What better way of starting this chapter on exotic – and even erotic – tastes than with a seductive dish possibly no one knows, even by name. Consider it an anonymous affair, if you will. This tantalising paramour is Meloukhiya, although the spelling varies as much as the story of its origins. Some food historians place the dish firmly in the Egyptian camp, others in the Turkish, or even the Phoenician, realm.
Anyone familiar with Middle-Eastern food markets will undoubtedly have seen the bright green leaves of fresh meloukhiya, or have passed the large square boxes or the open burlap bags of dried leaves. Travellers to the frozen food sections may have encountered its gelid brother. This is the leaf of the jute plant, often called mallow or Jew’s mallow for its sticky viscosity, its mucilaginous character. Okra is similarly viscous. The binomial name, for those interested, is Corchorus olitorius, although that need not deter us from enjoying it.
My first encounter with meloukhiya was when I was on my way to a public flogging in the main square of Qutrub (see FFXI for details). A fellow in the souq had set up his food stall, arrayed with plastic red roses and garish green ivy. He stood proudly behind his cart, which contained three pots, covered with copper lids tinned on the inside. He had no customers, and I wondered why.
I went to him and asked what he was selling. Meloukhiya, he said, as he half-uncovered one pot after the other. The first contained plain white rice, the next was a green soup of what I took to be spinach, mixed with bits of minced meat. The third pot held boneless pieces of shiny, buttery gold chicken. On the top of the counter was a small squeeze bottle of something or other, and many lemons, in various shades of yellow and green. I said I’d try some. I still had time before the flogging. He took a plastic bowl from a rack hanging from the roof of his cart and began serving. First a large spoonful of the rice, then a full ladle of the soup, adding a bit more of the liquid, and next, several pieces of the chicken, white and dark meat. He gave a few squirts of the red sauce from the bottle, cut a lemon in half, squeezed one half over the mixture, and finally plopped the other lemon half into the bowl. There was nearly no room left for the spoon. He mixed it slightly and told me to squeeze in more lemon and stir it again, if I wished.
Well, it was delicious beyond description. The blend was perfect and harmoniously balanced. In France, I’d have been given a piece of bread, but not here. It needed no bread. This cost me thirty piastres, about the price of a pint of bitter back home. Not cheap! Was that why he had no customers? No, no! He said people flocked to him for lunch especially, but he had forgotten something. Meloukhiya was most popular with Christians, and today was the first day of Lent. They were fasting. Never mind, he remarked, smiling. It tastes even better a day or two old and warmed up.
I finished my dish, then hurried eagerly to the flogging. I was in an elated, well-fed mood. But later, when the first few lashes had been administered and were ringing in my ears, I had to shut my eyes and just listen to the rhythmic beat of the leather strap against naked flesh. A red mist had descended in front of my eyes, nearly the same colour as that sauce the street vendor had dashed onto my meloukhiya. Very spicy hot it was, blood red. I found out only later what it was.
Ingredients to serve 4-6
Preparation time: Longer than you think. Plan on several lazy hours. Only the final assembly is to be considered important.
1 fresh soup chicken, cock or hen
Vegetables for stock
30 g dried meloukhiya leaves (or 200 g fresh or frozen)
20 cloves of garlic
Olive oil for frying
1 large bunch fresh coriander
Juice of one lemon
200 g ground (minced) lamb
25 g butter
Rice or bulghur to serve
Lemon to squeeze
Ingredients for the hot sauce follow later in the recipe.
_____ _____ _____ _____
For the broth, the chicken must be fresh, never frozen. Buy a laying hen, if you can, although a fine cock will do the job. I went to my farmer friend, whose son Tom has been helping me clean up my cellars and he just happened to have a layer with a broken leg, and he needed to kill her, of course. He wrung her neck and plucked off the feathers, but I said I would eviscerate her myself at home. Inside I found an entire sequence of eggs, from the nearly laid to the tiniest pearls of shell-less seeds – a string of developing ova. I called up young Tom, the farmer’s son, from the cellar to show him one of Nature’s wonders. He was impressed, but he could have shown a bit more enthusiasm.
Cut the hen into the usual pieces and drop them into already boiling water. Add salt now, not later, as some so-called experts say. Peppercorns, mustard seeds, onions, garlic, carrots, laurel, ginger slices, celery root, chillies – the usual drill for a broth. Be sure to add cloves. If you can find savoury and lovage, add a few sprigs; otherwise you’ll have to be satisfied with parsley. Do not be too eager to add too many herbs, but if you have some old cheese rinds in the freezer or fridge, throw those in. Do not skim off the scum which may rise. That is pure protein, something we all need more of in our diets. At this stage, avoid fresh coriander. I know, it’s sitting there tempting you, like young Tom, when he comes up with his shirt off, rubbing his chest, but avoid temptation!
