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A Symbol of Spring
Laden with meaning for people of faith, lamb is also just plain delicious
At his new Seattle restaurant, Lark, chef John Sundstrom serves braised Moroccan-style lamb shanks over pine nuts and currant couscous. Cilantro and parsley leaves tossed with lemon juice and olive oil provide a flavorful garnish.
I recently discovered a little treatise on Middle Eastern cooking that has rapidly become one of my favorites: "Ziryab, Authentic Arab Cuisine" ($32, Ici la Press), by Farouk Mardam-Bey. The original Ziryab, a distant ancestor of the author, was a black freedman who left his native Iraq in the year 820 A.D. to settle in Cordoba, Spain. Musician, philosopher, geographer and gourmand, he is credited with bringing asparagus, good manners and all around bonhomie to the medieval Spanish table. As for Mardam-Bey, he was born in Syria in 1944 and writes culinary chronicles for Qantara, the quarterly journal of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Filled with anecdotes, witticisms and food lore, the book praises 17 specific foodstuffs, including grapes, pistachios, artichokes, apples, tomatoes and saffron. Of the 80 or so recipes in the book, at least two dozen contain lamb. There's Lamb and Apricot Stew, Baked Kebbe with lamb and bulgar, and best of all, several "tadgines" including Tadgine with Dates and one with artichokes and fava beans.

 Lamb shank tagine with preserved lemon and harissa yogurt
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"Tadgine," more commonly spelled tagine or tajine, is both the container in which food is cooked and the name of a dish prepared in such a container.

There are chicken tagines and vegetable tagines, but by far the most popular subject for a tagine is lamb. To most North American cooks, lamb is just one of several meat options at the local supermarket. But to most of our ancestors and to most people in the Middle East, lamb has a singular significance. This is particularly true in late winter and early spring, when Jews celebrate Passover, Christians celebrate Easter and Muslims celebrate the anniversary of Abraham's famous test at Moriah. The festival is held on the 10th day of the last month of the Muhammedan year, and it marks the sacrifice of a lamb by the patriarch Abraham.

Born around 1800 B.C. in the ancient city of Ur in Babylonia — modern-day Iraq — Abraham, a biblical figure of mythic proportions, was the father of Isaac and Ishmael as well as the father of the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. His sacrifice — at least among the faithful — is seen as a pivotal moment in human history. Abraham is told to bring Isaac to a mountain, build an altar and offer the boy as a blood sacrifice. When Abraham raises the knife to kill the boy, the Angel of the Lord cries out from heaven, "Do not lay a hand on the boy," and a ram, suitable for sacrifice, appears in the bushes.

Four hundred years later, lamb took on new significance when Moses led Isaac's descendants out of captivity in Egypt, and the lamb became an integral part of Passover. Then 1,400 years after that, the sacrificial lamb resonated with the "Lamb of God," at the center of the Christian faith. If all of this sounds painfully terse, it is. How can we begin to address the cultural significance of lamb to Middle Eastern cooking?

Suffice it to say that this time of year, lamb is inescapably loaded with symbolic meaning. But it's not necessary to understand all of that to enjoy lamb, especially when it's prepared by a capable chef like John Sundstrom, patriarch of the dazzling new restaurant Lark on Capitol Hill. There, in a nod to Middle Eastern tradition, Sundstrom is serving a lamb shank in that most distinctive Middle Eastern cooking vessel, the tagine.

Interestingly, Sundstrom's tagine is flavored with tomato, an ingredient unknown to the original Ziryab but quite popular with his descendant, Mardam-Bey. Tomatoes only became known in the Old World when Spanish conquistadors brought them back from the Americas in the 16th century. Nevertheless, I think it's safe to assume that Ziryab would approve of the colorful addition to an otherwise traditional rendering of this flavorful dish.

Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor to Food Arts magazine and culinary consultant. He can be reached at

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