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Toum, a Middle Eastern sauce, is an essential garlic season condiment


Creamy and delicious, toum is a fine way to put garlic on just about anything. - CHARLES HAYNES
  • Charles Haynes
  • Creamy and delicious, toum is a fine way to put garlic on just about anything.

Garlic season is here: Pikes Peak Urban Gardens' online tip sheet notes the average harvest date for our area is July 21, when the plant's leaves have browned. That means weeks of curing bulbs will soon be underway, and urban gardeners will set aside their biggest bulbs to replant come October. That leaves plenty of bulbs for eating over winter.

But there are so many things worth doing with fresh garlic. I just learned a recipe for a glorious garlic sauce that seems to defy the laws of physics and the culinary universe. I first encountered this "Garlic Sauce," as it was labeled, a few blocks from my parents' house on the west side of Boston, where there are a few blocks of what we call the Armenian area. There, markets offer a mix of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Southern Caucasus, thanks to the wide path carved by the Armenian diaspora.

Whenever I'm in town, I head for those Armenian markets, and their endlessly fascinating aisles of fresh, canned, bottled, dried and pickled foods. I'll go ostensibly for a stuffed eggplant, maybe a box of cardamom tea and some baklava. But I'm really there for the promise of discovery, and the possibility that I may stumble upon some unknown delicacy or ingredient that rocks my world.

The yogurt options, including kefir cheese, are varied, spectacular and creamy. The many formulations of chocolate, which include Nutella-like substances labeled in Cyrillic and other chocolate creamy and wafer-y options, are a joy to explore as well. But my biggest score ever happened recently, at a Lebanese-owned store called Arax, where I found this garlic sauce that handles and tastes like mayo.

Actually, it is mayo ... sort of. It's called toum, a word that can be used interchangeably in Arabic to mean both garlic and the special crème in question. And, as can happen with other condiments, toum becomes the reason to eat the food it's ostensibly there to flavor.

So let's review mayonnaise: It's an emulsion, a mixture of oil and lemon juice (or vinegar) that won't easily separate. Egg yolk, a powerful emulsifier, brokers mayo's stable bond. Toum is an emulsion as well, between oil and lemon, but is brokered by garlic, which, surprisingly, is an emulsifier as well.

There are many competing theories as to mayo's origin, but the most credible one I can find is that it evolved from allioli, an emulsion of olive oil and lemon juice, with garlic and salt. Mayonnaise was born when it was discovered yolk is a more powerful emulsifier than garlic — it presented a shortcut.

When, at the Armenian store, I read the ingredients of "Garlic Sauce," I felt like an archaeologist discovering some important artifact at a flea market. Getting information from the staff on how it was made was like pulling teeth, but I at least walked out with its real name. And the sauce itself, which proved as glorious and versatile as anticipated.

Some people add egg whites, mashed potatoes, bread, flour, corn or potato starch, and other thickeners to their toum. I do not. I keep it in the original Mediterranean tradition. The sauce will improve anything that goes in your mouth, including grilled food, barbecue, fish, chicken, pizza, pasta, vegetables, and even soup. It acts as a great marinade too. One favorite: Mix some with tahini and yogurt, and toss it with sliced cucumbers, minced mint, a sprinkle of cumin and a squeeze of lemon, for a refreshing summer salad.

And here, at long last, is a recipe for toum, that creamy, fluffy mountain of flavor:

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