Qawarma And Kishk - What Kept Us Healthy On The Farm
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
The hot winds were fierce in the early l930’s, during the great depression, as they blew across the south Saskatchewan plains. I was no more than eight years old struggling with a pail of water half as large as myself through a blinding sand storm. The well was half a mile down from our hilltop home, and every day my chore was to carry water for the two aged sheep we were fatting for the autumn kill.
Exhausted, I reached the barn where my mother was feeding these animals green vegetable leaves and bits of food she had saved from the daily meal. “Why do I have to bring water for these sheep? Why can’t I take them down to the well to drink?” I was near to tears as I sat down beside my mother. She smiled at my childish tantrum, “It is essential that we do not tire these animals. They must be heavy with fat when we butcher them for qawarma in the fall.
My parents, who emigrated from Syria in the early l920’s had taken a homestead in southern Saskatchewan, but no sooner had they plowed the land, than it turned into desert. To survive they used the ingenuity they had inherited from their forefathers. The green countryside of the Bekaa Valley, in what was then a part of Syria, was a rich luxurious paradise compared to the blowing sands of the south Saskatchewan plains.
Yet, in their country of birth, although the land was rich, farming had never been a life of luxury. Living with little wealth for thousands of years our ancestors, like most peasants in the lands of antiquity, had developed a variety of healthful foods, which have stood the test of centuries. As had our forbears, my parents, in their new land, even if they rarely had money, ate the nourishing foods consumed in the Middle Last since the mist of time.
Qawarma, one of the mainstays of these historic foods, had been developed in the Middle East, perhaps since man became civilized. In their new homeland, my parents kept up the tradition of making this time-honored type of preserved meat. All summer a few aged sheep or an old cow would be force-fed many times a day and sometimes even at night until they were loaded with fat.
In the autumn they were slaughtered and the fat removed and melted while the meat was cut into very small pieces, then cooked in the fat. When the meat was well cooked it was stored in earthenware utensils or glass jars. These were stowed away in a cool earthen cellar and became our meat supply for the following year. With no refrigeration of any kind, it was the ideal way to ensure we had meat for the whole year. When our neighbors, during the summer months, could only think of a roast, we always had our tasty qawarma.
The day on which the sheep or cow was to be slaughtered was, to us children, the beginning of festivities. During that day, we feasted on many succulent dishes made from the slaughtered animal. The colon, other parts of the intestine and stomach were all scrubbed with soap and water until they were spotless. These were than stuffed with rice, if it was available, but usually with burghul (cooked crushed wheat), spices, herbs, small pieces of meat and chick peas. We consumed dish after dish each one tastier than the next. Even after nearly a three quarter of a century, I can still smell the aroma of stuffed karsh (stomach) that I enjoyed so much in my boyhood years.
During these depression years, another ancient food, kishk, even more than qawarma, kept our large family nourished. With this near perfect food we made a variety of savory dishes that, not only, stifled our hunger, but satisfied our taste buds. However, to produce this food, as old as civilization itself, was no easy task.
First we had to make the burghul – a formidable venture, especially with no modern machinery. To begin, the wheat had to be cleaned then water for cooking the wheathad to be hauled from the well. This was followed by drying the cooked wheat in the sun before grinding, then winnowing, thus producing burghul.
At the same time that we were making burghul, we would make yogurt and solidify a portion by placing it in a cloth bag and draining off most of the water. This then would be mixed with the remaining yogurt and coarse burghul, then dried in the sun. Later, it would be ground and put through a sieve, the final operation in the production of our kishk.
This nourishing food, a type of powdered cheese, which we made in these depression years, is considered one of the oldest cheeses known to man. Perhaps, only the bone-dried yogurt, produced by the Bedouin of the desert, goes back to remoter times. It is believed that kishk was discovered in the Fertile Crescent when man first learned to make his own food.
For thousands of years it has been the peasant food that has nourished the farmers of the Greater Syria area. In the 19th century, American missionaries travelling through the Syrian mountains noted that despite the peasants being poor, they were as healthy as the farmers of America. After a number of years of research, it was discovered that kishk was the answer. This ancient food, which is made from two of the main staples of mankind, wheat and milk, contains most of the nourishment needed by man. With only kishk, perhaps, fortified by a few fruits or vegetables, man would be a healthy specimen.
It is unfortunate that many suburban Arabs in this modern reject both qawarma and kishk, considering them to be ‘only’ peasant foods. As they trip over one another trying to tailor their menus to western processed foods they have forgotten these wholesome staffs of life that kept their ancestors healthy. Only the farmers in the villages of Syria and Lebanon, and the sons and daughters of Arab peasant immigrants in the Americas, appreciate the taste and food value of these venerable foods.
In the large cities of the eastern and western U.S.A. and the metropolises of Ontario and Quebec in Canada, kishk is available in most Middle Eastern markets. On the other hand, qawarma is not retailed. However, making it in a modern kitchen is very simple. This recipe is a miniscule portion of our annual qawarma production in the years when it was the cornerstone of our daily menu:
2 1/2 pounds melted beef fat (not suet) or margarine
5 pounds lean beef (any cut), cut into 1/4 inch cubes (mutton may
be substituted for beef)
5 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
Place the melted fat or margarine in a pot and heat, then stir in meat, salt and pepper.
Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the meat does not stick to the bottom of the pot, until the meat is well cooked – until meat sticks to a wooden spoon.
Allow to cool, then pour into earthenware utensil or glass jars, making sure the meat is covered with 1/2 inch of fat. Discard the remaining fat. Store the qawarma in a cool place and always return to a cool place after use.
Note: Melt as much qawarma as needed in a recipe, then discard the fat. There is no need to refrigerate the qawarma if it is well cooked. If the utensils or jars are well sealed and stored in a cool place, the qawarma will stay usable for at least a year.
Makes about 4 pounds kishk
Kishk, besides being used as a main ingredient in bread pies, is, in the main, made into a dip or a nourishing soup.
2 quarts plain yogurt
3 pounds coarse burghul, rinsed, drained, then allowed to stand
4 pounds solidified yogurt (labana) – after yogurt has been placed
in a cloth bag and drained for 48 hours
1 tablespoon salt
Mix the 2 quarts of yogurt with the burghul and let stand covered for 6 hours. Add 2 pounds of the labana and the salt, then combine well and cover. Allow to ferment in a warm place for 9 days.
Every day add a little of the remaining 2 pounds of solidified yogurt and stir. (Make sure the solidified yogurt is divided evenly for the 9 days.)
Roll into small balls then spread on a white sheet in the sun to dry. (For fast drying, balls can be dried in an oven over very low heat, but the taste will not be the same.)
After drying to a consistency of half-wet, put through a grinder twice, then return to dry in the sun, spreading out thinly on a white sheet. Rub between the palms of the hands+ occasionally to break up the small balls then stir the kishk by hand. When the kishk is bone dry, divide into fine and coarse by rubbing through a sieve.
Note: Solidified yogurt or labana can be purchased in Middle Eastern markets. Also, kishk need not be refrigerated. However, it should be stored in a cool dry place.
The following are a few of the qawarma and kishk dishes we enjoyed during the Depression years. Qawarma can be used to replace meat in almost any dish. It is excellent when used in cabbage rolls, salads, stews, and mixed with kishk and it makes succulent meat pies.
Eggs and Qawarma – Bayad ma’a Qawarma
Eggs and qawarma is perhaps the most common breakfast food among the villagers of Syria and Lebanon. To me, the many modern breakfast foods cannot compare with this simple dish.
4 heaping tablespoons qawarma, fat removed
4 large eggs
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
In a bowl, thoroughly combine qawarma, eggs, salt and pepper.
Melt butter in a frying pan then add qawarma egg mixture. Sauté over low heat, stirring for a few moments until eggs are cooked. Serve immediately with toast and coffee.
Serves about 6
Kishk soup can be cooked without meat or with a little meat. Without meat, it is very appetizing. On the other hand, meat gives it a little more zest.
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium sized onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup qawarma, or very small pieces of fried meat
3/4 cup kishk, dissolved in 1/2 cup of water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
5 cups boiling water
Melt butter in a saucepan then sauté onions until light brown. Stir in garlic, then stir-fry for a few minutes. Stir in qawarma, and kishk and stir-fry for a moment, then add the remainder of the ingredients and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover then turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot with toast.
Note: Makes an excellent breakfast dish, especially on cold winter mornings.
Serves 6 to 8
Life is strange. We are always looking for that which is beyond our reach. In my youth, when mother prepared the numerous kishk dishes, I longed for the unattainable: bologna and sardines whose costs were beyond our pocket book. Later in life, when the harsh years of poverty were but a memory, I pined for the many kishk dishes that I had once disdained.
1 cup kishk
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped tomatoes
a few sprigs of parsley
Place the kishk in a small bowl, then gradually add cold water and stir until the kishk reaches the consistency of thick cream. Transfer to a flat serving platter, then sprinkle with olive oil. Spread onions and tomatoes evenly over top, then decorate with parsley and serve.
Note: Makes an excellent appetizer.
Serves about 8
In the 1930s, this very healthy salad was on our daily menu during the summer months when dandelions and spinach were available.
1 small bunch dandelion or a 10 oz. package of spinach, thoroughly washed and chopped
1 small bunch green onions, finely chopped
1 large tomato, finely chopped
1/2 cup kishk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
In a salad bowl, thoroughly mix dandelions or spinach, onions, tomato, kishk, salt and pepper then stir in olive oil and lemon juice. Serve immediately.
Kishk Pies – Fatayer Bi Kishk
Makes 12 pies
From the Depression years until today, this has always been one of my favourite meat pies.
1 pound frozen bread dough or equivalent amount of home-made
1 cup of coarse or fine kishk
1 cup water
3/4 cup qawarma or fried very small fried pieces of meat
1 small bunch of green onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
If frozen, thaw the dough and form into 12 balls. Allow resting for one hour.
In the meantime, make filling by mixing kishk with water, then adding remaining ingredients and mixing thoroughly. Divide into 12 portions and set aside
Roll each ball into a 5 to 6 inch round then place one portion of the filling on the round. Fold over filling, shaping into a triangle, then close firmly by pinching the edges together. Continue until all balls are finished.
Place on greased baking pan, then bake in a 400oF preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until pies turn medium brown. If desired, brown lightly under the broiler.
Brush tops with olive oil or butter, then serve hot.