This prized dish came to me in the early 1980’s, during my initial catering days in Billings, Montana; there I taught this recipe-the first in this series-in one of my cooking classes, as part of a complete Middle Eastern dinner. It still graces my table today, especially when I am trying to impress guests, as it is par excellence.
Its origin is Syrian; thus, recently I was excited about serving it to company, with an Assyrian heritage, not understanding that these are two very different cultures. Research proved their distinct differences: Syria, officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic, is a nation in southwestern Asia, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, with the capital of Damascus. This delicious dish is from that republic, birthed in 1946, which was originally part of an ancient country, by that name, of western Asia that also included Lebanon and the Palestinian region.
On the other hand, Semitic Assyria was an ancient empire, which was by far larger than the early country of Syria. This was considered to be the greatest of the Mesopotamian empires, which had its start at the beginning of creation, as accounted for in the second chapter of Genesis.
This Syrian lamb, eggplant, and tomato recipe, calls for well-known cilantro, which is the leaf of the plant Coriandrum sativum, while the spice coriander is its seed. Cilantro, sometimes botanically referred to as coriander, is said to be the most widely consumed fresh herb worldwide. As a native to the Middle East, its seed was found in the tomb of King Tut (I got to see the tour of these ancient Egyptian remains in Seattle in the mid 1970’s).
Early on, this plant was taken to China, India, and Southeast Asia, and later to Latin America, being highly favored in all these regions. In the New World, cilantro replaced culantro, Eryngium, its relative with a similar taste which is indigenous to Central and South America. The latter has larger, thicker, tougher leaves, than those of the cilantro plant, with its rounded, notched, tender greenery; nevertheless, the flavor in both is almost the same. Culantro, or saw-leaf herb, is still used in the Caribbean, but is most commonly found in Asian cuisine, especially that of Vietnam.
Coriander leaf, cilantro, is sometimes described as having a soapy aroma; for this reason, it is not very popular in traditional European cooking. The main component of the aroma is a fatty alehyde, decenal, which is very reactive; thus, this herb quickly looses this sense-element when heated. As a result, it is used most predominantly in uncooked preparations, or as a garnish.
This low-cholesterol herb, which is a good source of dietary fiber, has a practically non-existent caloric value, and it is high in minerals (including potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium) and vitamins (such as A, C, K, E, and B vitamins). Its health benefits are highly acclaimed by experts. Among many health-promoting characteristics, it is said to: rid the body of heavy metals, lower bad-while increasing good-cholesterol, help reduce swelling caused by arthritis and rheumatic diseases, lower blood sugar levels, and provide antioxidant, antiseptic, disinfectant, and antibacterial properties.
As with traditional Europeans, this leaf’s pungency is offensive to me; thus, for flavoring in our munazalla, I give the option of substituting ground coriander seed, with its simultaneous flowery and lemony tastes. Who knows? This superb receipt may even excel more with fresh cilantro, for those who love it.
The Holy Bible, KJV, Genesis 2:14.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984,2004), pp. 390, 407, 408.
10 large minced garlic cloves, or the equivalent
1 lb ground lamb (Our local Grocer Outlet generally has a great deal on lamb.)
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 1/4 tsp salt (Himalayan, pink or Real Salt is important for optimum health; an inexpensive fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco.)
2 tbsp oil (Coconut or avocado oil is best, as olive oil is carcinogenic when heated to high temperatures.)
1 lg onion, chopped
2 lb eggplant
4 med tomatoes
1/3 c cilantro, chopped (May substitute 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander, or to taste.)
Spray vegetables with an inexpensive, safe, effective vegetable spray (combine 97% distilled white vinegar with 3 % hydrogen peroxide). Leave spray on for 3 minutes; then, rinse well.
- Mince garlic cloves by hand, or in a food processor; set aside.
- Using your hand, combine: lamb, 1/4 of minced garlic, allspice, pepper, and 3/4 tsp salt in a bowl; form meatballs the size of cherry tomatoes (see above photo).
- Over medium heat, fry meatballs in 1 tbsp hot oil, stirring with spatula until they stiffen. Add chopped onion and cook until golden brown; drain fat and set aside (see photo). Deglaze pan with small amount of water, scraping fond, or
cooked-on juices, off bottom of hot pan with a spatula. Set aside.
- Chop eggplant in small cubes (see photo below). Heat remaining tbsp of oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. When a small piece of eggplant sizzles in oil, mix in remaining eggplant; add 1/4 c water, cover, and cook until pieces begin to soften, stirring occasionally. Be sure to cover pan.
- Cut tomatoes in small chunks, chop cilantro-dried coriander may be substituted.
Mix meat, remaining garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, and 1/2 tsp salt into partially cooked eggplant. Cover, reduce heat to med/low, and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (After cooking for 1 hour, if preparing for company, you may wish to set this mixture aside, before the final 15-20 minutes of cooking).
- Raise heat to medium, adjust seasonings, and cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently. (See photo of finished product at top of recipe.)
- Serve with pleasure!