Offerings from the treasure trove of Babylonian cuisine
From an Iraqi-born comparative literature professor with a love for Middle-Eastern cooking comes 'Delights from the Garden of Eden,' a flavor-filled book chock-full of history.
Sabich, the Iraqi fried eggplant sandwich, became extremely popular in Israel in recent years, rising to a status second only to falafel. There’s only one debate still unsolved among its admirers: the origin of its name.
According to cookbook writer Nawal Nasrallah, the debate is easily settled with a simple explanation: the word sabich comes from the Arab word for morning, subuch- the time of day when Jews used to have this dish on Shabbat. The name sabich is an Israeli invention, though, and was not known in Iraq, where it is simply called “laffat betinjan”, which means eggplant wrap.
Nawal, an Iraqi native, was an English and comparative literature professor at the universities of Baghdad and Mosul. When her husband got a scholarship to the University of Indiana in 1990, she quit her job and followed him. “I missed the research, I was a frustrated professor,” Nawal told me in a phone call from her home in Salem, New Hampshire, earlier this week. She felt there was a need for a good book on Iraqi food, something she couldn’t find in the local bookstores. And so Nawal decided to put all her energy into writing the fascinating, thorough and delicious Iraqi cookbook ''Delights from the Garden of Eden'' (Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2013. First edition published 2003 by the author).
Being a true professor, she wanted more than just a recipe book. Nawal was interested in the continuity of the Iraqi cuisine. Her research took her as far back as the Sumerian and Babylonian times, and then, passing through a trove of medieval cookbooks, all the way back to present day Iraq. What she discovered was that many of the dishes that are in dispute over their origin, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Turks, Greeks and Arabs, between Iraqis and Iranians, ”were [all] cooked- in one way or another- in the medieval Baghdadi kitchens.”
Turns out that moussaka, for example, originates from medieval Baghdad (from a layered dish called buraniyya), and that middle eastern mejadra was found in Al-Baghdadi’s 13th century cookbook. The Palestinian eggplant maqlouba and the Greek tzatziki both appear in al Warraq’s 10th century Baghdadi cookbook.
And hummus? While chickpeas appear in the epic of Gilgamesh (and in the Bible as well), Nawal found recipes for hummus bi-tahina (hummus in tahini, which is basically the hummus dip available in every supermarket) in 13th and14th century cookbooks, where it was called himmas kisa. These books are from Aleppo and Egypt, but are considered to belong to the same family by researchers, who see them as representative of the general near eastern cuisine.
Nawal also found the roots of the Iraqi flat bread, khubuz mei, which dates back to the Sumerian civilization. The recipe has hardly changed in its ingredients or its name in the last 5,000 years.
The Jewish-Iraqi tabyeet (or tbeet, here’s a recipe from my family), a Shabbat overnight dish of chicken stuffed and covered with rice, has its roots in medieval Baghdad as well. Tabyeet, meaning “keeping overnight” was baked in a tanour- an oven- so the dish was known to some as tanouri, or tanouriya. Overnight cooked dishes known by this name were found in medieval cookbooks, “so the tradition was there and was adapted by the Jews for its convenience”. The older tanouriya dishes included grains and sometimes meat, and were cooked first over fire and only then put in the oven for the night. Much like we do today with the tabyeet.
Nawal was given her first taste of tabyeet by her Jewish neighbor Um Naseem in Baghdad, in the early 60’s. Um Naseem would ask Nawal and her siblings to light the stove for her on Saturday, and in return would send their family the delicious tabyeet. “I used to love those brown eggs they would arrange on top of the cover of the dish to cook all night,” Nawal said.
“The tabyeet became part of our cuisine”, she added, and Iraqis kept preparing this Jewish dish long after the Jews had left the country. The first Iraqi cookbook, written in Arabic in the 1960’s, includes a recipe for tabyeet, as does the English “Recipes from Baghdad,” published in 1946. People still make tabyeet today.
As part of her research, Nawal translated and wrote the introduction to the 10th century cookbook "Annal of the Caliphs’ Kitchens." This medieval cookbook, a 132-chapter-long tome which includes over 600 recipes, was one of the books Nawal found most helpful in writing her own.
While the ancient Arab cuisine is common all over the eastern middle east, from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, through Iraq and the Gulf, the Iraqi kitchen today is distinguished from other Arab cuisines by the large variety of stuffed dishes and the many kibbeh (called kubbeh in Iraqi), fried or steamed. All are made, by the way, with ground rice dough not farina or bulgar.
