Saturday, April 29, 2023

Sakanjabīl: The Perfect Beverage


Not many people may drink sakanjabeel in Iraq these days, and I suspect the new generation knows anything about it. So here it is! Really worth rediscovering. 

Medieval thirst-quenching drinks

There was a time when sakanjabeel was the drink of choice. It was the thirst quencher in the hot days of summer and during the fasting days of Ramadan. It was the digestive tonic to have after a heavy meal; and when tweaked with herbs and spices, it was used as a remedy for many common illnesses, such adding aniseeds to expel phlegm; cardamom to relieve flatulence, dill seeds to relieve colic pain, and so on.

What's in a name?  

Sakanjabeel or sakanjabīn is a beverage with impressively ancient roots. Etymologically the name itself is a combination of two Persian words sarka-anjabīn, a combination of the words for vinegar and honey. But names aside, this culinary practice of yoking the sweet with the sour predates the era of the Sassanian Persian Empire (third to seventh centuries). Incorporating honey and vinegar into drinks and dishes is well attested in the world of antiquity. In the book of Apicius, for instance, sauces served with grilled meats and fish included honey and vinegar. Interestingly, in the surviving Babylonian recipes from 1700 BC in ancient Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, we also get a sense of similar practices.

Ibn Sīnā (Latin Avicenna, d.1037) describes in his encyclopedic Canon of Medicine how sakanjabīn is made:
Sugar is put in a pot and leveled with a spoon. Strong vinegar is gently poured until bubbles are seen on the surface. The sugar is cooked until it melts and its froth is removed. Next, plain water is added until the mix looks like a thin solution, and then it is boiled until it has the consistency of a medium syrup.
Ibn Sīnā recommends tweaking it for colder weather by preparing it with honey instead of sugar. Though both sugar and honey were said to have hot properties, sugar was said to lean more towards moderation.   

Sakanjabīl, as it is called today in countries like Iran and Iraq, is still prepared more or less the same way and it is bestowed the same health benefits as in the days of yore, mostly as a refreshing and cooling drink in the summer and as an aid to digestion. To make a small batch of it, put in a pot 2 cups vinegar and 2 cups sugar, and bring them to the boil, skimming any froth that might come up to the surface. Add ½ cup water, 2 tablespoons rosewater, and a sprig of fresh mint. Let the pot boil until a syrup of medium consistency forms (total about 15 minutes). Discard the mint sprig. After it cools to room temperature store it in a jar and use it diluted with plain or sparkling water, amount to taste.