2020! New decade! New beginning! This is it – your decade; big goals, here we go.
But first, let’s talk about your hangover from that New Year’s Eve party. Before you step into the future, why not try a hangover cure from the past? Like 1,000-years-old past.
Enter the Abbasid Dynasty. Spanning from the 750s to 1300s, this empire was based in Baghdad but spanned much of Persia, Arabia and North Africa, and is often called the Golden Age of Islam. From this era we get algebra, windmills, the beginnings of oncology and the earliest Arabic cookbooks.
The oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, “Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens,” comes to us from Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Little is known about him except that he lived in Baghdad in the second-half of the 10th century, and he worked in publishing. (Warraq is Arabic for papermaker.) Food historian Nawal Nasrallah translated more than 600 recipes in the book, which were used to feed the rich and royal. It includes not only recipes for alcohol but a recipe for kishkiyya – a stew said to cure hangovers.
Now wait a minute, you might be saying: I thought Muslims didn’t drink.
“There was drinking (during the Abbasid era), and it depended, of course, upon who was ruling at the time,” Nasrallah told The Washington Post. “If they were very strict, they would go to the wine market, and they would destroy all the shops. And then after would come somebody who was not so strict, and they would allow it.”
One of those not-so-strict rulers was the caliph Al-Mahdi, whose reign from 775 to 785 was marked by peace and prosperity. Al-Mahdi was more interested in good food, good drink and good music than affairs of state.
He even wrote an ode to his friend kishkiyya:
“A dish as flavorful and balmy as the delicate fingers of the gazelle that cooked it.
“Its pale hue shimmers like her contour flickering through her sheer gown.
“Having eaten it intoxicated, one will be all anew and the hangover will itself renew.”
Convinced? OK, here is the recipe as described by al-Warraq. We’ll talk about explanations and substitutions lower down.
“Wash 3 ratls [3 pounds] of meat and put it in a pot. Add ½ ratl [½ pound] chopped onion, ¼ ratl [4 ounces] fresh herbs, a handful of chickpeas, 1 piece galangal, and ¼ ratl [½ cup] olive oil. Pour water enough to submerge the ingredients in the pot.
“Let the pot cook until meat is almost done. Add any of these seasonal green vegetables and a little chard.
“When everything in the pot is cooked, add 3 pieces of sour kishk, and ½ ratl [½ pound] kishk of Albu-Sahar, Mawsili, or Babaki. Pound them into a fine powder and dissolve them in 1 ratl [2 cups] ma hisrim [sour grape juice]. [Add it to the cooking pot.]
“When kishk is done, add 2 dirhams [6 grams] cumin and an equal amount of cassia. Add a handful of finely chopped onion. Do not stir the pot. When the onion cooks and falls apart, add to the pot 2 danaqs [1 gram] cloves and a similar amount of spikenard.”
Now let’s talk about what these ingredients actually are. “Meat” means lamb “with the bone in it,” Nasrallah said. Galangal is a root that can be found in most health-food stores by the fresh ginger and turmeric. Cassia is essentially cinnamon. Sour grape juice can be found in specialty stores under the French name “verjus” – or you can just substitute lemon juice. (Nasrallah advised against using regular grape juice, because it is too sweet.) Spikenard is an herb that can be ordered online; Nasrallah said it doesn’t add much flavor and can be skipped.
Now about kishk: Kishk is a dried mix of bulgur and yogurt that is still popular in Lebanon. It is sold in big hunks and then ground down to a powder and added to winter soups as a thickening agent. You can find it online and in most Middle Eastern grocery stores, or according to Haaretz.com, you can substitute grated Parmesan or pecorino.
And unless you already have a taste for kishk, you might want to opt for the latter. “I’m not a big fan of it, personally. It smelled kind of putrid,” Nasrallah said, laughing. “[The stew] was good, but it’s not my favorite ingredient, the kishk.”
So does it work? Nasrallah doesn’t know from experience since she doesn’t drink alcohol – “Give it to somebody who drinks, and then tell me!” she said – but in the words of Al-Mahdi, “the hangover will itself renew.”
If a cheesy sour-maybe-putrid lamb stew doesn’t sound like it will relieve your nausea, Nasrallah said the chefs of the era also recommended a simple cabbage stew with vinegar and oil as a hangover tamer.
And once your hangover is gone – whether it be by kishkiyya, cabbage or the passage of time – Nasrallah has another book of historical Iraqi recipes, including some that could be classified as mocktails. So if you’re doing Dry January, perhaps try a delicious Aseer Batteekh: cantaloupe juice, lime juice, sugar and rose water on ice.