Sunday, 10 August 2008

A Middle Eastern afternoon 2: Gulf prawn balls in tomato & tamarind sauce

I've never tried to hide the fact that I am a cook book junkie. My collection, which once was confined to the cupboard under the phone, is now threatening to take over my sleeping space. And it's not just cook books. I always print out interesting sounding recipes from my favourite foodie haunts there and then. I mean how would you ever find them again otherwise??! So I really have no right or reason to continue buying more cook books.

I would not have even considered buying the source of today's recipe, The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos had I not read a little note in a blog on Bahraini cooking that made me stop and reconsider. I mean, can any cook book on such a culturally and culinarily diverse region ever be "complete", and can someone with a name like Tess actually know what she's talking about?? But here was a Bahraini telling me to check this book out for a cuisine that somehow had fallen through the cracks in my ME cook book collection.

Well you could have blown me over with a feather when I found out that not only is Tess a fellow Aussie (of Greek descent in her case), she is one of the most respected authors in the Mediterranean food world! Bit of a wake up call, I can tell you!

The book is very wide in scope, with chapters for 19 countries/regions (the Gulf states and the Levant are each treated as one). You could quibble with Tess' choice of countries (for instance can we include Egypt but leave out Morocco? Justify Greece but not Israel/Palestine?), but weighing in at almost 400 pages even with these omissions, I can understand the author wanting to finish the book already and get it off to the press! (You can read her reasons for the countries selected in the book.)

My other minor niggle is that while the photos are nice, their styling looks very Western (and circa 1980s) to my eyes. And I'm not even sure the picture for Iran's national dish Ghormeh sabzi is that dried lime-infused stew--what happened to that murky, brackish look we all know and love?! Then again, I'm sure the color plates will be welcomed by those that like that sort of thing in a cook book. Me, I'd rather use not knowing what the food' s supposed to look like as an excuse for visiting the country and finding out myself (g).

That aside, the author has really done her homework, even sourcing spice blend and bread recipes for us. With primers on the food, ingredients and cooking methods/utensils of each country, there's plenty to read here, even without the hundreds of recipes, and the book is as much at home by the bedside (for lusting over at bedtime, of course) as in the kitchen.

So to our first foray into the Tess Mallos' world of Middle Eastern cooking...

As I said, I was looking for some Gulf cooking ideas. What joy, then, to find out that Gulf cooking has some favourite ingredients, like dried limes (loomi in the Gulf, limu Omani in Iran, and noomi in Iraq), tamarind and copious amounts of seafood (think: location, location, location). This recipe for prawn balls has all three and immediately caught my eye. The girls agreed and this became the basis for a fun day of cooking, eating and belly dancing (to work it all off again (g)).

And our findings? The sauce the prawn balls are cooked in is absolutely to die for! It will go well with lots of other seafood concoctions and braised vegetables. The prawn balls I thought maybe needed a little tweaking. Perhaps a little less ground rice, or maybe a change of spicing. Or maybe I should have used the more expensive prawns (!). Then again, I may be being a bit hard on the recipe as the girls were happy with them and jumped on the opportunity to take some home for later (g).

I served this with some lovely Bahraini rice perfumed with rosewater, saffron and cardamom that the girls could not stop raving about. It's known as pearl divers' rice, and reading Tess' notes on its history, I realized with a start that she was talking about male pearl divers. In Japan it is women who have traditionally dived for pearls and I'd not considered any other possibility! Another cultural blind spot bites the dust thanks to a cook book.

(There are more pictures and commentary (in Japanese) on our exploration of Gulf cooking, Oriental dance and Persian poets here.)

And without further ado, the recipe.

Tess provides a baharat (spice) blend, but I mixed up my own based on this recipe. You should do this before you start anything else. This is a lovely blend that has a real citrus tang from the dried lime. It is well worth seeking this out if you are interested in any of the three cuisines mentioned above. Claudia Roden even suggests that you can make your own by drying out limes or lemons on a radiator until they turn dark and sound hollow when tapped. In the Middle East, of course, they are left to dry naturally on the tree (g).

Kebsa spice mix (Gulf baharat)

1 tbsp red pepper
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp loomi (powdered dried lime)
1/2 tsp cloves
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp saffron threads (crushed in a mortar and pestle)

Chebeh Rubyan (Gulf prawn balls in tomato & tamarind)

For 4-6

1 kg uncooked prawns
1/4 cup coriander leaves
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground loomi (dried lime)
2/4 cup ground rice
1 tsp salt

1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp Gulf baharat
1/2 tsp ground loomi (dried lime)

Tamarind sauce
2 tbsp tamarind paste
2 cups warm water
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp oil
1 large tomato, chopped (and peeled if you insist)
1 tsp Gulf baharat
1/4 --1/2 hot chilli pepper
2 tsp sugar

coriander sprigs to garnish

1 Shell and devein prawns, rinse and dry well. Mix prawns with coriander leaves and process to a paste in food processor.

2. Combine prawn mixture with turmeric, loomi and ground rice. Add salt and mix well by band until thoroughly blended. Cover and refrigerate until required.

3. In a pan gently fry onion in oil until transparent, stir in Gulf baharat and loomi. Remove from heat and set aside.

4. In a large, wide-based pot or tall-sided frying pan gently fry small chopped onion in oil until transparent. Add water and tamarind paste, tomato, spices, salt to taste and sugar. Cover and gently simmer for 15-20 min.

6. While sauce is simmering, make chebeh. Take about 1 tbsp of prawn paste and flatten in moistened palm. Place 1 tsp of onion filling in the center and close up, shaping into a ball. Keep hands moist during shaping. Repeat until ingredients are used.

7. Drop completed chebeh into simmering sauce. Cover and simmer gently for 35-40 min. Chebeh will swell during cooking. Serve hot with sweet rice scented with saffron, cardamom and rose water.


1 comment:

Cynthia said...

Gosh I can just imagine how fantastic these must taste.