Although I am not a practicing Muslim, I have read those portions of Islam’s holy book, the Koran, concerning the consumption of food and drink, all in service of my ongoing interest in the nexus of religion and food. I also have read the same in the sacred texts of other religions, notably Christianity and Judaism.
In the Koran, my favorite passages about food are about what Allah states about food quantity and its quality. Of the former, “Eat and drink, but not to excess.” And of the latter, “O you who believe, eat the good things that we have provided you.”
But I’ve learned, further, that the Islamic understanding of the goodness of that which is provided goes beyond, for example, the Hebrew idea that the Lord God causes food to grow for our good or benefit, or the Christian belief that if God created it, it must be good or worthy.
In the Koran, “good things” means not merely those foods either allowed or prohibited to the faithful; it also means “good quality” foods. Allah commands us to cook with good quality ingredients in our recipes. Again, I’m not a practicing Muslim, but I’ll buy that.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a period of significant religious observance by the globe’s Muslims, begins this year on the evening of April 12. (We have just come off the exercise of the two other great monotheistic religions’ springtime holy days, Passover and Easter.)
During Ramadan’s 30 days, among other practices, Muslims fast from dawn until dusk and break their fast with the “iftar,” or evening meal. One such breakfast, if you will, is tharid (you might see other spellings and cognates), a brothy stew constructed around lamb meat, eaten with the hands, of course, aided by layers of stale, thin flatbread used both to scoop up the stew itself as well as sop up its juices.
Tharid, like many other dishes during the month of Ramadan, cooks during daytimes in order to be ready for the evening meal. Obviously, it is always eagerly anticipated.
According to a number of hadith (Koranic sayings or teachings), the prophet Muhammad considered tharid “the best among all dishes.” During this year’s Ramadan, you may taste for yourself. Especially with the stale pita, I find it terrifically delicious.
Tharid (Emirati Lamb Stew)
Adapted from saveur.com and other sources; serves 4-6.
- 3 pounds lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 2-inch chunks or cubes
- 2 tablespoons Arabian or North African powdered spice mix (see note)
- 1/2 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 red Fresno chiles, stemmed, seeded and cut longways into fourths
- 2 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved along their “poles” and thinly sliced
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1 4-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 Roma tomatoes, seeded and cut into fourths
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 small Yukon Gold (or other waxy) potatoes, peels intact, halved
- 2 medium zucchini (or other soft “summer” squash), cut into 3-inch sections
- 2 large Anaheim peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut longways into fourths
- Several large very thin pita breads, left out to dry for 2-3 days
In a large bowl, toss the lamb pieces in the spice powders and salt, to coat thoroughly. In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, over medium-high heat and working in batches, heat the olive oil and brown the lamb pieces all over, removing them to a plate or bowl as you introduce a new batch to the pot.
Assuring there is at least a tablespoon of fat remaining in the pot after browning the lamb (or add some more oil), put the Fresno chiles and sliced onions into the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and begins to brown, about 10 minutes. As the onions give off their water, scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot, stirring them in.
Add the garlic and ginger (or garlic-ginger paste) and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the cumin, black pepper, tomatoes and bay leaves and cook, stirring and scraping, 2-3 minutes.
Return the lamb to the pot, along with any juices given off, and add the potatoes, carrots, zucchini, Anaheim pepper slices and 12 cups of cool water.
Bring the stew to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until the lamb is tender, anywhere from 75-90 minutes (or more if necessary to soften the lamb). Correct for salt and black pepper.
To serve the tharid: Line a very large, deep serving dish or platter with the stale or toasted flatbreads. Using a slotted spoon, arrange the lamb and vegetable pieces over them. Ladle a small amount of liquid over everything in order to soak it into the breads. Put the remaining liquid into a gravy boat or other bowl to serve on the side.
Notes: Many Arabian or North African spice blends exist (or can be assembled) that would suffice here. The Moroccan ras el hanout is one example; so is the Emirati blend called bzar. Or you may mix your own with near-equal measures of both sweet spice powders such as cinnamon and allspice, alongside the savory powders of red chile and black pepper.
In place of the garlic and ginger listed separately in the list of ingredients, you may use 5 heaping tablespoons of garlic-ginger paste (available at Indian grocers). If you don’t have 2-3 days to allow the pita bread to become stale, you may toast (in the oven or toaster) whatever flatbreads you choose to use. The idea is to have thin, dried-out flatbreads. Finally, you also may substitute other meat (beef chuck, chicken thighs, or even vegetables in addition to those listed) for the lamb.
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