When writing about Middle Eastern food, it's often impossible to assign particular dishes to particular cultures. For instance, baklawa, hummus, grape leaves, and labneh, (and many, many more) are central to many different cuisines throughout the region. But while there is a lot of overlap and influence, there are also some important differences and nuances, and each cuisine has its own specialties and unique creations.
That's all just to say that I often blog about dishes that Assyrian cuisine has in common with many other cultures (some are our own inventions that have become widespread, and some are dishes that we have adopted from the many nations we inhabit), but there are some things that we make that are unique to our culture. As far as I can tell, gurdthu is one of those things.
Gurdthu marries two of the most important staples of our cuisine, yogurt and rice, to create the creamiest rice pudding imaginable. But calling it "rice pudding" is merely an approximation, since gurdthu is not necessarily sweet; instead, the naturally sour flavor of yogurt is the key here. To make very traditional gurdthu, we ferment yogurt from scratch, but we let it go extra long until it becomes very sour. Then we mix together the yogurt, rice, egg, and water and stir it constantly while bringing it to a simmer. Once it's simmering, we reduce the heat to low and let it cook until the rice becomes very soft and the whole thing thickens into a beautiful, rich, velvety custard.
Gurdthu is delicious plain, but it's also traditionally served with a variety of toppings. If you tend to like sweet rice pudding, it's lovely with a drizzle of honey or date syrup. My favorite traditional gurdthu topping is melted butter, and swirling in both butter and honey makes this comfort food at its absolute best. Some people even like to eat gurdthu with Turkish coffee dusted on top, but that's just a little too efficient for my taste.
I'm currently working on a traditional gurdthu post, with homemade yogurt and the whole shebang, but for now I'll leave you with my current favorite, since I love finding new ways to enjoy gurdthu. Lately I've been steeping it with bay leaves, cardamom, and vanilla, and then drizzling honey on top and serving it with fresh figs, which are at their sweetest right now. Bay leaves seem to have become pigeon-holed in savory foods, but they can add flavor to a lot more things than a pot roast. They work perfectly with vanilla and cardamom, and give everything a floral flavor that's not too cloying. But the flavor of bay leaves is subtle, so it's important to make sure you're not using expired ones.
spiced gurdthu with fresh figs
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
Active time: 20 minutes
4 cups plain whole milk yogurt (1 quart container of non-Greek yogurt or 1/4 of a homemade batch)
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
2/3 cup medium grain rice, rinsed (e.g., Calrose)
1 vanilla bean, scraped
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, plus more for sprinkling
Honey, for serving
6 to 8 figs, cut into pieces (or another fruit if figs are not in season, such as berries or cherries).
- In a stock pot, whisk together the yogurt, water, and salt.
- Beat the egg in a small bowl and then whisk it into the yogurt mixture.
- Stir in the rice, vanilla bean pod and scrapings, bay leaves, and cardamom, and place the stockpot over medium heat. Stir constantly while you bring it to a simmer, about 10 to 15 minutes. Once it comes to a simmer, lower the heat until it is maintaining a bare simmer (low or medium-low heat).
- Continue to stir occasionally for 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked through and the yogurt has thickened. Remove the bay leaves and vanilla pod once it is done.
- Serve it hot or let it cool to room temperature. Serve with a drizzle of honey, a pinch of cardamom, and a few fig pieces.