Sesame halva is well known throughout the world, and can be purchased at most Middle Eastern stores or Jewish delis. I don’t care for it though, so I’m trying out a different version: one based on flour rather than sesame.
It's smooth, sweet - but not too sweet, with a nuttiness that comes from toasting the flour after blending it with butter. I omitted the almonds because my kids are allergic, but they would probably give an amazing added crunch.
This recipe comes from the New York Times: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017926-turkish-flour-helva
1. In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour, a little at a time to prevent clumping; reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring often with a heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until the flour is deep golden brown and butter separates and floats to the top, about 1 to 2 hours. The higher the flame, the quicker it will cook, but the more you will have to stir it.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium pot, combine sugar, 1 1/2 cups/355 milliliters water, and milk; bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Turn off heat, cover to keep warm, and reserve.
3. When flour mixture is toasted and browned but not burned, slowly whisk in the warm milk mixture and a pinch of salt if you like. (It's O.K. if the milk has cooled to room temperature; it should not be cold.) Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until mixture comes together in a paste-like texture and no longer sticks to sides of the pot. (Make sure to stir in the corners and bottom of pot.) Whisk the mixture occasionally, if necessary, to create a smoother texture and get rid of any lumps. Cover pot with a cloth and a lid, then let cool.
4. In a medium skillet, toast the almonds in the dry pan over medium heat. Sprinkle almonds and cinnamon over cooled helva. Spoon onto plates or into small bowls to serve.
Involved? Yes. But worth it. Really worth it. Here's a couple of tips:
Is this burning an eternal flame? Why yes. Yes, it is. Nestled in the hills of Lycia in southwestern Turkey, the Yanartaş of Mount Chimaera is a series of methane-fueled fires that have burnt for at least 2500 years. Lycia has a fascinating history and is well worth a quick detour from our narrative, so let's take a look.
Joining us is Roxanne from Mythology Translated, to share the myths of the chimaera and other fine folks. We'll also talk Ionia, to set us up for the great conflict between Persia and Greece.
And we'll have some sweet, sticky halva! Oh, and Santa Claus shows up. Sort of.
Chicken, skewered and grilled, is a classic Persian dish, one that has been cooked for centuries. And it’s magnificent. The key is two-fold: 1) the marinade: a tangy blend of yogurt, lime juice, olive oil and saffron, which does wonderful things to the chunks of chicken breast, and 2) the charcoal grilling, which lends that lovely char that so nicely offsets the tenderness of the meat.
Chicken alone is nice; I like to pair with vegetables like onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Make sure you cook those on different skewers, as they and the chicken take different times to cook.
Above all, you need a starch to go with this, and the best without doubt is the chelo, the rice. It’s officially just a standard steamed basmati rice, but if you do it right, you get this lovely crust (or tah-dig) at the bottom of the pan that is so mind-blowing.
This recipe comes from Azita from the top-notch Persian food blog Turmeric and Saffron (http://turmericsaffron.blogspot.com/).
Start with marinating the chicken (6-8 hours before meal)
Move to rice (3.5 hours before meal)
As the rice steams, heat the grill and get the chicken ready to go.
Involved? Yes. But worth it.
East vs West? Maybe. We're off to Iran to greet the rise of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the world's greatest by this point in history. Between Cyrus and Darius, we'll deal with two Great rulers, but we've also got medieval Iranian love poetry, unappetizing royal banquets, Croesus making bad decisions, and kebabs! Even better, Ryan Stitt from the History of Ancient Greece Podcast returns to bring his knowledge, as we climb the magnificent staircases of Persepolis.
This week’s recipe comes courtesy of Vivek Vasan, our special guest and host of the Historical India podcast. The recipe is based on his mother’s recipe, so you know it’s gotta be good. I haven’t been able to try it yet, mainly because finding many of the ingredients require a special trip to the local South Asian grocery, but I will be trying it soon.
It sounds complex, but each of the four major steps require some rest time, leaving plenty of time to proceed to the next. Start with making the dough, then build the filling while the dough rests. While the litti cooks, you can make the baigan chokha. To bake the chokha, you can bake in a conventional oven, since you’re likely not to have either a Tandoori oven nor to fuel said oven with upla (animal dung). While they bake, chop, sauté and season the eggplant. Then all will be ready.
