The Warming Dervish

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It’s cold out there. You want something warming and comforting and full of flavor, and if it’s also full of vegetables, that’s just a bonus. Have I got a dish for you.

I encountered it long ago on a blustery day in Antioch, Turkey. Later I discovered it was pretty much the same as a Lebanese dish with the odd name the Dervish’s Rosary (masbahat al-darwish). This seems to be the only odd Middle Eastern dish name that doesn’t come with an anecdote to explain it, though I can imagine a hungry dervish praying over this aromatic item.

It’s one of the countless stews from that part of the world based on eggplant and tomatoes; moussaka is probably its best-known cousin. It gets a unique flavor from the way it’s cooked. It’s baked in a sort of roasting pan called a siniyya, so that it thickens up considerably as it cooks and the vegetables (particularly the tomatoes) get faintly browned or even scorched on top, giving a sweet, haunting aroma.

It’s one of the dishes people traditionally baked in the village bread oven — even in Beirut, you sometimes see little kids on their way to a bakery, balancing trays of masbahat al-darwish on their heads.

But the Lebanese versions all seem to include potatoes, which tend to make the stew floury, so I prefer chickpeas. Over the years I have drifted into using the quasi-Moroccan flavorings oregano and turmeric. In Lebanon, there would probably be nothing but cinnamon and allspice.

You don’t need a siniyya — a 9-inch by 13-inch roasting pan does fine. The recipe calls for lamb but beef stew meat would work too. Just make sure it’s cooked tender before serving. You may have to add water and bake longer if necessary.

It’s just about impossible to find ripe tomatoes at this time of the year, so I’d substitute canned tomatoes (hey, you’re cooking the tomatoes anyway; this isn’t salad). In Lebanon, the frying would be done in clarified butter, which is quite warming and comforting, but you can certainly use oil. These days I often do.

The Dervish’s Rosary

Serves 4

Ingredients

½ cup butter or oil
1 cup chopped onions
1 pound (2 cups) cubed lamb
1 to 1½ cups cubed eggplant
1 cup sliced zucchini
1 cup cooked chickpeas
5 medium tomatoes, chopped, or 1 (28-ounce) can whole or coarsely chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Dash oregano
Dash cinnamon
Dash turmeric
Water
Optional: lemon juice, up to ½ lemon

Directions

  1. If using butter, melt it in a small pan, skim off the froth and pour the clear butterfat from the watery whey.
  2. Put 2 tablespoons butter or oil in a frying pan and fry the onions over medium heat until softened and just starting to turn yellow. Transfer to a 9-inch by 13-inch roasting pan.
  3. Put more oil or butter in the pan, briefly fry the eggplant and zucchini and add them to the onions.
  4. Put in the rest of the oil or butter, raise the heat to high and fry the meat in two batches until the pieces start to brown, stirring constantly.
  5. Add the meat to the roasting pan along with the chickpeas, salt, pepper, oregano, cinnamon and turmeric. Top with the tomatoes (if whole, slice them first). Add enough water to just cover everything.
  6. Bake at 350 F until the meat is done and the stew is fairly thick, about 2½ hours.
  7. Taste and add salt and lemon juice if you wish. Serve with plain rice pilaf.

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: Dervish’s Rosary. Credit: Charles Perry

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