Marag makes the meal

The time-honored stew was not always cooked the way it is today

beef stew (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
beef stew
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Yesh marak?” asks Yakir – Hebrew for “Is there soup?” – when he wants to know whether lunch is ready. That is how his father, Zechariah, used to ask for his daily soup; he pronounced the Hebrew word for soup with a Yemenite accent – “marag.”
The midday meal in the home of Yakir’s parents in Givatayim was often a satisfying soup made of beef or chicken pieces cooked with potato chunks in a rich broth flavored with onions and a little tomato, redolent of cumin, turmeric and black pepper. Sometimes the soup contained cubes of white squash (kishu in Hebrew). For those who wanted a more pungent flavor, there was always the hot pepper-garlic relish, s’hug, on the table. There was bread to dunk in the soup – pita, fresh white or dark bread (lehem lavan or lehem shahor) and occasionally saluf, homemade Yemenite flatbread. Once in a while the soup was accompanied by rice that Yakir’s mother, Rachel, cooked in some of the flavorful broth.
The Iraqi traditional main course resembles Yemenite meat soup. “Marga or marag is a stew of vegetables and meat simmered in tomato sauce,” writes Nawal Nasrallah in Delights from the Garden of Eden. “The stew is customarily served in a bowl, to be spooned and mixed with rice or sometimes bulgur, with plenty of salad or green onion, fresh herbs, greens, and sometimes spicy condiments such as homemade pickles and pickled mango (‘anba).”
Nasrallah tells a story that sounds familiar to us. A friend of hers tried to change the usual menu of stew and rice for her family and instead prepared juicy chops with French fries. They ate the food, but then came the inevitable question: Where is our marag? “This shows how futile it is to try to depart from a routine which has been ingrained in our eating habits and sustained us for more than five thousand years,” writes Nasrallah, pointing out that marag makes a reasonably balanced meal and provides the body with much-needed liquids.
In addition, it is “an economical dish since it uses a relatively small amount of meat. Big families with a limited budget prepare it daily for lunch, the main meal of the day. Variety is achieved by using different kinds of vegetables, cuts of meat, and rice... It is easy to assemble and does not need much attention on the part of the cook. It can be prepared ahead of time, and some of the stews even improve when refrigerated overnight and then reheated.”
Like my mother-in-law, cooks in Iraq prefer meat on the bone for their marag, especially shanks with marrow. Lamb and veal are traditional, writes Nasrallah, but beef and chicken can also be used. So can boneless meat or lean ground meat, which can be added to the stew as small meatballs – either fried, grilled or baked.
To make white bean stew, Nasrallah cooks the beans and meat separately, and then simmers them together with chopped onions, tomato paste, lemon juice, salt and black pepper. Her green bean stew has similar flavorings, with garlic and ground ginger added.
She prepares green pea stew and fresh fava bean stew the same way and serves the stews with rice, salad and pickles.
Spinach stew, usually made in winter, is one of the few stews traditionally cooked without tomatoes, writes Nasrallah. To make it, she browns and cooks the meat and then simmers it with chickpeas, onion, spinach, fresh coriander, parsley, dill, fenugreek leaves, salt, black pepper, crushed coriander seeds, ground cumin and dried limes; prunes, dried apricots or small dried hot peppers are optional additions.
Some people cook rice along with the other ingredients. Pascale Peretz-Rubin, author of the Hebrew book Mat’amei Iraq (Delicacies of Iraq), prepares chicken soup from chicken pieces, chopped onion, parsley, chard, celery, dill, diced white squash, tomatoes and green peppers and seasons it with salt, pepper and cardamom; when the ingredients are tender, she cooks rice in the soup to thicken it. Her beef soup cooks with zucchini and a generous amount of sautéed tomatoes and is flavored with salt, black pepper, hot red pepper, lemon juice and sugar.
In contrast to Yemenite soups, in Iraqi marag, spices are kept to a minimum. For lovers of spicy food, there is always a bowl of spicy pickles.
