Culinary History Mystery #6: Tomato Eggs

Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes
Chinese Tomato Eggs

Tomato Eggs is a home-cooked Chinese dish that reminds students, travelers, and those living abroad of home.  Just a whiff of this cooking and folks will tell tales of sitting in or near the kitchen as a kid as a parent made this dish – and how good it tasted!  it is simple, elegant, and savory, and less than 10 – 15 minutes from wok to table.  Chopped green onions are almost always used. Sometimes garlic or onion is added, and often there is a blast of shaoxing, rice vinegar, or even oyster sauce to add flavor.  Some recipes also add sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes, but the memorable taste of the dish usually just comes from the combined flavors of the fresh ingredients.

The form of the dish can be dry, like in the picture above, or is can be moist with a thin tomato sauce, or even soupy. It is often served over or with rice or fresh noodles. My travels tend to make me think that presentation varies mostly by individual preference and not by geography, because I have had both dry and wet forms in a number of different places.

I’ve enjoyed this dish all over China, from Beijing and Xian to places much further west and south.  Although the Chinese regard this as a quintessential Chinese dish, my favorite thing about tomato eggs (蕃茄炒蛋/西红柿炒蛋) is that it is probably Arab in origin.

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshouka
Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka

The Arab dish that Tomato Eggs most resembles is Shakshuka. This dish is eaten all over the Saudi Peninsula, North Africa, and the Levant. Turkey even has its own version called Menemen. Although the form varies a great deal, from the dry, Saudi version pictured here, to poached eggs over a spiced tomato sauce as in Egypt and Israel, to a complex ragout of vegetables (with lots of tomatoes) and sometimes bits of meat or sausage bound together by eggs.   It is almost always served with pita bread or naan.  Onions are almost always used and sometimes garlic is as well.  Spicing can be just salt and pepper with a little bit of chopped parsley or cilantro as in Oman to a dish flavored with cumin, or dishes with oregano and other herbs.  Chili peppers or ground chilies are often added, but I have never had a Shakshuka that I could call hot.  These days, cheese is sometimes added, but that is a modern addition and not found in traditional recipes for the dish in any of the cultures that now enjoy it.

A comparison of the Saudi and Chinese recipes show that the recipes are nearly identical, although the Chinese use a two-step cooking process:

2 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons cooking oil
2 medium tomatoes, diced 4 large eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small white onion, minced 1 teaspoon shaoxing wine (optional)
½ teaspoon salt 3 dashes white pepper powder
½ teaspoon black pepper 8 oz. fresh tomato (cut into thin wedges)
1 teaspoon cumin 1 teaspoon sugar
4 eggs 2 tablespoons water
Some chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (garnish, optional)
Break eggs over mixture and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until done. Stir with a spatula to mix or slide onto a plate and serve. Heat up a wok with 2 tablespoons cooking oil. Add the egg mixture into the wok, and use your spatula to spread the eggs. Keep stirring until the eggs form lumps. Gently break the lumps into smaller pieces. As soon as the eggs are cooked, dish out and set aside. Clean the wok and heat it up again with 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Drop the tomato wedges into the wok and do a few quick stirs. Add sugar and water into the tomatoes. Cover it with the lid and let it cook for about 30 seconds. Transfer the eggs and chopped scallions into the tomatoes, stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, dish out and serve immediately.

The main reasons why this is probably another west-to-east spread of a recipe is the commonality and variations of the dish in the Muslim Mediterranean, Suez and Persian Gulf,and the unusual nature of the dish in China’s litany of egg recipes. Another reason why it is likely a dish with an “Arab” origin is that Muslim people took to the tomato very early on in its introduction in the Old World. While the Europeans were generally skittish about eating this member of the nightshade family, and raised them as curiosities or ornamental garden plants, the Muslims dove right in and cultivated them as food early on in their arrival in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Spanish were the only Europeans who generally took to eating the tomato in the 16th Century. This is probably because they saw them being cultivated and eaten in the New World and knew that they were not harmful.

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597
Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

The Spanish were said to particularly enjoy them with cooked with oil, salt, and pepper as a sort of stew, and also to make a sauce out of them with vinegar added to the ingredients above and to use that sauce on their meats (Gerarde, History of Plants, 1597). Gerarde also notes that tomatoes or “Love Apples” grow well in warm climates like Spain and italy. Of interest, perhaps, is that Gerarde describes both red and yellow tomatoes.

Although there is mention that the Italians also ate tomatoes in 17th Century botanicals, this is repetition of incorrect information. The original citation says that the Italians ate, “Eggplants”. This, even in historical documents became misreported as, “tomatoes”, and the error continues to proliferate today.