Patience is another vice the good cook must practise. Simmer the chicken uncovered for one hour, then remove the breast and thigh pieces and break the meat off the bones. Simmer one hour longer and remove the rest of the chicken, returning all the bones of the chicken to the pot.
Variations on the broth theme are, of course, inevitably legion. Like the carpenter who built for me a round dining table when I had asked for a rectangular one, people will always think they know better. At least Tom is good at following instructions. After he’s tidied up the cellar, I want him to convert one room into a sort of study or guest room – shelves, a small bed, even some basic plumbing. He learned all these skills at trade school. He’s seventeen now, unemployed, and needs something to keep him busy.
If you are using dried meloukhiya leaves, soak them in warm water for one hour, then drain, rinse, and drain again. Squeeze out all the water you can and lay them spread out on a towel to dry a bit. I use a drying rack that used to be for drying fruit slices, beans, and such. There are about ten in the cellar, but the shelf unit is missing. The racks look like thick fencing or heavy screens, such as might be put on windows for security.
For fresh leaves, wash them thoroughly, drain them, cut smaller if they are too large, and remove the stalks. Frozen leaves need only to be defrosted. Squeeze as much liquid as possible from the fresh or frozen leaves and spread out to dry more. Next, peel and finely chop ten of the garlic cloves and fry in a fairly good amount of olive oil. Stir for a few minutes, then add the meloukhiya leaves. Stir these until they have dried a bit more, then pour in enough broth to cover the leaves completely. Cover the pan and simmer gently for one hour, checking to make sure the broth has not boiled away. We all know how easy it is to get distracted at this point in any recipe.
If ten cloves of garlic sounds too much – Beware! more garlic is coming later. As he passed me in the kitchen going to his work in the cellar one day, Tom saw me chopping two or three heads of garlic. He was shocked. “Sam!” he cried. “How can anyone eat so much? What’s it for, anyway?”
I told him it was for aïoli – and for keeping away vampires. I noticed he had a love bite on his neck, and I dared to rub it with a garlic clove. “That should keep your vampires away – or was someone wringing your neck like a chicken, my big cockerel?” He blushed, but didn’t stop me from rubbing his neck. I think he saw how it was arousing me, for he slowly backed away. “Sam – we shouldn’t do this. I’m not old enough, anyway. And I think I know what you want. I know about people like you. Best just not do it, OK?” I said I’d let him taste my aïoli later. I was sure he’d like it with some crudités.
Keep an eye or two on the liquid in the pan, and when it is two-thirds reduced, add salt and pepper to taste and all the picked-off pieces of chicken from the bones. Add more broth and cover, off heat. Reserve the larger pieces from the breasts and the thighs. Do not forget those delicious “oysters” from near the rump. These are the “sot l’y laisse”, a musical French phrase pronounced “so-lee-lez” and means “only a fool leaves them there”. So don’t be a fool like Tom, whom I had to reprimand rather harshly for trying to break the drying racks covering the window in the guest room downstairs. He should appreciate that he at least has a job of sorts.
In a separate pan, which you will be using again, fry briefly in a small amount of oil, ten peeled and mashed garlic cloves and a large bunch of roughly chopped coriander leaves, then add this to the meloukhiya. Squeeze in the juice of one lemon, stir, cover, and keep warm.
When I took some lunch down to Tom the other day, he complained that it was cold in the room. “Keep working and keep warm,” I told him. He’s finished the shelves and has started on some wine racks now. He told me, “Sam, you’re a slave driver, a real taskmaster.” Nonsense. The boy’s got everything he needs down there to do what I need him for.
The minced, or ground, lamb in the recipe can be replaced with beef or veal, although neither has the real taste of meat unless pork is added to the mixture. Some people would object to pork in the dish, so lamb is the only real choice. My butcher, the brother of the poultry farmer and therefore Tom’s uncle (purveying delicious meat seems to run in the family), has said, and I agree whole-heartedly, that neck meat is the best in any animal, so long as it has a neck, that is. I’ve made camel couscous and had to choose between flank and neck. The neck was perfect for the dish. Tom’s uncle said he’s never eaten camel. He also said something strange about Tom not showing up at home regularly. The family needn’t worry, of course, as he is working all-out at my house every chance he gets.