These time-honored stews were not always cooked the way they are today. The tomato, writes Nasrallah, “gradually replaced most of the... souring and coloring agents previously used in making stews, such as... sour juices of fruits and vegetables, saffron or pomegranate juice... Today, we cannot imagine life without the tomato, and its versatility is well appreciated.” The tomato has become an essential component in stews in Iraq and around the Middle East.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
This recipe is from Delights from the Garden of Eden. Author Nawal Nasrallah notes that you can make it with other kinds of dried beans. For a more basic bean and meat stew, you can omit the carrot, coriander, cumin, garlic and parsley.
To make the stew vegetarian, omit the meat.
Serve the stew with rice, salad and pickles.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 2 cups (450 gr. or 16 oz.) white beans, picked over, washed, soaked overnight, then drained ❖ 4 chunks of lamb or veal shanks (about 900 gr. or 2 lbs.), or 700 gr. (about 1½ lbs.) boneless lamb, veal or beef, cut in 2.5-cm. (1-in.) cubes ❖ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil ❖ 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
❖ 3 heaping Tbsp. tomato paste (175 gr.or 6 oz.) diluted in 4 cups hot water; or a 425-gr.  (15-oz.) can tomato sauce mixed with 3½ cups hot water ❖ 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, or to taste ❖ 1½ tsp. salt ❖ ¼ tsp. black pepper ❖ 2 or 3 small dried hot peppers (optional), whole ❖ 1 carrot, chopped ❖ ½ tsp. crushed coriander seeds ❖ ½ tsp. crushed cumin ❖ 3 garlic cloves, grated ❖ 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
In a medium pot, cover beans with 5 cm. (2 in.) of cold water. Bring to a quick boil, skimming as needed. Lower heat and let cook gently, covered, just until beans are almost tender, about 45 minutes. They will cook further in the stew.
In another heavy medium pot, saute meat pieces in oil until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup hot water, or just enough to barely cover the meat. Bring to a quick boil, skimming as needed, and then let meat simmer gently, covered, on low heat, until it is tender and moisture has evaporated, about 45 minutes for lamb or veal, or about 1 ½ hours for beef. If meat is tender and there is still some liquid in the pot, strain it and use it as part of the liquid required in the recipe.
Add onion to the meat and stir over low heat until it is transparent, about 5 minutes.
Stir in diluted tomato paste or sauce, lemon juice, salt, pepper and hot peppers if using.
Add beans and enough of their cooking liquid to cover meat and beans by about 2.5 cm. (1 in.). Add carrot, coriander, cumin and garlic. Stir pot and bring to a quick boil, skimming as needed. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer gently, covered, until meat and beans are tender and sauce is nicely thickened, about 40 minutes. Do not let beans get mushy. Adjust seasoning and lemon juice if needed.
Serve sprinkled with parsley.
If you don’t have fresh semi-hot green peppers, substitute regular green peppers. The green beans are cooked separately to keep their color bright, but if you prefer, you can add them to the stew along with the potatoes and a little extra water if needed.
If you like, serve the stew with rice.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil ❖ 1 onion, halved and sliced thin❖ 900 gr. (2 lbs.) beef shoulder, excess fat removed, cut in 2.5-cm. (1-in.) cubes ❖ 2 semi-hot green peppers, cut in small dice ❖ 1½ tsp. ground cumin ❖ ½ tsp. turmeric ❖ 4 garlic cloves, chopped ❖ 2 Tbsp. tomato paste❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper ❖ 2 small ripe tomatoes, diced (optional) ❖ 1½ cups water, or more if needed ❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) small or medium-size boiling potatoes ❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) green beans, ends removed, cut in 3 pieces ❖ Cayenne pepper to taste (optional) ❖ 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley or fresh coriander (optional)
Heat oil in large casserole, add onion and sauté about 7 minutes over medium-low heat. Add beef, peppers, cumin and turmeric and sauté about 7 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic and tomato paste and stir briefly over low heat. Add salt, pepper, tomatoes and 1 cup water. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 ½ hours or until beef is just tender.
Peel potatoes and cut in chunks about 2.5 cm. (1 in.) thick. Add to stew, and add ½ cup water. Cover and cook 40 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
Meanwhile, remove ends from beans and break them in half. Cook beans in a separate pan of boiling salted water about 7 minutes or until tender. Drain and reserve.
When potatoes are tender, add beans to stew and heat gently for 2 or 3 minutes to blend flavors.
Taste for seasoning, and add cayenne if desired.
Serve sprinkled with parsley.