Evidence for the early Arab love of eating tomatoes can be found in John Parkinson’s 1629 Earthly Paradise, in which he reports that tomato plants grow well in hot climates like those in, “Barbary and Ethiopia”. Parkinson’s 1640 Theatrum Botanicum expands this range of growth in the Old World to, “easterly countries such as Egypt, Syria and Arabia.” His 1629 work notes that tomatoes are much eaten in the hot countries where they grow well.

Lancelot Addison’s 1671 work, An Account of West Barbary, notes that tomatoes are eaten raw with oil along with other, “salads.” In 1710, Dr. William Salmon’s Herbal notes that the Spanish ate tomatoes boiled in vinegar with pepper and salt, and served up with oil and lemon juice (possibly a poached tomato); and that they also eat tomatoes raw with oil, vinegar, and pepper.

Red Tomato
Red Tomato

By comparison, the earliest European mention of tomatoes growing in Asia (Malaysia) can be found in Georg Rumphius’s 1747 work Herbarium Amboinense. Rumphius notes that the natives cultivate two varieties and that both are used in cooking. In 1790, a brief mention of tomatoes growing well in the fields and gardens of Cochin, China is found in Louriero’s Flora Cochinchinensis.

So, from all this information, we can infer that the Arabs were eating tomatoes in the 16th century – at least the Morisco’s in Spain were – and possibly so were people across a broad swath of the Muslim World from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and into the Levant. More evidence for Tomato Eggs having Arab roots. Tomatoes may have been eaten in Ming China, but the earliest evidence I can find in a language I can read comes from well into the period of Qing rule. That said, however, we know that the Chinese were trading with the pre-Islamic Arabs and that trade between the peoples only flourished after the adoption of Islam, with the influence of foreign Muslim peoples in China reaching its peak probably in the Yuan Dynasty.

What I love most about Culinary History Mysteries like that is that hundreds of years later, the history of the interaction between the Chinese and the “Arabs” lives on in the foods people eat. Another enduring testament to the power of the Silk Road in the lives of the people.

(Words and recipe analysis by Laura Kelley. Photo of Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes by; Photo of Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka by Noor AlQahtani. Recipe for Saudi Shakshuka from Noor’s site, Ya Salam; Recipe for Chinese Tomato Eggs from Rasa Malaysia)

Traveling the Roads of Arabia

Ha’il Stelae, ca.3500 BCE

For the past forty years, archaeologists on the Saudi peninsula have been piecing together a pre-Islamic past featuring great city-states that had cultural and commercial connections with the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These ancient trade cities are one of the foci of a new exhibit at the Sackler in Washington, DC, called Roads of Arabia. The other set of “roads” treated in the exhibit are the later Islamic-era pilgrimage roads to Mecca and the influence of the people traveling those roads on the Arab world. With 320 objects spanning more than one-million years, from Paleolithic petroglyphs to the rise of the modern Saudi state, the exhibit is a showcase of treasures never seen in the United States until now.

The exhibit is laid out chronologically and begins with three rock stelae with individual faces carved on them recovered from Found near Ha’il in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia. They date to around 3500 BCE, and starkly lit, the stelae glow against a black background, and invite you to approach and ponder the people who made them. Other early objects are those from Tarut, an island on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that was the center of the Dilmun civilization that was later to move to the island now known as Bahrain.

Singing Man, ca. 2500 BCE

Objects from this era include black, gray and white stone jars, cups, and bowls that may have originated in SE Iran or may have been made on Tarut. Items of similar design and manufacture have been found in Syria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan, indicating the extent of the trade network that the people of Tarut were part of in antiquity.

Another statue of definitive Tarut manufacture is of a man singing a prayer that shows evidence of Near Eastern influence. It is a large, limestone piece, slightly over 3-feet in length. His rounded head, right hand clasping his left to his chest, as well as his triple-banded belt are all found in Mesopotamian statuary from a similar period around 2500 BCE.

Gold Death Mask

Although I preferred the earlier items on display because of the evidence they provided of connections with other ancient cultures, there are some stunning things to see in the later part of the exhibit as well. One such item is a gold funerary mask from the tomb of a young girl from Thaj that is around 2000 years old. The mask is serene and beautiful and reminds me of the “Mask of Agamemnon” found at Troy that dates to 1500 BCE. Also in the tomb was a large amount of gold jewelry with semiprecious stones such as amethysts, carnelian and pearls that would have adorned the girl in the afterlife. The design of the mask and the jewelry both show contact with Greco-Roman civilization, and are evidence of the wealth that trading brought to ancient Arabia.

From the period of about the 4th Century BCE to the 16th century, there are fine examples of molded and blown glass that have somehow survived the passage of time. Some of these are locally made, and others are of foreign manufacture – all are beautiful and of a variety of colors and iridesence. One of my favorites was a small medicine bottle shaped and colored like a date.

