Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Rice Memories and Meanings

January 14, 2013

I grew up eating rice only occasionally, and when my mother did make it, it was simple: one cup of rice with one cup of water, with half of a jalapeno thrown in. It was so unmemorable that I don’t even remember what we usually ate it with. I was exposed to your standard beans and rice, the rice that comes on the side of Mexican food, but it wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C., that I started to discover the magic of Persian and Afghani polows, Cuban Moros y Cristianos, and the delight of Teaism’s coconut rice pudding.

In the Middle East, rice often holds near mystical rank on the dinner table, where it can come as a simple staple, mounded around a whole roasted lamb, or jeweled with nuts, dried fruit, herbs and meat. Nearly every dish has a traditional rice side it is served with. A delicious Egyptian lunch of fried fish would not be complete without a side of rice prepared with onions and tomato paste.

In Iraq, rice can be an emotional subject. When you talk to Iraqi expatriates and refugees and about their home, the topic of Iraq’s aromatic, unique and sadly disappearing rice might come up. Ethnic strife, repeated wars, water politics and environmental degradation have combined to decimate Iraq’s agricultural production, forcing Iraqis to import rice from countries such as India, China and the United States. However, Iraqis never stop longing for the aromatic allure of Amber rice, grown in small quantities in the country’s south. Those from Mosul might speak of the large, dark grains of Naggaza rice, produced in the north.

My favorite Iraqi rice dish is Timman Bagila, or fava bean rice. Whenever I see fresh fava beans and dill at the farmers market I want to make this, though I rarely see them both at the same time. While living in Lebanon, I wrote a blog post featuring my own Timman Bagila recipe using lamb shanks. This dish is a bit of a process, but none of the steps are complicated or difficult. While not as traditional, using chicken thighs produces a bit lighter but just as tasty meal!

Timman Bagila with Chicken


1 12-ounce bag frozen fava beans (lima beans work too!)
pinch turmeric
2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
olive oil
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed and soaked in cold water (at least an hour)
1 medium white onion, diced
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 lemon
2 cups hot chicken broth
toasted pine nuts or almonds (optional)

Serves 4-6.

1. Turn on your broiler, and position a rack about 8 inches below.

2. Bring a medium pot to a boil and cook fava beans with a pinch of turmeric, until the beans are soft enough to chew but not mushy. Drain the beans and set aside. Rinse out the pot — you can use it again to assemble and finish the dish.

3. Place the chicken thighs on a baking sheet and rub with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When your broiler and oven are warm, place thighs in the oven for 12-15 minutes until cooked, turning them over about half way though. Remove from the oven and set aside.

4. While your chicken is cooking, heat a medium pot over medium heat and add drained rice, a tablespoon of salt and a pinch of turmeric. Pour in water to cover by half an inch, stir the pot, and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, and turn the heat to low. Cook for approximately 15 minutes, or until the rice has softened and most of the water is absorbed.

4. When you pull the chicken out of the oven, heat a large pan over medium heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add onions and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent. Add  2 teaspoons of cinnamon and minced garlic, and stir to combine. Roughly chop the chicken, and add to the pan along with the lightly cooked fava beans and the chopped dill. Squeeze the lemon juice over the mixture, stir to combine, and cook for for 2-3 minutes, and turn off the heat. This is a good time to heat up your 2 cups of chicken broth- you can throw it in the microwave or heat it up on the stove.

5. Place the medium pot you rinsed and set aside earlier over medium-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Let heat for about a minute, and evenly spread a scoop of  your parboiled rice in the pot- you want enough rice to cover the bottom. Let the rice cook for about 30 seconds- you are hoping this turns into a crust when the dish is done!

6. Add a scoop of your chicken/dill/fava bean mixture, followed by another scoop of rice, and then another scoop of your chicken mix. You want to form these layers into a bit of a pyramid- don’t smooth it out or pack the layers together. Continue this layering until you are out. With the back of your spoon make 4-5 tunnels down into the bottom of the rice layers, and pour in your hot chicken broth. When the liquid starts to bubble, cover the pot and turn the heat to low. After 20 minutes, check to see that the rice has absorbed the liquid and is cooked- if not, put the lid back on for 5 minutes and check again.

