These pickled lemons are the doqq variety which is small and very thin skinned.
Anissa: It has been quite some time since Charles Perry did a guest post but here he is now with another fascinating post on pickling lemons.
Charles: The Arabs have been pickling lemons since the Middle Ages. The 13th-century book Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib says, “Salty lemons (laimun malih). They are so well known they need no description.” Nevertheless, Wusla eventually gives a recipe: “Take lemons, slice them crosswise and fill them with crushed salt. Then press them into a bowl and leave for two nights for them to soften. Then press them very strongly into a glass jar, squeeze lemon juice to cover and pour it over them, and seal with oil. Their flavor keeps well.” The flavor of pickled lemons is distinctive – somewhat piney, but not bracing like pine; in fact, plush, languid, decadent. Food science writer Harold McGee tells me the chemistry of this change has not been studied, but he speculates that the pine note comes from chemicals in lemon peel called terpenes – there are also terpenes in conifers, where they also serve to protect the plant from microbes.
Lemon juice itself can be salted. A couple of years ago I came across a recipe – I think it’s Omani, but I can’t find the source now – for a lime juice “vinegar” (khall). I’ve made it by mixing 1 quart lime juice with ½ cup salt, sealing it in a jar and leaving it in the sun for two weeks. It developed a plush pickled-lemon character, but without the pine note, which certainly suggests McGee is right about the role of terpenes. Terpenes are basically found in the peel.
I snapped this jar in Leila’s shop and I love how the salt has leached through the walls of the glazed jar.
Back in the Eighties, I collected a number of manuscripts of K.Wusla, and I’m finally getting around to transcribing the text in my computer. Pickled lemons show up in a few of its recipes (often recipes that include sumac). One says to mix minced lemon (I would assume it would be pickled) in meatballs (mudaqqaqa), and I must say this has an appealing sound.
But that wasn’t my big discovery. It was this: Finally I understand what medieval recipes mean when they call for “green lemons.” I had assumed these were limes, or perhaps lemons pickled green. In fact, “green” in this case turns out to mean fresh. The recipe for mutayyab of chicken says to squeeze onto sumac “the juice of green lemons — or aged (‘atiq), if fresh are unavailable.” There are references to aged lemon juice in other recipes, and I had always assumed the juice itself had been aged (though I did wonder how that was done). In fact, the recipes are apparently referring to the juice of aged – that is, pickled – lemons.
Here is a picture of one of Leila’s pickled lemons. She uses organic lemons from the Amalfi coast which are large and thick skinned. In either case, you need to get rid of the pulp and only use the skin.
This is a little surprising to me, partly because there isn’t much juice in one pickled lemon, but mostly because what seems so valuable about salted lemons is their distinctive flavor. As it happens, medieval recipes never mention the pickled flavor – they never say to salt lemons “until they reach their end” or “until their smell is good” or any such phrase. Medieval people pickled lemons so they could enjoy them out of season. Lemons keep fairly well, but not forever, and much of the year one had to make do with the pickled form.
Leila’s fresh lemons from the Amalfi coast.
Here’s one recipe from Wusla that explicitly calls for pickled juice. If I’m right about seasonality, the lemon juice called for earlier in the recipe is also pickled.
Kashkiyyat al-khuddam:. Boil meat. Make balls of pounded meat with rice and crushed chickpeas in them, and boil them with the meat and whole soaked chickpeas. Boil picked-over and washed rice in the meat broth. [When done,] Moisten with yogurt and a little lemon juice. Put in minced parsley, qirt [a mild variety of leek which I believe to be the same as tarreh, also called Persian chives] and the juice of salted lemons — cut them small [presumably the leeks] — and tail fat, and leave until it is done, and ladle it out.
Anissa: Thank you Charles. As usual, you bring a fresh and erudite look to what is a rather common foodstuf, at least nowadays. I can’t say that I will be rushing to make the recipe. Not because it doesn’t sound delicious but because the cursory instructions make it sound difficult but it is interesting how the meat and rice balls are similar to a recipe I have in my Moroccan book, although the mixture has no chickpeas in it, and how the combination of meat chunks and meatballs in the same dish reminds me of Syrian kabab dishes!