From the second part of the exhibit depicting the roads to Mecca, there is a breathtaking display of tombstones of pilgrims who died at Mecca or on the way and were laid to rest there. The stones are carved from local basalt that often has its natural shape. The Arabic calligraphy that adorns the stones is highly designed to fit the shape of the stones and the space allowed for the epitaths. This section of the exhibit is both beautiful, sad and very human and reminds us that people and their stories lay behind each and every object.

Tombstones of the Faithful

There is also an unspoken message of the exhibition to western ears that I “can’t not” mention, and that is that the Saudis and other Muslims embrace their pre-Islamic history. The deplorable crimes against history and humanity that have been committed in Bamiyan and in many other places are not based in Islam or the Koran and are product of unfortunate, closed minds.

So, in closing, the exhibit does a good job telling us how ancient Arabs traded indigenous goods such as incense and aromatic spices, but it doesn’t show us how Arabs were global dealers in goods from many shores. Arabs dealt in timbers from Africa and South Asia and spices from India and Indonesia and brought these items to the far reaches of the world. Without Arab merchants, the Silk Road might not have been the engine of globalization that it was. I hope that future archaeological finds help tell this missing part of the story and further fill in the past of these great peoples.

The exhibit runs through February 24th in Washington and then travels to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and venues in Chicago and Boston through early 2015. If you are near any of these venues or will be passing through, make time to see this exhibit. You will learn a lot and see many, “wondrous things.” (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ha’il Stelae, Gold Death Mask and Gravestones of the Faithful from exhibition website; photo of Singing Man from Tarut from pamphlet, Tarut Island by Murtadha Al-Ruwaie.)

Click on the YouTube video below for the official teaser-trailer of the exhibition (its great)!

New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes

Saudi Aramco World Cover 11/12-12

I am pleased to share with you my new article on ancient Mesopotamian cuisine entitled, New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes” in the November-December issue of Saudi Aramco World.

Click the link above to read the article on the publisher’s website and peruse the other articles in the issue.  I really like the magazine, because its stated objective is to build understanding between peoples by increasing reader’s knowledge of the Muslim world and its peoples and their connections to the west.

Thanks to the editors of the magazine for publishing the article, and thanks to the friends of Silk Road Gourmet who allowed me to submit their photos to illustrate these delicious, ancient dishes.  I hope you enjoy the article as well as the magazine!

Old Baghdad and Fragrant Lamb Meatballs with Sour Sauce

Thief of Baghdad 1

Today we are treated to another guest post by the brilliant Deana Sidney from the site Lost Past Remembered.  Deana is a professional designer by day and an avid food historian and accomplished cook all the time.  She writes:

Whenever I see the word Baghdad, a small door in my brain opens to a storybook world where perfumed silks billow over marble floors, scimitars flash and veiled woman have black-lined eyes and perfect beauty.

I guess it’s pretty obvious the visuals for the stories in One Thousand and One Nights made a big impression on me as a child when I saw them in Maxfield Parrish’s illustrations for Arabian Nights and in Michael Powell’s Technicolor masterpiece, The Thief of Baghdad –– the images enchant all these years later.  The idea of Baghdad is still tremendously alluring. Now it has a flavor too!

Thief of Baghdad 2

I know –– the truth of Baghdad today is a world of different.  But I am going to go back in time to the golden age of Baghdad.  The one thing that hasn’t changed is food … it is and was spectacular.

Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Dishes) was written by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi in 1226, at the end of the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate (an end brought about by the Mongol hoards that destroyed Baghdad in 1258).  The Abbasid were incredibly sophisticated and inclusive of many other cultures, including Chinese as well as Persian and Turkish.  The Caliphate reached the height of its powers in the 9th century when it stretched all through the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea.  Math, science and literature flourished. One of my favorite books, One Thousand and One Nights, was written during this time … combining tales of many cultures and giving us Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba.  There really was a world like the one in my imagination –– once upon a time.

Illustration from 1001 Nights

The cookbook was a huge hit and became famous, especially in Turkey where a copy ended up … remarkable since all copies were written by hand. There were originally 160 recipes that were expanded to 260 through the centuries.

I found the book quite by accident, intrigued by an online recipe about the addictive salted sauce called murri that came from a translation of a recipe by Charles Perry (I wrote about murri HERE).  That discovery compelled me to get a copy of A Baghdad Cookery Book.   Once I opened it, I began cooking my way through it.

Book of Dishes

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Perry at the Oxford Food Symposium. He has translated many manuscripts in many languages in addition to being a former LA Times food critic and Rolling Stone writer… what an interesting life he’s led!  He was accessible and terribly nice.