To make dough:
For Stuffing (Pitthi)
For Chokha – this is one option for the accompaniment - Eggplant or you can try the Potato one
Prepare dough for Litti
How to make Stuffing for Litti
How to make Litti
How to make Chokha for Litti
Aaloo (Potato) ka Chokha
Courtesy of Vivek Vasan
The prince who became an enlightened holy man, the Buddha took India by storm. We'll cover him and his contemporary Mahavira and two kings who followed their teaching while building India's first great empire: Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka. It's storytelling time! Vivek Vasan helps out again and shares his mom's litti chokha recipe as we visit Bihar to see the great temple by the Bodhi Tree.
This recipe comes from the excellent Indian Home Cooking, co-written by Suvir Saran, who is a friend of a friend, and who has been personally kind and generous to me for years now. Buy his book(s).
Indian cuisine is fantastic if you are a vegetarian, and one of the hallmarks of typical Indian cooking is dal, or lentils, stewed up and served over rice or with quick-fired bread.
This recipe is great for weeknight dinners. It’s easy, flavorful, a little spicy, and totally good for you. My 10-year-old son loves it. I don’t have mango powder, but I find that the lemon works really well to bring that bit of acidity to balance the turmeric and cumin.
Try this out with rice - I like to use basmati and to do a pilaf (toasting the rice in cumin-studded oil before rehydrating). I think you’ll enjoy it!
Recipe from: Indian Home Cooking, Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness
(I forgot to take a picture - I will next time)
Holiest site in Hinduism, Varanasi's riverside ghats are a swirl of color, faith, life, and death. We discuss the vedas, the great epics, and the development of Indian civilization with Vivek Vasan from the Historical India podcast.
Traditionally, this dish requires carp caught from the Yellow River. You won’t have access to that in all likelihood, so use any good firm mild-flavored fish. Whole fish looks really cool, but if you’re not trying to impress, filets work just as well. Bass, trout, halibut, all would work fine. I used grouper, which worked fantastically well. The recipe is for the whole fish, but cooking a filet is easier.
Basically, score the skin of the fish if you’re using whole fish, coat it with cornstarch and then flash-fry it in a very hot wok. Then drain the oil, and make a simple lightly sweet and vinegary sauce in the wok and serve with rice and veggies. The sauce is not fluorescent orange. The key is the black vinegar. I had never heard of this. It’s a rice-based vinegar, but aged so it becomes dark and umami-rich. It’s kinda like balsamic but more magical, and the way it mingles with the sugar, garlic, scallions and ginger… wow. You can use the sauce on chicken, tofu, pork… I bet it’s really good with strips of lean beef stir-fried. Try it. You will like it.
1 whole or filleted fish (1 1/2 lbs)
1 tsp salt
oil for frying (peanut or vegetable or similar)
2 green onions, chopped fine
2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup black vinegar
3 tbsp sugar (preferably turbinado)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 chicken stock (unsalted)
1 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 3 tbsp cold water
Adapted from All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China by Carolyn Phillips
Looming over Confucius' home province of Shandong, Mount Tai is the holiest place in Daoism, which means we can tackle both great philosophies while discussing feudal China and Shandong cuisine.
An incredibly delicious dish of North African origin, shakshuka is eggs poached in tomato sauce, but it’s so much more than that. Brought to Israel by immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, shakshuka has been throughly embraced by Israelis, and it’s easy to see why. I like it as part of the breakfast meal that’s traditionally served at sundown on the day after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the fast day in September or October.
Basically, start by sautéing onions and pepper in a cast-iron skillet. Get them brown and even a little charred, then add a bit of garlic. Paprika, cumin, coriander come in. Canned whole tomatoes, mashed up as you cook them. Then whatever else you want: olives, feta, greens, beans, artichokes, whatever.
Once you’ve got a crazy good sauce, use a spoon to make indentations in the sauce and then crack the eggs into those holes. Finish it in a preheated oven until the egg whites are just set. Then Woot! Dig in!
Again, play around with this. Once you have the basic down, add other stuff: olives, artichokes, greens, mushrooms, cheese, chorizo, you name it. If this doesn't become your go-to brunch standard, I'll eat my new hipster hat.
The Jews had been exiled, came back, were exiled again, and have come back again. Through the process they changed a temple into a book, redefining religion. We'll see the Western Wall and talk Israeli breakfasts with Lara Rodin and Noah Lew, and Garry Stephens of the History in the Bible podcast helps us examine the biblical history.
Falafel are crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas. They are an essential part of most Middle-Eastern cuisines, and are particularly embraced in Israel - since they are vegetarian, they can be eaten at any meal even if you’re keeping kosher.
