Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Delectable delights of an Arab Kitchen

Egyptian karkadeh - darker in colour than its Sudanese counterpart

One of the good things about this big melting pot of a world we live in, is that local delicacies cross borders and cultures and enter the kitchen through the back door. Jordan, being at the crossroads of rich cultures and ancient trade routes, has a fascinating back door into the spice trade of the orient – one that can be found at a moment's notice in the souk's of the city centre or the up market spice shops of Western Amman. As a young mother in Amman, it was a joy to be exposed to my husband's vast knowledge of local herbs that have long been a staple in my kitchen cupboard. One herb that stands out in my kitchen is the dried sepals of the singularly beautiful flower, hibiscus sabdariffa, or 'karkadeh' that takes pride of place. I have also enjoyed trekking downtown to buy supplies direct from the merchant out of sacks direct from the Sudan; something I have been doing on a regular basis for the last twenty five years. A way of life now hanging in the balance.

Downtown Souk, Amman

Native from India to Malaysia, hibiscus s. is now widely distributed and cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions all around the globe. Here in Jordan the dried husks of the hibiscus s. have been a part of the important Arab spice trade since the time of the Nabataeans and probably before. The preferred drink of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the husks (or flower sepals: the group of sepals, around the outside of a flower that encloses and protects the flower bud) give us a wonderful herbal drink, known in this part of the world as 'karkadeh', popular as a hot tea in the winter or a refreshing cold drink in the summer.

Rich in vitamin C, calcium, niacin, riboflavin, and iron, karkadeh is easily digested and distinguished by its crimson red colour and piquant flavour. Karkade also goes by an assortment of other names, such as rozelle, African mallow, sour-sour, Queensland jelly plant, jelly okra, lemon bush, Florida cranberry, Guinea sorrel, Indian sorrel and Jamaican sorrel. But did you know that in the Sudan, fermented hibiscus seeds are used to make furundu – a sort of meat substitute which is traditionally prepared by cooking the karkade seeds and then fermenting them for nine days?

Apart from culinary uses, 'karkadeh' has many medicinal properties, such as maintaining a healthy digestive and urinary tract system, and inhibiting lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme indirectly responsible for the storage of cellular fat. Hence the use of karkadeh in anti-cellulite products.

Whatever it's use, the warm, rich colours of dried karakadeh husks is a welcome sight ... it's a pity that my mum never gets to see it on a regular basis like this - she gets it powdered and neatly packaged into tea bags, sitting on supermarket shelves; at least once a year her kitchen cupboard get's an overhaul from me and my friend's from the souk.

So for a refreshing jug of cold or hot infusion, simply put one handful of karkadeh husks in a large teapot, add boiling water and leave to stand for 5 - 10 minutes if you wish to drink it hot. Allow to cool in the fridge for a refreshing cocktail at sunset. To take the edge off that piquant flavour, add honey or sugar to taste or simply adjust the quantity of karkadeh husks. For a slight variation try adding lemon/orange peel, cinnamon, cloves or Chinese star anise seeds.

Or, as suggested by one of my breakfast buddies, "it goes remarkably well with a slug of gin or vodka".

Cheers! J

PS and for all you culinary kings and queens out there, suggest you get yourselves a copy of a great little book now available: "Jordan, The Land and the Table" by Cecil Hourani, published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson, 2006


Anonymous Rebecca said...

Thanks for the ode to Karkadeh! It's also known as Jamaica in Spanish (pronounced Ha-my-ka). It's very popular in Mexico.
I second your vote for "Jordan: the Land and the Table". Definitely a unique resource on traditional jordanian food and its ties to the climate and landscape.

Thursday, August 16, 2007  
Blogger joladies said...

Thanks Rebecca ... here's to the universal joys of food .... if we can get the rest of our 'universality' togther - we would all be living in Paradise! J

Thursday, August 16, 2007  

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