Recipes from 13th-Century Syria

The latest book in our Library of Arabic Literature series, Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook edited and translated by culinary historian Charles Perry, hits shelves today! The text, Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-habib, was a collection of 635 recipes compiled by an anonymous author in 13th-century Syria. Judging by the number of extant manuscript copies, it was a popular cookbook.

The text is a fascinating window into Middle Eastern cuisine seven centuries ago—particularly in how it reflects the importance of fragrance to garnish both food and diners (there are separate sections on how to make perfumed soaps and breath-sweeteners). At the same time, it includes herbs and flavorings that we don’t normally associate with modern Levantine cuisine.

For a taste, check out these recipes from the book, which Charles Perry has reworked for contemporary kitchens.

You can order the book here. We’d love to hear from you if you try these recipes out at home!

Bon appétit! Bi-l-hanāʾ wa-l-shifāʾ!

 

Chicken in Mustard-Yogurt Sauce

Jurjāniyyah

The sauce gives a pungent impression like horseradish, but with the special fragrance of yogurt and the enrichment of pistachios. The name of the dish, Jurjāniyyah, implies that it comes from Gorgan, a region in Iran.

Note: Dairy milk yogurt needs to be stabilized before boiling or it will curdle. (Goat’s milk yogurt does not have this problem because of its high butterfat content.) Middle Eastern cooks warn that when you’re boiling yogurt you should stir consistently in one direction to reduce the risk of curdling.

Serves 4

1 quart unsweetened yogurt, preferably without additives such as gelatin or carrageenan

1 egg white, whisked with a fork

1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons sugar

3½-4 tablespoons ground mustard

1 chicken, 3½-4 pounds, cut into serving pieces and fried

1 cup peeled pistachios

In season: 2/3 cup pomegranate seeds

Force the yogurt through a wire strainer into a saucepan. To stabilize it, stir in the egg white and dissolved cornstarch, stirring consistently in one direction. Set over high heat and continue to stir in the same direction until bubbles start to appear at the edges, then reduce the heat to medium-high and stir until the mixture starts to boil, as shown by a heaving foamy consistency, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the sugar and 3½ tablespoons mustard, pressing the mustard against the side of the pan with your spoon to make sure it dissolves evenly. After two or three minutes, taste the sauce to see whether you like the degree of pungency and add the remaining half tablespoon mustard if desired. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the chicken pieces sit in the sauce for five minutes to warm up.

Arrange the chicken pieces on serving dishes and ladle yogurt sauce on them. Divide the pistachios (and pomegranate seeds, if available) among the portions and sprinkle on top.

 

Meatballs with Whole Garlic Cloves

Ṭabīkh al-Thūm (“the Dish of Garlic”)

This highly flavored dish has a curious similarity to the French dish of chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. (It has an even closer similarity to another dish in Scents and Flavors, basaliyyah, “the onion dish,” which is made the same way but with tiny onions instead of garlic cloves.) In medieval Syria, the meat would have been ground lamb, but it works quite well with beef.

The recipe says, “Make sure to use a generous quantity of coriander leaves. The fat has an especially good flavor.”

Serves 4

2 pounds ground meat

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon clove

¼ teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup minced cilantro

oil

1 head garlic

water or broth

Knead the meat with the minced garlic, coriander, cinnamon, clove, salt and 4 tablespoons of the cilantro in order to distribute the flavorings as evenly as possible. Form into about 24 walnut-sized meatballs. Put ¼ inch of oil in a large frying pan and fry the meatballs over high heat in several batches until well browned on all sides.

Meanwhile, separate the head of garlic into cloves and remove their peels. (A way to make this easier is to split the peel by hitting a clove with a mortar, a knife handle or the edge of a plate. Note that this will tend to make the resulting dish more garlicky.) You can discard very skinny cloves, which are more trouble to peel than they’re worth.

Remove the meatballs to a mixing bowl as they are cooked. When they are all done, pour off most of the cooking oil, return the meatballs to the pan and add the garlic cloves along with the rest of the cilantro and enough water or broth to come halfway up the meatballs. Bring to the boil and continue to boil until the liquid has entirely evaporated and the meatballs just start to sizzle in the oil, about 30 minutes. The pan juices should have thickened but not dried up.

To speed the process, you can remove the meatballs and garlic after 15 minutes and boil the remaining liquid down rapidly, then return them to the pan and stir around in the oil and thickened pan juices to flavor them.

