Ancient Recipe: Kamakh Rijal (Countertop Cheese) (Arab & Persian, ca. 10th century CE)

There are several varieties of this, but all follow the same recipe, only differing in ingredients. First, take a large, dry pumpkin-shell…put in 5 ratls* of sour milk, 10 ratls of fresh milk, and 1 1/2 ratls of fine-brayed salt, and stir. Cover, and leave for some days in the hot sun. This is first made in June, at the beginning of the mid-summer. Each morning add 3 ratls of fresh milk, and stir morning and evening. Add milk as the liquid lessens, until the beginning of August…cover until the beginning of October: then remove from the sun until set, and serve. ~ from Kitab-al Tabikh (The Book of Dishes), 10th century

IMG_3370Before I leave for a vacation that will likely delay my next blog post, I’m excited to share a long-term project I’ve been working on: kamakh rijal, a kind of spreadable cheese from the Medieval Islamic world that’s incredibly easy to make. All you need is milk, yogurt, salt, and the courage to eat a dairy product that’s been sitting at room temperature for more than a month. My stomach feels fine, thanks.

Originally a Persian recipe, kamakh rijal is found in many Medieval Arab cookbooks, including the earliest known Arabic-language cookbook, the 10th-century Book of Dishes. Despite its former popularity, the unique method of cheese production has been largely forgotten in modern times. The modern-day expert on kamakh rijal and rediscoverer of the technique is food historian Charles Perry. He has written about it several times, including for the premiere issue of the fermentation magazine Cured and the book Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali (2009). This is the same book that gave me a recipe for a Roman-influenced chicken dish which I recently wrote about for Sarah Lohman’s blog, Four Pounds Flour.

In typical cheesemaking, milk is curdled to separate solid curds from liquid whey. Any remaining moisture is pressed out of the curds to protect the good bacteria that transforms them into cheese. In kamakh rijal, it is the salt and the pre-existing good bacteria in the yogurt that ensure fermentation and keep off bad microbes. There is no curdling or pressing involved, so the end product is a semisolid. We would call it spreadable cheese; 10th-century Persians called it “something eaten by licking“, the literal translation of kamakh rijal. I used cow’s milk, but I would be curious to try with sheep or goat’s milk, both of which would have been readily available in the Medieval Islamic world.

Below is my kamakh rijal journal, written over the course of six weeks. Following the instructions of Perry and The Book of Dishes, the cheese is edible after six weeks, but it’s actually meant to age for 14-16 weeks total. Mine isn’t going anywhere just yet, so stay tuned for a part 2.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

I bought a quart of whole milk and a container of the most ultra-probiotic, microorganism-rich yogurt I could find (Russian kefir). Sharing a Brooklyn studio apartment with another person as I do, it’s not always easy to find sufficient space for these kind of projects. Perry’s recipe in Cured says to mix 1 cup yogurt, 5 cups milk and 3 tablespoons kosher salt. My only available glass container wasn’t quite big enough, so I had to do some eye-watering math to shrink the recipe by one-fifth.

After my calculations I ended up with a milk/yogurt/salt mixture that completely filled up the container, and I was just barely able to fit the container like a puzzle piece into the back of my extremely crowded counter-top. Taking this as a good sign, I covered the container with cheesecloth. For the next week I will stir and taste the mixture daily, and top it off with more milk (Perry suggests canned evaporated milk) as it dries out. At this stage, it tastes like salty milk.

Friday, May 5th (1 week in)IMG_3141

My boyfriend has started to complain about the smell in the apartment, which he notices as soon as he walks in and I don’t notice unless I’m right next to the bowl (what does that say about me?) But it’s definitely a cheese smell and not the smell of milk gone bad; the salt in the mixture sees to that. By the end of a full week, the kamakh rijal is starting to look a little yellowish and is definitely thicker, with an even texture. When I stir with a chopstick, it comes out coated. The flavor is increasingly tangy, more like yogurt than cheese but definitely approaching cheesiness. Exciting!

Friday, May 13th (2 weeks)IMG_3227

This week I topped off the mixture with a can of evaporated milk per the recipe instructions. Evaporated milk is more yellowish than fresh milk, and the kamakh rijal is now definitely a pale whitish yellow, the color that Benjamin Moore would call “eggshell.” Although it was liquid last week, it’s now so thick a chopstick can stand upright in it (see image). It’s also started to taste like yeast. On the one hand, my boyfriend has stopped complaining about the smell. On the other hand, now I’m starting to notice it.

