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 hamu 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 hamu 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

Like turnips, chard is an ancient vegetable. Its Arabic name silq was derived from the Akkadian ‘silki.’ Also like turnips, it was valued as an effective cure for cold-related ailments. In the opinion of the medieval Arab physicians and botanists, it was also believed to increase blood and semen, and was said to work as an aphrodisiac and euphoriant. 

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

وكت أكل الكبّة ‘ نايم قرندل

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:

With some planning you can enjoy this kubba fuss free. Prepare stuffing the day before perhaps. Make the kubba dough, and start making the turnip soup. While the soup is cooking, stuff and shape the kubba into balls, and have them ready to drop into the soup pot when the time comes.

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.   

And enjoy this hearty delicious soup. My children nicknamed this soup, Shorbat Kuluhu, (Eat It Soup) after I told them how the prophet Muhammad recommended eating turnips to his followers saying, "Eat it, and do not tell your enemies about it." It is that good! So next time you catch a cold or something, you know what to do.

The Story of Joha and Turnips

قصة جحا والشلغم

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 

Naturally, the Caliph was offended, and gave a command that Joha was to be stoned with every single fruit he brought with him. Every time he was hit by one, Juha would say, "Alhamdu lil-lah wal-shukr (may God be praised and thanked). The Caliph was surprised and asked for an explanation. Joha told him that he was thanking God for listening to his wife who suggested this fruit as opposed to his initial choice, turnips.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Medieval Arabs Ate Sandwiches Too!?

Keep on reading to get to the bottom of it while making this millennium old pinwheel sandwich made for the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d.861), and surprise yourself with how exotic and yet so familiar it is. Enjoy!

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.

In Mesopotamia alone more than 300 varieties of bread were known. Interestingly, we see in an ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seal, for instance, an Assyrian officer having a meal on the go-- the way sandwiches are always meant to be eaten. He is depicted as holding what looks like a roll of bread (a sandwich!) while standing, with his attendant fanning the flies away 

Iraqi Museum
(Reproduction in 
Tharwat Ukāsha, Al-Fann al-‘Irāqī, 1980: 517)

From scenes depicted on the ancient Egyptian temple walls we can see that fillings were added between two layers of bread resembling sandwiches, and cylindrical breads were made that looked like pinwheels.

An ancient Egyptian baking scene

As for ancient Greece and Rome, it was to the Near East that they looked for the well-made bread. In his “Life of Luxury,” Sicilian-Greek gourmet Archestratus (fourth century BCE) recommended the Phoenicians and Lydian bakers (in western Asia Minor) for their expertise in baking.

            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: 

    You, seeker of delicious food, take a couple of fine breads, round and thick,
    The likes of which no one has seen, Slice off the top crusts, 
    so that you make them thin.
    Spread on one, finely minced grilled chicken, delectable and delicate, 
    which a mere puff would melt.
    On this arrange lines of almond intersected with lines of walnut.
    Let its dots be cheese and olive, and its vowels mint and tarragon,
    Now take boiled eggs, and with their dirhams [egg white] 
    and dinars [egg yolk] the wasṭ adorn.
    Give it a dusting of salt, but not much; just what it needs.
    And inspect it with your eyes for a second or two, 
    for the eyes have a share in it, too.
    Look at it appreciatively until your eyes have their fill, 
    then cover it with the other bread, and eat it with joy.

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: 

It is a recipe for making the pinwheel sandwiches, bazmāward, from tenth-century Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, chapter 23. It was specially made for the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil, d. 861:

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