Sweetness of Two Cultures


At last, a post celebrates two civilizations, Spanish and Moroccan (Moorish) that have inspired many creations.  Today’s attempts draw from a time, centuries ago, when the two societies were more closely intertwined and seemed to share a common destiny.  In fact, today we explore the culinary history of Al-Andalus, as medieval Moorish Spain was known then.

The first item for contemplation is Zirbaya, or Chicken in Sweet Sauce.  Though the dish may have been North African in inspiration, it draws deeply from Spanish ingredients, including almonds, wine vinegar and saffron.  These bathe the bird in a lightness that compliments the chicken’s savory profile, while emphasizing its sweetness.  A text of the era, Cariadoc’s Miscellany,  describes the preparation:

Take a young, cleaned hen and put it in a pot with a little salt, pepper, coriander, cinnamon, saffron and sufficient of vinegar and sweet oil, and when the meat is cooked, take peeled, crushed almonds and good white sugar, four ounces of each; dissolve them in rosewater, pour in the pot and let it boil; then leave it on the embers until the fat rises.  It is very nutritious and good for all temperaments…

The rosewater-almond paste is an extraordinary mixture that definitely gives the sauce, and the dish, its character.  By the way, Miscellany also pronounces this preparation suitable for “pigeons or doves,” which suggests Cornish hens for this experiment, not a chicken.  Thus, it came to be.

Also on the plate is Carrot Paste, which is intended to be served with pita bread.  It’s a possible companion to Zirbaya, as the author, an anonymous Spaniard, included instructions in an Andalusian cookbook from the same era.  It’s essentially cooked carrots pureed with honey, to which various spices are added.

One of those spices is cubeb, or Javan pepper.  As that wasn’t available, a good substitute was grains of paradise, an African spice common in pre-Renaissance Europe, and one surely familiar to Andalusian cooks:Grains of Paradise

Carrot Paste has an appearance and taste similar to that of sweet potatoes.  It could’ve used a bit less honey, though that likely is a function of modern carrots being sweeter than their medieval counterparts.  The sweetness goes beyond taste, as the cookbook opines Carrot Paste also is an aphrodisiac that, “increases desire beautifully; it is admirable.”  Well.

Whether or not Cupid concocted the paste, both dishes recall a time when two people, now divorced, once mingled sweetly.  These are their children.

*****

Zirbaya

(Chicken in a Sweet Sauce)

For the chicken:

  • 1 3-pound chicken, cut into parts (*1)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 20 threads saffron (*2)
  • 2 tablespoons wine vinegar (*3)
  •  2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup water (*4)

For the almond paste:

  • 2/3 cup blanched almonds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons rosewater

Set a stockpot over a medium-low flame.  Pour in the oil, and add the chicken, water, spices and vinegar.  Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the chicken from sticking.

Meanwhile, put the almonds, sugar and rosewater in a food processer.  Pulse until the mixture forms a grainy paste.

After the chicken has simmered for 40 minutes, per the instructions in the first paragraph, stir in the almond paste.  Once the chicken comes back to a boil, let it simmer for another eight minutes, then serve, plating the bird and ladling sauce over it.

NOTES:

1 – As mentioned in the intro above, Miscellany suggests a “young hen,” or substitutes pigeons or doves.  As most chickens today are larger than they were in the Middle Ages, Cornish hens (in today’s preparation, two of them) probably are closer than is chicken to what was used in the original.

2 – This works out to about half a teaspoon, unless, that is, you enjoy counting out saffron threads.

3 – Both red- and white-wine vinegars were in the pantry.  I chose white, as this is a poultry dish after all.

4 – The original recipe omits the water, though the mixtures seems to be a bit too dry without it, particularly before the birds (eventually) surrender their juices.  By that time, most of the water will have evaporated.

*****

Carrot Paste:

  • 1 pound carrots (*5)
  • 3/4 cup honey (*6)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cubebs (*7)

Clean and trim the carrots and cut them into thirds, lengthwise.  Put them in a large saucepan and add enough water to cover them, and an inch more.  Place pan over a medium flame and bring to boil.  Reduce the flame to medium-low and simmer until carrots begin to get tender, about twenty minutes.

Drain the carrots in a colander and rinse them with cold water.  Put them in a food processer, along with the honey.  Pulse until you have a smooth paste.

