1,001 Arabian bites: Meat preserved in its own fat is special to me
Some things, such as the imperial measurement system and the qwerty keyboard, should probably have been retired long ago. Other things, even when born of antiquated needs, still manage to feel current by delivering the unexpected.
House-made charcuterie is always a hot ticket. From mutton chops to lamb tails, nose-to-tail butchery has modelled, at its best, the height of elegant economising. The tendency for American and European chefs to focus on pork products may have appeared responsible for the Muslim world’s relative indifference to the obsession; beef and lamb sausages are rarely tackled out West with the same panache as their halal- and kosher-alienating counterparts. But the real reason for the measured uptake, I think, is because meat butchery never went out of style in the Muslim world in the first place.
As much as I love rich, crispy lamb “bacon”, cured from the belly cut, I’m really all about rillettes. With rillettes on hand, you won’t miss the glut of the world’s pâtes or terrines. Rillettes are essentially a confit of shredded meat preserved in its own fat, as seen in good old-fashioned British potted crab. You can make rillettes out of almost anything – tinned or fresh sardines, chicken, duck, rabbit, goose, crab, shrimp, salmon (fresh and smoked together is especially good), lobster, mackerel, tuna, and any cheese, from Kiri to Époisses. Rillettes are a great way to keep odds and ends edible for a little while longer, but in a ready-to-eat form that can be spread on toast, melted into scrambled eggs or soup or – a personal favourite – stirred into a pan of hot buttered noodles.
I’ve eaten and made a lot of rillettes, but nothing comes close to my favoured qawarma (rhymes with “shawarma”). Qawarma is highly seasoned lamb that’s been cooked and preserved in the fat rendered from its tail; the glorious resulting goo, stored properly, can last up to a year. Lebanese villagers used to gorge lambs on vine leaves until they were fat enough. Afterwards, the lamb was distributed to villagers as their winter meat ration. The logical solution was to find a way to make it last.
When needed, qawarma is simply scooped out, melted in a pan, and used as a cooking fat or to deepen the flavour of yogurt stews and rice pilaf. It’s most commonly seen today as a pile of savoury rubble mounded on hummus. It’s always a sad day when a restaurant or recipe doesn’t distinguish between ordinary seasoned ground or diced meat and the genuine ingredient. Any recipe that calls for meat that’s cooked, drained of excess fat and used on the spot as a substitute for qawarma, isn’t worth its salt. Save your salt, and your calories, for the real thing.
The sheep favoured by Arabs are the fat-tailed Awassi dairy species, with tails more than half a metre long that are almost entirely fat. The tails’ unavailability in the United States means resorting to alternatives and I’ve found shoulder and neck meat mixed with additional rendered fat to do the trick. For the extra fat, I cheat and use beef or lamb fat that I drain and freeze over many months. When I have enough fat, I clear my schedule and make qawarma.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico