In the remote Bekaa valley in Eastern Lebanon sit the ruins of the great temples of Heliopolis, some of the largest and most impressive ever built in Antiquity, three times larger than the Parthenon, which columns half again as tall as as those in Karnak.
The temples are mysterious, and Scott Chesworth from The Ancient World podcast helps explain what they might be, and how they might be connected to Elagabalus, one of the most fascinating and least appreciated Roman emperors. Not good, mind, but fascinating.
Elagabalus does not get the coverage of a Caligula or Nero, but maybe he should. The teenage emperor did not kill indiscriminately, but his sexual and religious activities shocked conservative Roman society and make for excellent story-telling.
Some modern writers call Elagabalus the world's first known transgender leader. Maybe? We'll discuss.
There's also the story of how Caracalla meets his untimely demise, thanks to a prescient fortune-teller and a dislike of reading his own mail.
And of course, we'll talk about Lebanon, its Phoenician heritage, and the way Lebanese food has spread around the world. The recipe of the week is kibbeh, a deep-fried croquette of goodness that is as popular in the Dominican Republic as it is in Lebanon.
The trick to wonderful couscous is to steam the grain over the sauce so that the flavors of the stew seep into every little piece. Much fluffier and more flavorful than the store-bought boiled method you’re probably familiar with.
This version also steams onions and chickpeas with the same method. You soften the couscous with chicken stock first, then make a simple stew of chicken thighs, onion, tomato paste, salt and Libya’s favorite Five Spice blend: Hararat. Hararat is cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, and allspice - I love that concept of earthy, spicy, slightly sweet.
As that simmers, put a steamer over the pot and steam a ton of onions and chickpeas. After they’ve softened, you’ll transfer them to a separate pot to caramelize. Then put the couscous in the steamer and let it steam until pure fluffiness. Then pile it up: couscous, stew, and onions on top.
Recipe adapted from Umm Obabdiah’s website (http://ummobaidahcooks.blogspot.com/2011/11/libyan-couscous-bil-busla-couscous-with.html)
The sadhya is a traditional Keralan feast: a banana leaf covered with small servings of 20 different items, from rice to curries to breads to a banana for dessert. It’s pretty awesome.
It’s also not something you’ll make for a weekday meal. So what I’ve done is to take three vegetable curries and combine them for you for a mini-sadhya of sorts. Delicious, redolent of Keralan flavors, and just fun.
Each dish has a different texture, so even though the flavor profiles are complementary, the tastes are very unique. I loved how they all worked together, so I’m going to present them as such. If you want to make each individually, I got all three recipes (plus the rice) from the cookbook Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal.
Each recipe has its own spice mix, or masala. You’ll note that they are each slightly different, and that difference matters.
Curry leaves are the hardest part of this to get and also the most important. I bought a bunch for $1 at a local Indian grocery, so I’d recommend that. You can also order them via mail, but the premium for shipping has to be crazy.
Read through this first and build your mise en place before starting. Several of the steps go VERY quickly, so it’s best to have everything chopped, mixed, and prepped before you turn on the stove.
This is going to be a bit messy and will use five pots: I’ll note which recipe you’re working on as you go - what can be made first and what can wait until the end.
Start with the:
Move on to the:
Back to the:
Next comes the:
SPINACH with COCONUT (Spinach Tharen)
Proceed to the:
Wow. 23 steps. I know that seems like a lot, but it’s all about careful planning your mise en place.
Trust me - you’ll love this. I did. The chickpeas are my new go-to recipe, and the spinach with the coconut was particularly outstanding.
Recipe adapted from Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal (2000).
So close to the tourist trail, yet so far, Libya sits on the Mediterranean yet has been isolated for decades by poverty, dictatorship and civil war. But should peace return, Leptis Magna is the jewel in Libya's crown: potentially the largest and best preserved Roman city in the Mediterranean. With a resplendent forum, theater, basilica, harbor, amphitheater, and especially, a colossal arch, Leptis is an unvisited gem.
Leptis' golden age came under the leadership of local-boy-made-good Septimius Severus. To help tell the story of how a lad from Leptis became ruler of the "known world," Rob and Jamie from the Roman Emperors: Totalus Rankium podcast stop by.
Not only do we talk about Severus and the disastrous emperor who preceded him (Didius Julianus), but we also discuss Severus' evil son Caracalla. Evil. Oh so evil.
No discussion of Libya would be complete without discussing the cuisine: a blend of North African and Middle Eastern, highlighted by couscous. This isn't your store-bought fluffy cardboard; we'll be properly steaming it this time.