Fry the minced lamb in oil, add it to the meloukhiya, stir, and cook for fifteen minutes. Heat up some butter in the frying pan or skillet that you have used so often in this recipe now, and lightly brown the reserved breast and thigh pieces from the chicken.
Now to assemble the dish! Having prepared plain white rice or bulghur according to package directions or your own method, ladle the meloukhiya onto the rice, adding a few pieces of buttery chicken on top. Squeeze on lemon juice. This is the way I took the dish to Tom the first time I served it to him for dinner, and he said it needed something. After several shared mouthfuls, we decided that what was missing was just a touch of heat – hot sauce. All I had in the house was an old bottle of Thai sriracha, which did the trick and seemed to arouse all of Tom’s senses. Still, after our little dinner, I realised that what I had been served in the souq in Qutrub was not quite sriracha.
The next day, I went to the Asian shop to check their offerings of hot sauces. I described what I wanted to the assistant, and listening in was a young fellow in a rather tight muscle shirt (I think he might have been one of those Turkish wrestlers), who said that I should make Sahawiq Ahmar. Sahawiq Ahmar? A Yemeni spicy sauce, and he, my young Turk, had a recipe for it at home. From the look he was giving me, I knew he was cruising. As we were checking out, the cashier mentioned to another customer that Tom [last name redacted] had been reported missing by his parents. “I wonder if they’ll find him,” my Turkish lad said. I answered, “I wonder WHERE they’ll find him.” We both laughed. I realised suddenly that the joke would have been better said reversed. I think my new friend realised it as well.
To make the Sahawiq Ahmar, chop and mix in a cutter or food processor as much red bell peppers, chilli peppers, garlic, cumin, and coriander leaves as you like, mixed with olive oil to keep it flowing. Check occasionally for hotness. Salt and pepper to whatever taste is left on your tongue. Keep adding oil and puréeing until the liquid runs like blood.
When I was discussing the sauce preparation with my Turk, I had that odd red mist descend again, the first time in years! he noticed that I was feeling faint, and he spread a thin blanket over me and brought me a glass of tea. “Hey, friend!” he said, “you’ll be all right!”
It was the old blood lust fever again. I’d never told anyone before. He said his brother suffered from something similar, after witnessing terrible atrocities in the ‘20s uprising back home. My lovely Turk understood – or seemed to.
I was late getting home, of course, what with one thing or another coming up. I had left Tom alone, presumably hard at work, and wanted to check on him. As I unlocked the cellar door, the front doorbell rang. I waited a good two minutes, then went to see who might still be walking away down the front path. I saw no one through the peep-hole, so I opened the door.
“Miss Jordan?” he had come up from behind the laurel bush next to the door. “Miss Samantha May Jordan?”
“I’m Inspector Johnson of the serious crimes unit. I have a search warrant to inspect your premises."
"Whatever for, Inspector?"
"I am not required to tell you that, Miss Jordan. May I come in?"
"You have no one with you?"
"Not at this stage, no. If you would just accompany me, please."
So, we walked through the house, downstairs, then upstairs. He asked me to open the loft door, and I did. He sniffed the air, then turned to me.
"You might have bats in here, Miss Jordan. If you're afraid of them, as so many women are, I'd have an expert in. Now, may we go to the cellar?"
The door was already unlocked, but I had not yet turned on the lights to go down when the inspector had rung the bell. He went ahead of me. Should I push him down to crack his skull open on the granite steps? Should I fall over him, risking both our lives? In the end, I let matters take care of themselves.
He went to the various cellar rooms, again sniffing, always sniffing. Perhaps he, too, liked to cook. He checked his phone, then complained of not being able to get a wireless connection, and I explained Faraday cages to him. We arrived at the guest room where Tom had been working. The bars on the door had been carefully dislocated and placed side by side, as if awaiting installation. The grilles from the window had been unscrewed from the outside of the house. The shelves and wine racks lay unassembled along a wall, tools orderly arranged on the floor. Tom had left no evidence, no sign of his confinement. He had simply escaped, leaving only a lingering memory, a leftover sense of being.
To re-heat the meloukhiya for that leftover sense of remembered enjoyment, keep the components of the dish separate, unassembled or carefully dislocated and placed side by side, waiting assembly. The rice re-heats well in the microwave, the chicken wrapped in metal foil in a low oven, the meloukhiya mixture itself in a saucepan set on a very low flame. Don't forget a few squirts of the blood sauce, if that's to your taste. I know it is to mine.
