I am passionately in love with Middle Eastern cuisine. I crave it, think about it, dream about it. I search for it in every new city that we travel to. While some may be dreaming of a vacation, a new house, worrying over the economy, I am deeply pondering the best ingredient combinations for fatoush (a fantastic salad served throughout the Middle East).
My love affair with Middle Eastern food intensified after a long, miserable visit to Lynchburg, Virginia (of all places…). My husband and I went to VA, planning to stay one week for my father in law’s bypass surgery. One week turned into three as he clung to life by a thread in the ICU. Diana is a gorgeous Lebanese student who lived in my in law’s basement. With a graduate degree in counseling and an expertise in cooking Lebanese dishes, she rescued us with compassion and heaping plates of sumptuous food. She is a saint or an angel, and I love her. We eat at least one of the dishes that she prepared for us once a week in our home.
Shortly thereafter, we went to Greece and Israel. Oh, how I ate and ate and ate and ate! At one particular restaurant, the waiters asked for my permission (we are sitting at tables of 12) to take the empty dishes away. They spied me literally bringing a bowl to my lips and drinking the salad dressing. This incited quite a bit of snickering amongst the wait staff, as well as looks of horror from my husband who was whispering, “I think you’ve gone a bit crazy. You’re in a frenzy.” What can I say? We had a table covered in the creamiest hummus I have ever eaten, fresh and perfect baba ganoush, bowls of fatoush, flat bread straight from the oven, soft grape leaves delicately wrapping little dollops of spiced meat and rice… the list goes on and I digress. However, if you ever travel to Israel (and I hope that you do) you must dine at Shalizar in the city of Jerusalem. You will have one of the best meals of your life, dining under ancient stone vaulted ceilings with a view of a courtyard overflowing with citrus trees and trailing geraniums. Unfortunately, so many travel tours take you to places that serve what they think you want to eat; usually poor interpretations of bland American dishes. If I ever take a group to Israel, we will NOT be eating chicken and French fries. Shalizar will be the first stop (after a stop at the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem).
I also love Middle Eastern food because it makes me feel connected with something very ancient. So many of these foods have ties that go back to Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations of the region, with traditions and recipes passed orally through generation after generation. If you do a little research, you can discover when certain spices entered the mix as trade opened up with neighboring villages, cities, and later other countries. Typically, this cuisine is prepared with a multitude of spices, which in and of itself feels inherently exotic. Add to that the fact that a generous serving of garlic and lemon juice accompany most everything that’s served, and you have a truly sexy dish. The ancient history of the Middle East is certainly marred with oppression, but freedom of expression has not always been so limited. Today the climate of that region is currently under the veil (literally for women) of self-denial, legalism and prohibition of pleasure and expression; however, the food and flavors of the Middle East remain vibrant, forward, and fragrantly exotic. You must try it. You MUST. I love the fact that food is still telling the story of a continent of people who can claim some of the most ancient written history and global cultural influence.
There are many resources for the purchase of spices and the procurement of recipes that I plan to post at some point in the future. However, today I will simply recommend that you do not buy these spices at your regular grocery store. If you live in Georgia, make a trip to the DeKalb Farmer’s Market (definitely expect more on this later) where you will pay an average of fifty cents for several ounces of spice. Absolutely incredible. If you don’t have access to the DeKalb Farmer’s Market, look up any other international market in your city and go there – it is almost guaranteed that you will pay a fraction of what you would at a major grocery store chain.
My friend Becky let me borrow one of her Saveur magazines, where I discovered this delicious recipe. Thank you, Becky. The author of the article spent some time with a group of young Iraqi men who had escaped the violence and religious mandates of radical Muslims in Iraq. They are currently refugees in Lebanon with dreams to settle in Texas. Go figure. You never know the story behind the people that you pass in your day to day life. They may have lived a life of adventure and heartbreak, settling for something far different from their childhood dreams, expertly preparing Tashreeb Dijaaj in some town in Texas. 🙂
The author of the article is apparently publishing a book entitled, “Day of Honey,” a memoir about food and war in the Middle East. I can’t wait to read it.
tashreeb dijaaj (spiced chicken and chickpea stew) – serves 4 or 2 for several meals
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 3 small onions, quartered
- 4 medium waxy style potatoes, peeled and quartered (I used red bliss potatoes – russet will not stand up to cooking)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp spice mixture (see below for recipe)
- heaping 1/2 tbsp of turmeric
- 1 tbsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 4 skinless chicken legs (about 1 lb – you could also use bone in chicken breast)
- 4 skinless chicken thighs (about 1 lb)
- 1 19 oz can of chickpeas (dried may be substituted if properly soaked beforehand – rinse canned chickpeas to get rid of excess sodium)
- 4 pieces of khubuz al-tannour (Iraqi flat bread), naan, or pita (rice could be substituted for all of these, but not preferable – all of these bread types can be found at DeKalb Farmer’s Market or Leon International Bakery in Atlanta)
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1 tbsp dried sumac
- Heat oil in a 6 quart or larger pot over medium high heat, and add onions, garlic, potatoes, bay leaves, spice mixture, turmeric and salt.
- Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until the onions and potatoes are golden, about 10 minutes
- Add the chicken and three and a half cups of water, stirring to combine
- Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium, and simmer uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes until chicken is tender and cooked throughout
- Add chickpeas and cook five minutes more, seasoning with salt to taste
- Line four bowls with bread and ladle the stew over the bread; finish with a generous squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of sumac
- Sing Hallelujah and take some tums if you aren’t used to this much spice
- 1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
- 2 white or green cardamom pods
- 2 whole allspice berries
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 chile de arbol (substitute cayenne pepper if you can’t find this)
- 3/4 dried rose petals (optional – I didn’t use this my first time around)
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ground ginger
- 1/8 tsp ground turmeric
- In a dry skillet, toast peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cardamom, allspice and cloves over medium low heat until fragrant (3 to 4 minutes)
- Let cool, then grind to a powder in a spice grinder with chile and rose petals
- transfer spices to a bowl and stir in nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric
NOTE – you could substitute all “whole” spices with “ground” spices – still toast ground spices in a dry pan