Baharat is an essential Middle-Eastern spice blend. Being Iraqi, Baharat has played a huge role in my gastronomical upbringing. My mother, who was born in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, has done well to impart her countries rich culinary heritage onto me and the younger generations. Because of my mother, when I think of my “Iraqiness”, my mind conjures up memories of the many dishes she brought to our kitchen table. Among the myriad of mouth-watering offerings stands the iconic T’beet (pronounced ta’beet). Why T’beet? Because Baharat is at the epicentre of this dish’s awesome, sometime emotion provoking flavours. T’beet is as close to my heart as it is to my uncles expanding waistline and double chin.
Now most of you have obviously never heard of or tasted T’beet, a masterpiece of Iraqi cuisine. Hence, I’ll provide for a little crash course.
Is this a vegan or vegetarian friendly dish? No. In fact it’s the exact opposite. Not only is T’beet loaded with meat, it’s loaded with two types of meat. I actually pity the fool who attempts to dissuade my traditional mom from cooking and consuming meat. This is an argument which even PETA and Greenpeace would deem too dangerous to engage in.
In a nutshell, T’beet is chicken and chicken skin stuffed with Baharat spiced minced meat and rice, then slow cooked over night with rice. The tradition of slow cooking the T’beet overnight arises from the fact that this dish is traditionally consumed during our Jewish Sabbath. Now I’m not a religious scholar, nor was my parent’s investment in my Jewish education money well spent, so I apologize if my interpretations of the rules are a little unpolished, but on the Sabbath it is forbidden to use fire. To circumvent this rule, we simply lit our fires (or modern-day ovens) before the start of the Sabbath (sundown) on Friday, and then slowly cooked our T’beet until Saturday afternoon. As soon as the T’beet was removed from the oven, with the same primal instinct as a pride of lions surrounding a fresh kill, my family went to town on this quintessential Iraqi delight.
Like in the animal kingdom, there is a hierarchy of sorts when it came to consuming T’beet’s most choice parts. Let me explain. A bi-product of the long cooking process is the charring of the rice along the inner edges of the heavy pot. This rice, called H’kaka (don’t laugh) is coveted amongst Iraqi’s. Notice the beautiful H’kaka in the picture to your right.
Now my family was a ruled by my grandmother, a true matriarch. She was at the top of the food chain. When it came time claim our share of the H’kaka, we all fought to be the grandchild who would so graciously place the burnt rice on her plate. This was considered a true act of respect. After my grandmother there was the regular pecking order, uncles and aunts were followed by cousins oldest to youngest. Bottom line, no Saturday was ever complete without our T’beet fix.
As for the T’beet recipe, I’ll defer to an expert in the field of Jewish Iraqi cuisine, Rachel Somekh. Rachel has put together a very detailed collection of recipes, along with a great account of Iraqi culinary history. A must visit for anyone interested: recipesbyrachel.com.
What made T’beet a venerable delicacy however was the Baharat spice blend. Baharat, perfectly infused into every bite, is essentially the essence of T’beet. Like with any spice blend there is variation. At its core however, the Jewish Iraqi version of Baharat is composed of:
Cardamom Black Pepper Cassia Cinnamon Nutmeg Whole Cloves
But there are no limits as to what you may include: Cumin, Fennel, Coriander, Allspice, Ginger, Red Chilli’s, Paprika, Rosebuds, Ext. Each country, region, town village, and family, be it in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, ext, have their own unique version of this blend. In fact, the blend will vary from cook to cook. Whatever changes one makes to the blend, it will always be delicious. This blog does an awesome job describing the many variants of the Baharat spice blend. Check it out.
Baharat Spice Blend
Preparing the spice blend is easy. Place all of your non pre-ground spices (whole seeds, cinnamon stick and cloves) in a small frying pan and dry roast over medium-high heat, tossing regularly to prevent scorching, for 3-4 minutes or until very fragrant. Transfer to a spice or coffee grinder and let cool. Then proceed to add whatever pre-ground spices you have to your freshly ground spices. That’s it, you’re done, and you’ve made a Baharat spice blend.