 

Chicken in Almond-Pomegranate Sauce

Ṭabīkh Ḥabb Rummān (“the Dish of Pomegranate Juice”)

Many medieval dishes combined meat with fruit. One of the most popular was chicken in a luscious sauce of pomegranate juice, ground almonds, sugar and a spice, usually cinnamon. Some versions added pieces of apple or quince and all garnished the result with fresh mint.

Pomegranate is a seasonal fruit (and it does not keep as well as its leathery skin might lead you to expect), so in medieval recipes the juice is usually reconstituted from dried pomegranate seeds. Today we have a much more convenient year-round option, pomegranate molasses, known as dibs rumman in Arabic, rob-e anar in Farsi, nar pekmezi in Turkish, and narsharab in Armenian. It is readily available in Middle Eastern markets.

Note: Middle Eastern pomegranates are tart, rather than mostly sweet like the variety of pomegranate usual in the West. If you use fresh pomegranate juice (2 cups), reduce the amount of sugar accordingly. In any case, do not use grenadine syrup, which is much too sweet.

Serves 4-5

2 cups almonds

1 cup water

1 cup pomegranate molasses

½ cup sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 chicken, 3 ½-4 pounds, raw or cooked, cut into serving pieces

1 cup chopped mint

Process the almonds until they start to clump up, 4-5 minutes. Add the cup of water and process to a puree. Scrape into a saucepan, add the pomegranate molasses, sugar and cinnamon and bring to the boil, stirring constantly.

Add chicken and cook, if raw, or heat up, if already cooked. At serving time, garnish with mint.

 

A Proto-Baklava

Kul wa-Shkur (also called Qarni Yaruq)

Serves 4

This pastry has an Arabic name meaning “eat and give thanks.” A pastry by the same name is still made in Syria, but these days it’s a sort of baklava made by folding filo pastry over a filling. It also has a medieval Turkish name meaning “split-belly,” because in the Middle Eastern context you would expect a pastry like this to have a nut filling. Instead, the pastries are fried empty and then at serving time topped with syrup and pistachios, making a sort of early draft for baklava.

This pastry is not as delicate as filo dough, but it might be worth reviving. Not only is it much easier to make than filo, it has a charming texture of its own, crisp and at the same time a little crumbly.

The medieval recipe uses sesame oil for frying. This can be hard to find, so any neutral oil can be substituted. (Note: Chinese sesame oil is toasted and only suitable as a flavoring, not a frying medium.)

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon water
  • ½ teaspoon lemon juice
  • about 1/2 teaspoon rose water
  • 6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) butter, well softened
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4-5 tablespoons water
  • Oil for frying
  • 2/3 cup pistachios, minced

Instructions:

Combine the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small pan and heat, stirring occasionally, until it boils and turns clear. Set aside to cool. When cool, flavor to taste with rose water.

To make the pastry, work 1 ounce (1/4 stick) of the butter into the flour. Add enough water to make a firm paste, as if you were making pasta, and knead hard for 10 minutes. Cover and set aside for 1/2 hour.

Cut the lump of paste in half and cover one of the halves with plastic film or a kitchen towel. Lightly dust the other with flour and put it through your pasta maker. When you reach the next to finest setting, cut the sheet of paste in half, leave one half on a plate or any handy surface and put the other half through the finest setting.

Transfer this thin sheet of paste to a work surface. Cut it in half to make two pieces about 8 inches long. (The reason for this step is that it’s hard to fold longer lengths of paste when it’s this thin.) Square off the ends.

Melt the remaining butter in a pan and generously brush the top of one of the two lengths of paste with butter, all the way to the edges. Carefully fold it over to make a folded sheet about 8 inches long and two inches wide. Cut into approximate squares and transfer them to a very lightly floured work surface. You should have anywhere from 4 to 6 squares, which will look like sad, empty ravioli.

Repeat with the other piece of paste that remains on your work surface. Then repeat this process with the sheet of paste that set aside earlier, the one that has not yet been put through the finest setting. Finally go through this whole process again with the lump that you covered when you started using the pasta maker.

Put about 1/4 inch of oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat until one of the pieces of paste will start sizzling immediately when put in. Reduce the heat to medium high and fry in batches, watching them carefully, and turn over when lightly browned and blistered on one side; the sign is that the edges will visibly start to brown. (Note: If you haven’t brushed the raw pastry with butter all the way to the edges before frying, the pastry may puff up — fun to watch, but to be avoided, because it won’t brown adequately.)

To serve, arrange the qarni yaruqs on plates, drench with sugar syrup and sprinkle with the minced pistachios.

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