“First you pour the arak,” insists Sameh Wadi. “Then you add the water. And only then do you add the ice.”
Outside the windows of Jon Wipfli’s kitchen, the first big winter snow sits thick on a pair of spruce trees. It is an unexpected setting for a round of arak—a Middle Eastern version of the aniseed-flavored drinks found across the Mediterranean, from French pastis, to Italian sambuca, to Turkish raki, to Greek ouzo. It is a drink associated with sunshine and heat and men talking around cafe tables with the invigorating reek of sea air somewhere nearby.
Sameh Wadi—born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents—has roots that dig deep into the rocky ground of the eastern Mediterranean. But he did most of his growing up in Minneapolis and is an essential feature of the Twin Cities food world, which roots him equally deeply in the glacial till of the American Upper Midwest. And so, it is maybe just exactly right to be serving arak in Minneapolis tonight, in the shadow of a couple of snow-draped boreal evergreens.
At the kitchen island, under his signature pork pie hat, he demonstrates the technique, as half a dozen talkative guests grow quiet and watch him pour.
“See how the clear liquid turns milky?” he asks. “That’s because the essential oils from the anise are emulsifying in the water. If you add ice first, the oils solidify and float, and it affects the look and the taste.”
But the proper sequence of arak assembly is among the least complicated techniques currently at work in the Wipfli kitchen, and once glasses have been raised, and tentative licorice-fumed sips taken, and the volume of the gathered voices has risen back up to mid-party volume, Wadi returns to the stove.
There are about 20 pounds of lamb haunch in the oven, in the final stages of breaking down into drop-from-the-bone tenderness.
“My mom’s rule was, ‘You know it’s getting close, when you can smell the meat.’”
The lamb has just entered its sixth hour in the oven, after first being marinated in yogurt, onion, lemon, and warming spices—clove, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, black pepper.
“And you know it’s done when you poke it and it doesn’t poke you back.”
There is a shouted, perhaps arak-fueled, question from the far side of the room.
“With your finger,” he answers, shaking a saucepan of candied carrots. “I never recommend poking it with any other body parts.”
The carrots he’s shaking will cook down in water, sugar, and orange juice until all the liquid has reduced into a sweet glaze.
Next to the carrots, a pot of slow-cooked, dark-spiced green beans is turning from olive to khaki, and beginning to fall apart. It’s his grandma’s recipe, and it’s also the dish he credits with changing the focus of his cooking about seven years ago from “hiding behind sauces and microgreens,” to more unapologetically showcasing the flavors of his heritage. It’s a humble and surprising dish, a dish his brother told him he was “f…ing crazy” to try to sell in a restaurant like Saffron, which they had by then turned into a Minnesota haute cuisine institution.
Instead of taking his brother’s advice, Wadi overhauled the menu at Saffron to feature exactly such things as “grandma’s overcooked green beans,” as he calls them. The dish’s darkly spicy, authentic, garlicky flavor turned it into an essential and permanent part of the menu there, before the restaurant, to the despair of many Twin Citians, closed this December.
In theory, supervising a lamb roast and two vegetable dishes should be enough for one cook to worry about.
But the most important dish of the evening is just getting started, and its implications appear to rattle the until now unflappable chef.
“If I get to choose, this will be my last meal, you guys,” he had announced when we first arrived. “This is a meal for my mother.”
He lifts a burlap bag and pours a ringing stream of rice into a huge stainless mixing bowl.
He is making Persian Jeweled Rice, and although 20 pounds of roast lamb might appear to be the evening’s featured dish, it most emphatically is not.
“Okay,” he says. “This is actually aged rice from Pakistan. They age it for a year and it deepens the flavor, but also look.” He holds out a small palmful of the rice. “See how there are no broken or partial grains? It’s really good rice. And it has to be. Because everything depends on the rice. The rice has to be perfect.”
