By Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps, OC, OP, OL
It’s hot. I know it gets hot in the Middle East, but not like this. This humidity. Not something a cook from the medieval world of dar al Islam would have to contend with. Or so I imagine.
Between the heat and the social distancing from the pandemic, I am far from keeping on track with my dessert project. Because I don’t want to think about baking. On the few occasions I make desultory forays into my cookbooks, I find things that look appealing, but are sticky sweet with honey.
Honey is a good thing. Sweet is a good thing. Sticky sweet, when sweltering, is not a good thing. The thought of working with phyllo dough in this weather, and having my hands sticky with honey, is more than faintly disgusting. I make a note to come back to the idea in the autumn.
Then it occurs to me that since my last project of khabis, I could work on one of the many iterations of its cousin, mamounia (or ma’mounia). This is a sweet porridge/pudding that is quite popular in Syria. Sometimes it is served at breakfast, the way sensible people enjoy a good piece of cake now and again. Generally though, it’s brought out at dessert time.
Let’s start out with making a modern version of mamounia. I chose this recipe because it is simplest, and more important, the same principles apply to every iteration one finds of this dish as one travels back historically.
You will need:
- 4 Tb. cooking oil
- 1 cup semolina or rice flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ tsp. extract of almond oil or scented water (rose or orange blossom)
- chopped nuts (optional)
- ¼ cup cold water
- Whipped cream (optional)
Like many traditional Arabic dishes, you begin with melting some cooking fat. In medieval dar al Islam, this meant the fatty part of a sheep’s tail. It’s to the Arabs what lard is to southern American cooks or chicken fat is to Jewish cooks, meaning it imparts something so magical and delicious to the finished dish that only fools will try to cook without it.
That said, there are a lot of fools out there, and most of us will have a tough time finding sheep tail at the local Safeway.
In its place I chose ghee (a form of clarified butter) that is much easier to obtain and imparts a desirable rich flavor. Take about four tablespoons of ghee and heat it in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until you have a nice golden liquid. Keep the heat on at medium heat and add one cup of semolina flour to the ghee. Stir this until it turns light brown.
If you’ve made roux before, you’ll note you’re doing the same thing here. If you haven’t had to make roux previously, take note: the longer you cook the fat and flour, the more careful you have to be about the dish scorching. If it scorches, there is nothing you can do but to start over; there is no way you can fix the roux if it burns. So, now is a good time to cultivate patience and let the fat take its time and do the work. You just keep stirring.
The earlier versions of this dish call for rice flour, and the earliest of all have the cook make his own rice flour by cooking the rice and then smashing it flat and pushing it through a fine sieve. This adds a considerable amount of work to the process but it might be fun, depending on how low you set the bar for fun. On a day like this, I’m willing to wager you’d just end up an irritable, sweaty, mean person, wondering why you wanted to cook anyway. So, this is the reason one pulls out the rice flour or semolina.
Once your grain and fat have made a happy marriage, add a cup of sugar and a cup of milk. Be prepared to stir rapidly at this point, since the milk will scald easily with the hot fat. Once you have that worked together, add half a teaspoon of orange blossom water or rosewater, or, if you prefer, almond extract. The point to remember is that if using scented waters in your cooking, a little goes a long way. You want a hint of floral, not a dish of perfume. [Editorial Note: Ensure you are using edible-grade scented waters, not perfume-grade ones.]
While stirring, work your cold water into the mush gradually, a little at a time. An early Syrian version of this recipe tells the cook to toss small pieces of pistachio into it as you cook.
Pistachios, according to ibn Sina (often known as Avicenna), have the property of inducing euphoria. My own experience has fallen somewhat short of this, but it does bring to mind an anecdote about a shaykh in Ottoman Egypt who had an ill reputation for being intoxicated, eating something all day and laughing without restraint. People said it was hashish. When the authorities finally hauled him in for questioning, they found it was not hashish at all, but mamounia that was the source of his levity.
Naturally, almonds would work here as well, so too would hazelnuts or walnuts. Once the whole reaches the consistency of a thick paste, the cooking is done. Remove it from the heat and spoon it onto a platter The cooking of the dish is now finished, and you can sprinkle the surface with nuts, if you didn’t add them while cooking. You can smooth the surface of it a bit, since it takes a few minutes to congeal.
For summertime cooking, I would decidedly prefer the orange blossom water, as it provides a certain cooling element to dishes. That was a selling point for early Arabic cooks, who used scented waters for a variety of purposes. The essence of Persian cookery can be summed up as rice with a gentle rose perfume hovering over it. Its cooling properties, as with orange blossom water, is useful for curing nausea and headache (codewords for hangover.) Scented waters are necessary for driving off stale smells from stored water in clay jars and provide freshness to any area where company is seated. A good host always provides scented water for his guests to wash with before and after eating.
This fashion passed onto medieval Europe. Rosewater in particular makes several appearances in early French and English dishes, which was a taste, no doubt, brought back by Crusaders. By the Renaissance, however, scented waters became more the provenance of apothecaries, a specialty item connected to hygiene and beauty. They never managed to make their way back into the kitchens of the West. Personally, I love the Renaissance as much as the next amateur scholar. But one can’t help but wonder what the value of progress is, if the end result is wearing plastic shoes and not having lots of dishes with scented water in them.
What you’ve made is really just a sweetened version of polenta, a grain and fat mush made popular by Italians, who were the first to use cornmeal to make it. In earlier days, it was generally made with barley meal. Polentas had the great distinction of being a dish fit to serve at aristocratic tables, yet was so inexpensive that it often served as a staple for peasants.
One more iteration of mamounia is to take chicken breast meat, finely shredded and pounded, and cook it in the fat/rice mixture, and then sweeten the whole with sugar. This dish became known as mawmany in English. It appears in one of the earliest known cookbooks of Northern Europe, and it had its adherents; it was considered a very swanky dish (one noted for its very aristocratic white coloring). However, the taste for sweetened meat was not destined to last in the West.
Similarities between a savory dish and a dessert serves to remind us that in earlier times, all dishes, of either type, were brought to the table all at once. The work of dividing and separating dishes so that sweets arrive at the end of a meal did not become an established fashion until the end of the French Renaissance at the end of the 16th century. This process may have started as early as 10th century Andalusia, when a man by the name of Ziryab began dictating ideas that define many of our modern cultural norms: wearing seasonal colors in our clothing, how to set a table, the use of glass instead of clay drinking vessels, and of course, the order in which courses of a meal are served.
Some modern variants of mamounia contain broken pieces of nuts and the whole surface is sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Another way is to spread whipped cream over the whole, and then sprinkle nuts on it. This is a modern innovation, not scorned by me in this instance because I had a hankering for a dessert with whipped cream. It’s simple.
There is yet another more traditional way of working with cooled cream, but we shall deal with that with later, with another dessert. In the meantime, I am off to search for more pistachios.
- Acquired Tastes; T Sarah Peterson; NCROL 1994
- Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook; Nawal Nasrallah; Brill 2010
- Scents and Flowers: A Syrian Cookbook; Charles Perry; New York University Press 2017
- Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets; Salloum, Habeeb, Salloum, Muna, Elias, Leila; I.B. Tauris 2013