What do Yogurt, Barley and Stuffed Intestines have in Common?

by Sarah on October 1, 2010

kishkeh, bugur and yogurt salad

It’s all in the name.

It would be funny to imagine that in the future a double whopper would refer to something completely different than what it is now. Perhaps because of environmentalist lobbying for changes in fast food regulations the whopper would become a vegetarian sandwich consisting only of items with a zero carbon footprint.

It could happen. And it already did to many culinary terms in the past. Words have merged, diverged and evolved throughout history creating a puzzling feast for the food scholar.

Take kishk (also kishkeh or kishke) for instance. Many might not be familiar with this word but for those with Polish or Lebanese grandparents it might conjure up the flavors of home. Except they are dreaming of completely different foods.

Polish kishkeh, from the Slavic word intestines, was a popular Eastern European dish when offal was loved by one and all. It is prepared by stuffing cow intestines with flour, spices, meat and grains and was often included in the Shabbat hamin, a slow cooked stew.

It has no resemblance to the Middle Eastern kishkeh, except for similar pronunciation.  For the Lebanese it is a refreshing and tasty salad of thick creamy yogurt which had been strained and mixed with bulgur and fresh mint leaves.

What is intriguing is that this Lebanese kishkeh would probably not be recognized by its ancestors.  The reason lies in technology. Before the invention of refrigerators, food was preserved by pickling, drying, curing, curdling and other lengthy procedures that have all but disappeared in many parts of the world. The kishkeh of yesterday was prepared by fermenting and drying a mixture of grains and milk. In some areas it also referred to just the dried fermented milk product itself.

This we know because palace cookbook writers of Baghdad were busily recording the recipes of their day; the haute cuisine of the Middle Ages. The court variation of kishkeh is of course enhanced with more flavors than what the ordinary the plebian could afford- “mint, Persian celery, purlane, rue, fresh coriander, squash”

Although some recipes were invented at court, this particular one was probably adopted from pastoral tribes of the region who spread the word and the food far and wide. Linguistic studies by Francoise Aubaile-Sallenave have revealed that the very first reference was the Persian word for barley. To preserve the barley, water was added to form a gruel that was fermented and then dried. Those without barley began to use the word to refer to the dried milk product which was prepared similarly.

Like Francoise Aubaile-Sallenave stated in his article of Al-Kishk “the complexity of today reveals the larger complexity of the past” . After his comprehensive research of kishkeh throughout the Middle East and Asia it becomes clear that this humble dish shares the rich history of the land and its people.

The only modern kishkeh-like recipe I found was in a Kurdish cookbook using dried goat milk and cracked wheat known in Neo-Aramaic as Mazira.

kishkeh, bulgur and yogurt salad

Kishke- Bulgur and Yogurt Salad

Inspired by recipes by Anissa Helou and Joumana. If labneh is not available yogurt needs to drained to thicken it to a spreadable consistency. Perhaps it is possible to soak the bulgur in yogurt instead but I did not try this method. For a stronger flavor try Syrian Foodie in London’s more authentic recipe.

1/4 cup fine bulgur, soaked in water for 30 minutes and drained well

1/2 cup labneh

2 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons green onions, chopped

Salt/pepper

Combine all the ingredients and mix well, garnish with mint leaves and green onions.

References:

Medieval Arab Cookery
edited by Maxime Rodinson, A.J. Arberry and Charles Perry

A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East edited by Sami Zubaida and Claudia Roden

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz October 3, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Interesting. I liked your Ashkenazi-Mizrahi comparison. I’ve never seen this dish before.

Reply

OysterCulture November 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm

What an incredibly interesting story and this recipe has my intrigued. I cannot wait to run to my local middle eastern market and pick up the missing ingredients to give it a try.

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