09 August 2014

Barley Salad with Eggplant, Peppers, and Herbs

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It's been a while since we did a reading list, and I feel like the internet has been particularly generous this week. Plus, last week I gave you all a two page typed recipe on a very esoteric bread you will probably never make, so it's time for something easy and fun!

-- If you're in New York before the end of September, check out the New Museum's contemporary art exhibit: Here and Elsewhere. Also check out this interview with Syrian-Armenian photographer Hrair Sarkissian.

-- This interview about Syrian traditional chants on Fresh Air made me all misty-eyed. Hearing the chants, I thought of the Syrian Orthodox church in Bab Touma where I celebrated my friend's girls' communion. Then I thought of the service driver who drove the regular route from Nazem Basha Street up to the heights of upper Muhajireen to my apartment, his Sufi chants always playing, the Allah symbol swinging from the rear view mirror. I thought of delicious meals at Beit Sissi, which is probably 90% of the reason why I write this blog at all, and which has been destroyed.

-- Following my wave of nostalgia, but on a more upbeat note, I watched an old episode of Ba'qa Diwa (a Syrian parody called Spotlight, only in Arabic) for a good laugh.

-- If that esoteric mhajeb recipe last week was up your alley (insert Arabic cooking nerds fist pump!), then you should really be following Cuisine et Traditions Culinaire Algerienne on Facebook. The posts are in English and French, and it is one of the best places to learn about unique Algerian cuisine beyond your standard couscous.

-- This old article on Philippe Petit is on my to-read list.

-- I loved Joumana's post on the book Akkar to 'Amel so much that I ordered myself a copy (fist pump again!).

-- George Packer's articles on what's happening in Iraq have been great, especially this one. Also this piece from Vox news.

-- This article on Buenos Aires is just so good. Only Argentine's would make a pizza with meat as the crust.

-- On the playlist this week: Fasateen and Herzan, via Lebanon, and an old Jaza'iri favorite Wilkoum y a Kawm.

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Barley Salad with Eggplant, Peppers, and Herbs
I made this with a type of pearl couscous from Algeria that is made with barley flour, called berkoukes sha'ir (بركوكس شعير). Given that you can't get this in the U.S. I recommend you either use regular pearl couscous (sold as moghrabiya, maftoul, or Israeli couscous in most groceries), or you could adapt this into a grain salad and use rye or wheat berries, which more closely approximated the chewy earthy texture of the berkoukes.

2 cups pearl couscous or rye or wheat berries
2 Japanese eggplants, sliced and the slices sprinkled with salt
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 large handful each parsley and cilantro leaves
3 scallions
1 lemon
1/4 cup pistachios
olive oil, salt
1/4 teaspoon Urfa Biber pepper (or Aleppo pepper)

1. Cook the couscous or rye berries in boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain and immediately toss with a generous amount of olive oil and a generous amount of salt to prevent from sticking.
2. Slice the scallions on the bias. Take the white parts of the scallions, place them in a small bowl, and squeeze the juice of the lemon over them. Let rest while you do the next steps.
3. Heat some olive oil in a skillet. Add the sliced eggplant and cook until nicely browned on both sides and softened in the middle.
4. When the eggplants are done, scrape them into the pot with the couscous, add a bit more oil to the pan, and this time saute your red pepper until softened and blackened in spots.
5. Add the red pepper to the pot with the couscous, and add the pistachios to the pan. Let the pistachios toast for a minute or two, then add them to the couscous.
6. Loosely chop your herbs and add them to the couscous with the green parts of the scallions, and the white part of the scallions and their lemon juice. Add the Urfa Biber pepper and stir everything together. Taste for seasoning and serve.


03 August 2014

Spinach and Goat Cheese Mhajebs

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Whew, you all, it is AUGUST?! I know, I'm going to say that thing every other person in North America is saying right now, which is where on earth did summer go? Maybe because it's been cooler than normal, or maybe because we continue to live in the land of furniture-less limbo, but I feel like summer should only be just be beginning. It seems like just a short while ago I was shivering in a hotel in Fez in the cold and being lectured by a lady named Fatima about how I shouldn't be afraid of dough (لا تخفي من العجين).

