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 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.

1001 Tales from the Spice Trade: Cinnamon

We take so much for granted these days. Almost every household cupboard has ground cinnamon or cinnamon sticks in them. Mass produced cinnamon is cheap and readily available at almost every market and even higher quality cinnamon sticks from the far reaches of the globe are accessible and relatively affordable via the internet. In times past, however, spices were rare and expensive and significant portions of household income were spent on them for their medicinal and nutritive qualities and well as for the maintenance of one’s social standing through conspicuous spice use.

Ceylonese Cinnamon Sticks

For Greeks, Egyptians, and others in the ancient world, spices came from far-away places. The men who gathered them risked their lives to do so, and their bravery was compensated for by high demand and high price for their sometimes intermittent supply of spice. As early as the 5th Century BCE, Herodotus wrote in his Histories that the “Arabians” obtained cassia by traveling to the shores of a great lake and gathering cassia on the shores. However, the shores were patrolled by a huge bat-like, winged creatures which screeched horribly and attacked the spice gatherers. To protect themselves from the creatures, the spice gatherers covered their bodies and their faces with the hides of oxen and other skins leaving only holes for the eyes. Dangerous and hot work – to harvest a rare bark.

Another legend related by Herodotus is that cinnamon came from the land of Bacchus. Great birds were said to collect branches of cinnamon and make their nests with it. The nests were constructions dappled with mud and affixed to sheer cliff faces. Still more wonderful was the mode in which they collected the cinnamon. The “Arabians” cut meat and joints from their beasts of burden such as oxen and asses and place near the nests to lure the birds from their nests. Herodotus tells us that the cinnamon gatherers withdrew to a distance and allowed the birds to swoop down and seize pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests. The nests, not being able to support the weight broke off and fell to the ground, whereupon the Arabians returned and collected the cinnamon for sale abroad.

Cinnamon – Botanical Print

Legends like these abounded for centuries. In the 4th Century BCE, Theophrastus tells us in his Enquiry into Plants ( IX v. 1-6) that cinnamon and cassia came from bushes with many branches that grew in deep glens and that in these there are numerous snakes which have a deadly bite which guarded the bushes. The men who harvested the bark and branches protected their hands and feet from the snakes and when they were through they left one portion of the harvest behind for the sun in gratitude for being spared from the snakes. The portion left for the sun was said to ignite spontaneously and perfume the air with a sweet incense as the gatherers departed the glens.

Still other legends tell of flying snakes guarding cinnamon trees and gatherers having to burn noxious incense to chase the snakes away and gather the bark in safety.

The wonderful thing about all these legends is that they are not just accidental tales from the active imaginations of traders and travelers. They are deliberate attempts to drive the price of commodities as high as possible by making the collection of cinnamon and cassia sound very dangerous and difficult to do.

An interesting aside is that what we call cinnamon (which is either true cinnamon or cassia or a blend of the two spices) is not what traders and merchants in the ancient world would have considered cinnamon. Long ago, cinnamon was thought to be the whole branch – wood and inner and outer bark – with the delicate newer growth considered of higher quality than the wood and bark close to the roots of the tree. The bark devoid of inner wood was called by another name (often cassia). Eventually, the whole branch fell out of commercial trade and the bark only became known as cinnamon.

Today, a number of different species of Cinnamomum tree are cultivated and sold as cinnamon. There is Cinnamomum verum – the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka that cultivates only the inner bark and was traded along the early silk road; C. burmanni which is Indondesian cinnamon; C. loureiroi or Saigon cinnamon and lastly, C. aromaticum or Chinese cinnamon which uses all layers of bark and has a more harsh flavor than Ceylonese cinnamon. Medicinal cinnamon is the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka, not cassia from China and Southeast Asia which can have hepatotoxic effects when taken in medicinal doses.

So next time you use cinnamon or cassia to flavor a sweet treat or to make a savory Asian curry or stew, think on the dark and dangerous (and fictional) tales of the ancients who gathered these spices along the silk road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Plate of Cinnamomum varum Kohler, and Photo of Cinnamon sticks from Wikimedia)

Venice and the Silk Road: The Muslim World

Villa with “Islamic” Windows

Sea gulls calling, businessmen sweeping the sidewalks in front of their shops and restaurants and of course the incessant lap of the waves on the stone foundations of La Serenissima – the serene place. These are the sounds of Venice at dawn – the same sounds to which the city has woken to for countless generations. More than a powerful city-state that became an Italian province in the 19th Century, Venice was a major European player on the Silk Road that was often the end stop for goods and ideas coming across the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

Coming to power from the 9th to the 12th Centuries, Venice first rose to prominence by defeating Dalmatian pirates that often seized or demanded payment from the merchant vessels coming to trade in the city’s lucrative markets. With defeat of the pirates and control of the eastern Adriatic, Venice’s sphere of influence spread westward onto the mainland to secure the flow of agricultural products for the city and then into the Aegean all the way to Cyprus and Crete. From the 9th Century on, trading relationships with merchants from North Africa, the Levant and Arabian peninsula also helped feed Venice’s growing prominence among European cities. A large portion of the city’s growing wealth also came from its dominance of the salt trade in the Mediterranean.

