Sikbaj — the return!

Over three years ago, I posted a recreation of one of the most emblematic dishes of medieval Arab cooking, a vinegar stew known as sikbāj (سكباج), with both the dish and the name being a borrowing from Persia (sik, ‘vinegar’; bāj, ‘stew’). The recreation was based on a 10th-century Baghdadi recipe and though the result was flavoursome enough, the sourness of the vinegar was quite overpowering to the modern palate. However, everything deserves a second chance and so here’s another stab, this time using an Egyptian version of the dish from The Sultan’s Feast. It’s made with fatty lamb chunks and a range of herbs, spices and vegetables, including, agarwood, cassia, coriander, onions, leek, carrots, and aubergine, as well as, of course, the eponymous vinegar, tempered with some dibs (date molasses) or honey. The dish is served with almonds, jujubes, dates and raisins sprinkled on top. The result could not have been more different from the first iteration; rather than the tart vinegary kick, there was now a more mellow sweet-and-sour overtone. Probably the biggest difference in the two preparations was the use of the home-made medieval grape-and-fig vinegar, instead of the plain vinegar of the first sikbaj. The recipes, themselves, call for ‘vinegar’ but it is very likely that then — just as now — the cooks would have selected the vinegar of their choice for any given dish, and so, who knows, maybe in this case a fruity vinegar would have been used. At least, that’s what I’d like to think! In any case, when sikbaj is on the menu again, I know which of the two recipes I’d go for…

Stuffed aubergines (باذنجان محشي, badhinjan mahshi)

A delightful recipe from The Sultan’s Feast, an earlier version of which can already be found in a 13th-century Syrian cookery book.
It’s a decidedly modern dish and involves scooping out the cores of the aubergine and then stuffing them with meat mince that has been boiled and then seasoned with coriander, caraway, pepper, cassia, coriander and parsley. The aubergines are skewered to keep the stuffing snugly in place and fried, preferably in sheep’s tail fat, until golden. Serve after removing the skewers and sprinkle on dried coriander.

Rhubarb stew (ريباسية, ribasiyya)

As rhubarb is currently in season, what better way to celebrate this much-underused vegetable than by recreating a recipe for a rhubarb stew from The Sultan’s Feast? The instructions are rather minimal, as are the ingredients: meat, spices (what else?), onions, rhubarb juice, sweet almond conserve (murabbā) and mint. A wonderful dish with flavours that are in perfect harmony. What to eat with it? Well, that’s got to be some flatbread to soak up every last drop of the sauce.

Medieval Syrian carrot and lamb stew (dinariyya, دينارية)

This recipe from a cookbook compiled in 13th-century Aleppo, takes its name from the fact that the carrots are cut into the shape of dinar (the currency at the time) coins. It is a two-in-one dish in that it involves both chunks of meat (for the recreation lamb is used) and meatballs. The former is boiled with crushed chickpeas, whereas the latter are made with rice, some more crushed chickpeas, and spices, such as corander, pepper, cassia, caraway. After everything is fried (in fat) with some fresh coriander and garlic, broth and carrots cut into coins are added and then everything is left to cook. As a further enhancement of the visual effect, some eggs are cracked on top of the dish at the end. The result attests to the medieval chef’s proficiency at balancing flavours.

Andalusian lamb stew with prunes

This is the oldest known ancestor of one of Morocco’s best known dishes, tagine of laḥm wa barqūq (لحم وبرقوق, ‘meat and prunes’), which is a staple at weddings. This particular recipe (simply called لون بالإجّاص, ‘dish with prunes’) is from a 13th-century Andalusian manual and involves diced fatty young lamb, cooked with salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, saffron, vinegar, mint juice and oil. When it is almost done, it’s time to add the prunes, also known in Andalusian Arabic as ‘cow’s eyes’ (عين البقر, ‘ayn al-baqar), which have previously been candied and soaked in vinegar. Continue the cooking until everything is done, and then leave to cool down before serving with a garnish of egg yolks ad meatballs dusted with aromatics. As for the accompaniment, well that just has to be couscous, doesn’t it? And what about enhancing those taste buds even more with some of that sweet-and-sour pickled fennel?

Sumac stew (summaqiyya, سمّاقية)

This is a 13th-century Syrian recipe of a dish said to be a favourite of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who was particularly partial to the taste of sumac. It is made by first soaking the berries in water and then kneading the sumac with parsley, rue, breadcrumbs, thyme, aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice blend, lemon juice, sesame paste, yoghurt, and pounded toasted walnuts to make a stuffing, to which pieces of pickled lemon are added. The next crucial ingredient is (lamb) meat (chopped) and meatballs, which are kneaded with rice and chickpeas. The dish is rounded off with a variety of vegetables, such as chard stalks, eggplant, gourd, carrots, turnips and leeks. The result truly is a delight fit for a caliph!

Pomegranate stew (rummaniyya, رمّانية)

Pomegranates (rummān, رمّان) are a core ingredient in medieaval Arab cookery books; in addition to the seeds of the fruit, its juice (or syrup) are often called for in stews. This particular dish is a recreation of a 14th-century Egyptian recipe. It is made with meat (in this case lamb), half of which is cut into pieces and the other half is turned into meatballs. When the meat is done, (sour) pomegranate juice is added with rose water and sugar to sweeten it. Then mint leaves are added, followed by pistachios (or almonds) for thickening, saffron for colouring, as well as the aromatic spice mix known as arāf al-ṭīb (أطراف الطيب). Sprinkle on a dash of rose water before serving. A delicious meal that can perfectly be paired with some crusty bread!

Andalusian tabahija (طباهجة) trio

This is a 13th-century variation of a dish that was very popular in the Muslim East and starts with meat (lamb) cut into strips. The recipe is of particular interest because it results in the creation of no fewer than three dishes. The first involves the meat, oil, ginger, salt, pepper and water. One third of the dish is then taken and placed in another pot with vinegar. Half of this is transferred to another pan and sprinkled with chopped rue. Finally, add asafoetida to the remaining half and crack five eggs over it.

The caliph’s fried liver strips (كشتابية كبدية, kushtabiyya kabidiyya)

This recipe is included in the earliest Abbasid cookery book and is attributed to the ill-fated Musa al-Hadi, whose caliphate lasted only around a year (785-6) before he was succeeded by his younger brother, the great Harun al-Rashid. The dish is quite simple to make, and requires lamb’s liver, vinegar (it works well with apple cider, too!), murrī (use soya sauce as a substitute), sesame oil, coriander, cumin, caraway, and pepper. The liver is cut into narrow strips and marinated in the seasonings and spices before frying. When serving, sprinkle on some more spices. They make a wonderful liver sandwich, with sauce and trimmings of your choice.