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Mhajeb (mahjab, mhadjeb, etc) is a stuffed flaky bread that is uniquely Algerian, and it's probably the number one thing any Algerian abroad would miss, followed by proper couscous and kesra bread. To make mhajeb you take the flaky flat bread known as msemmen and then you stuff it with chickchouka, a spicy pepper mixture. Mhajeb are great for breakfast or for a snack, but they are also really tough to make. For about a year in Algiers I had been trying to make them, following recipes on various Algerian blogs, with little to no success. A mhajeb should be wide and flat and soft and flaky, and mine were routinely lumpy and leaden.

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When I started asking around, saying I wanted to learn to make msemmen dough, I initially got some quizzical responses. (Msemmen dough is the base for msemmen bread, mhajebs, and some kinds of steamed pasta doughs in Algeria.) Oh, that's very hard, one man said, wouldn't you rather make a chicken tagine? I also annoyingly got the response, "oh it's just grandma's and women who make that," clearly implying that I shouldn't bother learning. Luckily, enter Fatima.

Fatima didn't speak French or English, and I didn't speak much southern Moroccan dialect, but we managed to work around that. I'm at whiz at hand gestures! She gave me several tips that make msemmen dough a lot easier. While very traditional grandmas make the dough using all semolina and no yeast, and spend hours kneading and working the dough to get the right elasticity, for novices like myself adding some flour and yeast makes the dough a whole lot easier. Letting the dough rest in the refrigerator also makes it easier to work with and gives you more flexibility as to when you want to make the bread.

Tutting at me unapprovingly when I was kneading the dough, Fatima demonstrated the force with which I had to knead the dough to get it to be supple and stretchy. You look like you are afraid of it, she exclaimed! Ashamed of my wimpy American dough-making skills, I quickly straightened up and began beating the dough with all the force my chattaranga-toned arms could muster. "Better," she nodded.

Back at home, while my mhajebs still aren't perfect, they are a very good approximation. Every time I make them, Paul usually pops his head in the kitchen and says,"don't be afraid of the dough!" Then we laugh, and then we eat a bunch of fresh-off-the-griddle mhajebs, because they are pretty addictive.

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Spinach and Goat Cheese Mhajebs
Spinach and goat cheese is not a traditional filling, but it got an approving nod from some Algerian friends, which is all I can hope for when messing with other people's traditional foods. See the notes below for tips on the dough and semolina. You can also find the more traditional chakchouka filling recipe here. Or use another filling of choice (merguez with tomatoes is another good one).

for the filling:
1 large bag of spinach, washed and sliced into strips
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 pinch of red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper
4 ounces goat cheese
salt, olive oil

for the dough:
1 1/2 cups fine semolina (also sold as semolina flour, see note)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon SAF instant yeast
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup neutral cooking oil
water, approximately 1/2 to 3/4 cups, plus more for your hands

1. Melt the butter in the oil and stir gently to combine.
2. Mix together the flour, semolina, salt, and yeast in a large wide bowl (traditionally a g'sa). Scoop out 2 tablespoons of the oil butter mixture and add it to the semolina mixture. Rub the fat into the semolina mixture until it is distributed. Very slowly add the water to the dough, pouring it through your fingertips, then swirling your fingertips through the mixture, until a shaggy loose dough is formed. Knead this dough a few times so that is comes together. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 15 minutes.
3. Place a small bowl of water near your work surface. Working in the g'sa or on your countertop, dampen your hands with the water, and then begin to knead the dough. You want to gather the dough into a ball and then use the heel of your hand to stretch the dough away from you against the countertop. Then with your opposite hand gather the dough back into the ball, and then stretch it out away from you again, it's a sort of push-pull method. You want to be very forceful with the dough and really knead it hard. Do this for about 8 minutes, or about 4 minutes past the point when your arm muscles are exhausted. Keep moistening your hands as necessary. See Note 2 for extra pointers.

