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Got Rotted Milk?

September 02, 1998|CHARLES PERRY

As regular readers of this section know, the Arabs used to make soy sauce in the Middle Ages. They just called it murri.

The murri-making process was about the same as the soy sauce method used in China. You'd wrap loaves of raw barley dough in fig leaves to infect it with molds (in China, steamed rice is wrapped in reed leaves). When the stuff was good and green, you'd add a third as much salt and enough water to make a muddy paste. Then you'd just let nature take its course.

The main difference is that in East Asia, you rot rice and then use the rice to rot soybeans, which are the main material of soy sauce. Still, murri and soy sauce taste about the same.

The medieval Arabs also used to mix salt and rotted barley with milk to make a condiment called kamakh ahmar, which was supposed to sit outdoors in the hottest part of summer until it turned red. What do you suppose that that would be like? Yogurt mixed with soy sauce?

So you might think, but here's what actually happens. The high concentration of green Penicillium mold spores in the rotted barley heads off the growth of most bacteria. What you get is a greenish-reddish-brown sauce--the older it gets, the thicker and redder--that smells like a loud blue cheese; Penicillium molds are what makes blue cheese blue.

Medieval Arab poets praised the "sharpness and pungency" of kamakh ahmar, and, boy, were they ever accurate. If you like Gorgonzola, though, you'd like kamakh ahmar.

The resemblance to cheese probably explains why this stuff was often flavored with thyme, basil, mint, garlic or onion. It would make a medieval flavored cheese spread, along the lines of Boursin.

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