The Life of Briam

21 May 2020

There were signs this week of life slowly beginning to return to some sort of normal.  Cafes and terraces are set to open once again in Almaty from next week and the streets are busier. We’re not planning on changing too much at the moment and, in the meantime, we’re content to continue our armchair culinary travels.

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Half-way there – assembling the briam…

Greece has been in the headlines this week with the news that its beaches are reopening and it’s preparing to open its borders to tourists next month. This news brought back memories of holidays in the Greek islands and the great food in the tavernas. One of our favourite dishes is briam (pronounced bree-AM) – a delicious stew of oven-roasted seasonal vegetables.

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Briam – good enough to eat

As usual, we’ve taken a few liberties with the recipe, omitting aubergines (usually a key ingredient) as they are not quite in season in Almaty yet, so foodie purists please look away. We’ve added carrot and spinach to the usual potatoes and courgettes and then cooked it slowly in a tomato sauce. We’ve also topped it with some breadcrumbs to enclose our briam.

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The name briam has an interesting history – it is a borrowed word – there is no letter ‘b’ in the Greek alphabet, instead this sound is represented by combining the letters ‘μ’ (m) and ‘π’ (p) – ‘μπ’. Many Greeks call this casserole tourlou tourlou (all mixed-up), so briam could have come from Greeks who lived in Anatolia until the mass population exchanges in the early 20th century.

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Briam and salad

 

In the Ottoman era, there was a word biryan, spelt büryan in modern Turkish, which refers to a side of lamb cooked slowly over charcoal in a pit in the ground – a speciality of Siirt in the Kurdish area on the borders with Iraq and Syria. This in turn could come from Persian, where biryan means roasted (notice the similarity with India’s biriyani). Whatever the name’s origin, it tastes great!

Ingredients (serves 4)

For the bake:

  • Two courgettes (approx 300 g)
  • Four potatoes (approx 300 g)
  • One carrot (approx 100 g)
  • 200 g spinach
  • 75 g breadcrumbs

For the tomato sauce:

  • One red onion
  • 250 g tomatoes
  • One bunch of parsley
  • 20 capers
  • 25 ml olive oil
  • One teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 250 ml vegetable stock or water

Method

  1. Make the tomato sauce first. Heat the oil in a heavy based pan, add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop add the chopped onions and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally. After five minutes reduce the heat and add the chopped tomatoes. Stir and simmer for ten minutes then add the stock, chopped parsley and capers. Cook until the liquid has reduced by half.
  2. Cook the spinach for a few minutes until it is beginning to wilt and then set aside. Cut the potato, courgette and carrot into 1 mm slices and put a layer of potatoes, then courgettes and then carrots into a greased baking dish. Add the spinach and pour half the tomato sauce over the vegetables. Add another layer of potatoes and courgettes and then pour the remainder of the tomato sauce over the layers. Spread the breadcrumbs over the top.
  3. Cover with tin foil and bake in an oven at 180 c for around 1.5 hours. After an hour, remove the foil and cook for another 20-30 minutes until the breadcrumbs go start to go a golden brown colour. Keep an eye on it to make sure the breadcrumbs aren’t burning. Serve immediately with a fresh salad – it’s also great when it’s cooled down a bit.