The dough should be stretchy and elastic, like this:
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4. Coat a bowl and the dough ball with some of the oil mixture, and then cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. Let rest in the fridge for a minimum of 1 hour or up to 12 hours. (if you're in a rush, just let it sit on the counter covered for 30 minutes.)
5. Meanwhile, make your filling: Heat some olive oil in a sautee pan. Add the garlic and pepper flakes for one a minute, until softened, and then add in all your spinach. Season with salt and turn the spinach until it is all wilted and cooked. Set aside to cool. Once the spinach is cool, stir in the goat cheese.
6. Back to the dough: Take the dough out of the fridge and let warm up for about 30 minutes.
7. Pinch of balls of the dough, smaller than your fist, roll each ball in the butter/oil mix, and place on the counter. Cover the dough balls with a damp cloth and let rest 10-15 minutes.
8. Have a greased griddle or heavy-bottomed greased pan ready and heated to medium heat. Also place a mesh colander or cooling rack nearby.
9. Oil your countertop with some of the oil/butter mixture, and oil your fingers. Then take a dough ball and gently press and stretch it out with your fingertips into a flat wide circle. Add extra oil to the dough to make working it easier. The dough should be thin enough to read a newspaper through it. It is okay if you get little tears along the edges of the dough, but try not to get any tears in the middle. (If you do get tears, just patch them with a spot of dough.)
10. Place a small amount of the spinach filling over the middle of the dough. Do not overstuff!! Then fold the edges of the dough up and rub with with a bit more oil. The mhajeb should be wide and flat and thin, not over stuffed and bulky. Immediately transfer the mhajeb to the griddle and cook for about 2-4 minutes on the first side, until browned in spots. Flip over and cook on the second side until lightly browned in spots, about 1-2 more minutes. You want the mhajeb dough to be cooked but you don't want to it to become stiff or rigid, it should remain supple. Transfer to a cooling rack or colander.
11. Repeat rolling out and frying the remaining mhajebs. The more practice you have, the better they will be! Mhajebs are best eaten on the day they are made or the day after.

Note 1: Many groceries, like Whole Foods, sell the Bob's Red Mill brand of semolina flour, which will work well here. A Middle Eastern grocery should sell many grades of semolina (smeed), you want the finest grain.

Note 2: There is a great video here of an Algerian lady making traditional mhajebs. It is in Algerian, but you can really see the technique for how to knead and stretch the dough from minute 1:30 to 5:00. She also makes the traditional chikhchouka stuffing, and sits at a traditional table for making dough called a maida. I totally want this lady to be my Algerian grandma.

19 July 2014

Almond-Crusted Fish

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Over two years ago, when we left for Algiers, I set aside a small batch of a our nicer cooking equipment and put it in storage. I figured some of this stuff was good quality, and I wanted to spare it a 4 month trans-Atlantic voyage, and I knew that at some point we'd be coming back to America and might need some kitchen things on hand.

Now granted, this was actually a very good idea since, while we still have no furniture, we have plenty of plates and forks and things. But I would probably be remiss if I didn't mention those plates and forks are my mother's china and silver, and all my pans are copper. Along with an impractically large mandoline, a fish poacher, and hand-blown glass tumblers, let's just say we don't have the most practical of kitchenware.

(Side note on our copper pots: They are all from E. Dehillerin and my mother bought them in France in the SIXTIES people. I few years ago I sent them off to these amazing people in Colorado to have the insides re-tinned, since they had worn away over time. They did an amazing job, they even restored the little Dehillerin labels in the copper, and I love them!)

I've been using the copper pans for everything from roasting fish to searing skirt steaks to great effect. (Given our lack of equipment, meals are pretty simple around here.) One night I reached in the cabinet and chopped up a bunch of almonds to put on top of a fillet of fish I was roasting. I just mixed the chopped almonds with some butter, dabbed over the fish, and baked the whole thing and we haven't stopped talking about it since. If this blog is any testament, I'm not usually one for the "3-Ingredient Recipe" schtick, but this is dead simple and really delicious.

The only stipulation I will make is that you need to chop those almonds by hand. One, I think you get more variation in texture by chopping by hand, the fine bits and the coarse bits. Two, it's the only thing you have to do for this recipe! All you have to do is spend a few minutes chopping and the rest is basically done. Plus, it's a chance to work on your chopping skills. So, what do you readers make when you only have a few basic kitchen implements around?