Friday, May 19th (3 weeks)IMG_3245

Up close, the kamakh rijal smells kind of like feet. But hey, it’s cheese, that’s a good thing, right? A thin layer spread on a cracker with a slice of tomato is quite good. It is even thicker than last week; I added a new can of evaporated milk to top it off but I noticed that the milk does not mix evenly into the kamakh rijal as readily as it did before, just sits on top. Kind of looks like curds floating in the milk now.

Monday, May 29th (4 weeks + 3 days)IMG_3314

Couldn’t check on the kamakh rijal until Monday. It’s gone solid again, and while the texture is still a bit lumpy, it spreads nicely on a piece of bread, like soft butter. The taste appears to have neutralized. It’s still tangy but not yeasty anymore, and for the first time I’m reminded of cheddar cheese. My boyfriend surprised me by asking to taste it (direct quote: “you haven’t gotten the shits yet, so it’s probably fine, right?”) Then he surprised me further by saying he actually liked it. Like the taste, the smell appears to have peaked a week or two ago and is now mellowing out.

Added some more evaporated milk. The outer edges of the glass container have developed a pretty gnarly yellow crust. Blegh.

Tuesday, June 6th (5 weeks + 4 days)IMG_3336

I’ve been a little lax in adding fresh milk, and the kamakh rijal has undergone yet more changes. It’s so thick now that if you stir it or stick a knife into it, it will not regain its original shape. The outer surface is drying out and starting to look like a crusty lunar landscape, if the moon really was made out of cheese. I try to be careful about the dry parts when tasting, but the occasional little crumb gets mixed into the smooth majority of the cheese. Gross. If I were serving it to another person, I would scrape off the entire top quarter-inch where it’s dried out to avoid the gritty texture.

Friday, June 9th (6 weeks)IMG_3367

By this point I couldn’t stand looking at the yellow crust around the edge of the container anymore, so I broke it off. That plus the addition of more milk revived the mixture. It’s smoother and softer again now, and overall looks much more…..edible. I was expecting the taste to get stronger and stronger over time, but I’m fascinated by how it peaked and then started to get weaker. I wonder if that represents one type of microbe taking over another (bacteria vs. fungus?)

The kamakh rijal having reached its minimum age for cheesiness, I have a few different options. The recipe quoted above suggests adding mint, garlic and the anise-like spice nigella before allowing it to age further, which sounds like a delicious combination. Another recipe calls for dried rose petals, which intrigues me; I don’t like rose-flavored desserts, but I’ve never tried a savory preparation. I plan to let it age another six weeks before dividing it up into parts and trying both the rose and nigella/garlic/mint versions.

IMG_3340When I was visiting Paris, I ate a meal (okay, several meals) that consisted entirely of wine, bread and cheese. With this in mind, I spread some of my six-week-old kamakh rijal on bread and poured myself a glass of red wine. Not only did it go together well, it felt like a scene from a medieval Persian poem. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and Thou“; I always thought Omar Khayyam was talking to a lover, but maybe he was just addressing the spreadable cheese. VIII out of X.

* One 10th-century ratl equals 406.25 grams, or .90 of a pound.

Ancient Recipe: Tzoalli (amaranth candy) (Aztec, prehistory – 16th century CE)

3“The priest brought down a small idol made of this dough. Its eyes were small green beads, and its teeth were grains of corn…he ascended to the place where those who were to be sacrificed stood, and from one end to the other he went along showing the figure to each one saying, ‘Behold your god!'” ~ Aztec amaranth dough ritual described by Diego Durán in 1574

The Aztecs had a way with words. They described the world around them with amazingly poetic turns of phrase and names so grandiose and ominous they sound straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook. Just take the name of Huitzilopochtli (weet-zeel-oh-potch-tlee), one of the most important Aztec deities, which translates to “Left-Handed Hummingbird.”

A mighty war-god crowned with feathers, Huitzilopochtli was associated with the sun and with a special kind of grain cultivated by his worshipers. We know it today as amaranth, but the Aztecs called it huauhtli (wow-tlee), which is unusual for a Nahuatl word because it comes from a root that can’t be connected with any other. The same people who called warriors “eagle-jaguars” and human sacrifice “the flowery death” and worshiped Left-Handed Hummingbird alongside his sister, Face Painted With Bells, seem to have had a lapse in creativity when it came to describing amaranth. Perhaps huauhtli was considered so sacred and important that it could only be referred to as itself.

