Iraqi Beet Salad

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Iraqi Beet Salad (Photo mine, November 2016)

Life goes on. Despite the election there are still friends to feed, Shabbats to observe, and foods to comfort us. Trump can take away our dreams but he can never take away our ability to use our hands to rebuild love, even by means of the easiest recipes. Like this one.

In Pittsburgh there is a little restaurant – kiosk, really – called Conflict Kitchen. At this restaurant, the food of whatever country the US is “at conflict with” – armed, political, or social – is served on a rotating basis. When I visited Pittsburgh, Conflict Kitchen were serving delicious Venezuelan arepas; currently they are honoring the water protectors of Standing Rock (donate!) and other indigenous resistance by serving the food of the Haudenosaunee – whose lands historically reached their southern extent at Pittsburgh. Other versions have included Iran, Cuba, and Palestine. The effort allows those in Pittsburgh to see a more human side of the oft-demonized “enemy” – and call into question the way US power works. But one cuisine seemed obviously missing: the bright, fresh flavors of Iraqi cuisine – much of which is also Iraqi Jewish cuisine, found in the diaspora centers of Ramat Gan, London, and Los Angeles. As I watched another one of Trump’s speeches as I browsed the Conflict Kitchen website, looking for the Iraqi version that never was, I wondered: how could I use Jewish food and cooking to recreate their mission in my kitchen?

A piece of beet on the spoon
Eating the salad at work. The garlic made my colleagues hungry! (Photo mine, November 2016)

Channeling the spirit of Conflict Kitchen, I sought to start by making an Iraqi recipe myself – a beet salad that is simultaneously fresh and light, but hearty and deeply warming. I first had this salad in Israel, at the house of a friend of a friend; I had been surprised there to learn that beets and other root vegetables were part of everyday Iraqi fare. Then, with the first bite, I was stunned by the light, dancing flavor of the salad: the heaviness of the beets was offset by the sharpness of the garlic and the happy dance of the mint. When I got home, I did more research and found that Iraqis have been eating beets since well before my own Eastern European ancestors: recipes with beets are mentioned as early as 1500 BC. I have often thought of the salad since that day, but had never bothered to actually make it. But after the election of Trump, I decided that one way of resistance to his racism and demonization was to pay homage to those we have oppressed – and to our own heritage – in the kitchen. So I invited a few friends over for Shabbat, with the salad as the main centerpiece dish.

Beyond Iraq, beets have also been a food of Jewish comfort in the darkest times for millennia. The greens of the beet have been consumed since the time of the Second Temple, when beets were considered a prized delicacy. In fact, it is stated in the Talmud in Masekhet Shabbat that one can show delight in the Sabbath day with “beets, a large fish, and garlic.” (The rabbis and I have something in common.) In later centuries beets became a common food across Central and Eastern European Jewish cuisine – showing up in soup, pickles, and even confectionary. Even today, beets are key in the comfort food of many Jewish communities – from the Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish soup for kubbeh to the Ashkenazi borsht. This humble root is the bridge.

Cooking beets
Cooking beets. (Photo mine, November 2016)

And perhaps from beets other bridges can be built too.

Iraqi Beet Salad

Based on a recipe by Nawal Nasrallah

Serves 6-10

2 pounds beets, peeled and diced

1 fistful fresh mint, chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp sumac

½ cup Greek yogurt or other plain yogurt (optional)

Salt and black pepper to taste

  1. Boil the beet pieces until soft. Drain and let cool.
  2. Mix with the other ingredients except the salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.
  3. Add the salt and pepper to your liking. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Beet juice stained hand
Nothing like beet juice to stain your hands! (Photo mine, November 2016)

Thank you to Derek Kwait, Meggie Kwait, Berakha Guggenheim, and Sara Liss for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

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