Almond-Crusted Fish
If you want to get fancy, adding a bit of chopped thyme to the topping, or alternately some chile flakes or other spices, could be fun.

1 heaped cup skin-on whole raw almonds
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
salt
1 large fillet of whitefish, about 1 lb (or sable fish, lake trout, etc)
lemon wedges

1. Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a casserole dish with some butter. Place your fish in the pan and sprinkle the top liberally with salt.
2. Chop up the almonds with a large chefs knife. You want to chop the almonds so that some of the almonds are totally pulverized to almost a powder, but you still have quite a few chunks of almond left. The variation in texture is key.
3. Transfer the almonds to a bowl and add the butter and a good pinch of salt. Rub the butter and almonds together until the mixture resembles a crumble topping. Dab the crumble topping all over the fish so that the fish is totally covered in the almond mixture.
4. Transfer to the oven. Bake the fish for 15-18 minutes, or until the almond topping is nicely toasted on top. It's a bit hard to tell if the fish is done since you can't see it, but press gently on the center of the fish, it should be semi-firm. Serve with lemon wedges.

14 July 2014

Algerian Kesra Bread

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I am writing this post from a folding chair and a card table in our new (!) Chicago flat, in a rather dimly lit empty room that one day will be our library. Aside from our bed, and the folding chairs, we have precisely zero furniture, and yet I couldn't be more thrilled with our new home. Meanwhile, our stuff is floating on a Maersk ship somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, working its way infintessimally towards us. Paul and I are convinced that not having furniture means you burn a whole lot more calories not-sitting everyday (the by-product of not having furniture), which is a great excuse for regular trips to get ice cream.

Meanwhile, all of my GRAND SUMMER PLANS have gone the way of Brazil's world cup dreams. Which is to say, I've been doing a whole lotta not much these days. And if you think several weeks of unstructured vacation sounds great, then clearly you have not met me. I need structure, I crave schedules and order and charts and routine.

Naturally, knowing I would have this long summer break, I did what people like me do, which is I created the Perfect Summer Schedule. I would take some Arabic classes (my Algerian patois is not going to serve me well in our next assignment), I would work on our new home, sorting through our old stuff that's in storage. I would update the design of this blog and go on a trip to visit my family.

Of course, this being the Perfect Summer Schedule that I had meticulously planned in advance, it was bound to fail. Our home closing got delayed, which meant rearranging my training schedule, which then threw everything else off course, as I should have expected. So instead, I did what any self-respecting world traveler does: I watched the World Cup.

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You guys, as someone who was obsessively supporting both Argentina and Algeria, can we take a moment to recognize the utter stress and heartbreak these past 4 weeks have been?

Thank you.

I also did what any new-home owner does, that is: design my dream kitchen. Realize I can't afford my dream kitchen. Think we really need somewhere to sit (like a couch). Obsess over looking at couches. Deal with the Comunistcast guy. Learn how to fix plumbing, since apparently it is a law that immediately after you own your new home, something must break. Destroy things:

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Then call a carpenter.

I have a bunch of recipes saved up that I need to work my way through, so first up it's Algerian kesra bread. Also called aghroum, and a cousin to Moroccan harsha bread, this is a staple of the Algerian diet and probably one of the things I will miss most from Algiers. It's a very simple bread, but it takes a bit of technique and practice to get it right.

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The concept is basically like making biscuits or a pie crust, it's a very flaky bread, and you don't want to overwork the dough and make it rubbery. (Speaking from experience, rubbery kesra is the worst.) If you've never worked with semolina doughs before, they absorb liquids and develop gluten very differently than white flour doughs, so that may take a bit of getting used to if you're new to working with semolina. The semolina flour needs to rest a bit in order to absorb liquid, which it does quite slowly, but semolina doughs also develop gluten more slowly, which makes it slightly harder to over-work the dough, to your advantage. You'll probably have to seek out a good Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocery for the two types of semolina.

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Algerian Kesra Bread
You can see an example of fine and medium grain semolina in the photo above. Recipe adapted from interrogating many Algerians about kesra, lots of practice, and Heni over at the Teal Tadjine.