In the Aztec diet, amaranth was second in importance only to corn. Every part of the plant is edible, but the Aztecs valued the tiny seeds the most, which are packed with essential amino acids and twice the iron content of wheat. As with corn, amaranth grains could be toasted and eaten whole or ground into flour to make the familiar base of every Aztec meal: tortillas and tamales. During the holy month of Panquetzaliztli, the Raising of the Banners (analogous to December in our calendar), toasted amaranth grain would be mixed with honey to form a special dough called tzoalli. This substance was shaped into idols of Huitzilopochtli and other divinities, which were paraded through the streets and displayed in the temple before being “sacrificed”; priests broke the candied offerings into tiny pieces and distributed them among the crowd to be eaten.

The association between amaranth and Huitzilopochtli is likely due to the brilliant fuchsia color of amaranth flowers, which makes them a favorite of Huitzilopochtli’s namesake, the hummingbird. The ritual of group tzoalli consumption represents the life-giving power of the gods and calls to mind sacrificial rituals in many other cultures. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and established their colony of Nueva España, they noticed a parallel between this ritual and their own Christian Communion ceremony, in which a gathering of worshippers also consume the flesh of God. The Spanish were so affronted by this pagan Communion that they outlawed the cultivation of amaranth in New Spain, despite the grain’s centrality in the Aztec diet. But the Aztecs continued to cultivate amaranth out of sight of the colonial government, and the ritual of shaping and sharing tzoalli survived in a new form. Today, Mexicans still make a sticky amaranth sweet for the Day of the Dead and other holidays that is nearly identical to the original Aztec recipe. Sometimes cut into simple squares, it can also be sculpted into skulls or other shapes that recall the idols of Huitzilopochtli. The modern Spanish name even has some of the creative flair of an Aztec name: it is called alegrìa, meaning “joy”. Having tasted it, I can understand why.

THE RECIPEtzoalli 1

As with many historical recipes, the precise procedure for making tzoalli is unclear, and there were probably many variations. I based my version on modern alegría, which uses whole, toasted amaranth grains rather than amaranth flour. The binding agent in alegría is molasses and/or raw sugar, which were unknown to the Aztecs. Some secondary sources claim the Aztecs mixed amaranth with human sacrificial blood for their tzoalli, an unlikely exaggeration (while human sacrifice did accompany the Panquetzaliztli celebration, first-hand accounts like the one quoted above make it clear that the dough idols were made before anybody was sacrificed). Most sources describe the use of honey, which the Aztecs knew in two forms: bee honey imported from their Mayan neighbors to the south, and locally-produced maguey honey, the boiled-down sap of a species of agave plant.

First, we need one and a half cups of toasted amaranth grain. I was lucky (or lazy) enough to find pre-toasted amaranth grain at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, which carries a staggering array of spices from all over the world and has served me well for many an ancient recipe. You can toast your own amaranth in a covered pan over medium-high heat for about 30 seconds, one tablespoon at a time. Once the grain is toasted, melt three-quarters of a cup of honey, just enough so that it flows like water. I microwaved my honey in a bowl for 15 seconds, stirred, then microwaved 15 seconds more. You can also melt it in a pot over the stove on low heat while stirring constantly.

When your honey is warm and melted, all you have to do is combine the warm honey and amaranth in a bowl and mix well. At this point, I also added half a cup of ground pumpkin seeds to the mixture. Modern alegría often contains pumpkin seeds, and they were well-known to the Aztecs, so I didn’t see why not. Spread the mixture into a 9 x 13 inch pan lined with wax paper and press it down flat with moistened hands (it’s pretty sticky). Let it chill for abut two hours in the refrigerator, after which the tzoalli can be cut into bars and served. You could, of course, shape it into little statues of a left-handed hummingbird, but it didn’t seem right to me without all the attendant ceremony (and sacrifice).

tzoalli 2


The grain itself has the mild flavor of puffed rice, with just a hint of something else I can only describe as….planty. Have you ever bitten into a live twig? That’s the flavor I’m talking about: that generic “plant” taste, clean, organic and faintly bitter. But mostly the tzoalli crunches and tastes like honey, with a hint of nuttiness and salt from the pumpkin seeds.

This might be the best-tasting ancient recipe I’ve ever made. I can understand how special it must have seemed as a rare holiday treat, especially to an ancient Aztec who was breaking a religious fast and unused to eating concentrated sugar. In the future I’ll try making it with maguey honey, which has a distinctive taste. X out of X.