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. 

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.

Next time you are making green dishes in honor of St. Patrick's Day, try this one!

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). 

Note: If using fresh fava beans, blanching them in hot water first will make shelling them a breeze. If using frozen fava beans, dipping them in hot water first will also make the task quite fast and easy.     

2 cups (12 oz) skinned fresh or frozen fava beans (= 1 pound or 3 cups, with skins still on)
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 the skinned fava beans in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium, and let them 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, 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!