1 1/2 cups fine-grain semolina
1 1/4 cups medium-grain semolina
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups water plus 3-6 tablespoons more as needed

1. Melt the butter in the olive oil and set aside and let cool slightly. In a bowl combine the semolinas, salt, sugar and baking powder. Rub the butter/olive oil mix into the semolina mixture until it forms crumbles. Add in the 1 1/4 cups water and gently mix to form a dough. If still crumbly add more water until it comes together. Do not overmix.
2. Let the dough rest 10-15 minutes to absorb the water. (you can wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest as long as 1-2 hours also.)
3. Rub a small amount of oil in a cast iron pot or flat griddle and heat over medium heat.
4. Divide your dough into three balls. On a stone surface (marble or granite countertops work nicely) pat one ball round out into a round about 1/2 an inch thick. Prick the dough all over on one side with a fork to prevent puffing.
4. Slide the dough into the preheated pan. Let the dough cook for 3-4 minutes on the first side. You may want to rotate the dough and take a peek at the bottom to make sure it doesn't burn. Using a spatula, carefully flip the dough onto the other side (alternately you can flip the dough onto a plate, then back into the skillet). Let cook another 2-4 minutes on the second side. While the dough is cooking, pat out the next round of dough. The dough should be golden and have some deep brown spots on it, but should not be burned. Repeat with remaining dough rounds. Let cool before eating.

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28 June 2014

A Catalog of Culture Shock in America

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Here are a few items of culture shock upon our return to the U.S. :

-- $10 coconut water
-- It is so darn hot (says the person coming to the U.S. from North Africa) and I don't own a single item of clothing that comes above my knees. I bought my first pair of shorts in oh, about 7 years, and I felt uncomfortable wearing them for about 5 minutes. Then I thought shorts, what a marvellous idea!
--Wait, my 220v adapter doesn't work here?
-- The Middle East: where your herbs are free from your vege vendor Muhammad. America: where you pay top dollar for herbs in tiny plastic boxes.
-- People are so orderly on the airplane!!
-- So I can actually drink the tap water? Really?
-- Americans are OBSESSED with guacamole. Guacamole is delicious!

Among other things that I'm enjoying is rediscovering ingredients that I haven't had access to in years: snap peas! asparagus! rhubarb! We are briefly staying with Paul's parents, and we made a beer-can chicken the other night that shall go down in the legendary catalog of best chickens I have ever eaten. It was THAT good. 

If you are wondering where we are headed now that our time in Algiers is over, the exciting news is two fold. First, we will be headed to another Middle Eastern post in the fall (yay! my poor husband seems content to be dragged around by his wife to learn even more about things like hummus and meshwi and how many things you can do with a chickpea.) But first, we get to spend several months in America, visiting our family and friends and rediscovering the joy of concerts in the park and picnics and going for long runs out of doors.

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Speaking of chickpeas, today we have a sandwich that is a Moroccan favorite of ours. This is a simple sandwich of fresh cooked chickpeas smashed into some bread and topped with chopped hard boiled eggs and a bit of red pepper and cumin. It is the simple kind of cuisine that I think America has lost, preferring to stuff our sandwiches with piles of meat or fried balls of cheese. But after happily devouring chickpea sandwiches on the streets of Fez, we've begun to make them at home too.

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Fassi Chickpea Sandwich
This simple sandwich really relies on the quality of the ingredients. You really want to have fresh cooked chickpeas, warm, and steaming, and soft. You want good olive oil and spices and bread too.

For the chickpeas:
2 cups dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon baking soda
salt

For the sandwiches:
bread (you can use baguette style or pita style)
hard boiled eggs, chopped, usually 1/2 an egg per sandwich
olive oil
paprika or red pepper flakes
cumin
salt
optional toppings: tomatoes or chopped herbs

1. For the chickpeas: Soak the chickpeas in cold water overnight, or for 8-12 hours. Drain the chickpeas. Add the chickpeas to a heavy-bottomed pot and add the baking soda. Turn the heat on to medium and cook the chickpeas with the baking soda, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to foam. Now add plenty of water to cover and two big pinches of salt. Bring the mixture to a low simmer.
2. Allow the chickpeas to simmer uncovered for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The time will vary greatly depending on the freshness of your chickpeas. You want the chickpeas to be completely soft and to smush easily when pinched between your fingers. They should be just shy of falling apart. Drain your chickpeas, sprinkle with a bit more salt and set aside.
3. Make the sandwiches: Reheat your chickpeas if they have gotten cool. (I usually add a bit of fresh water to the pot and reheat them on the stove.) Split the bread. Add a little olive oil, salt, cumin, and paprika or red pepper to the bread. Now lightly smush the chickpeas into the bread. You want to kind of pack it with chickpeas. Top with the hard boiled eggs and then sprinkle liberally with more olive oil/salt/cumin/paprika. You really want to be generous with the seasonings. Eat warm.