Transfer to a skillet and set flame to medium.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens slightly, about five minutes.  Turn off the flame and stir in the spices. (*8)  Serve with pita bread.

NOTES:

5 – A good-sized bunch.

6 – This was a bit much, particularly as it’s not intended as a dessert.  Maybe centuries ago, when carrots were more subdued, but nowadays 1/3 cup of honey would be perfect.  Go up to half a cup if you prefer it to be sweeter, though you run the risk of drowning in honey the tastes of carrots and the spices.

7 – Cubeb is another name for the Java peppercorn.  Neither is easy, or even possible, to find today.  Considering the miniscule portion, “regular” ground pepper would be a good replacement.

8 – In addition, I sprinkled a bit of sumac over the carrots.  Not only is sumac culturally allied, as it’s common in southern and eastern Mediterranean cooking, but its slightly tart nature helped to scale back a bit of the excessive sweetness. Of course, the next time I’ll add much less honey, which will make the sumac unnecessary.  It’s not that the carrot paste was unpalatable, just that it was more reminiscent of candied sweet potatoes, whereas I prefer them without sugar.

 

25 thoughts on “Sweetness of Two Cultures

    1. Thanks, JoAnn! Most definitely, this attempt would’ve fallen heavily on the “error” side, had the modern editors not provided clarification in the notes. Otherwise, the recipe would’ve relied on such baffling medieval clues as, “Then season it with ginger, galingale, cubeb and flowers, half an uqiya in all for each ratl.”and instructing cooks to, “leave it on the embers until the fat subsides.” Wait…huh?

      As for the “trial” part, utilized to the fullest. For example, cutting way back on the honey, as modern carrots are much sweeter than were their medieval counterparts, which likely tasted more like turnips.

      Anyway, glad this captured your interest, JoAnn. There may be one or two similar attempts in the year to come. (Who am I, Freddy Foreshadowing?)

      Like

      1. Great! I used to do a lot of foodie experiments. I’ve had great success with making homemade pasta and a lot of other things. Probably what I had the worst time with is trying to make fallafel (which I love!) and another time when I tried to make homemade onion rings. Some things are just better left to the experts! I hope you do post more of your attempts. So fun.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Fallafel, huh? I never ventured much farther beyond tahini, and those are two entirely different things, aren’t they?

        Bread is my bete noir, and I never seem to get it quite right.

        Everything you see on the site represents a first-time effort, and as you’ve seen already, some things turn out better than do others. Still, I don’t attempt a recipe unless it appeals to me, so they all have that going for them. Now, whether the results match m enthusiasm is another matter.,

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Its been a while since I tried to make it. I can’t remember if it called for tahini. All I remember is that everything went well until it was time to fry the falafel but it just completely disintegrating when I dropped it in the oil!
        😂😂
        I would probably try it again sometime but with a different recipe of course.
        I haven’t made much bread myself. I love making baking powder biscuits though. 😋

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Every time I’ve watched people make falafel they had some sort of spring-loaded gadget that seems to assist greatly. If you’re of Lebanese descent, you probably have one in your kitchen. If not, there’s always amazon. Of course, how would you define the search? “Spring-Loaded Falafel Device?” Maybe.

        Oh, and speaking of biscuits, this weekend I just found a good recipe for buttermilk biscuits. Many other preparations are waiting to land, and the tower’s directing buttermilk biscuits to circle the airport a few times, but eventually a runway will open.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Before I moved and had to get rid of a lot of things I used to have lots of different kitchen gadgets. I never heard of that one although it sounds a lot like an ice cream scoop, which is a very handy tool and not just for ice cream.
        I love buttermilk biscuits. I like to use full butter… some call for shortening but the butter makes them so good! You can do half and half also. 😋

        Liked by 2 people

      6. Things to remember when attempting the buttermilk biscuits, um, eventually. Butter, great! Why do you think the French are widely acclaimed for their culinary prowess?

        Your description of the falafel tool is pretty spot-on. It looks like a piston (thus exhausts my knowledge of engine parts). The chickpeas, etc. are packed tightly into the scoop, then the spring ejects them firmly and cleanly. The secret seems to be in packing the “dough” firmly. Perhaps this will get around the problem you’ve had with the mixture disintegrating in the fryer?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, greatly appreciated, Eliza!

      If this encourages conversations about the food, perfect. The recipes often are complicated, and they reflect my, well…eccentric, tastes. Yes, it’s highly flattering when someone writes he/she intends to try the recipe, but I don’t expect it. Just as gratifying is reading what everyone thinks.

