. Next, spread another layer of the meat and vegetable mixture followed by a layer of the meatless vegetable mixture. Sprinkle them with fine-tasting salt and drizzle them with sweet vinegar and rose water.
Tightly roll the bread with the filling and slice it crosswise into discs. Arrange the [pinwheels] on a platter and pass them around, God willing.
I am not giving exact amounts of ingredients here, but a good rule of thumb is to decide how much to use of the main ingredient, which is the cooked meat here, and build around it. The layering is kind of elaborate; the following steps will help you keep track of the layers.
On a lavash bread spread the ingredients in this order:
1. vegetable mix
2. vegetable + meat mix
3. sliced eggs
4. vegetable + meat mix
5. vegetable mix
Roll it up and slice it into pinwheels.
The full article is published in ArabLit Quarterly: Summer 2021: The Kitchen
Thursday, March 8, 2018
Baked Falafel: Light and Delicious
الفلافل الفرنية لذيذة وخفيفة
Falafel is a Middle-Eastern snack food well known and loved in most parts of the world. Basically, it is ground chickpeas mixed with herbs and spices, shaped into balls or small patties, and deep-fried. The variety made with fava beans is called ta'miyya (طعمية). It is the favorite snack food in Egypt. Some people, though, prefer to make falafel with a combination of chickpeas and fava beans. Interestingly, falafel in Yemen is called bajiyya باجية, made with a combination of chickpeas and black-eyed peas (cowpeas), which is lubya in Arabic, and dejer دجر in the Yemeni vernacular (here is a link for how it is made in Yemen).
Whether from chickpeas, fava beans, cowpeas, or whatever beans, this type of fried snack food has always been a very popular food in the Middle East from olden times: a cheap alternative to meat -- it is also known as kebab al-fuqara' (كباب الفقراء) 'kebab of the poor;' and it conveniently replaces meat for Lent meals consumed by fasting Christians. That is how such fried delights -- made with fava beans-- came into being, according to one of the stories, which attributes its beginnings to the ancient Egyptian Copts.
In fact, that chickpeas were used to replace meat and eggs during Lent is evident from recipes that survived from medieval times. In the tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook كتاب الطبيخ by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq (p. 236), a fried disk is made with mashed chickpeas. The same recipe is repeated in fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook كنز الفوائد (p. 172). Likewise, in the thirteenth-century Andalusian cookbook Anwa' al-Saydala fi Alwan al-At'ima (انواع الصيدلة في الوان الاطعمة), where a similar disc, called isfiriyya اسفرية, is made basically from chickpea flour (p.4). Such meatless dishes were collectively called muzawwarat مزورات, 'false' or 'counterfeit' dishes made to simulate comparable dishes with meat.
The medieval physicians were also of the opinion that such false dishes were fit for the sick because they were believed to be easier to digest than the meat ones.
Falafel is usually deep fried. To give it a lighter touch, you may bake it and save yourself the trouble of frying. More importantly, you will be quite sure that the chickpeas will be fully cooked, and they will not be as hard on the digestive system. Here is the recipe:
3 tablespoons flour, preferably whole wheat
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
Sumac for sprinkling
3. Brush the pieces with olive oil and bake in a preheated oven (400°F), middle shelf, for about 25 minutes, until they nicely crisp and brown. Handle them with care for they will be a bit brittle.
You may also serve the falafel without bread: simply arrange the pieces on a platter and serve them with tahini sauce. Also lovely with a dip of pepper jam.
Monday, January 8, 2018
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Stuffed Potato Dough
Kubbat Puteta Chap
However, the art of making kubba, of stuffing food with food, is certainly not new to the Iraqi cooks. Indeed, it can be traced all the way back the ancient times, as manifested in the Babylonians' bird pies, prepared by enclosing birds cooked in white sauce between two layers of seasoned dough. Detailed recipes for making such an ancient stuffed food are found in a Babylonian culinary tablet written in Akkadian cuneiform in 1700 BC:
|Babylonian culinary tablet 8958, Yale Babylonian Collection|
Here is how to make it:(Makes 18 to 20 pieces)
2 pounds potatoes (all-purpose will do), boiled whole and unpeeled
½ cup cornstarch (use a bit less with starchy potatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
For the filling, see my previous post on kubbat Halab
About 1 cup breadcrumbs for coating
Oil for frying
5. Put the fried discs in a large colander lined with white paper towels, and let them cool off a little before serving. Alternatively, you may spread the paper towels on a rack and put the fried discs in one layer to cool off. This way you will prevent them from getting soggy.
4. Bake it in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, or until surface is golden brown. Let it cool for 10 minutes, and divide it into 18 to 20 squares.