7. When you are ready to serve the dish, scoop it out onto a platter. Scrape out the pieces of crust on bottom and arrange on top of the rice. If you can’t get the crust out, fill your sink with a bit of cold water and hold the bottom of the pot in the water to help loosen the crust. I like to garnish the dish with some toasted pine nuts or almond slivers.


Kitchen Culture

November 29, 2012

I have been lucky enough to travel extensively throughout the Middle East and Europe, and many of my favorite memories involve getting to know other women while helping out in their kitchens. In Arab culture, if you are a guest and you offer to help, you are promptly rebuffed and told to relax. With a little perseverance, however, I learned that women in every country I have visited are extremely proud of the food that they make for their friends and families. Once I showed genuine interest in how they were preparing their food, I found my hosts were more than happy to teach me their recipes, techniques, and cultural cooking practices inscribed in them by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.

When testing a recipe for galbi-tang, a Korean beef short rib soup, I asked Diane why the ribs were parboiled and not seared or broiled during their preparation. She stated that parboiling the ribs was a traditional step in Korean cooking in order to remove fat and blood from the ribs. This particular recipe actually calls for removing the ribs from the pot, rinsing the ribs and the pot, and then starting fresh with new water for the soup stock. Out of curiosity, I asked my best friend Claudia, a first generation Mexican-American, if her mother taught her to parboil meat. She stated that boiling was a significant part of meat preparation for many Mexican dishes, but that they skimmed the fat throughout the cooking process instead of removing and rinsing the meat.

In Lebanon, a nice family once invited me to their mountain home in the South for a weekend getaway from Beirut. The men hunted birds, and the women of the family prepared large and delicious traditional meals. While making one particular stew of dried beans and lamb shanks, the shanks were lightly parboiled before they were sautéed in spices and garlic. While parboiling is not a typical technique I have run across in Middle Eastern kitchens, in this particular case, the cook thought the sinewy and slightly fatty quality of the meat would be improved by parboiling. More typically, meat in Lebanese kitchens is washed repeatedly before cooking, and chicken is always rinsed multiple times with vinegar and lemon.

Braising is a more common technique in a typical Middle Eastern kitchen. Meat is browned in a mixture of spices (often dried and fresh), garlic, and onions, then water is added and the meat is cooked at a low simmer. One of my very favorite dishes is typical of Iraq, and a similar stew (often with the addition of honey) can be found in Moroccan cuisine. The below version is my own, modified from a recipe taught to me by a lovely Iraqi woman named Magda. You could substitute chicken or beef for the lamb, and experimenting with different dried fruits is always fun! I prefer to use bone-in meat, as it helps keep the meat moist over the long process of braising.

Sweet Lamb Stew

Serves 4-6


1 tablespoon canola or other neutral oil
1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
2 pounds bone in lamb shanks, cut in half lengthwise (if longer than 4 inches)
2 cloves garlic, minced
black pepper
2 tablespoons baharat (Middle Eastern Spice blend)
2 cups dried apricots
1 cup dried prunes
1 cup dried figs
~8-10 cups water
salt to taste
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup sultanas (golden raisins)

In a pot large enough to hold the meat in a single layer, fry the onion in oil over medium heat until translucent. Add the lamb shanks and sauté until browned, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, baharat and a few grinds of black pepper and cook a few minutes longer.

Pour eight to ten cups of water over the meat and onion mixture, making sure there is enough water to cover. Turn up the heat and bring pot to a boil. A fatty foam will rise to the top of the pot and start to come together. Skim this fat off and discard. When you are done skimming, cover the pot leaving the lid slightly ajar, and turn the heat down to a low simmer. You want the pot to be lightly bubbling, not violently roaring. Check the level of water as the pot simmers, adding a bit more water if the meat starts to become exposed. After an hour, check the meat – I like to cook this stew at least 2 hours, and 3 to 4 hours if I have time. You want the meat to be extremely tender.

When you feel the meat is close to ready, place the almonds in a pan and brown them over medium heat, shaking the pan to prevent burning. Add the sultanas, and cook together for a few minutes, then add both to the pot with the lamb and dried fruit. At this point I add about a teaspoon of salt, and taste the broth, and add more if necessary.

Serve this stew with basmati rice for a sweet-savory winter treat!