Chinese-Arab Fusion Food

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How was medieval Middle Eastern cuisine like Chinese? It used soy sauce. Or something that was practically the same.

The Middle Eastern version didn’t use soy beans, which weren’t known west of China. Still, murri was made in a totally similar way by mold-culturing barley dough, which had the same effect that mold-culturing soy beans had in China: breaking down the starches and proteins to more digestible sugars and amino acids. Then, with the addition of water and salt, you in effect invited all the microbes in the neighborhood (or at least the decent salt-tolerant ones) to a big party where they could proceed to consume sugars and amino acids and each other’s by-products and each other until you got the inimitable complex flavor of soy sauce.

Murri died out in the Middle East during the 14th century, for unknown reasons. It makes one wonder what the modern cuisine of the region would have been like if it had survived. Soy marinated shish kebab, anybody? Soy-laced falafel?

Curiously, the recipe was translated into Latin in the 14th century. In some alternate universe, we might have had flagons of soy on the tavern table, barrels of soy sauce aging down in the old monastery cellar, embarrassing soy stains on milady’s gown of finest samite. But the Latin translator, Jamboninus of Cremona, chickened out on describing the mold phase of the process, so Europeans never learned how to make murri. If they’d tried his version of the recipe, they’d have gotten nothing but a salty solution of ground barley. (I’ve tried that, it’s pretty loathsome.)

In Jamboninus’ defense, by his time the Arabs no longer made murri, so maybe nobody could have made it clear to him that you really do have to let barley dough turn disturbingly black and green and furry for the recipe to work.

This cousin of soy sauce was particularly popular in medieval Iraq and North Africa; Syrian and Egyptian recipes often substituted plain old salt. One dish where it was essential was mutajjan, a dish of chicken braised with olive oil, soy sauce and either vinegar or lemon juice. It was already popular in the ninth century.

Naturally, the medieval taste required plenty of spices as well, so you have a curious sort of inter-millennial, pan-Asian quasi fusion. Mutajjan is perhaps the only dish ever made that includes olive oil, soy sauce, cinnamon and coriander. By the way, it’s interesting that all murri recipes called for fennel. Chinese cooking recognizes a deep affinity between soy sauce and the very similar star anise.

Still, the combination of Mediterranean olive oil, quasi-curry spices and Far Eastern-ish soy sauce is startling — at first. Then there turns out to be an attractive logic to the combination of aromas. It shows an ancient truth: People will always find good uses for whatever ingredients they have. This recipe appears (without measurements and neglecting to mention any spices) in a 13th-century manuscript which I translated a few years ago as “A Baghdad Cookery Book Newly Translated.”

Dajaj Mutajjan

Serves 4

Ingredients

2-3 tablespoons olive oil
One whole chicken or 8 chicken thighs
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup lemon juice (2-3 lemons)
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground pepper
¼ teaspoon crushed fennel

Directions

  1. If cooking a whole chicken, separate into wings, drumsticks, thighs and breasts, and cut the breasts half, removing the ribs. Remove the skin if you want.
  2. Put the oil in a large frying pan and heat over high, until a faint haze appears over the pan. Put in the meat and fry, starting with the thighs and drumsticks and stirring often, until the meat is lightly browned on all sides. This will require cooking in at least two batches. Toward the end of cooking, scrape the pan with a spatula, lest any of the stuck bits burn. Remove the cooked chicken pieces to a plate.
  3. Add the soy sauce, lemon juice, coriander, cinnamon, pepper and fennel to the pan, bring to a boil, scrape the bottom to de-glaze and return the chicken pieces. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer partly covered until the meat is very tender and nearly falling off the bone, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
  4. Taste the sauce; if you want it stronger, remove the chicken to a serving dish and reduce the pan juices over high heat to taste.

Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.

Photo: Dajaj Mutajjan. Credit: Charles Perry

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