Editor’s Note: One cooking technique caught our eye as we hungrily read through Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley’s new cookbook, Falastin. So we asked the authors to tell us more about adha, a toasty, garlicky topping for many favorite Palestinian dishes.
Is there any aroma which signals the comfort that dinner’s almost ready more than that of pan-fried garlic? It’s a trick Tara often uses, on the sly, when running late cooking at home in South London. Put on some chopped or crushed garlic to gently warm and, as far as her family’s concerned, it seems like supper is minutes away. It’s a cheeky ruse, though: She’s often winging it, adding garlic to a pan to start a dish, not to finish it off and call people to the table.
For Sami, on the other hand, growing up on the cobbled streets of East Jerusalem, the smell of garlic gently frying was no such olfactory ruse. Once the smell of freshly baked morning bread gave way to other aromas, it was that of frying garlic which filled the lunch and suppertime air. Far from being some mother’s attempt to start a dish and see off the inevitable cry of when is dinner going to be ready?, this sizzling garlic was so often the final touch before a meal—a feast, no less, for this is Palestine!—was ready to be served.
The same basic ingredients, then—oil, garlic, spices, a couple of other aromatics—but two different techniques for cooking them, serving very different roles in the dish. What Tara is doing is sweating down the garlic and aromatics, making them soft and sweet and receptive to whatever is going to be added next to the pan. This base heralds, roots, and infuses the dish to come. What Sami is smelling is the very opposite: not the base of the dish but the finishing touch. It’s garlic-and-spices as garnish: golden brown, crunchy slivers or pieces of chopped garlic and gently crushed spices ready to be sprinkled over a dish, along with the now infused garlicky oil. This finishing-touch technique—the final “ta-da” before serving—is what Sami grew up calling adha, and it’s used throughout the Levant. It likely came to the Middle East from the Ottomans (who liked to finish dishes off with a drizzle of infused, melted warm butter), or India, where the word tarka refers to the method of frying aromatics in hot oil or ghee.
Across the Levant, the technique goes by various names. In Egypt, for example, it’s called taqliya. Taqliya is derived from the verb qaly which means “to fry.” Traditionally, the garlic, cumin and coriander seeds are crushed in a mortar and pestle, and then gently heated to draw out their flavor and infuse the oil. It’s spooned over a wide range of dishes, like rice and pulses, stews and soups, or grilled meat or fish. Gaza, which borders Egypt, calls the garnish by the same name, but in other parts of Palestine it can go by the name tasha, tasheh, or qadha, which translates to “lighting on fire.” In the Levant, the letter q is generally dropped when things are pronounced and replaced by the a, phonetically, which is how we get from qadha to adha.
Whatever name it goes by, the technique describes the process by which garlic is transformed into a look-at-me garnish which completes a dish. There will be other things in the mix depending on the region or the recipe. In Gaza, for example, the green chiles and basil or dill that characterize much of the local cuisine will often be wedded to the garlic. Elsewhere in the region, whole coriander or cumin seeds are common, along with some freshly chopped cilantro or parsley leaves stirred through once the pan is off the heat. The hot oil draws out the aromas of whatever’s in the pan. No matter what you add, though, adha is essentially all about the crunchy, fragrant garlic.