What does perfect rice mean? Well, there are a lot of careful steps to get there, and Wadi has a reason for each one, and a story for most. Listening to him narrate his way through the preparation of something most of us throw in salted water and cover for 20 minutes is an education—a reevaluation of how complex rice can be, and a glimpse into the kind of attention and care that a great cook is willing to lavish on details that we lesser cooks ignore or leave to chance.
So. The rice needs to be rinsed three or four times, to remove the starch that would bind the grains to each other. We are aiming for a fluffy pilaf, not a clingy risotto. Then Wadi toasts some saffron in a saucepan, reminding us that saffron, like cumin, is a spice with essential oils that toasting can bring out and enhance. The toasted saffron is steeped in water and set to simmer into a concentrated saffron tea.
A big spoonful of butter has been melting in a separate pan and is now heated to a brown, a little bit past hazelnut (“That’s not traditional but I’m a renegade”). A handful of cardamom seeds have been cracked individually, so that both the seed and the outer shell can add their differing flavors, and they get tossed in the butter, along with a cinnamon stick, which will stay in the rice until the end. (“If you get a cinnamon stick on your plate it means good luck.”) The rinsed rice is added to this aromatic butter stew, and salted, and it soaks all of that fat and flavor up, before the water is added. The rice is cooked on high to encourage a dryer ring of rice near the outside of the pan, and a soupy core near the middle.
Finally, with an elegant swirl, Wadi pours an arc of saffron tea in such a way that it will be absorbed by some of the rice, but not all of it; the saffroned rice and the non-saffroned rice will only be stirred together at the end to add to the complexity of the flavor. He has used just enough liquid, Wadi dearly hopes, so that it will all be exactly absorbed when the rice is done.
What does perfect rice mean? It means all of the above, and it means that, in the end, as Wadi puts it, “Each grain of rice stands as a soldier—the same, but separate, from all of the rice around it.”
He puts the lid on the rice and the process is now out of his control.
“A young cousin of mine was going to get married,” he says, looking grave. “Whoever was making the rice messed it up. You know what they did? They moved the wedding.”
We all stare at the pot of rice.
The carrots are done. The green beans are in a serving bowl. The salad is dressed. The lamb is out of the oven, steaming in its roasting tray, on top of vegetables that have been basted for six hours in seasoned yogurt marinade and lamb fat.
None of it matters.
“Okay,” says Wadi. “Whatever you believe in, pray to it now.”
He lifts the lid from the rice pot, and peeks in. He knows right away. His shoulders slump. He lets out a forced little sigh.
“It worked,” he says.
He fluffs the rice with a spoon, and then tries to form a little handful of it into a ball. When, like too-cold snow, it fails to hold together, he nods with satisfaction, and lets the rice stand a few minutes longer, encouraging any final grains not uniformly cooked to reach the state of perfection of the standing soldiers around them.
Everybody in the room takes a therapeutic sip of arak.
The jeweled rice receives its jewels. The rice is mounded in a serving bowl, and carefully strewn with a crown of dried fruit: currants, golden raisins, white figs, black figs, pomegranate seeds, orange, cherries, apricots, dried roses, and bright orange candied carrots.
And dinner is served.
Despite the fact that five dishes have come together perfectly, it’s not a chef meal. Just as Slow-Cooked Green Beans is not a chef dish. Sometimes food, even food cooked by a master, isn’t about virtuosity, but about communication.
When Wadi was a boy, he would sit on his mother’s counter and ask questions, while she made meals like this for celebrations and family gatherings and special occasions. They were meals meant to commemorate two things: The present moment celebrated with food, and the blessings of culture that make the food and the moment possible.
Wadi speaks three languages, plus one. Tonight, he has translated his mother’s kitchen for us into the language of food.
The noise in the room grows louder. Everyone is eating and drinking and talking.
The bottle of arak sits on the counter. A transplant from the Middle East in the center of a Minneapolis kitchen. Giving of itself. Spreading delight among us.