Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Nanaeya: Iraqi meatballs with garlicky and minty sweet and sour sauce

I've been sitting on this lip-smacking dish for a while, now, not really knowing what to say about it. It is not the Iraqi lamb, eggplant and onion dish I promised earlier (it's not really the season for tomatoes or eggplants, after all), but it is Iraqi.

I made it on Sunday the 16th, and woke up on Monday the 17th to the news that the Turkish government had actually made good on its threat to cross into Iraqi Kurdistan. As someone with Turkish friends, Kurdish friends and friends in Iraq, it just didn't seem the right time to add more fuel to the fire with this, a Jewish Iraqi dish.

But I hope I will be forgiven, anyway, since this bright, sunny dish is the perfect antidote to the winter blahs and, if you are in warmer climes, so much the better, as it is a Passover dish, which makes springtime its usual season.

It is from my very favourite cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden. This is my desert island cookbook. (But I’ll only consent to the island bit if it has a self-replenishing supply of all my foodie goodies (g). Otherwise, it would be sheer culinary torture.)

I don’t know about you, but the cookbooks I like best put the dishes in their historical and cultural setting, teaching me something of the people who devised them and why, and why I would want to cook them. All of Claudia’s books do this, but The Book is in a class of its own (Nigella Lawson calls it the best food book she's ever read; I say it is one of the best books I've read, full stop.)

With literally hundreds of recipes, it covers the cuisines of Jews the world over (Italy, India and China included). Its main focus, however, is the food of the various Middle Eastern Jews. For the stove-top traveller (such as myself), it is a veritable treasure trove to come back to time and again. I encourage everyone with an interest in the food of this region--regardless of their personal brand of religious sentiment (or lack thereof)--to rush out and get a copy of this book pronto.

Anyone with firsthand knowledge of other styles of Iraqi cooking, please feel free to comment on this dish. I love finding commonalities (and differences) in unexpected places.

750 g minced lamb (or beef or pork (!), or...)
Salt and pepper
1 bunch of flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped (I used a Japanese "bunch", which comes in a little plastic coffin minus most of the stalk)
1 1/2 large onions, chopped (or sliced in half-rings for a more textured sauce)
3 tbsp light vegetable oil
6 or more garlic cloves or to taste, finely chopped Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
1 1/2 tbsp sugar or to taste
1 large bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped (I used 1 of those coffins of peppermint and just picked the leaves without chopping them)
2 tomatoes, chopped (optional)

Make the meatballs first: mix the meat with about 3/4 tsp of salt, pepper and the parsley and work to a soft paste with your hands (I use the Asian method whereby you pick up and dash the mix against your bowl a few times until the fat disperses and it becomes paste-like), then roll into balls the size of walnuts.

For the sauce: fry the onions in the oil till soft. Add the garlic and the meatballs to brown them all over (I had to push the onions aside for this manoeuvre). Add chopped tomatoes, if using. Now pour in water not quite to cover the meat and bring to the boil (I needed to skim the scum off). Add a little salt and pepper and simmer for about 25 minutes, until the meatballs are very tender and the sauce reduced, turning the meatballs over once. Mix the lemon juice and sugar and pour over the meat. Cook for 15 minutes more, scattering the mint over in the last few minutes (the recipes adds it with the juice and sugar, but I think it would look better without being cooked so much, and that is what I'll do next time).


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