Category Archives: Saudi Arabia

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:

Saudi Shakshuka
Chinese Tomato Eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small white onion, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
4 eggs

Heat oil in a small-to-medium sauté pan. Add onions and garlic until tender. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and cumin and stir well. Cook 2-4 minutes until tomatoes soften.

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.
3 tablespoons cooking oil
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon shaoxing wine (optional)
3 dashes white pepper powder
8 oz. fresh tomato (cut into thin wedges)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
Some chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (garnish, optional)

Break the eggs into a bowl and use chopsticks to beat the eggs until they break thoroughly. Add salt, sesame oil, shaoxing wine, white pepper powder, and lightly beat to blend well. Set aside.

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 ppy2010ha@Dreamstime.com; 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.”

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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 Answers.com; Book of Dishes from the Yale Library; photo of fat-tailed sheep from Wikipedia; and photo of stone bowl from Uruk from FAO.

The Changing Landscape of Mesopotamian Flavors

Mersu Option One – A Date Nut Roll

I’m at it again – questioning the assumptions and conclusions about Mesopotamian flavors that Jean Bottero made when examining the Old Babylonian culinary tablets from Yale University. Is it some manic spirit that grabs me each Spring and forces me back into the ancient Near East or is it just that it is an activity that grabs my attention from time to time? Whatever the cause, those of you who have been following the blog for a while may remember last year about this time a post on Mesopotamian ingredients that were either undefined in Bottero’s work or, in my humble opinion, defined incorrectly or made little sense from a culinary point of view.

Well, I am once again actively engaged in reconstructing ingredients and recipes that I think the good professor erred on. Carob, wheatberries, licorice and pistachio nuts – all are flavors that I think were included in the Mesopotamian diet that Bottero left undefined or defined as other types of ingredients – all too often onions or other plants in the allium family.

Before the Yale tablets, Bottero notes that there were only two recipes. The first one is for “Mersu”, which Bottero defined as a “cake” with dates and pistachio nuts as ingredients. It turns out that the tablet – transcribed in Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW) – only states that dates and pistachios were received for the making of mersu for the king, not that mersu was a cake or how to make it. The assumption that those were ingredients for a cake was made entirely by Bottero, because mersu/mirsu is simply an Old Babylonian word for a “confection” made of dates. He also makes the entymological link with the verb “marasu” one meaning of which is to stir into a liquid. He neglects to note that a secondary meaning for the verb is to squeeze or crush (although I admit, that this is not generally used in connection with food or offering words.)

Mersu Option Two – Date Balls Covered with Nuts and other Toppings

Could mersu be a cake? Sure. But there are many other types of things that it could be as well. A look at modern Western Asian and Levantine cuisines shows that mersu could easily have been a date-nut roll or a beautiful date “candy” as pictured here. Both sweets are based on pounded dates and chopped nuts or other fruit or nut toppings.

Adding only some type of flour, mersu could be something like the modern Iranian dessert Ranginak which consists of dates stuffed with pistachios enclosed in a thin crust of dough, or it could be like the modern Lebanese Ma’moul which has a pounded date center covered in a layer of semolina that is then covered in a layer of chopped pistachios.

My point, if it is not evident, is that there is no need to use secondary or teritary sources to conjure additional ingredients beyond those listed to have a dish fit for an ancient king and his court. A secondary point is that all too often, I believe, Bottero interpreted the ingredients and dishes on the tablets from a French haute-cuisine perspective, instead of a modern regional one that would perhaps be more illuminating and appropriate for understanding Mesopotamian cuisine.

The second recipe known before the Yale tablets is one that Bottero calls “court boullion”. The ingredients listed are nuhurtu, sahlu, kasu, kamu, cucumber (?), and the meat of a slaughtered animal. Bottero translates these as fennel, watercress, dodder (Cuscuta), cumin and cucumber (all of which he states he is uncertain of). My own research suggests that the ingredients are asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress) wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and cumin. The characters or transliteration for the ingredient thought to be cucumber is not included in OCW, so I cannot research or comment on it liguistically, but I can say that with a flavor lineup including asafoetida, cress, licorice, and cumin that cucumber makes little culinary sense as it would be overwhelmed in the quantities required (15 grams). (Note:  See additional entry below for a better suggested translation of “cucumber”)

Braised Lamb Shank

The recipe states to boil six liters of water with kasu and cook for a long time – I presume this to be until it is reduced by at least half or two-thirds. Then it reads that the cucumber (?) should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked. I assume that the other ingredients are added when the cucumber (?) is added, but no specific instructions are given, they could be added when the meat is added, or even before the broth is strained.

Even a modest amount of meat – a pound or two – added to a liter of water and cooked is not going to produce a boullion (for there are no further instructions to strain the liquid again) but rather a stew. A licorice and lamb stew – what an interesting idea! Of course it could have been a braised cut of meat as well – a licorice braised lamb. The point is, it could be many things other than court boullion.

So, my point here is that many of the ingredients listed by Bottero may not be correct, and many make little or no culinary sense. I’ve been told by a real Assyrian language scholar recently that the whole field of plant name identification is, “diabolically slippery”. What bothers me, however, is that there seem to be a good deal of scholarship about plants and ingredients that existed at the time of his writing that Bottero either ignored or rejected without argument. As I said in the first post on this subject, I may not be right about the ingredients, but I am transparently referenced. (See post on Mesopotamian ingredients for the growing list of terms I have examined and the references I’ve used to inform my point of view).

