When I was younger and less culinarily mature, I’d frequently encounter foods that I didn’t grow up with but which I loved instantly (e.g., chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and apple pie to name a few from my unfettered youthful days of eating). Inevitably, I would say (and still do) — Where have you been all my life? Incidentally, the same still happens with singers (Johnny Cash) and writers (P.D. James) that often other people know well but somehow I manage to encounter at just the right, rather late, moment in my life. Life arranges for its own (hopefully, pleasant) surprises, right?
The vegetable rhubarb is just such an example. I first encountered it in a Massachusetts grocery store all those years ago, and at least in the form of pie, fell in love with it deeply and instantly. It wasn’t until later that I learned about its use in savory dishes like the one I’d like to share with you today. The plant itself has a long and impressive history and is quite the world traveler, which makes it a perfect ingredient for this blog. Interestingly enough, the leaves of the rhubarb found in Britain were terribly poisonous until a non-poisonous variety was introduced in 1837 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s coronation!
Even the etymology of the word “rhubarb” yields fascinating information: “The name has stayed pretty much unchanged since all the way back when the Greeks named it rha barbaron, a combination of two words meaning ‘not from around these parts,’ appropriate for a plant that originally came from China. Barbaron is the same word that gave us barbarian, an imitation of foreign babble (like our “gobbeldygook”) that originally just meant anything non-Greek. Rha, by itself, was the even older Greek word for rhubarb (which was originally eaten more as a medicinal root than as a stalk vegetable), and comes from the ancient Greek name of the Volga river, Rha, which was itself a loan from Scythian, the ancient Persian language. But why would rhubarb be named after the Volga, a giant Russian river, of all things? Well, whoever brought rhubarbs west from China might have traveled down the eastward-stretching Volga to get to the sphere of Greek influence. Or, possibly, ‘from the Volga’ was just Ancient Greek shorthand for ‘from the East,’ making rha just another way of saying barbaron. Whatever the reason, you get the sense that the Greek guys who first set eyes on the plant had no idea what they were dealing with. After that first ancient contact, trade didn’t really pick up until the early Renaissance, and eating rhubarb didn’t become popular in Europe until sugar got cheap, around the 17th century.” In Iran and Syria, the plant was widely in use by the 13th century, and the common name for rhubarb in Persian is rivas.
Wow! For someone who is not from around these parts, rhubarb certainly serves as an appropriate vegetable mascot:-)
On a more serious note, although I consider myself well assimilated to my life here, there are days when being a “barbaron” takes its toll from having difference simply exude from oneself however consciously or unconsciously one tries to either hide or own it. The best way I’ve heard this feeling expressed (albeit, in a different context, but which I can happily borrow for purposes of illustration) is “I’m tired of feeling like a unicorn.” This is compounded by the fact that we seem to live in times when people are busy being afraid of the unicorns among them (maybe, they always have been) rather than affording them a warm welcome or at least having the courtesy to ignore the presence of horns where they don’t naturally belong.
Whether you’re a unicorn or a dun horse, I hope you’ll enjoy this simple yet delicious recipe despite rhubarb’s complicatedly cosmopolitan adventures across time and space.
I adapted this recipe (my added ingredients are italicized) for Khoresh-e Rivas or Rhubarb Stew from Mohammad R. Ghanoonparvar’s Persian Cuisine, Book One: Traditional Foods, which I’ve referred to in this blog before.
Cooking Time: ~2 hours (~1/2 hour for prep; ~1-1/2 hours for cooking)
- 2 lb. stew lamb meat, cut into small to medium size pieces
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon [I used canella instead of cinnamon]
- ~4 Tbsp. olive oil
- A pat of butter or clarified butter/ghee [I used the potent Bengali variety]
- 4 large black cardamoms
- 2 large bay leaves
- 1 tsp. turmeric powder
- 2 tsp. cayenne powder (or more to taste)
- 1 pinch saffron
- 2 tsp. nutmeg powder
- 1 tsp. mace powder
- ~1 cup warm water
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 bunch fresh parsley or coriander leaves coarsely chopped
- 3-4 small stalks or 1-1 and 1/2 large stalk(s) of rhubarb chopped into inch-long pieces
- Salt to taste
1. Heat ~2 Tbsp. olive oil in a thick bottomed pan or Dutch oven.
2. Sprinkle meat with cinnamon/canella powder and brown lightly.
3. Add cardamoms, bay leaves, turmeric and cayenne to the meat and saute for a couple of minutes.
4. Add just enough warm water to cover the meat.
5. Add saffron, nutmeg and mace and bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat covered until the meat is tender for ~40-60 minutes.
6. In a separate saucepan, sauté the onion in the remaining oil and butter/ghee until golden brown (i.e., not quite caramelized). Remove from heat and set aside.
7. Add fresh, chopped parsley or coriander to the sautéed onions and then add the mixture to the simmering meat (which should be tender by now) along with salt to taste.
8. Add the rhubarb and cook for ~10-15 minutes on low heat being careful not to stir (otherwise the rhubarb will dissolve and break like unicorns in the mist).
Serve with plain boiled rice and a side salad of mint, scallions and sliced cucumbers.
Buen provecho (as I learned to say in Mexico City)!