Al-murri (also referred to as almouri or murri) is a condiment used in Middle Eastern cooking. Directions for making it are found in several period sources, including the earliest known Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (Book of Dishes) which was compiled in the tenth century by Abu Muhammad al-Muthaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq (referred to as al-Warraq). For reasons currently unknown to us, the use of al-murri fell out of favor sometime around the 13th century. Its existence was forgotten until modern scholars began translating period Arabic cookbooks.
How to make murri
My first attempt at murri was making al-murri al-maqi lil-maghariba [the infused soy sauce of the North Africans], using Charles PerryÕs translation in The Description of Familiar Foods (Kitab wasf al-atÕima al-muÕtada) found in Medieval Arab Cookery.
The North African version is made by grinding barley into a flour; adding water to make a paste or unleavened dough; and then wrapping the dough in fresh fig leaved, allowing it to dry slowly over a 40-day period. The result is a hardened piece of natural concrete (thereÕs really no other way to describe it) that has developed an organic greenish-gray coloration and is referred to as budhaj.
The translation of the period recipe into English is specific in the list of ingredients and methods (if not the amounts) used in the making of North African al-murri.
How to make al-murri
[the infused soy sauce of the North Africans]. Knead barley,
unleavened and without salt, exceedingly well and make it into
loaves, each one half an Egyptian pound. Then wrap them in
male fig leaves and insert fig tree twigs into them as far as
the leaves will permit. Spread them out on barley bran and
arrange them side by side in a house which sunlight does not
enter, or not much. Then leave it 20 days. Turn it over, top
to bottom, and leave it another 20 days. Then you gather them
with their rot and leaves and pile them up and leave them 20
days. Then you break off a piece of it, and if you find red
veins inside, it is quite ripe. If not, leave it another 20
days. Then take it in any case and clean off the decay with a
knife. Gather it and pound it in the mortar or grind in the
mill. Then weigh it, and add one-fifth of its weight in table
salt and as much dry thyme as salt, and as much milled dry
coriander as thyme, and as much as the coriander of these
spices: caraway, nigella, fenugreek, anise, fennel, each of
these the measure of a fifth: and let the fennel be more. Then
you put it in a new vessel, or [one] with a trace of oil, and
it should be wide-mouthed. And you put it on the rooftop so
that the sun falls on it most of the day, and you put water on
it until its consistency becomes like flowing date molasses.
You throw into it broken-up carob, fennel stalks, citron
leaves and the pith of [bitter] orange branches, of each as
much as is abundant, and two or three pine cones, as much as
is done; let their seeds have been removed. You stir it with a
stick of fig wood with branches, putting its end to the bottom
and its root on top and stirring it with the strength of
violent heat. And you cover it with a sieve woven of bast and esparto and put a cloth on it
to prevent wasps and flies from falling in, for they often
love it ardently. Leave it in the sun 40 days. Then you
clarify it with a filter and put it up in a clay pot for the
sun, shielded with oil. Then, for every 10 Egyptian pounds,
you throw in a third of a pound of flour of groats, kneaded leavener.
And if you want a third and baked in the bread oven but not
completely done. Then break it into crumbs while it is still
hot into this raised [sc. Murri] and leave it in the sun for
ten days. Strain it and put up in glass vessels sealed with
oil. This is the first extraction, and it is the excellent
one. If you want to extract another from it, take that which
you left before and add water to it and leave it for another
40 days. Then, after straining it, throw in hot bread as you
did before, and you leave it 10 days and strain it, and it is
the second water. And if you want a third and a fourth, do so.
Then keep the dregs and dry them in the shade as loaves, for
they enter into some dishes
My Recipe Redaction
The first part of the instructions are for making something called ŌbudhajÕ.
Step One: making the budhaj
One pound of hulled (not pearled) barley
Sticks/twigs from a fig tree
Grind the barley into groats. I use a mortar and pestle, grinding about a ¼ cup at a time (a food processor doesnÕt work for this process). After the barley is at groat stage, I grind it once more. This doesnÕt get it to the samid (rough flour) stage, but does produce a slightly finer texture. Add warm water to the barley; start with about a quarter cup and use your fingers to mix well, rubbing the water and barley together to help the barley absorb the water. Add enough water to produce a watery dough and then let it sit for a couple hours to allow the barley to absorb the additional water. Do this several times until the barley isnÕt readily absorbing additional water. This is your unleavened barley dough.
Divide that barley dough into roughly equal portions and shape them into small loaves. One pound of barley usually yields six small loaves for me.
Place each small loaf onto a fig leaf. The instructions call for male fig leaves. When looking at the two different types of fig leaves, one has the appearance of a maple leaf and the other an oak leaf with long fingers. Use the one that looks like the oak leaf. Wrap the fingers over and around the barley dough; using as many leaves as it takes to encase the dough in fig leaves. Wetting the fig leaves help them stick to the dough and to each other. Using a twig or stick from your fig tree, push two or three of them through the barley dough. This is easier to do if you use the male fig leaves because you donÕt have to break the leaves to insert the twigs.