Normally, I scour the web and test different recipes to find the right one to share with you. And typically, I make some changes to match my experience. In this case, I am going to direct you straight to a recipe I used that needs no changes or doctoring. This recipe made phenomenal falafels, and I even had success with their accompanying condiments.
Just make that. Make the tahini and the zhug and get good pitas to go with. But you don’t need the bread.
Tell me this isn’t as good as restaurant-quality falafel. It’s so so so good. And not too difficult.
Near the shores of the salt-saturated Dead Sea, the Israelites wrote the world's most read book. Garry Stephens of the History in the Bible podcast helps us examine historical accuracy, while Lara Rodin and Noah Lew help us visit Israel. Plus falafel!
When you need something sweet and simple, look no further than mahalabia, a “milk pudding” made with just milk, sugar, corn starch, and flavor.
Traditionally, rosewater is the way to go, but if you can find rosewater, you’re better connected than I am. Moroccans go with orange blossom water, but again, that’s not at your local 7-11 either. So if you must, which I did, vanilla works in a pinch, but it’s not a 1:1 trade!
Making mahalabia is super easy, but you have to pay attention. It’s very easy to burn this or not make it thick enough or make it too thick. When I tried making it, it was not thick enough. Ack! But don’t stress too much. Just watch the clues: when it coats the back of your spoon, it’s done.
Play around with this - other versions have cardamon as well. Just watch the heat when you’re boiling the milk - you don’t want it to stick or burn. The final consistency ought to be something similar to Greek yogurt.
Ramesses the Great, public relations genius, takes us to Abu Simbel to visit his masterpiece of self-glorification. We talk about his reign and visiting Aswan with Dominic and Jack one last time. Plus ancient graffiti, singing kids on boats, and pudding!
Molokhia is a vegetable, technically the leaves of the jute plant, also called Jew’s Mallow. Jute, like other mallows such as marshmallow (not that marshmallow, but the original plant) and okra, is mucilaginous, which means that it creates a mucus-lke texture when cooked. Molokhia is also the name of a soup which has been enjoyed by Egyptians since pharaonic times. Does the idea of a slimy bright green soup seem appealing? No?
Well, you’ll never know until you try it. So why not give it a try? Molokhia is full of vitamins, and the onion, garlic, coriander and chicken stock will all help make the soup flavorful and delicious. Serve with a side of rice, and you’re good to go. It’s like a bright green chicken gumbo. Really. Molokhia is vague related to okra, and serves a similar purpose.
There are a variety of different recipes for molokhia, but they all have some consistencies. Most start with chicken, but others use rabbit - which was the original, traditional choice - or duck, lamb, or any other meat. Most include using the meat to make the stock for the soup, but honestly, if you’re using chicken, save a step by using one of the fine organic chicken stocks available in most groceries.
Molokhia the vegetable is not something you're going to find in most Western groceries, and outside the Middle East and Asia, you’re not going to find it fresh at all. Word on the interwebs though is that frozen molokhia works very well for this soup, and that should be available at any Middle Eastern grocery, and apparently at some Asian groceries as well.
You really can’t substitute spinach or kale or mustard greens or anything similar. The texture of the jute is important.
I’m basing this recipe on the recipe here: http://myhalalkitchen.com/molokhia/ — Yvonne’s recipe is the best I’ve found so far, but I’m putting coriander back into the mix, because it’s in every other recipe I’ve found, and that feels important.
Play around with this - other versions have cinnamon, paprika, dill and cilantro making appearances. I promise I will try when I get back to my kitchen, and I will update this appropriately.
Thanks to Yvonne Maffei (http://myhalalkitchen.com/molokhia/)
We're sticking around Luxor, Egypt, and crossing the Nile to visit the tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. We discuss Tut and Akhenaten. Plus pigeons! Dominic Perry and Lantern Jack stop by again to share their thoughts and tips.
Om Ali (Egyptian Bread Pudding)
I don’t do a lot of desserts on this podcast, mainly because, well, I don’t know why. I just don’t. Maybe it’s the hassle of baking, maybe it’s that I prefer savory dishes, maybe it’s that desserts aren’t THAT different from place to place? Maybe it’s something deep in my psyche.
