First test of Indian outdoor kitchen

One of my goals for years has been to set up an outdoor kitchen based off of the paintings in the Nimatnama and cook the food from that manuscript in that kitchen, using period cooking methods along with period ingredients. I’ve been slowly gathering cooking equipment for years and finally decided to seize the opportunity to actually set up the kitchen and cook at a small local event called Bacon & Fire.

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What I planned: 

I bought & harvested the ingredients for eight possible dishes: mixed-grain chapati, puri stuffed with spiced meat #76, fried chickpea dumplings in yogurt sauce #64, cardamom pichha drink #67, water chestnut dabra #132, mixed vegetables with onions and spices #160, mince kabab (multiple recipes), and khichri with ginger and lime juice #122.

What actually was cooked:

Qaliya rice #56 made with minced meat, mixed-grain chapati, and puri stuffed with spiced mince #76

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What I learned:

I built a rough chulha out of bricks and concrete blocks, somewhat like a backyard rocket stove. In theory this should have worked, the shape was right. However the wind shifted during the day and ended up blowing from behind the stove, continually blowing smoke in my face and making fire control difficult. I also didn’t include enough of a draft. At Gulf Wars I will cover the chulha with cob, which should improve everything.

It is impossible to prep and cook simultaneously because a chulha burns sticks, not charcoal or big pieces of wood. It needs constant tending and it’s difficult to keep a constant temperature. I needed to prep each dish and then cook, which took way more time than expected. Next time I’ll do a lot more pre-prep.

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More bowls! I constantly needed more bowls. I will buy more bowls, make fabric sacks to hold grains and flours, and at least one masala dabba (spice box). The iron tawa is actually a giant paella pan my husband bought me, but it worked very well and I will use it in the future. The modern copper-bottom kadai worked great, I need two more and a clay handi.

More time. Setup plus cooking time at this event was about four hours and I could only make three dishes from scratch. Next time I’ll set up the night before and then cook all day.

Hand washing/dish washing. I had enough water but I need a way to be able to wash my hands and wash dishes (especially after handling raw meat) that does not necessitate getting up and leaving the kitchen area.

Overall:

I really enjoyed the hell out of this ultra-compact kitchen where everything is within reach around you and it’s all done on the floor. Thankfully I am comfortable sitting on the ground cross-legged for long periods of time. The cooks in the paintings are almost all sitting on their haunches or kneeling, which I will try more next time. When you only have the ingredients, equipment and cooking methods from the manuscript around you, even your improvisations fit within the cuisine. I am really eager to do this again.

Credit for these great photos to M’lady Heloise of Amurgorod (mka Christi Raney). Thank you for letting me use them.

 

Sanbusaj Babaki from al-Warraq

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Making Sanbusaj

sanbusaj

From Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens, pp 190-191
[For the filling,] take meat from the shoulders, the inner thigh, rump, and sheep’s tail fat. Remove the blood vessels and finely pound the meat on a wooden board using a knife. Add the white part of a fresh onion (bayad asal), leek leaves (kurrath al-baql), cilantro, rue, and a little na’na (cultivated mint). Pound all the ingredients quite well.

Pour as much as needed of Nabatean murri (liquid fermented sauce). Add coriander seeds, black pepper, cassia, cloves, as much as you like of aromatic spices (afawah al-itr) and ginger. Mix the meat with the spices, add some olive oil, and cook until it is done. Prepared this way, the meat [filling] is called isfidhbaj (white and plain).

If you like it to be sour, add to the meat mixture as much as you like of pulverized masl (dried yogurt whey). You may use rakhbin (dried buttermilk), sumac juice, or any other sour ingredients, as you wish God willing.

When the meat mixture is ready, use it to stuff ruqaq (thin sheets of bread) then roll the pieces into triangles, squares, or rectangles.

If wished, you may add dried fruits or nuts to the meat stuffing such as walnut, almond, coconut, pistachio, hazelnut, pine nut, or any other fruits. You can also decorate them with eggs the way some people do in banquets and public feasts.

Alternatively, you may shape them Babaki style. Take fermented dough and roll it out very thin. Cut out rounds using a concave wooden mold, similar to a huqq (small bowl). Stuff these rounds with the meat mixture and seal them by pressing all around the edges with a fingernail. Fry the filled pastries in zayt maghsul (washed olive oil) or sesame oil. Take them out when they brown and eat them with whatever you prefer of sauces made with vinegar or mustard. This is the way to make all kinds of sanbusaj excluding the sweet varieties.