18 June 2014

Barley Fields and Bubble Wrap

It's here!! Our moving day that is! I can't believe our time in Algiers has already some to an end, and I am both sad, nostalgic, relieved, overwhelmed, and excited for the future. But at the moment, I'm just surrounded by boxes. 2014: Year of the Nomad!

I have more to say about our time in Algiers, but until I can sort through all this bubble wrap, I'll leave you with some photos from our recent trip to Morocco.

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Pictures: Pastry shop in Marrakech, Dar Seffarine Fez, bread in Fez, worker in barley fields, fruits of a cooking class in Fez, sheep along a mountain pass, tagines ready for the kiln, view of mountains from the Ourika Valley, madersa in Fez, Jmaa al Fna Marrakech, Dar Seffarine Fez.

13 June 2014

How I Came to Love the Hammam, and Other Tales of Life in the Levant

I've always thought hammams were kind of weird. Getting scrubbed to death by a burly old woman in a hot steamy room with other naked ladies? It's just not my thing. Recently, a friend described his utter and intense fear of the male attendant at his hammam, who scrubbed his cheeks so vigorously that he nearly drowned in the overflow of bubbles coming out of the sponge and pouring down his face. That, I said, is not for me.

But recently I've had a change of heart about the hammam. It came after a long and tiring day of driving in Morocco, during which a "scenic detour" had turned into a gorgeous and terrifying drive that involved driving on some of the worst quality roads I have ever seen with a slowly dwindling tank of gas. We finally found gas by way of a guy with a jug and a funnel and later completely trashed our rental car bouncing through the rocky Todra Gorge at dusk.

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We arrived at our hotel, in the dark of night and smack in the middle of nowhere, exhausted and happy to have survived. A French Polynesian woman welcomed us warmly, showed us to the loveliest warmest room I could imagine and then said, "why don't you go have a sauna and a hammam, and then we'll have some wine and dinner for you when you are done." Looking back on it, it's one of those experiences that almost seems too good to have happened at all, as if I dreamed the whole thing.

I knew how to self-hammam because for several months in Damascus it had been my only bathing option. The bathroom in the apartment I lived in contained a square tiled room with a big water heater in the corner and a faucet and some buckets. My Syrian family instructed me on how to do the whole thing, the water heater made it nice and warm and steamy inside, and I'd vigorously scrub myself with a home-dried loofah sponge and local olive oil soap, ladling hot water over my head. It was a labor intensive way to bathe, but never have I felt as clean as I did then, rubbing the wintry Damascus soot out from between each toe. Afterwards, back in my room, I'd hear the sounds of the two youngest girls having their hammam together, often giggling and splashing water at each other, or singing popular Arabic songs.

Back in Morocco, sitting in the sauna, I thought back on those days in Damascus which seem like so many decades ago now. I'm older now, and less adventurous than I used to be, and the Syria I knew isn't there anymore. After the sauna, I went into the hammam, and carefully slowly spread the black soap over myself and scrubbed it away. This is the hammam I like, the careful slow rhythm of a common ritual.

Now whenever I see a hammam that has a self-hammam option (and good ones, with local clientele always do), I go for it. We were in Oran for the weekend recently and stayed at a hotel with a truly gorgeous tiled sauna/steam hammam facility, and I was the only one in the whole place. It only took me 7 years to put together that my bath ritual in Damascus was just like the hammam touted in guide books, but I'm glad to have found it again.

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I didn't really think talk of hammams and recipes went together, but for some additional fare, I've been reading the following:
Photos from Qasr el-Bey, Oran, and the Bardo Museum, Algiers