I’ve adopted this as an ongoing project and am interested to see where it leads, I may even try to reconstruct the licorice and lamb stew and give it a taste, but will have to get my hands on a copy of the original reference for the “court boullion” recipe to check the translation and interpretation of the “cucumber” before I do. If I do, I’ll let you know, so we can breathe new life to an ancient Silk Road dish.

(Words and research by Laura Kelley; Confections and Photographs of Date Nut Roll and Date Balls by Kajal of Aaplemint, where many of Kajal’s recipes for her confections can be found. Photograph of Braised lamb Shank by Becky Luigart-Stayner, borrowed from Google images.)

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Additional:

The missing ingredient has been found!  Ukus-hab, is not cucumber or colocynthe, but rather citron!  At least that’s what I think.  See the lexicon link to see the reasons and reference.

An Ode to Arab Cuisine

For those of you who think I’ve made an error in omitting the Levant and Arabian Peninsula States from The Silk Road Gourmet – you may be right. Originally, I intended to do a follow on to the Silk Road Gourmet that treated the cuisines of the Maghreb and Levant, but the more cooking I do from these countries (especially Arab cuisine), the more I understand their influence on Asian Food and see elements of Asian food on their plates and in their recipes. One generalization I feel comfortable making is that many Arab recipes are pared down or simplified versions of recipes encountered in many other places in Western or Southern Asia. The difficult part is telling whether the Arab recipe is the root recipe that was then embellished by other cultures by adding a few key spices or ingredients, or whether it represents a recipe acquired from another nation’s cuisine that has since become more elaborate at its source.

Take for instance the two simple recipes posted below. The major differences between the two salads are the preparation of the tomatoes and the addition of cumin in the Indian recipe. The grilling and does add a smoky element to the flavor of the Saudi salad, but it is easy to see that these recipes are probably related to one another. In other instances of similar recipes, we find that Armenians like to add cucumbers to their tabooleh that the Saudis and cooks in other Arab states seem happy to live without, and the Arabs take layering of rice and meat dishes to such elaborate heights that I’m beginning to wonder how much a layered dish like a Biryani is really Persian and how much of it is of Arab origin.

Saudi Recipe
Indian Recipe
Tomato and Coriander Salad

2 medium tomatoes, grilled, peeled and pureed
¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt (more if desired)
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2-3 green chili peppers, finely diced

Grind together the chili peppers and the coriander with a mortar and pestle. Add this to the tomato puree and mix well. Season with salt and lemon juice. Serve or refrigerate and serve lightly cooled.
Tomato and Onion Salad

2 medium tomatoes, cut into crescents
1 small to medium onion, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin OR Garam Masala
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt (more or less if desired)
1/8 teaspoon ground chili powder or black pepper

Add the lemon juice, cumin or garam masala, fresh cilantro, salt and pepper to a bowl of sliced tomatoes and onions. Mix well and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour before serving.

Perhaps the best way to think about Saudi cuisine is a two-way street. Many recipes and cuisine elements were brought to other nations during the Abbasid and Umayyad dynasties and during other periods of Arab conquest – such as the Syrian conquest of Southern Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries and Southern Italy from the 9th to the early 11th centuries. But during these and other periods, Saudi cuisine adopted Persian and other Western and Southern Asian elements as well. Of course, Arab traders were crucial to the commerce of the Great Silk Road and Diaspora communities of Arabs were found in almost every major economic center of the ancient world – bringing their cultural practices and their food with them. So then, as now the Arabs were both brilliant capitalists as well as important purveyors of culture from West to East and back again.

Lamb Majboos - Arabian Peninsula

Considering food as only one aspect of material culture, without the work of Arab traders, tamarind and sesame might well have remained Sub-Saharan African flavors, and the use of turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon may well have remained confined to the Indian subcontinent and not spread across Asia and into Africa, Europe and from there to the New World. Beyond food, it is impossible to tally the ideas, beliefs, arts and crafts that would not have moved around the old world without the ceaseless work of Arab businessmen. Although different periods in the silk road history coincide with distinct periods of old world globalization, throughout all, Arabs in particular were the multicultural, multilingual, transnationalists of the ancient world.

Over the years, I’ve had some simply delicious Arab dishes that I am currently cooking to my own standards to ensure that the recipes deliver flavorful delicious, authentic food. Chicken stuffed with rice spiced with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and black pepper is a memorable dish as is a lamb and vegetable stew with a similar spice array. There is also a much more European tasting lamb with garlic, thyme and mint from the southern peninsula, the spiced and wood-baked lamb over rice that is found throughout the Arab world and the fantastic fish with tomato and onions from the coastal areas. Of course, no Arab meal is complete without dates – either plain and unsweetened or rolled with sesame or some other coating – and rich, thick, cardamom-spiced coffee – lord, how I love Arab coffee! I wish I had at least a day in an Arab country for every month I’ve spent in tea-drinking lands.

Ramadan Dates

 

So, as of now, I’m thinking that there has to be a fourth volume of the Silk Road Gourmet that includes cuisines from the Levant and Maghreb to really understand the flow of recipes and ingredients in and around the Old World. I don’t have a publication for the first volume of Silk Road Gourmet yet, but I’m hoping that it will be on shelves by May or June of 2009. Volumes two, three and perhaps four will follow in 2009 and 2010, but until then I urge you to cook your way around this or other parts of the world and learn where that kebab or gyro that you may be enjoying from a street cart really came from. (Words by Laura Kelley, photo of Lamb Majboos and Dates © Paulcowan | Dreamstime.com)