Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Sweet and the Salty:

Cookies of the Medieval Arab World

with Modern Adaptations

Follow the advice of the medieval Arab gourmets: Keep your taste buds perked up while snacking on sweet cookies by alternating them with salty ones.   

Growing up in Baghdad, I remember that our favorite snack-time was in the afternoon, when Mom would summon us all to her tray of tea and goodies, typical of which would be an assortment of the flavorful aromatic sweet homemade cookies of kleicha (see my post), some stuffed with sugar and walnut and some with dates, and yet others stuffed with cheese and parsley. Along with these, would also be the purchased sugar-less sesame-encrusted dunking cookies of ka'ak, as well as baqsam (biscotti) and churek (see my post). A perfect harmony of flavors and textures of which we couldn't have enough and wished the afternoon would last for ever.   

The famous ka'ak bakery of Al-Seyyid in downtown Baghdad

A Bit of History:

Of the more than 300 varieties of breads the ancient Mesopotamians of Iraq knew, a good number of them were of the kind they called 'improved'. They were cookies, cakes and pastries variously enriched with clarified butter, dairy, beer, sweeteners, nuts, and dried fruits. The cookies were shaped into rings, pillars, turbans, crescents, hearts, heads, hands, ears, and even women's breasts. Such top quality breads were called 'kuku' in Akkadian, the ancient language of the Mesopotamians, from which the Arabic ka'k (كعك) must have derived. Mesopotamia was indeed the cradle of cookies.

And the tradition continued. The existing cookbooks of the medieval Arabo-Islamic world testify to the sophistication and popularity of cookie-making and consumption. The most prevalent were those stuffed with nuts or dates, back then called khushkananaj (خشكنانج), which resemble the ancient Mesopotamian 'qullupu' cookies, and the kleicha and ma'mul of modern times. There were also varieties of the ka'k dry cookies, sandwich cookies, glazed cookies, and there were the delicate almond cookies, sensuously called virgin's breasts. All differently infused with the aromas of rosewater and musk, seasoned with spices, and decked with nuts.

Here is the recipe for virgin's breasts:

Two versions of the cookie recipe nuhood al-adhraa' (virgin's breasts) from 14th-century كتاب وصف الاطعمة المعتادة (Book of Recipes of the Traditional Dishes), which is an augmented version of 13th-century al-Baghdadi's cookbook كتاب الطبيخ (Cookery Book) 

The same recipe in 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa'id
"One part flour, one part clarified butter (samn), one part sugar, and one part almond. Crush them all together, knead them very well, and shape it like breasts. Water is not used. Arrange pieces in a yellow-copper tray (ṭabaq) and bake them in a brick oven (furn)." (English translation mine)

Only one recipe survived, which describes how to make salted cookies. The recipe explains that these cookies are to be offered with the sweet ones, in case the eater’s appetite dulls with having only sweet foods. Here it is:  

Recipe for aqraas mamlooha (salted cookies) from 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kan al-Fawa'id
"Take as much as you need of flour. For each raṭl (1 pound/4 cups), use ¼ raṭl (4 ounces/½ cup) sesame oil, and enough salt to give a noticeably salty taste. Knead [the ingredients with yeast and water], and after dough rises shape it into discs as you do with khubz al-abār (cookies with spice-seeds), but make them a little bit thinner, and bake them. After they develop a golden hue (tawarrada), take them out. These cookies are offered in case the eater’s appetite dulls from having sweet foods. Therefore, they are to be served while having them." (English translation mine)  

Following are my adaptations of the two cookies, the sweet and the salty.  

Almond Kisses

(بسكت باللوز)

Makes 20 pieces

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup oil (such as canola)

3 tablespoons rosewater
20 raisins

1. Put all the dry ingredients (the first six) in a food processor, and pulse once or twice to mix ingredients.
2. Add oil slowly through the tube, and pulse a few more times.
3. Add the rosewater, and pulse several times until the mix clumps together. Add a bit more if needed.
4. Take a walnut-size piece, press by hand into a ball and place it on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Slightly moisten your hands with a bit of rosewater while handling the mix. Repeat with the rest of pieces. Press a raisin in the middle of each piece, and bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven (375 F.) for 13 to 15 minutes (do not let them over bake). During the last two minutes of baking, let the cookies bake on the top shelf of the oven. 

Cheesy Cookies

(بسكت بالجبن)

Makes 26 pieces

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds
1/4 teaspoon ground nigella seeds 
1/4 teaspoon ground dried ginger 

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup oil (such as canola)
1/2 cup yogurt
2 eggs, divided

26 macadamia or hazelnuts nuts

chili pepper, for sprinkling, optional

1. Stir dry ingredients (first seven) in a bowl.
2. Stir in the cheese by fork or hand.
3. Beat together oil, yogurt and one egg, and pour them on the flour mix. Stir with a fork or by fingers in a circular movement at first to allow the flout to absorb the moisture, and then knead them into a medium-consistency dough.
4. Lightly flour the working space. Take some of the dough, and flatten it with a rolling pin to 1/3-inch thickness. Cut it into shapes with cookie cutters. Arrange the pieces on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Stick a macadamia nut or a hazelnut in each cookie, and sprinkle surface with chili pepper (optional). Beat the second egg and brush the pieces with it.
5. Bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven (375 F.) for about 15 minutes. During the last two minutes of baking, let the cookies bake on the top shelf of the oven.


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.