This is a “quick & dirty” redaction- evoking the flavors, textures and look of a medieval dish but with no extensive efforts at higher levels of authenticity. For instance, I bought ground lamb instead of mincing my own meat, used purchased pizza dough instead of making my own sourdough, and making a few substitutions for what I had in the pantry and garden. Also, I don’t love onions and I have green onions growing in the garden so I used green onions instead of white onions and leeks.

Babaki Samosas

1 lb ground lamb
1 bunch green onions
handful each of cilantro and mint
sprig of fresh rue
2 tsp coriander
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, pepper
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp starch + 2 tsp water
1 lb purchased pizza crust dough
oil for frying
Chop all green herbs. Fry lamb until the water evaporates and the meat starts to sizzle. Add all spices and green onions. Cook until the meat is completely cooked and starting to brown. Stir in the soy sauce and the rest of the chopped green herbs. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool.

Cut the dough into 20 even pieces. Roll the dough pieces out as thinly as you can. Place one tbl of the meat mixture in the middle. Paint the outside edge all the way around with the starch & water slurry. Fold the dough over and seal around the edges, making a half moon shape. Repeat until you run out of dough or meat.

Heat a couple inches of oil. I used 2/3 peanut oil and 1/3 olive oil for flavor. Fry the samosas a couple at a time until golden. Work quickly- if the dough rises too much then the samosas will pop open in the oil and make a big mess.

The Seven Voyages of Sindbad Feast- What to Bring

Going to a feast is not the same as going to a restaurant. A feast is an experience. Part of getting into the atmosphere of the feast is trying to eat outside of your normal manners, to try something from a different culture. For this feast, I want you to eat with your fingers.

Eating with your fingers is a sensory experience. You don’t just taste your food, you feel it.

However, dirty fingers in shared bowls was a strict no-no. Washing your hands thoroughly before sitting down to eat is a must. If we get enough volunteer servers, we may have handwashing at the tables, but at such a small event it is unlikely. Since licking your fingers is also crude and unsanitary, please don’t forget your cloth napkins to wipe your fingers between courses.

Definitely bring a plate, a sharp table knife, and at least one bowl for soups and stews. Spoons are acceptable, but eating the solid foods out of your bowl and then lifting the bowl to drink the broth is also acceptable. Scooping wet foods into your mouth out with a piece of bread is encouraged. There will be several types of drinks available during the feast, some more exotic than others. I would suggest bringing two glasses- one for plain water and one for flavored drinks. The wealthy elite in 10th century Baghdad did drink wine made from grapes and other fruits, please feel free to add wine to your table if you like. Please also bring candles and candle-holders! This will be a “lights-out” feast. If you enjoy really seeing your food, bring candles for your table. Electric faux candles are lovely too!

A note about serving– please keep in mind that servers are volunteers who have probably been working and/or playing just as hard as you all day. There is often a shortage of adults volunteering to serve feast at smaller events. If this happens, then one person seated at each table will come up to the serving line at the beginning of each course to fetch the platters for each course.

The Seven Voyages of Sindbad Feast- Feast Math

The most difficult and tedious part of planning a feast is the math.

You go through the manuscript and choose a handful of recipes. Then you test the recipes, more than once if necessary, writing down every single measurement you used. Then you go shopping to find the prices for every single ingredient in every single dish at more than one store so you can make sure you’re getting the best price for that lamb/fresh mushrooms/saffron. You write down all the prices and make a giant spreadsheet.

Then the math begins. The average human can only eat so much food at one sitting. The math comes in figuring out how much of each dish to serve, coming up with a rough budget estimate based on cost of each item, and then going back and tweaking the menu until it all fits into the budget. And then the real math begins. Taking the amounts of your test recipes and then multiplying them out to feed the number of people at the feast the amount you’ve decided to give them takes time and concentration and often, loud music. When it’s time to go shopping it’s easy to start second-guessing my own math, buy too much, and then cook too much.

Seven course feasts do not happen at every event. I wanted to do a seven course feast to go along with the live telling of the Seven Voyages of Sindbad, but also for feasters to really experience the breadth and complexity of the court cuisine at the time the story of Sindbad the Sailor was written. You are going to be eating the food that the people who wrote the stories ate every day, the food that Sindbad the Sailor would have eaten in his own court.

