Sunday, September 28, 2014

Recipes from Kuwait

Part of the reason I moved away from the Bay Area was because of the crappy air quality. I'm pretty sure in this week alone, though, I've actually breathed more crappy air than I did in the sum total of an entire decade in San Jose.

We are about 60 miles west of the King Fire, which has burned close to 100,000 acres of forest land in the past two weeks. We're not really in any danger from the fire, but up until a couple of days ago we were getting a lot of the smoke. The air quality was so bad that my kids coughed whenever they went outside, my eyes were pretty much constantly burning and you really couldn't see much further out than maybe a half mile. After that it was just faint silhouettes muted by all that yucky brown smoke.

Anyway, my kids were home for part of the week because the air quality was deemed too poor for them to go to school, like it was any better anywhere else in town. Have you ever tried to write with four kids in the room? You can get two or three words down and then "Mom! Mom!" I got some cleaning done, but not much work.
Kuwait Parliament, Qibla, Kuwait City, Al `Asimah. Photo by N.M.

So here I am trying once again to catch up, and this week it's Kuwait. Now, I'll bet if the first gulf war had never happened you probably wouldn't have heard much about Kuwait. Those of us who came of age in the 90s (not that I'm that old or anything') remember the invasion of Kuwait as the supposed reason why we ended up over there, though most people thought it was more about the oil than the freedom of Kuwait. Whichever version you believe, Kuwait did need our protection. It's a constitutional monarchy, which means that it has a monarch but also an elected parliament, not unlike the United Kingdom. As far as liberties go, it ranks among the highest in the Arab world, with a free press, judicial liberties and constitutional protection of civil liberties.

So when I got to Kuwait, I had an epiphany about this Travel by Stove venture of mine, and here it is. Lots of nations have very specific culinary traditions, and many of those nations have regions with very specific culinary traditions. But some countries don't have those distinctions, and the lines between the culinary traditions of one nation blends with those of another. So you get entire regions comprising of many different nations that eat pretty much the same dishes, with only very subtle variations. This became very plain to me when I was researching Kuwaiti food and discovered that I'd already cooked pretty much every recipe I could find. I've made harees and khubz and biriyani and machbous already, and it just seems like cheating to repeat recipes I've already made, even though it wouldn't be the first time. So I dug around a lot, and I found a couple of recipes that were different, but I'm afraid I had to do a variation of machbous as my main meal because I really didn't find a lot of alternatives. I'm sure they were out there, but I didn't stumble upon them. So here's what I decided to make:

Chicken Mechbous 
(from A Mideast Feast

For the chicken:
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 or 3 whole cloves
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • Flour as needed
  • 3 cups basmati rice
For the onion-spice topping (hashu):
  • 2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in water
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp dried black lime (loomi), or ½ tsp lime zest
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
For the tomato sauce (duqqus):
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
With some bread:

Za’atar Bread
(from Veggie Zest and Globe Trotter Diaries)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup water, lukewarm
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of dried thyme
  • 1/2 cup of sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp of sumac
And for dessert:

Kuwaiti Honey Cake
(also from A Mideast Feast)

For the cake:
  • 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
For the topping:
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup almonds, slivered
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 3/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Alight, so here's how it's done: First, make the bread. Mix the yeast with 1/4 cup of water and let stand until frothy. Meanwhile, mix the flour with the salt, then add the proofed yeast and knead. Add the water, 1 tbsp at a time until you get a smooth dough. Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for two hours or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, make the za'atar. Toast the sesame seeds in a pan and then mix with the thyme. Now add the sumac and stir. Mix with the olive oil and set aside.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Punch down the dough and fold it over a few times, pressing down with your hands. Divide into 8 parts and roll into circles. Divide the za'atar between them, spreading out over the surface of the dough with about a half inch border all around. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

Now for the mechbous. Rinse chicken and put in a large pot. Add enough water to cover, then add the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves and peppercorns (I always put whole spices in a tea ball, that way they're easier to remove from the pot later). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and let cook until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 175 degrees. Remove the chicken and reserve the broth.

Now strain the fat off the broth and transfer to a pot. You should have six cups--if not, add some water. Add the rice to the broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Let cook for 20 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add salt to taste.

Meanwhile, cook the onions over medium heat until translucent. Add some water and keep stirring until the onions start to brown. Add the oil, raisins and spices and cook for another minute, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Now place the water in a small pot with the tomatoes, garlic and tomato paste. Cook until the tomatoes are soft.

Dust the chicken with flour and transfer to a skillet. Cook over medium high heat until the skin is brown and crispy.

To serve, spread the rice out on a platter.  Sprinkle the onion mixture on top, then top with the chicken pieces. Serve the tomato sauce in a separate bowl.

Now for the cake. First preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 10 inch pan with butter and set aside.

Now melt the butter in a saucepan or your microwave. With an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth and then add the butter.

Sift the flour and baking powder over the mix and stir until blended.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 10 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Meanwhile, melt the butter for the topping in a pan. Add the sugar, honey, cinnamon and almonds.
Bring to a boil, stirring. Pour over the cake and return to the oven for 15 minutes.

Let cool and serve.

Alright, so the mechbous was good. You can't really go wrong with chicken and rice, and I always like caramelized onions on rice. The bread was quite possibly the worst thing I've ever eaten. We had a friend over, and he and Martin were both OK with just scraping off the za'atar, but I didn't think it was edible even after I scraped it off. I don't really like thyme, I guess, so in large quantities I thought it was really awful. I don't usually mind sumac or sesame oil, so I really can't explain it in any other way. But all that spice was just way too much. The bread, however, was redeemed by the honey cake, which was fabulous. It was a little bit like a baklava but with cake instead of phyllo dough. The topping was really chewy and yummy and the cake was moist and delicious. My eight-year-old liked it so much that she told me she wants it for a birthday cake. Wow! Anything that can outshine a Safeway birthday cake for that girl must be pretty good, haha.

So the honey cake was pretty original, the za'atar bread was also extremely original, though horrifying, and the mechbous was pretty much just like the mechbous I made in Bahrain, but I'd say overall the meal came out a success. I'm sure the za'atar bread would have been delicious without the za'atar.

Next week: Kyrgyzstan

1 comment:

  1. For the longest time I was certain that thyme was poison, figuratively. My mom, rest her soul, once made a chicken dish that was very thyme heavy. The whole house smelled like dried thyme, which always smells kind of moldy to me, for *hours* and I almost got sick of the smell alone (I couldn't eat the chicken). Large quanties of thyme are undesirable, yo.

    But it's great in moderate amounts with other spices on poultry. Hope your air clears up soon.


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