Scottatura con prurito
The final movement of Liszt's First Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Allegro marziale animato, had just begun (patience – after all, it took him 26 years to finish this work), and I had settled in for the evening, when the telephone rang. The house phone hadn't rung for so long, I hardly recognised the sound, blending in as it did with the orchestra. I raised the arm, needle suspended like the Nine of Swords of the Second Estate.
"Jordan. Yea. Tomorrow? So soon? OK. No problem. Yea. Sure – but right at the front. Which side will she leave from? OK. Opposite side – in the front row. No, drop it in my letterbox. Yea. OK. No, no. Not till it's over. Don't worry. '... is worth two in the bush'."
I had never done a 'maiming' or a 'disabling' before. Not intentionally, that is. Never had been asked. Strange how these jobs never caused me a bad night's sleep. Proverbial sleeping babies bounce in my bed.
The next day, the day of the concert, I prepared the bottle. Half empty, add a few drops of urushiol combined with the faster (much faster)-acting capsaicin. Shake the bottle. I knew her brand of hand lotion. I also knew she disliked the smell and so never got her hands too close to her face. I preferred it that way. Hate to think of her rubbing her eyes. She was such a frequent performer at the concert hall that the back-stage attendant knew her every habit. This was, of course, vital to my plan.
She'd come in an hour early, dump the contents of her cosmetic case on the dressing table, then replace what she didn't want into the case again, arranging what she did need in meticulous order – hairbrush and comb, clothes brush, lipstick, powder, spray perfume bottle, hand lotion, mouth spray, pill box, tissues. I don't think I've left anything out. She'd relax a bit in an armchair, turned to face the dressing room door, her back to the window above the table. She never sat on the sofa. It was a basement room and never got much light or air. Then she'd go outside for a cigarette. Smells seemed to bother her. That's when I would switch the hand lotion bottle through the window directly above the table. I'd be wearing all black.
Then she'd return and change into her dress which had been delivered earlier that day and hung up in the wardrobe next to the door. She'd busy herself with the array on the dressing table, always waiting until last to rub in the hand lotion. Finally, she'd leave the room and pace in the hallway until her call to appear on stage. That's when I would switch the bottles back again. No, don't worry. I won't get them mixed up.
Time for me to go around to the front door and find my seat in the hall. My black clothes were appropriate enough. She'd enter to applause – yes, audience, use your hands. She'd bow and sit at the piano, waiting as if deciding what to play.
As I recall, the first piece was a Schumann Fantasie. She got through that without showing any signs of discomfort. The next was a Bach Adagio, which, being a slow piece, revealed inconsistencies in her tempo. Something was happening now. I hadn't picked up a programme, but her next piece, once I heard it begin, I knew would be her last. Rachmaninoff's Études-Tableaux op. 39 no. 6 in A minor. Or — ? My mind was starting to reel – was it Chopin's Étude op. 10 no. 4 in C-sharp minor? I am beginning to suffer along with my victim.
She ends oh, so abruptly and rushes off-stage to scattered applause. I wait for the call – "Is there a doctor in the house?"
Someone shouts, "A medical doctor or a PhD?", and others laugh nervously. I stand up. "I'm a doctor, yes." I move along the front row of seats and go back-stage. The manager leads me to the ramp down to the dressing room. The door is open. I've touched nothing yet.
"Please. She's in here."
"My hands – they're burning! And swelling! I can hardly move them now! It's getting worse! Aaaah – the pain!"
She's waving her hands around.
"Madame – don't touch your face! Don't put your hands together. Hold them up – up like in a bank robbery. Yes. Is the pain draining down? Do you feel it? No? Do you have allergies? No! Don't touch anything! In fact – Someone had best go out and lock the piano. Don't touch the keys – or the bench. Madame – what do you normally use on your hands? That? Just that? Do you smoke? What? Of course! Why, that has a lot to do with it. Otherwise I wouldn't waste time asking. No, I'm not going to touch your hands. Just show them to me – turn them around. Now turn them over. Can you bend your fingers? Hmm. Don't run water over them. I'm going to my car to get my bag. Sit down here and relax. And someone get hold of the piano tuner who last touched the keys. I'll be right back."
As I leave, I hear one of the stage hands say, "Is that the doctor? Where's she going?"
It doesn't matter, since I'm not coming back.
David Pearce is a Swiss writer whose stories have appeared in Purple Wall, rabidwriting, The Dog Tales of Bowling Green, and notanothercyclingforum. He has just finished a book recreating certain Breton legends, which is now with the illustrator. A collection of his short stories is soon to be published. Currently, he is working on a dramatisation of the trial of Jeanne d'Arc presided over by Pontius Pilate.