At first a defender of the Eastern Roman Empire against Norman and Turkish incursions, the Venetian conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204 made Venice a major imperial power that also helped to bring about the fall of Byzantium. At the height of its maritime power in the late 13th Century, Venice had more than 3,000 ships dominating commerce from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Remnants of this age of empire can be seen in design elements around the city today in the use of spiraling sets of glass lanterns and Persian carpets to adorn the interior of churches and in the pointed, domed windows and doorways on the buildings that line the canals. Insidiously perhaps, the graceful curve of these Islamic-inspired windows and doors are often topped with a Coptic cross or a Fleur de Lys reminiscent of the triumph of Christianity that the crusaders would have espoused.

War spoils seized from Constantinople can still be seen in the San Marco treasury today, gold, precious gems, jewelry, scepters, goblets and statues of almost incalculable value are on display for the payment of a few Euros as are the famed quadriga of bronze horses that once pulled a chariot on a monument to second century Roman emperor Septimus Severus.

San Marco – Quadriga

Even after the recapture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in the 15th Century, and the loss of many of Venice’s territories in the eastern Mediterranean, links from the city state to the Muslim world remained strong as evidence in the portraits of Ottoman and Turkmen rulers that still line the Ufizzi. Friezes of palm trees, camels and gazelles decorate the ancestral home of the Zen family who were merchants trading with the Arabs, geographers and explorers, and ambassadors to Muslim Persia and Damascus.

When moveable type reached Venice in the 15th Century, Venice became the printing capital of the world. The leading printer, Aldus Manutius, also invented portable books that could be carried in a saddlebag. Instantly popular, these books soon superseded the heavy, metalclad manuscripts and books and the dissemination of knowledge was brought beyond the bounds of the monastery, palace and private library. At this time Venetian printers also began to reprint Islamic treatises on medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics thus allowing these disciplines to spread freely in Europe once again. Among the portable books printed were also cookbooks, with Apicus’ early text being printed in 1498.

With all of this cross-cultural contact, trade and exchange, the Silk Road also had a strong effect on Venetian cuisine that can be enjoyed to this very day. In addition to the spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper that came from Asian shores or agricultural products such as oranges, lemons and saffron, there are recipes that also bespeak Asian and/or Muslim influence.

Fish in Saor

One of the special Venetian dishes that display the maritime contact with the Muslim world is Pesce de Saor. Fish – often sardines, sometimes mackerel – is marinated for days in layers of onions, white wine vinegar, pinenuts and raisins. The fish is sautéed (dredged if desired), and set aside, then the onions are cooked over low heat until they begin to caramelize and the vinegar, pinenuts and raisins added. This is then placed in alternating layers of onions and fish in a large casserole and allowed to sit in a cool place for several days prior to eating. This dish is clearly related to Sayadia or Sayadieh enjoyed from the Levant through the Arabian Peninsula – but is not cooked after layering given the omission of rice. It is delicious and lightly sweet despite the large amount of vinegar and onions used. The dish is sometimes served with grilled polenta which takes on the flavor of the saor. Shellfish and other fish such as monkfish are also traditionally prepared in this manner in Venice but have variations on ingredients such as the use of oranges, bay leaves and mixed greens to flavor the saor.

Many dishes labeled “Italian” also have ties to the Silk Road as well. One such dish is the Salmon with Oranges. This flavorful dish, served as a carpaccio or in pieces often served on a bed of arugula owes two of its main ingredients – arugula and oranges to Western Asia. A peruse of The Silver Spoon shows a variety of baked Persian vegetable omelets known as “kuku” for their use of eggs. Almonds for use as ground nuts and sauces are another popular Muslim addition to Italian cuisine. Pomegranates were also brought into Italy and flourished in its many warm, dry temperate climates. Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook (Opera) in 1570 included treatises on Arab pastry making and “Moorish” couscous in addition to the many Bolognese recipes he recorded.

Roasted Coffee Beans

A discussion of the Islamic world’s influence on Venice and Italy’s cuisines wouldn’t be complete without a mention of coffee. Muslim traders first brought coffee to Venice where merchants and their customers would sample it in Piazza San Marco. At first, raw beans were boiled and then fermented and then cooked again – a time consuming process – that produced a bitter brew. Later, in the 16th Century, when the Muslims began roasting the beans prior to brewing them, the Venetians embraced coffee drinking and the fashion spread quickly to the rest of Europe.

We stopped recently at Venice’s Cafe Florian – which opened in 1720 – to enjoy a late night desert and listen to some great live music. The gianduiotto of hazelnut gelato with bits of peidmontese chocolate and whipped cream was wonderful. My husband had a melon gelato based dessert while the kids played in the square in front of the cafe. Later, an evening thunderstorm raged while we continued to enjoy the cafe – sheltered under the arcade of Procuratie Nuove and my daughter (successfully) videographed lightning.

The influence of the Silk Road and of the Muslim merchants who traversed its land and sea routes can be found all over Venice and more broadly in Italian art, architecture, cuisine and culture. This post is a toe-in-the water of a subject we shall revisit again and again in future explorations. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photographs of Palazzo with Islamic Windows by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pesce de Saor borrowed from Buttalapasta website.)