When I went out to LA for the Lambapalooza dinner (that I wrote about HERE), I couldn’t think of a better companion for the meal than Mr. Perry since I made his recipe for Rutabiyya as my offering for the feast.  He walked me through preparation of the classic murri and with his help I made another version by rotting barley for weeks!  I shared samples of ambergris and manna that I had procured for the dinner with him as a small thank you for his help.

Fat-tailed sheep

The recipe I am sharing today is called Mudaqqaqat Hamida (which means sour meatballs).  I have been on a meatball roll lately (so to speak)… they are all the rage in NYC this year and perfect food for a cold winters night. This recipe is slightly exotic, but easy to make.  They are like proto-Swedish meatballs since they are sweet and sour from the natural sweetness of the reduced stock and the lemon, sumac and pomegranate molasses.

One ingredient that I do not use is something called tail fat.  It comes from the fat-tailed sheep that I read makes up an astounding 25% of the world’s sheep population. I hear it may be available in the US but would be very difficult to come by. Almost every recipe in the book calls for using it.  Absent tail fat, I would say using an animal fat like lard or duck fat would be similar to add extra flavor.  A vegetable oil will be fine if you are squeamish about animal fat.

Stone bowl from Uruk

I know that mastic is not on every pantry shelf –– it is available online and in most Middle-Eastern markets and looks like a rough yellow diamond (it is a dried resin).   You need very little.  I learned that the hard way the first time I used it.  The amount for the dish wasn’t really listed so I put in too much because I love the way it smelled –– it’s best when it is delicately used, then it’s lovely and haunting.  Honestly, there is nothing that remotely tastes like it so I couldn’t think of making a substitution.  The closest thing would be a splash of Retsina… but that wouldn’t be quite right. Sumac is also unusual, but is also available in those markets and online –– use extra lemon if you don’t have it.  The meat has a wonderful sweetness to it and contrasts beautifully with the sour sauce.  As with most dishes that have lots of warm spices, it perfumes your mouth when you eat it and is deeply satisfying. Serve with any flatbread or whole-wheat couscous.

Mudaqqaqat Hamida (sour meatballs) serves 4

1 pound ground lamb
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground pepper
1 t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground mastic (use a mortar and pestle, or roll it between foil with a rolling pin)
2/3 c chickpeas, mashed (I tried both frozen green chickpeas from WF and canned… I don’t know which is more authentic but I loved the taste of the green… both are delicious in the lamb)
2 small onions chopped
2 t salt or to taste
oil to brown meat (I used leftover fat from cooking a pheasant for added flavor but duck fat, lard or olive oil is fine)
juice of 1 lemon
1 t sumac (optional)
½ t saffron threads
3 T pomegranate molasses
¼ to ½ cup chopped fresh mint (to your taste)
3 cups unsalted stock
1 – 2 drops Aftelier Rose Chef’s Essence  or 2-3 T rosewater – to taste
Seeds from 1 pomegranate

Combine the lamb and spices and chickpeas and 1 onion.  Roll into balls… small golf ball size is good.  Brown in the fat with the rest of the onion and pour off any excess fat.

Add stock or water and lemon juice, sumac, saffron and cook the meatballs till they are done over a medium flame.

Reduce the liquid till it thickens somewhat. Add pomegranate molasses and rose essence/rosewater to taste and cook for another few minutes.  The natural sweetness of the reduced stock is perfect with the sour additions.  If you don’t reduce the sauce the sourness is unbalanced.  Toss in some of the chopped mint and stir.  Serve with Pomegranate seeds and fresh mint sprinkled on top.

Mudaqqaqat Hamida

Original recipe:

“Cut red meat into thin slices, then mince fine, adding seasonings, coriander, pepper, cinnamon and mastic together with chickpeas and a little onion.  Made into cabobs, smaller than oranges.  Melt fresh tail [fat], and throw in the cabobs, stirring until browned then cover with water.  Cut up two or three onions and add.  When cooked, removed the oils and sprinkle on top a little lemon or grape-juice, or a mixture of both, or sumach-juice, or pomegranate-juice.  Rub over the saucepan some sprigs of dry mint, and throw in a little mastic, pepper and cinnamon.  If desired, sprinkle in a little wine-vinegar, and color with saffron.  Spray the saucepan with a little rose-water, and wipe the sides with a clean rag.  Leave over the fire and hour: then remove.”


Thanks Deana for another amazing historical food adventure! (Words and photograph of Mudaqqaqat Hamida by Deana Sidney.  Illustration of The Thief of Baghdad 1 & 2 by Maxfield Parrish from Wikipedia; illustration from 1429 edition of 1001 Nights from; Book of Dishes from the Yale Library; photo of fat-tailed sheep from Wikipedia; and photo of stone bowl from Uruk from FAO.