However. As I said above, people can only eat so much at one sitting. To get everyone through seven courses of food and make sure that you will want to eat every course, the portions at this feast will not look like the portions at a regular 3-4 course feast. These portions will be very small, but there will be lots of them. Small portions add up, especially when five of the seven courses have at least one meat dish. Think of this feast as a long cocktail party with seven courses of fancy appetizers and a show. I promise, you won’t leave hungry.

 

Tarte of Almonds

Our fair Barony’s Arts & Sciences officer issued a pie challenge for our meeting this month, and I chose this pie to redact because I adore the combination of almonds and rosewater and I was intrigued by a custard-like pie filling with no eggs.

From The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, 1594

To make a tarte of Almonds

Blanche Almonds and beat them, and straine them &c, with good thicke Creame, then put in Sugar and Rosewater, and boyle it thicke: then make your paste with Butter, fair water, and the yolks of two or three Egs, and as soone as you haue driven your paste, cast on a litle Sugar, and Rosewater, and harden your paste afore in the Ouen. Then take it out, and fill it, and set it in againe, and let it bake till it be well, and so serue it.

This redaction is absolutely for a feast, not for an artsci entry!

Tarte of Almonds

Crust
1 3/4 c unbleached pastry flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick of cold salted butter
1 large egg yolk
2 1/2 tbl very cold water
1 tbl lemon juice

Filling
1 8 oz. can Solo almond paste (not marzipan!)
2 c whipping cream
1/4 c sugar
8 drops Laxmi brand rosewater

Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter in small pieces with a knife. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until there are no large pieces. Combine the egg yolk, water and lemon juice in a small bowl and whip with a fork. When combined, add all at once to the flour and stir with the fork until the mixture leaves the sides of the bowl. Dump it all out on a lightly floured board and pat it all together into a lump. Wrap in paper or plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for one hour.

Take the almond paste out of the can and dice it. Combine the almond paste and cream in a small saucepan and put over LOW heat. Once the cream is hot to the touch, scrape the cream and almond paste into a blender and blend on low/mix just until smooth. Scrape back into the saucepan and heat on low until barely simmering. Stir often, it will scorch! Cook slowly until the color begins to darken and mixture thickens slightly, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Turn the oven on to 375. Roll out the chilled dough and place in a glass pie pan. Crimp the edges or decorate however you wish. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the bottom of the crust and poke lightly with a fork to keep it from rising. Bake for 5 minutes or until the edges are firm but not colored.

Mix the rosewater with the filling. Pour the filling into the pie shell. Sprinkle the top evenly with the rest of the sugar. Place back in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes at 375, then turn down to 350 and bake until the edges of the pie crust are nicely browned and the filling is bubbling. I was hoping that the sugar on top would caramelize but this didn’t happen in my oven… the bottom browned before the sugar on top caramelized. I would try this again at a slightly lower temperature.

The Seven Voyages of Sindbad Feast- The Land of Wheat, Vinegar and Onions

When many people think of “middle eastern cuisine”, they think of rice- biryani, pulao, mujadara. While the wealthy of Baghdad in the 10th century did have easy access to rice and did occasionally eat it, rice was considered an inferior food and poor nutrition. The few rice recipes in the Kitab al-Tabikh are all heavy, fortified dishes full of milk or yogurt, animal fat, or sugar to increase its nutritional value.

What they ate was wheat. Wheat was considered the most nutritious grain and was eaten as porridge, pasta, dumplings, cookies, cakes, and bread of every description. Wheat starch was removed and used to make all sorts of sweets and delicate pastries. Stale bread was broken up or ground and soaked in meat broth, herbs, and spices, making a dressing-like dish called tharid that was central to the cuisine. Toasted wheat was ground and mixed with sugar and water to make a nourishing drink, called sawiq, that was flavored with all kinds of fruits and spices.

Another central ingredient to this cuisine is onions. Onions were thought to induce thirst, stimulate the appetite, and was cooked with meat to “remove offending odors”. They ate almost a dozen varieties of vegetables in the onion family, and there are onions in almost every dish. In testing the dishes in this manuscript I have come to appreciate more deeply the nuances in flavor between brown onions, leeks, green onions, chives, garlic, and red onions.

