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  • Food in the 'Hood

    Cracking the Walnut

    So ordinary is the walnut to us, so extraordinary in many other cultures. “I went down into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley,” King Solomon says of walnuts in the Old Testament. The ancient tree, a long-lived, sturdy hardwood that can tower a 100 feet, impressed the Greeks with its majesty. The puny acorn’s fruits were fit for men; the walnut’s, for the Gods.

    The Greeks called the walnut karya, some think, from kara, the word for head. In their minds, the walnut shell resembled the skull and its kernels, the hemispheres of the brain. Centuries later, European herbalists, who considered the walnut cerebral nourishment, recommended it for head ailments and mental illness. The 17th century English herbalist William Cole recommended that a crushed walnut laid “upon the Crown of the Head . . . comforts the brain and head mightily.”

    The Romans invested the nut with similar qualities. They called the celestial walnut “Juglans,” or Jupiter’s acorn. The prolific tree also represented fertility and abundance to the Romans. The charmed walnuts became part of their wedding festivities. Guests celebrated by showering bride and groom with them. After the wedding feast, the couple scattered walnuts around their bedroom.

    Native to a swath of land that stretched from the Himalayas to the Caucasus, the nut’s heartland was Persia. To the Greeks, the walnut was persikon. Since it was the Persian king who sent both the Greeks and Romans this gift, the walnut acquired a royal aura. In Persia, Greece, and Rome, the walnut was reserved for the royalty and aristocracy. The Persians, scholars surmise, domesticated the tree that grew widely in the mountainous north of what is today Iran. They picked out trees with the most desirable features and husbanded these varieties. The Persian walnut, as it is still called today, is distinguished by larger, sweeter nuts than those found in the wild. It is also more easily cracked open. (This essay centers on the Persian or English walnut, familiar to us in snacks and desserts, rather than the black walnut, a tree native to North America.)

    So sacred was the walnut to the Persians that it was considered a “sin” to cut down one of the trees. Parents honored its fecundity by planting a walnut to mark the birth of each new child. The gerdu (Persian for the “round one”) was not only revered, its fruits were savored. Walnuts were a treat to be shared with guests as well as a street food. Walnuts were hawked by the gerdu-ee, or walnut vendor. “In the early to mid-summer months, he would set up his gig on the house-side of the open gutter . . . selling his freshly peeled walnuts by the fal [a unit of sale equal to six walnuts, if memory serves] from the murky water of a huge glass jar,” the Persian writer Guive Mirfendereski recalls. “The salt was a little extra. Sometimes he would set the fal up into pyramid structure, which he would scoop with his fingers . . . and place the nuts in a newspaper wrap.”

    Inventive Persian cooks used walnuts in their dishes. In fesenjan, a classic festive stew of duck or pheasant (now chicken) adored by the aristocracy, the bird was braised in a dark brown sauce that married ground walnuts and tart pomegranate syrup. The crunch of sweet walnuts also enhances the flavor of mast-o kheeyar, a yogurt dish of chopped cucumbers fragrant with dill and mint, which can also be made into a refreshing summer soup.

    From Persia, the walnut traveled east. The Chinese, who traded with Persia, took advantage of the domesticated “peach of the Westerners.” They believed it strengthened the body and possessed other health-giving properties. Migrating west, the walnut reached Britain with the conquering Romans. Initially regarded as a “foreign” nut (or walh-hnuta in Old English), the walnut in time was tagged the “English walnut.” English ships carried the fruits in their holds and spread them throughout their trading empire.

    Europe’s gentry supped on the nuts at banquets. Borrowing a technique from Middle-Eastern cooking, chefs served stews and soups thickened with ground walnuts at parties. The nut also provided basic sustenance in Medieval Europe. It fed the hungry during famines. Walnut milk, made from pounded and ground-up nuts soaked in water, often replaced dairy milk.

    America, in the forests of which the Eastern walnut already grew, received the Persian walnut from the Spanish Franciscan priests who settled in California during the 18th century. The “mission walnuts” they planted were the forebears of the commercially grown walnuts that years later were harvested from the state’s Central Valley.

    It is still in the Middle East and in Central Asia that the virtues of the walnut are most appreciated. The Turks, for example, prepare a thick, garlicky walnut sauce called tarator to accompany vegetable and fish dishes. During the time of the Ottoman empire this spread gained popularity in Serbia, Macedonia, and other parts of the Balkan realm of the Turks. Walnuts are also essential to muhamarrah, a Turkish appetizer. The dip, whose name means brick colored in Arabic, is a blend of puréed roasted red peppers, ground walnuts, and breadcrumbs. The mixture is fired up with cumin and hot red pepper and infused with the tartness of pomegranate syrup and lemon juice. The oil and crunch of the walnuts enhance the tasty dish.

    The most celebrated of walnut dishes is enveloped in myth. Even more than its exotic name, the tales of Circassian Chicken make it seem seductive. The dish, it is generally agreed, originated in the northwest region of the Caucasus, an area once ruled by the Turks that includes present-day Georgia. A standard of the mezze array of small plates, cold chicken suffused in walnut sauce is spiced with paprika in Turkey. Variations of the delicacy are prepared in Armenian, Georgian, and Syrian kitchens.

    The dish has become synonymous with the comely women of Circassia, who were brought to Turkey in the 16th century after the Ottomans took their homeland. The women were made the brides and concubines of Turkish royalty. Food writer Arto der Haroutounian thinks it likely that the chicken plate was “probably introduced into Turkey by the beautiful Circassian girls who were bought for the whiteness of their skin, their fair hair, and nimble fingers. . . .” Turkish food expert, Ghillie Basan, offers a different take on its origins. The dish is Circassian, he says, because its “pale colour” resembles the “complexions” of the beautiful women. Or perhaps, as culinary historian Ayla Algar suggests, the silky sensuality of the dish evoked images of these “voluptuous” courtesans. The story of Circassian chicken once more invests the ordinary walnut with an uncommon allure.

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    Walnut Wonders

    Agora (1527 17th St., NW; 332-1767). Highlighting the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean, this restaurant offers cerkez tavugu, a plate of cold poached chicken adorned with chopped walnuts and flavored with garlic and olive oil.

    Café Divan (1834 Wisc. Ave., NW; 338-1747, 48. Among the varied appetizers of this Turkish dining room is Haydari, a dip of thick yogurt topped with chopped walnuts. Divan will bring out its version of cerkez tavugu in March.

    Firehook ( 1909 Q St., NW; 588-9296). The Dupont Circle outlet of this bakery/café markets raisin-walnut as one of its standard breads.

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    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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