T’beet, a chicken stuffed with rice and spices and cooked buried in more rice and spices, was the traditional Sabbath lunch of the Babylonian Jews of Iraq for generations. I say “was” because apart from the older generation of exiled Iraqi Jews, like my mother and a few relatives, very few people make this dish today.
Mesopotamia (and modern day Iraq) was, until relatively recently, a mosaic of different ethnic and religious communities, including a Jewish community that dates back 2600 years. Despite its diversity, all Iraqis shared a common cuisine, with each religious group developing their way of cooking certain dishes and inventing others which were typical of their community.
For the Babylonian Jews the most important dish was their emblematic Sabbath meal called t’beet. The aromatic spices of cinnamon, cardamom and pepper used in this slow-cooking dish give the rice and chicken a wonderful and delicate flavour. It was to the Sabbath what turkey is to Thanksgiving, with one exception, we had it every Saturday, fifty-two times a year.
Whenever I eat t’beet, memories of our home in Baghdad rush back. I remember how busy our kitchen was. Because we lived with our extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and many cousins, breakfast, lunch and dinner had to be prepared daily for 15 people. All day long the aroma of cooked rice, grilled meats and various herbs and spices used waft out filling the whole house, enticing us to the next meal. I remember, too the smell of the delicious flat bread, freshly baked in our mud oven which accompanied all our meals.
Fridays were especially chaotic in the kitchen, because the Sabbath meal had to be prepared in addition to all other meals. Gershon, our family cook, used to go to the market early on Friday mornings to buy a live chicken. He would then go to the kosher butcher to have it slaughtered by the shohet. As children, my brothers and I loved watching as he expertly de-feathered the bird, cleaned it inside out and then stuffed it with rice, giblets and spices.
An ingenious method of slow cooking was devised whereby the chicken and rice would cook in a large cauldron overnight. A dozen eggs were placed on the lid of the pot to cook in its heat and steam; these would be covered with another lid which in turn was covered in numerous towels and rags to keep the heat from escaping (very much like a tea cosy). The pot was left to cook slowly on a very low flame until the next day. This method provided hot brown t’beet eggs for breakfast and a delicious rich and deeply flavorful hot meal for lunch.
T’beet From “Flavours of Babylon by Linda Dangoor”
Overnight chicken buried in aromatic rice
Serves 6 to 8
To get the best flavour I recommend a free range mature boiler chicken which is an older bird than the usual roaster. Its taste is deeper and meatier. A free range roaster will do too. I recommend serving it with a simple tomato salad.
3.5-4.5 pounds chicken
2 to 3 pieces of cut lemon to rub the chicken
3 cups white Basmati rice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 fresh tomato, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cube chicken stock or teaspoon Swiss Bouillon powder
4 whole cardamom pods
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon salt
Pepper to taste
The Stuffing 2 to 3 tablespoons Basmati rice
3 tablespoons chopped chicken breast (optional)
1 large fresh tomato, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Wash and soak both quantities of rice in 2 separate bowls for 30 minutes.
2) Wash the whole chicken (leaving the skin on). Cut off the tip of the parson’s nose and pat dry. Rub the chicken inside and out with a piece of cut lemon. This helps to clean it and remove any unpleasant odors.
3) Combine all the stuffing ingredients and stuff the chicken, then close the opening with a skewer (loosely stuff the inside as the rice expands to double its size).
4) In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and sauté the chopped onion until limp and transparent. Stir in the chopped tomato and salt and continue cooking for 2 minutes.
5) Now pop the chicken in the pot (with no liquid) and cook covered, on medium heat, turning occasionally, until golden all over. (If necessary, add a few drops of water.) This will take about 25 minutes. Liberally prick the chicken so as to allow the juices to flow out.
6) Pour boiling water over the whole chicken, covering half of it. Stir in the tomato paste, the chicken cube, the cardamom pods and the salt. (You can also add a stick of celery that you will discard later.) Cook for about 1 hour (a little more if it is a boiler).
7) Take the chicken out of the pan. Measure the remaining liquid. You should have about 3 cups. If you have less liquid than that add more water. Put the chicken back in the pot. Bring to a boil and add the rice around the chicken. Bring to a boil again. Then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 20 to 25 minutes. (It is best leave the pot covered at this stage.)
8) Now turn the heat to a minimum and place a heat diffuser beneath the pan and cook for another 20 minutes. (A heat diffuser is a round sheet of metal that one puts under the saucepans to have a low and even heat, used for slow cooking on a gas stove.)
9) Then either transfer the pot to a preheated oven at 175 degrees Fahrenheit and let it slow cook for another 2 hours or more (remember, this used to cook for 12 hours in Baghdad) or leave on the stove on very low heat.
10) Before serving immerse the bottom of the pot in cold water. This will make it easier to detach the h’kaka (bottom crust). Spoon the into a large serving dish, with the chicken in the middle and the crust on top.
This story "Fragrant Iraqi Chicken and Rice" was written by Linda Dangoor.