Certain combinations of flavors define cuisines, and this cuisine liked their meat dishes “sharp” and “sour”. Sumac juice, citron juice, and pomegranate juice were all used to introduce sour flavors in meat dishes too, but by far the most common ingredient is vinegar. Vinegar was thought to balance out the heaviness in meat-centered dishes and to help cool the body, an important concern in a desert climate. Vinegar was used to marinate meat before cooking and added to spices and onions at the end to make a sauce. It’s added to ground mustard seed and spices to make mustard sauces. There is also an entire range of dishes that are preserved in vinegar and served cold, called barida. Barida are not pickles exactly, more like cooked vegetables marinated in spiced vinegar. Barida were an important part of every feast, cooling the body and aiding in digestion. Vinegar was often made from fruits such as apples, dates, raisins and figs, but the best vinegar was made from grape wine. I will be using red wine vinegar for the dishes calling for vinegar in this feast.

Come prepared to savor the sour, the sharp, and the piquant. In this feast I have tried to present a balance of flavors, textures, and cooking methods, but these three ingredients are impossible to avoid. If you have an onion intolerance, wheat intolerance or a wheat allergy, this may not be the feast for you.

The Seven Voyages of Sindbad- the Feast Menu

An Earring Mystery Solved

Although there is a huge amount of extant art depicting 16th century Hindu North Indian women and their clothing and ornamentation, until very recently the vast majority was only available printed at low resolutions and in black & white in books. In the past decade there has been an explosion of books with full-color, high resolution reproductions of paintings, and even better, some museums are doing high-resolution scans of paintings and putting them on the internet. Many of these paintings are causing me to review my Rajput kit with a very critical eye as I am seeing new details in clothing and jewelry.

For years I have suspected that 16th century Hindu women’s ear ornaments were more complex than the large disc-shaped lobe ornament so easily seen in paintings.

These three paintings are all from the “Freer Gallery Ramayana”, an illustrated copy of the Hindu epic Ramayana commissioned by Abd al-Rahim and completed between 1587 and 1598.

These three paintings, spanning about 40 years, show the relative stability of women’s costume during this period. There were changes- fashion is never frozen- but the overall garments and “look” are pretty stable. All of these six paintings show the range of women’s ear ornamentation. Possibly the most revealing for reconstruction purposes is the detail of the Khamsa of Nizami painting “The princesses of the seven pavilions bow in homage to Bahram Gur”. In that one paintings you can see Hindu women wearing dangling earrings with gems in their lobes, the disc-shaped earrings in lobes, rows of pearls or round studs along the edge of the ear, and almost every woman has a pointed ornament sticking straight up off the top of the helix.

That particular ornament has plagued me for years. I could see something was there but not exactly what it was. Then Margavati Bai shared a new resource- Earrings: Ornamental Identity and Beauty in India by Waltraud Ganguly. That is where I finally found the name of the ornament sitting on top of the helix of these women’s ears- the bugudi.

Called koppu in Tamil Nadu and bugudi in Karnataka, these straight earrings are worn nearly vertically in the helix, with one ornamented end on the top and another on the bottom, inside the ear, like finials. According to the author, they are modeled on clove buds.  I immediately started searching the internet to see if they are available for sale, since traditional jewelry pieces like these are often hard to find. I have found a few examples here and a gold example here. There are also several in the V&A museum.

As soon as I can figure out how to make a pair of these I will be getting my ears pierced so I can wear this style of earring. Now if we could only figure out patkas!

Xocolatl- An interpretation

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Here is my interpretation of the hot bitter cacao-based Mayan drink xocolatl. I only made 2 1/2 gallons for 150 people because I didn’t think many people would like it, or even try it. I was so wrong. I should have made double the amount that I did. So while this recipe only makes about 150 3-oz servings, I would suggest doubling the serving size.

The pre-contact Mayans drank hot cacao drinks the way we drink black coffee or strong tea- as a stimulating beverage. It’s powerful, so only powerful people could drink it.

Possibly the most important part of these cacao drinks is the “broth” at the base. This isn’t the meat broth or pulse broth we’re familiar with from medieval European cooking, but chile broth. The liquid resulting from rehydrating dry chiles- of whatever kind- is a beautiful rich broth that can be used to add a subtle heat to all kinds of dishes. The chile broth added a lovely back-of-the-throat warmth to both the cacao drink and the braised turkeys. I look forward to playing with this technique more in my home cooking.

Madhavi’s Xocolatl

2 pounds of raw cacao paste
2 whole vanilla beans, slit down the length
2 teaspoons of fresh-ground achiote
1/4 c whole allspice berries
2 1/2 gallons of water
6 oz dried guajillo chiles
1-2 c honey
1 tsp + of salt

First make the chile broth. Heat the water to boiling and add the chiles. Let them steep until the water is cold.

