Saj in Action! Sahtayn.

January 28, 2010

The students made their own dough. The flour was from emmer wheat that the class purchased from Anson Mills here in Columbia. Check out Anson Mills and Glenn Roberts’ mission to stop the onslaught of the monocropping of one of the world’s most important crops. See his profile at:

Emmer wheat is an ancient wheat originating in the Mediterranean basin, found in settlements as early as 17,000 BCE. It’s brief stats can be found at:

In two weeks, the students will be reading about the “Arab Green Revolution” between the 7th and 12th centuries. They are largely responsible for spreading durum wheat (a domesticated  daughter of emmer, cultivated through selection) as the main wheat crop of Europe and the Middle East during the medieval and early modern periods. After the Muslims were expelled from Sicily, 10,000 Muslim Arabo-Sicilians were relocated to Southern Italy, where they lived a colony in Lucera (Southeast Italy) who were mainly wheat and barley farmers.  Despite their thriving community and contribution to the region’s economy, they were expelled in the 14th century by the King of Naples in his own version of the Crusades happening in Spain. After which, Southern Italy fell into a famine because the wheat crops failed without the expertise of the Italo-Muslim farmers.

The students made the dough at home the night before and rolled out the dough in class. We cooked on the saj outside, next to the gardens behind the Green Quad. We spread a mixture of zaatar (dried thyme, sumac and sesame seeds) and olive oil (both from  Earthfare) on the dough as it was cooking on the saj. The students did a great job with their dough and the emmer-flour made a huge difference. Folks shared their work with one another in an example of true communal eating.


Our Beautiful New Sign

January 21, 2010

Kellie Sharpe made this creative sign for our Arab Food Garden. She made it almost completely from found or salvaged materials.

al-Qahwah al-‘arabiyah

January 20, 2010

Every student will have a chance to make Arab coffee. The beans are fair trade and roasted by Prof. Sheehi. Otherwise, the students make a pot before class, at least once a week, mixing it with hand-ground cardamon.

This wonderful arrangement was made by our intrepid Honors College student, Paul Ryan, who spent a year in Syria (2008-09) and is specializing in Arab Studies.

The Garlic is unfazed by the cold.The New Year freeze beat up on the garden. After losing purslane, muloukhiyah, and spinach to the fall rains, the fava beans, cauliflower, and much of the chard took a beating. The fava beans are badly wilted. Their beautiful black and white flowers look withered and blackened by the freeze. The Swiss chard was thriving but many of the smaller sprouts  (along with many of  the cauliflower and lettuce sprouts) look as if they are out for the count. That said, the garden looks like it’s ready to bounce back (especially the rains of Jan 16-17 and the nurturing warm weather). The chick peas and lentils mostly weathered the bad weather but the garlic remains victoriously defiant and are doing wonderful.

Garden after the freeze

Mr. Clayton Ingram and Dillion Ingram, a student at the Honors College and dashing gentleman in the above picture, were kind enough to make for and donate this “saj” to the Arab Food class. The saj is similar to an Indian “tawa.” The Ingrams made  this saj completely from salvaged materials (the top is in inverted stainless steal wok and the bottom the iron base for a propose gas tank). The design (and construction) is almost identical to the saj that  is used in the Middle East. It’s design is simple, elegant and effective.  A domed cast iron surface over a heat source (in our case a wood-charcoals), the saj is used to make flat bread (“marquq” or “khubz saj”).

The Arab Food class and the Honors College send a heart-felt thank you to Clayton and Dillion.

The garden has already had many transformations. It has been adversely affected by human and environmental impacts. Some with disregard walked through the garden several times stomping on small sprouts and torrential rains washed out fledgling plants. Both destroyed the initial garden planted at the end of September. The top right picture shows Prof. Sheehi building raised bends to plant seeds or replant sprouts that survived from the initial garden. The middle picture is in November after the second incarnation of the garden began to flourish.

Vegetables, legumes and herbs that we planted are all indigenous to Southwest Asia and North Africa. The garden is completely organic including the organic and non-GMO seeds. The soil-base is compost from the city dump. It might not be completely non-chemical in origin but it’s compost just the same.  The plants were chosen because they could grow in the South Carolina winter. We planted  the famous Egyptian muloukhiya (or “Jew’s Mallow”), purslane, fava beans, Swiss Chard, garlic, black chick peas (a version that was cultivated as far a 5000 years ago in Iraq), lentils, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, “Italian” parsley (pots), cilantro (pots), and marjoram (pots).

The moloukhiya and purslane, which were badly damaged by  people walking through the garden, never really recovered. The torrential rains in early December and the extended cold snap at the end of December and beginning of January wiped out what remained of the spinach and cabbage sprouts. The marjoram in pots never took in the cool weather, while the cilantro is doing very well (which I took into my house) and the parsley slowly petering up (also indoors). While I planted some cilantro from purchased seeds,  I am happy to say I mixed in coriander seeds from my own summer garden’s cilantro.

In these pictures, you can see that the garlic, fava beans (the plot of thick rows of green at the end of the garden), lentils, chickpeas, and chard are doing very well in October and November. The final two photographs are images of the first incarnation of the garden planted in September after it was flooded by rains and trampled by pedestrians.

This course will examine the history of food systems in the Arab world. Prof. Sheehi and the students examine topics ranging from the cultivation of indigenous vegetables, legumes, fruits, herbs and spices to  sustainable agriculture from “traditional” farming practices to food in classical and modern Arab poetry and prose.

In addition to learning about the  origins and social implications of key shifts in Arab cuisine and culinary practices over 1500 years, the students also have hands on experience with food throughout its natural life cycle. They are responsible for tending an “Arab Food Garden” at the University ‘s Green Quad and also are learning how to cook classic Middle Eastern cuisine as well as some forgotten medieval dishes. The professor and students will take the practical and academic skills they accumulate this semester and contribute them into the community, helping the Charleston chapter of Food Not Bombs to plant an organic food garden that will provide their “homeless kitchen” with organically grown vegetables, legumes and herbs from late spring to early fall.

This blog tracks the progress of the students and the Arab food garden. Please come with us on our journey to the Arab world, to Arab history and, hopefully, to a sustainable future for South Carolina.