Coining a Pasta

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Here’s a surefire bar bet: What pasta is shaped like a coin?

Salma. Pay up, sucka.

There you have it, a guaranteed win. Nobody will ever guess because, well, salma hasn’t been made for a couple of hundred years.

I can’t figure why it’s not made any more, except that it’s a little laborious. But that shouldn’t stop people making something that’s really luscious, should it?

OK, if you answered yes, let me just point out that the sauce that comes with it is very easy and very good — meaty, aromatic and teasingly exotic. It would go very well with fettucini or even egg noodles, though neither has the special lusciousness of salma. And the technique of making the pasta might come in handy someday when you don’t have a pasta machine or even a rolling pin.

Actually, a sort of salma is still made in Kazakhstan, but there they make it in big squares, like chunks of lasagna, and serve roast meat on it. Yet Kazakh cuisine is excessively plain (and unphotogenic). The tastier, better-looking coin-shaped salma is recorded in a 14th-century cookbook called “Kitab al-Tibakha.”

You may think of this pasta as disk-shaped, but the recipe explicitly compares it to coins, which weren’t smooth disks in the Middle Ages. People tried their best back then, but the only coin-making equipment they had consisted of a hammer and an iron stamp to put the official heads and tails designs on blanks of gold or silver. So it was typical for some of the metal to smoosh up around the stamp.

Salma’s unique shape also has that quality. You make it by squeezing little lumps of paste hard between your thumb and forefinger, and there’s likely to be a little ridge around the edge of the disk. That adds a pleasant chewiness to this pasta, which is otherwise more tender than durum pasta or egg pasta.

Salma

Serves 3

Ingredients

For the pasta:

1½ cups flour
Salt
Water

For the sauce:

1 pound minced lamb or beef
1 onion, minced
3 tablespoons oil
Cinnamon, coriander
1 cup unflavored yogurt
2 cloves garlic
Fresh mint

Directions

  1. Mix flour with 1 teaspoon salt and enough water to make a stiff but smooth dough. Knead hard 10 minutes, cover and let rest ½ hour.
  2. Pinch off pieces the size of a chickpea and roll into balls. Roll the balls in flour, one at a time, and pinch between thumb and forefinger or flatten on a floured work surface with your thumb.
  3. Put the oil in a pan, add the onion and fry until softened. Add the meat and fry, stirring and mashing to break it up as much as possible, until done and quite brown, about 10 minutes. Drain fat and season meat to taste with salt, cinnamon and coriander.
  4. Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil, add a teaspoon or two of salt, and throw in the salma. Boil, stirring often in the beginning to keep the salma from sticking together, until done, about 8 minutes. If the water threatens to bubble over, skim. Drain the salma.
  5. Mix the yogurt with the garlic and 2 teaspoons minced mint and toss with the hot pasta. The meat may be mixed in or served on top of it. Warm up in a pan or microwave if needed. Garnish with whole mint leaves if wished.

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: Salma. Credit: Charles Perry

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