Nawal shared these two recipes from her book, and you can find many more on her blog:
Browned Eggplant with Yogurt (Musaqqa’at Betinjan bil-Liban)
From Delights From the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
In medieval Baghdad, pairing fried eggplant with yogurt was a popular way for consuming eggplant as a cold side-dish. It still is our favorite. A simple and beautiful dish, which is true to its name musaqqa’a (the cooled-off dish). Great for hot summer days.
1 large eggplant (about 1½ pounds)
About ¼ cup olive oil for brushing eggplant
1½ cups (12 oz) yogurt
1 garlic clove, grated
½ teaspoon salt
For garnish: chili pepper, chopped parsley, sliced tomato
1. Wash the eggplant, cut off stem, and peel it in stripes. Cut it crosswise into 2 parts, and then cut each part lengthwise into ¼ inch-thick pieces. Soak them in warm salted water for about 30 minutes. Put a heavy plate on the pieces to keep them submerged. Drain eggplant, then oven-fry them as follows: Brush a cookie sheet with oil, then arrange the eggplant slices in one layer. Brush them generously with olive oil, and broil them on high heat, turning once, to brown on both sides.
2. Mix together yogurt, garlic, and salt.
3. On a flat big platter, arrange eggplant pieces in a thin layer (they may overlap), and spoon yogurt mixture all over them. Garnish with chili pepper, parsley, and tomato slices. Serve with warm bread.
Iraqi Rice Kubba (Kubbat Timman)
From Delights From the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah
(Makes 22 to 24 pieces)
These beautiful creations are golden and appetizingly crunchy from the outside, but succulently moist from the inside. They are also known by the name kubbat Halab, which links them to the Syrian city of Aleppo. However, they are, as far as I know, an Iraqi specialty. I once made this dish for friends from Aleppo, and they said they have never seen anything like it before.
First of all the filling, which you can prepare beforehand, refrigerate and use when needed:
1 ½ pounds lean ground meat
1 tablespoon oil
2 medium onions (about 9 oz), finely chopped
1½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon baharat mix
¼ teaspoon chili pepper
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup slivered and toasted almond
¼ cup currants or chopped raisins
Heat oil in a big skillet and cook ground meat, stirring occasionally, and breaking down any lumps with the back of a spoon. When moisture almost evaporates, add onion and stir until transparent, 10 to 15 minutes, total. Add the rest of the ingredients in the last five minutes of cooking, and fold gently. Set aside to cool off.
Now, to prepare the rice dough:
2 cups (1 pound) rice, washed, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
10 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon turmeric or saffron
½ teaspoon cinnamon or a small cinnamon stick
¼ cup cornstarch
Oil for frying (such as canola)
1. Bring water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the drained rice along with salt, turmeric, and cinnamon. Give the pot a good stir, and bring it back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and let the rice boil gently in the partially covered pot, gently stirring twice or thrice. The rice grains should be cooked in about 15 minutes. Start testing after the first 10 minutes of cooking. Take a few grains and eat them, they should be cooked but still intact, not chewy, and not mushy. Do not let rice overcook.
2. Strain rice in a metal colander. Put the colander with the rice back into the pot and cover it with the lid, and set it aside until it is cool enough to handle.
3. Transfer rice to a big bowl, and discard the cinnamon stick if used. Sprinkle cornstarch on rice and knead with slightly moistened hands until mixture is combined into dough.
4. Have a bowl of cold water nearby. Handling with slightly moistened hands, take a small amount of dough, size of a small lemon, and shape it into the traditional shape (see picture, like the American football or rugby ball) as follows: Hold the ball of dough in one hand and hollow it with the thumb of the other hand until you get an elongated oval shell about ¼ in. thick and 3 in. long, it does not have to be perfect. Fill and close the opening, and roll it gently between the palms to make it look like an egg with two pointed ends. Moisten your fingers whenever dough feels sticky. Put the finished ones on a big tray in one layer.
5. Fry the filled kubba in 1-inch deep hot oil, turning once, until golden all around, about 7 minutes per batch. Put the fried pieces in a large colander lined with white paper towels, and let them cool off a little before serving. Alternatively, you may spread the paper towels on a rack and put the fried kubbas in one layer to cool off. This way you prevent the kubba from getting soggy.
Serve with lots of salad and bread, or make into sandwiches with slices of salad vegetables, and pickles. Pickled mango (‘amba) with diced tomato is especially good with this dish.