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Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—Cilantro makes Yemeni zhug!

posted on: Nov 4, 2015

Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—Cilantro makes Yemeni zhug!

cilantro thriving in my fall garden © linda dalal sawaya

Cilantro most likely arrived in Mexico and Mexican cuisine from the Arabs via the Spaniards centuries ago, along with many other flavors words, and customs, which were embraced wholeheartedly. In the US, we have grown to love cilantro through Mexican food, but it is a cherished ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine.

Kizbara, which is coriander in Arabic, is used both as a fresh herb and the seed as a seasoning. Many years ago, a Palestinian friend made hommous for me and topped it with this amazing, spicysalsa which he hand pounded in a mortar and pestle. I only recently discovered this salsa is from Yemen and is called zhug, zahaweg, and even bisbas in the south of Yemen. Used like a chutney, it is also spoken of as “shetney” and is used as a condiment, adding excitement to a dish that might otherwise be bland—not that my hommous is bland, however—it is not!


cilantro zhug garnishing hommous © linda dalal sawaya

Speaking with my Portland Yemeni friend, Wajdi, I learned that there is also a dried version of bisbas used when the fresh version is not available, which I have yet to experiment with, but sounds delicious. Wajdi informed me that zhug is eaten with bread, meats, on rice, and is an everyday food that enhances many foods.

Since I planted a fall crop of cilantro (also known as Chinese parsley) in my garden along with Italian parsley which is in the same plant family as cilantro, arugula, spinach, lettuce, green onions, and a few other greens, naturally, I had to make fresh zhug salsa to go with my hommous. The recipes I found included the same basic ingredients: cilantro leaves, Italian parsley, jalapeño or serrano peppers, garlic, salt, lemon or lime juice, and olive oil. Additional ingredients found in some recipes that I chose not to use were: cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, coriander (ground), and even cardamon. I simply wanted the pure flavor of the simplest recipe and used these basic ingredients in my food processor. And wow, what a complement to hommous!


cilantro zhug garnishing hommous © linda dalal sawaya

Additionally in Middle Eastern cuisine, cilantro is used in the famous batata harra, with okra stews, and I found a recipe for Kuwaiti daqous using fresh cilantro, tomatoes, and garlic in a sauce for chicken or fish with rice that sounds tasty.


Lebanese batata harra made with cilantro in Beirut © linda dalal sawaya

Dried coriander seeds have a very different flavor than the fresh leaves of the plant and is used in other recipes; they are not interchangeable. I recently attended a marvelous Thai cooking class, where I learned one of the secrets of Thai cuisine is the use of cilantro roots! That was an incredible revelation, which I most certainly will try in upcoming culinary adventures.

Just having made kafta with a traditional Lebanese sauce of garlic, lemons, olive oil and salt, I had to taste it with zhug! Oh my! It made an already fabulous lamb recipe even more exquisite with zhug! Kafta is simple to make: ground lamb, minced onions, Italian parsley, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and allspice grilled, broiled, or barbequed to perfection.


Italian parsley is an ingredient in kafta © linda dalal sawaya


kafta ready to broil or grill © linda dalal sawaya


broiled kafta garnished with zhug © linda dalal sawaya

The Mediterranean region where cilantro grows in the wild inspires many uses of this unique herb and in hopes that you are not one of the people with a genetic aversion to cilantro, you will enjoy it in abundance! Happy cooking and gardening! Sahtein!


—Linda Dalal Sawaya is a Portland artist, cook, Master Gardener, daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and author of Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking

Remember, as my mother Alice said, “If you make it with love, it will be delicious!”


story and all photos © linda dalal sawaya 2015