Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Halawat Sha'riyya:

Sweet n'Golden Vermicelli Noodles 

Iraqi Style

حلاوة شعرية

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe for Halawat Sha'riyya:

(Makes 6 servings)

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Iraqi Geymer

قيمر عراقي
Clotted Cream, Iraqi Style

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

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

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

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

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

Geymer sellers in Baghdad in the 1920s 

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

Geymer Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iraqi Folk Song

أغنية عراقية شعبية

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

يم العيون السود ما جوزن أنا       خدّج الكيمر أناأتريّك منة

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lahm b-'Ajeen

Arabian Counterpart of Italian Pizza

لحم بعجين

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

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

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

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

Recipe for making lahm b-'ajeen:   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, it's shape and bake time: 

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Kubbat Timman كبّة تمّن 

aka, Kubbat Halab كبّة حلب 

Iraqi Rice-Balls, Stuffed and Fried

Elegant Counterpart of Sicilian Arancini

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here is how to make kubbat Halab

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

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

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

First of all, prepare the filling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Makes 22-24 pieces) 

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

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

A food trailer serving the Sicilian arancini

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Honoring Mother's 'Day', Sumerian Style:

And Breakfast of Makhlama for Mom

مخلمة بالبتيتة

In the third millennium BC, a Sumerian young man, whose name was Ludingirra, sent a letter to his Mom, who lives in Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city south of today's Baghdad. This ancient Sumerian record was written in cuneiform on a clay tablet. It was composed in the form of a poem. The following text is based on Samuel Kramer's History Begins at Sumer (pp. 333-35).     

Addressing the courier, Ludingirra says:

Royal Courier, ever on the road,
I would send you to Nippur, Deliver this message.
I have traveled a long way,
My mother is troubled, unable to sleep.
She, in whose chamber there is never any angry word,
Keeps asking all travelers after my welfare.
Put my letters of greeting into her hand.

And since the courier had not met his mother before, Ludingirra gave him five signs to identify her. Although admittedly none of these signs would be the equivalent of today's Driver's License ID for instance, they do certainly portray a loving image of an ideal mother. Here are some excerpts:  

A detail (Museum of fine Arts, Boston)
Her name is Shat-Ishtar,
A figure that is radiant,
My mother is a bright light of the horizon, a mountain deer,
The morning star shining bright,
An angel of alabaster, set on a lapis lazuli pedestal,
My mother is rain in its season, water for the prime seed,
A rich harvest.
A garden of plenty, full of delight,
A well-watered fir tree, adorned with fir cones,
Fruit of the New Year, the yield of the first month,
My mother is a feast, an offering full of rejoicing,
A New Year offering awesome to behold.
A dancing place made for much joy,
A lover, a loving heart, whose joy is inexhaustible.

The letter ends with:
"Ludingirra, your beloved son gives you greetings."


A limestone relief I first saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It depicts a deportation scene of captive women from Babylonia. Defying the threatening stick of the enemy guards at the far right of the image, the mother dared stop to give her child a sip of water. A humanizing tender spot in the midst of cruelty.
Breakfast of Makhlama for Mom
مخلمة بالبتيتة
Iraqi Omelet

Makhlama is what is known in other Arab countries as 'ujja/ 'agga (and other variants)  and in the Western world as omelet. It is a dish with a long history. The extant medieval Arabic cookbooks include a generous number of omelet recipes, with and without meat. When made into a disc, they called it 'ujja mudawwara (عجة مدورة); and when scrambled it was called 'ujja mubahthara (عجة مبحثرة) or makhluta (مخلوطة). When the eggs were left on top, sunny side up, the omelet was called narjisiyya (نرجسية), i.e. looking like narcissus flower, with its colors of yellow, white and green (of herbs used). According to a recipe, the yolk was poked with knife, and lightly mixed with the white to give it a marbled look.
Here is a very interesting recipe from Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's 10th-century cookbook كتاب الطبيخ (Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, my English translation, Chapter 73):

Iraqi leeks (Kurrath), photo: Kok Robin, Rotterdam
Slice the meat and chop it to pieces, but do not make them too small. Use some suet with it, too. Cook the meat with the green stalks of fresh onion and table leeks (kurrath, somewhat similar to garlic chives), leave them whole. Spread the stalks on top of the meat. Season the meat with salt, olive oil,  a bruised piece of cassia and another of galangal. Add as well coriander seeds and a small amount of cumin if wished.

Break eggs on the [spread] meat, enough to cover the whole face of the frying pan, which by the way, should be of stone. Let the eggs look like eyes.

Put the pan as it is on a reed tray and insert a sprig of rue in the midst of the yolk of each egg. Drape the pan with a big thin sheet of bread (lavash bread, markouk) making a hole in the middle as big as the circumference of the pan. This is to hide the blackness of the outside of the pan when it is presented at the table.

Rue plant 

(A note on rue: Despite its unpleasant taste and smell, this herb was essential in medieval dishes as garnish because they believed that it had the power to combat flatulence and that chewing it after eating onion and garlic helped remove the unpleasant breath they cause. But they had it in extreme moderation.    

Today in Iraq we still cook this egg dish pretty much the same way, with and without meat. It makes a very convenient side dish or a sandwich for brunch, light supper, or a picnic lunch. The recipe I choose here is the vegetarian version with cubed potatoes and herbs. The version with spinach is equally tasty (recipe in my Delights from the Garden of Eden, p. 192).      
The recipe for Iraqi Omelet with Potatoes and Herbs is available in my website.

So here is to all mothers, past, present, and future!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Churek, Iraqi Yeast Pastry, 

Spring Festivals of Ancient Times and Easter Buns 

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.