      While it is nice when people read the text (because, honestly, design and even artistic flourishes emerge), if’s okay if viewers treat it as food porn – “I’m just here to look at the pictures!”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 🙂 I would never make the food as I wouldn’t touch any of it. I read the text before/after, not the recipes themselves as they’re irrelevant to my life, but hey, maybe one day there’ll be one that interests me.
        You take good pictures of it, and it’s fun to make recipes that are complicated and yet get them to come out amazingly

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, Eliza, I certainly have the “complicated” part covered, don’t I? We just await clearance for something that launches your excitement (sorry, 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and all; I should’ve resisted the clumsy reference).

        Until we find something you like, this blog will keep trying. Even then…

        Is there anything that captures your imagination? If so, I’m sure I can find a recipe that celebrates it. Let’s enjoy the trip there…and beyond.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I eat very few foods. It has to be really simple- no spices other than garlic or paprika powder. Chicken based maybe. Or typical vegetables (I eat 5 or so). Ya know…. i drive even myself crazy with how few foods I eat.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. You have an eclectic palate, Eliza. In contrast, I’m just picky. Compile a list of the foods “everybody” likes but I don’t,,, Regardless, this blog wends a path.

        Hmmm, some upcoming recipes may capture your imagination. This includes one from New Mexico that looks like it’d be spicy, but isn’t, a prediction guided by experience. A noodle preparation promises good things too. Then, of course, are the sweets, once or so a month.

        Your comments intrigue, Eliza, and I hope someday a recipe returns the favor.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I’ll check it out.
        I don’t know what foods everybody likes that I don’t. Maybe anything with nuts, dairy or fish offhand.
        Your recipes are all interesting (well the backstory and sometimes the pictures).
        Love, light and glitter

        Liked by 1 person

      6. lol good luck with that. At the moment I have eggs sometimes (not often as they aren’t good for me). Chicken. Watermelon. Green beans. Carrots. Haricot beans. Some junk food. Can’t think of anything else in my diet at the moment. Though that changes of course depending on mood/month. But it’s pretty accurate (give or take onions, peas, plain rice – maybe, other types of beans/pulses – I’m open to trying, butternut squash. Those are foods I would eat though I’m not actually eating at the moment). So just, good luck with actually finding stuff I’ll eat. And no spices. No ketchup, no sauces, no anythings other than paprika powder (maybe) and garlic powder.

        Now that you’ve had a laugh 🙂

        Love, light and glitter!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. All the things you list, Eliza, as part of other dishes, or even as the “star” ingredient, yes, yes and again, yes!

        You’re right, though…by themselves is considerably more daunting an order. But then, our imaginations are vast.

        May you enjoy the journey from oasis to oasis, even if it doesn’t offer much more than a picture and a curious fact or two. You already are proving to be a better person than I, devoting attention to something even if you don’t think you’d be interested in trying it. Someday, maybe…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. French food is a lot of cream, sauce, cheese and buttery foods, good stuff but very rich.
    Thanks for the falafel tips. I’m sure I will try it again sometime. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, it definitely is, and that profile greatly enhances the poultry and the almonds. The saffron is a nice touch too.

      As mentioned in the text, carrots have come a long way since this recipe appeared in the Middle Ages, and you may want to dial back the honey, Tamara. Even for a sweet tooth, “as is” is way too cloying. Half-strength still tastes like those candied yams one finds next to the turkey on the Thanksgiving table. Next time, I’m taking the honey down to quarter-strength.

      As for the dish’s supposed amorous properties, I suspect people in medieval Spain mistook a sugar high for love.

      If you decide to try this recipe, please let me know what you think, Tamara. I love comparing notes with others who’ve ventured forth in the kitchen!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. oh I just want to frame this post and hang it on my kitchen! It made me SOOOOO nostalgic! My grand ma was constantly telling stories about “los moros” [The moor] I miss her andalusian food so much! rosewater-almond paste! I’m pretty sure I tried that a few times!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated. Daniela!

      Of course, your grandmother’s rosewater-almond paste surpassed mine (and probably easily too), though as far as first efforts go…. It will be back someday.

      Glad it inspired your nostalgia. The memories make dreams, which build a better future Bittersweet, sure,, with more emphasis on the “sweet” part. Just like chocolate!

      Liked by 1 person

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