Well, I’m bucking the trend today! Om Ali (sometimes spelled Umm Ali) is an Egyptian bread pudding. The name means “Ali’s Mom” and refers to the wife of an Egyptian sultan back in the middle ages. The story is that after the sultan died, Om Ali got into a fight with another of his wives, had her killed, and then gave this succulent dessert to the people of Egypt to celebrate. A weird story, if you ask me. She doesn’t have a name? Just “Ali’s Mom”?
Anyway, the story is awkward, but the dessert is delicious. In its most basic form, it’s layered phyllo dough, crisped in an oven, and then soaked in sweetened milk to make a bread pudding, and then studded with nuts, raisins and such.
That can be delicious, but it’s also possible to make it particularly awesome by adding a couple of small steps.
I’m basing this recipe on the recipe here: http://cleobuttera.com/middle-eastern/best-ever-om-ali-egyptian-bread-pudding/ — When Tasbih claimed that this was “best ever”, I took her at her word.
I’ve changed hers up a little bit, mainly because a) I like the warmth that a little cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla provide and b) I don’t have access to country-style clotted cream, so I thickened up the milk sauce with some extra cream.
There are plenty of other recipes that say those two changes are OK, so I’m comfortable with not being yelled at.
Anyway, try this. It’s so freaking delicious. So so so good.
Thanks to Tasbih at cleobuttera.com for the brilliant idea of pre-cooking the puff pastry!
We go to Luxor Egypt, ancient capital of the New Kingdom, to visit the great temples of Karnak and Luxor. We discuss Hatshepsut: a fascinating woman who became king. We also talk temple-side fries! Special thanks to Dominic Perry and Lantern Jack.
Most food on Santorini requires the local volcanic soil or crystal blue waters to make it special. While we could make tomatokeftedes, the deep-fried fritters fueled by the phenomenal local tomatoes, so perfect in the volcanic soil, you can’t get Santorini tomatoes where you are, so it would be a pale imitation at best.
Therefore, we’re going with something simple, that you can make with ingredients from your local supermarket. Dakos is translated as “bread salad” but I prefer to think of it as a cheesy Greek bruschetta.
Officially, these are made with barley rusks, which are twice-cooked bread rounds that are approximately as hard as rock. By letting them soak up the tomato juice and olive oil of the marinade, you make the rusks edible. So that’s one way of going, but my version is a pansy American attempt, mainly because I can’t get barley rusks anywhere and I live in a major metropolitan area in the 21st century: I’m guessing if I can’t get ‘em, you can’t get ‘em either.
So yes, this is absolutely not actual dakos. But you know what? It’s amazing. My new favorite thing. It made me love feta for the first time in my life. Eat. It.
NB: The picture does NOT match the recipe. The picture is of ACTUAL dakos, courtesy of wikipedia user Frente. I only remember to take a picture of what I'm cooking something like 20% of the time, which leaves me frantically scrambling and searching the internet like a college freshman. Anyway, you'll note the barley rusk on this picture. Frente also used olives, which you are welcome and encouraged to do - I am weird (as noted in Episode 3: The Statue of Zeus): I don't like olives though I love olive oil. But do as you will.
We go to the Greek island of Santorini to learn about the eruption that devastated the Minoan civilization of nearby Crete. Plus minotaurs, donkeys, Atlantis and Cretan cuisine! Thanks to Ryan Stitt, Margo Anton, and Seth Ruderman for their help.
You would think that something as simple as melted cheese on toast would be fairly straightforward, but there are billions of recipes out there for welsh rarebit. Well, maybe not billions, but quite a lot. Fortunately, Felicity Cloake of the Guardian has gone through virtually all of them (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/oct/27/how-to-cook-perfect-welsh-rarebit) and has found the perfect cheese and toast combo. Read her whole article - it’s fantastic. I’ve made it to serve four, and have switched the cheese to Cheddar, since getting Lancashire cheese can be dicey. I also found a little extra Worcestershire and cayenne pepper added oomph.
But seriously. Eat this. Cymru am byth!!!
NB: Eat this all at once - the sauce does not reheat well. Mine broke almost immediately when I tried to reheat it for Mrs. Wonders of the World.
The most important piece of afternoon tea is the tea itself, but that is outside the scope of this episode. So instead, let’s focus on the scone, the perfect little pastry at the center of the meal.
This recipe is adapted from Mark Bittman in the New York Times (https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1013297-classic-scones). These are English scones, so why am I using an American recipe? I don’t know - I guess because this was the one which seemed simplest, with ingredients which can be obtained anywhere.
Picture courtesy of Ibán Yarza via Wikimedia commons