Chop the chocolate into splinters. Strain the chile broth, use the chiles for something else. Start the chile broth heating in a wide pot over medium heat. Add the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate is completely melted. Whisk in the rest of the ingredients, including the first cup of honey, and bring the mixture almost to a boil. Turn the heat off and let everything bloom and steep for at least an hour. Taste and add more honey only if necessary. It should be bitter but not unpleasantly so. Strain through a fine wire strainer.

If you want to serve it hot, then heat back to almost boiling slowly, whisking like mad the whole time. The mixture will scorch very quickly!

I loved this drink so much more than the over-sweetened, milky “hot chocolate”. If you want to try it on a home scale, you can buy 4 oz bags of cacao nibs, which can be used in the same way. A heaping tablespoon of cacao nibs makes a big mug of Xocolatl.

MayanmasMoot Rough Menu

This is by far the most difficult feast I’ve ever done. Redacting recipes is usually easy for me… I can read the description of the dishes in most medieval manuscripts and know what the dish is going to look like and an idea of how it’s supposed to taste because I’m already familiar with those cuisines. I grew up in Florida! Not a lot of real Mexican food here. Recipe testing is taking longer than I expected and some of these are still not settled.

I did have almost the whole menu into Nahuatl… which I thought was the language of the Maya, since Sophie Coe uses a lot of Nahuatl terminology. It’s not, and the Maya languages are nowhere near as accessible as Nahuatl. So for right now, the menu is in English.

As far as I can tell, the Mayans did not serve their feasts in courses. However, dining in courses is expected in SCA feasts and serving everything at one time would take more serving dishes and room than we have so, courses it is.

First Course

Chile-flavored savory turkey broth with soft nixtamalized corn dumplings

A Selection of Tamales:

Mashed black bean, epazote, corn leaves
Venison, chile, Piper hispidum leaves
Alligator, wild onion, Poliomentha longiflora, Jatropha aconitifolia, corn leaves

Second Course

Broth of mashed sweet potato, allspice, and sweet nixtamalized corn
Broth of toasted nixtamalized corn

Third Course

Turkey braised in herbed chile broth
Tortillas
Jicama “slaw”

Three sauces:
Tomato, achiote, red chile, herbs
Tomatillo, green chile, avocado, wild onions, herbs
Tomato, squash, squash seeds, herbs

Dessert

A confection of amaranth, squash seeds and spiced honey
Fresh fruit including pineapple, sapote, papaya, guava and hog plums
Chocolate- A hot bracing drink thickened with cornmeal, sweetened with honey, and spiced with smoky chile, vanilla beans, sapote pits, and achiote

Inspiration

As many of you know, even though I joined the SCA in Trimaris, I lived in Meridies for 10 years. My Laurel, my household, and a big chunk of my heart is still in Meridies. My Laurel taught me to cook and her Laurel taught her, and I just rediscovered an article that the two of them wrote together. It’s kind of a mini-handbook for cooking a feast and hits all of the important points, and I’m not sure if there’s ever been a better one written.

The intro pretty well sums up my entire philosophy of cooking feasts:

I believe in period style feasts. This is not to say that I think anyone could or should do a “completely authentic” feast. Not only is this probably impossible, but it would also be unsanitary, unpalatable to modern tastes, and unbelievably expensive. Medieval and Renaissance feasts were extremely long and had dozens of courses or removes. There was no modern concept of a balanced diet or nutrition. Food preservation was limited, and many foods were salted, preserved in vinegar, and dried. Fresh foods were available only in the short growing season–not year round. Cooking methods frequently led to dishes that were overcooked by modern standards. There were few sweets. Furthermore, in period labor was cheap, and there were hordes of servants to help with preparation. [i]

Despite these inconvenient facts, the doughty SCA chef may forge ahead in planning and preparing a “period style” feast. By “period style” I mean using foods found in period and recipes that are derived from period sources. When possible, period cooking methods and presentation of dishes should be incorporated. The feast menu may (and should in my mind) come from a single time and place, and all recipes and foods should be documentable to that time and place. However, certain allowances for our mundaneness must be made. A balanced menu that is nutritionally sound, sanitary methods of preservation and preparation, a shorter serving time, fewer kitchen helpers, a smaller budget, and so on. The SCA chef spans the best of two worlds–a caterer with historical research skills. If this is something that interests you, read on.

Thank you again Maysun and Roz for introducing me to this crack inspiring me to cook feasts!