Line a cookie sheet, cutting board, or other flat surface with parchment paper and spread barley (whole or crushed) onto the parchment paper. Put the fig leaf wrapped barley dough onto the barley to allow for air flow. Place the cookie sheet in a windowless or dark room and let it sit for 20 days. Turn it over, top to bottom (this is where the twigs come in handy) and leave it for another 20 days, for a total of 40 days. You can walk away from it but I like to watch and make notes on how it changes over time.
At the end of the 40 days you have budhaj, which is the main ingredient for both North African and Iraqi murri. Budhaj translates to Ņrotted barleyÓ which is where the rotted barley terminology became connected to murri. I donÕt consider the budhaj to be rotted in any way Š it neither smell nor looks what I consider rotten.
Making the Murri
Take three of the six budhaj pieces and remove the loose leaves from them (if you want to use all six pieces, double the herbs and spice you add and use two glass jars Š I use the other three for making Iraqi murri). It is likely that one or two layers of leaves have become one with the barley and thatÕs fine. The budhaj will be light and very hard Š donÕt hit anyone with it Š begin breaking it into smaller pieces. You will need something hard to accomplish this; I have used a marble mortar and pestle and sometimes a hammer. Remove the wood from the budhaj and continue breaking the budhaj into pea to acorn-sized pieces. I weigh mine to get a sense of how much I have. Three pieces (originally 1/2 pound of barley groats) provide about 4-5 ounces of usable budhaj by weight.
To the budhaj, add the following (by weight):
7/8 ounce salt Š I use kosher salt because it has no additives; natural, unflavored sea salt would also be appropriate
7/8 ounce thyme
7/8 ounce ground coriander
And then these in amounts that equal 7/8 ounce total (which means each is one-fifth of 7/8 ounce): caraway, nigella, fenugreek, anise and fennel. Then add enough fennel to bring the mixture up to one full ounce.
I know this does not seem like a lot, but the herbs and spices are light and will take quite a bit of volume to equal 7/8 ounce.
Put everything in a one gallon, wide-mouthed glass jar and add about one quart of room temperature water. There should be enough water to have 3-4 inches in the bottom of the jar (the amount of water used will depend on the diameter of your jar used). The solids will rise to the top of the liquid.
Put the jar in a warm, sunny spot in the heat of the summer and cover the opening with a piece of loosely-woven cotton (cheesecloth is fine) and secure the fabric to the opening (I use a rubber band). Stir it twice a day, every day, for 40 days with a stick from a fig tree. The instructions say to put it on a rooftop Š I put mine on top of a six-foot step ladder.
After a couple of days, the mixture will begin to bubble and may sound like pop rocks or Rice Krispies in milk. ItÕs fascinating. Keep stirring, twice a day, every day, and keep it in a warm, sunny location.
After about 20 days, the consistency and appearance will change from a two-part mixture (herbs and water with a definite separation between the two) to more of a single entity and will become slightly more viscous. It is at this point that I add the carob, fennel stalks and pine cone(s). Since I donÕt have access to the pith of bitter orange bark or citron leaves, I havenÕt made a batch with them yet, but use them if you have them. If you donÕt see a change in the consistency by day 25, go ahead and add the other ingredients. I also add two quarts of room temperature water along with the carob, fennel and pine cone(s).
At some point, an odd, milk-colored, film may form on the top of your murri. DonÕt panic. It has formed on almost every batch I have made and seems to appear after a couple of cloudy days. I have both skimmed it off and left it on Š it doesnÕt seem to make a difference in the final product.
Keep stirring. Keep it warm. Keep it exposed to as much sunlight as possible.
After 40 days, I begin the extraction process. On the day I am going to bottle my murri, I donÕt stir it and allow the dregs to settle on the bottom of the jar. I pour the liquid through a piece of clean muslin into a 2 quart glass measuring cup. This process is easier if you have another person to help you (one to pour and one to hold the muslin out of the liquid. Refrain from pouring the dregs into the measuring cup. This means that you will have some usable murri left in the jar and while that is difficult, itÕs ok because you are going to use that to start your next batch (Medieval Arab Cookery calls this the Ōsecond extractionÕ).
Strain the liquid again Š I usually strain it at least twice more but there will always be sediment in the bottom of your container. Just shake it up before you use it.
Transfer the liquid to a pretty bottle with a loose fitting cork top and congratulate yourself for making your first batch of murri!
A note of caution for storage: Murri contains active, natural yeast which will continue to be active after you bottle it (the period method for storage is in an open container with a layer of oil on top). It is best to not store it in a sunny place or in a container with a tight-fitting lid. IÕve had one cork blown off the top of one container (loosing precious murri in the process). A cool, dry place or in the fridge are the best places for murri storage.
For pictures of the step-by-step process, go to: https://www.pinterest.com/blueyodel/al-murri-project/