I don’t know where I first learned of toum, the wonderfully addictive Lebanese garlic sauce and I’ve been wracking my brain the last few days to remember. I thought it might have been David Lebovitz or maybe a Splendid Table podcast. I honestly cannot remember but however it happened, I eventually found myself on the Splendid Table website reading Bonnie Benwick’s recipe from the Washington Post, salivating and wanting to know more. When a post starts “Requirement: Must Love Garlic”, sign me up.
Toum is a garlic sauce common to the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. Similar to a Provençal aioli, it contains garlic, salt, olive or vegetable oil, and lemon juice, traditionally blended together with a mortar and pestle. But whereas an aioli is a creamy garlic tinged sauce, toum is all garlic, all the time. So garlicky it knocks you in the face. It’s potent stuff, often used as a dip or spread for grilled meats particularly chicken. It is amazing.
I tried that Splendid Table/WaPo recipe and fell in love. But even a ½ batch was a bit overwhelming … a full cup of garlic cloves? After making what I thought was a serious dent in it, I still had two large containers of snowy white garlic sauce. I kept pushing it to the back of the fridge, moving things around, hiding my guilt while I found new uses. Then I forgot about it. This is how I know it keeps for a few weeks and mellows nicely over time.
I back burnered the recipe for a while then last month, I took a rather impromptu trip to Dubai to visit friends. They’d moved there nearly two years ago due to a job transfer and had been on me to come for a visit. International corporate assignments come with some nice perks. If your friends move overseas and extend an invitation, do not hesitate. It doesn’t matter where, GO. Though Dubai hadn’t been on my immediate radar, I am always up for an adventure and I immensely enjoy the company of these two. After studying my calendar for an inordinate amount of time, with some creative scheduling I cobbled together an open two weeks in January. Two weeks in a warm, temperate climate away from a Chicago winter sounded pretty good. A surprisingly affordable flight sealed the deal. I was Dubai bound.
I left having done zero research and landed excited but with zero expectations. My friend Calvin is a chef so I knew we would have many food adventures and he did not disappoint. We ate everything from traditional Middle Eastern cuisine of all kinds to Montreal smoked meat sandwiches and everything in between. Damn near every type of cuisine is available in Dubai. Everything. It’s fascinating. Even pork and alcohol in some places, surprising to me as Dubai is a Muslim country. We went to restaurants, grocery stores, take out stands, specialty stores, butchers and my favorite, fancy department store food courts. I am convinced that with a little effort and perseverance, you can find nearly everything you want and then some. Calvin, having lived there for nearly two years, is the master at this sleuthing. Food delivery is also immensely popular and readily available. Everyone delivers; even McDonald’s. If you want one order of fries, a quick call and they arrive hot. We ordered some amazing fried chicken one night simply because my friends wanted me to see how hot it arrives. We couldn’t figure out how they do this. I can’t get fried chicken this hot if I drive it myself from the Popeye’s 3 blocks away. The delivery game in Dubai is strong.
The evening I landed, I was a little out of it and ravenous after the long flight. Despite all the supposed innovations, airplane food is still terrible. My foggy brain was a few time zones behind and when asked what I had a taste for, I drew a blank and said “food”. So helpful. We decided to walk the few blocks to the Dubai Mall and figure it out there. Dubai has several enormous malls, due in part to the oppressive summer heat, and this one is large on a scale I had difficulty comprehending in my many visits. With 1500+ stores I think it’s safe to say they have everything. Several options were discussed and we settled on a favorite Lebanese restaurant of theirs, Wafi Gourmet.
At the restaurant entrance, we walked past trays of baklava of all sorts and baskets piled high with multiple varieties of nougat. Predictably, I was distracted and my friends patiently tugged my arm to the table. I could tell I was going to like this place. Too tired to comprehend a menu, I deferred to my friends and told them to order their favorites. It was all incredibly delicious: hummus, tabbouleh and fatoush of course, but also grilled lamb chops, crispy charred baby chicken legs and fantastic grilled quail, all served with warm, fresh pita baked just minutes ago. I delightedly dove it but when the lamb chops came, a little bowl of white sauce was placed on the table. I instantly knew what it was. Toum! In it’s (sorta) natural habitat! It wasn’t as thick as the one I had made but it was fantastic smeared on the lamb chops, adding a nice pungency to the charred meat. I became obsessed and had it many times over the course of the trip.
One day Calvin booked a bike food tour of the Jumeriah Beach area. A delightful young woman named Mary met us by the rental bikes and off we went to ride through the neighborhood and enjoy typical Emirati cuisine. As a Dubai native she was full of interesting information, explaining the different influences on the local cuisine and customs. Every question I’d had over the last week was answered. While dining in a restaurant just off the docks specializing in local fish, we learned she was of Lebanese descent. I perked up and asked her about toum. She would know what was up with this sauce! Not only did she know, but her mother weighed in via email several times and ultimately we scored the family recipe. I was delighted.
Though the ingredients were essentially the same, her mother’s recipe was very different from the one I’d made previously. Rather than a cup of garlic, it contained only a handful of cloves and most surprisingly, it had egg whites. Interesting. Later in the tour her mother sent Mary a picture of the sauce so we’d know what the proper texture looked like. All this talk about toum inspired her to make some immediately. We also learned she used something called “lime salt”, easily found in any Dubai grocery store. Not entirely sure what this was, we searched google images between bites. Between the food, the conversation and the recipe, this tour was one of my favorite things we did.
Of course I came home and made a batch. It was lighter and fluffier than my first try (due to the egg whites) and even better, it was a manageable quantity. Mary’s mother’s toum game was on point. I never met this woman but now considered her my toum guidance counselor. This stuff was great. As with my original batch, when first made it is GARLICKY, really sharp. Let it mellow for a day or two in the fridge because whoo whee, that is some strong stuff. Obviously I made this with winter garlic, stuff that had been likely harvested quite some time ago. As spring approaches with its fresh new garlic, especially the stuff you can get at the farmers market, I bet it would be wonderful. Regardless of the garlic you use, its a wonderfully addictive slathered on grilled meats (particularly lamb chops), is traditional on a grilled chicken sandwich or schwarma and is rather delicious mixed into some grilled vegetables. I swirled a little into some chicken soup and it was magically transformed. Magic sauce, I tell you.
The sauce is surprisingly easy to make if you have a food processor. While traditionally made with a mortar and pestle, the processor makes quick work of it. 6 garlic cloves and a cup of oil becomes a snowy white, incredibly fragrant sauce in no time. I can legitimately think of no reason why this should be a constant presence in your refrigerator.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: BIZARRELY ADDICTIVE. There is just something about this sauce. I brought it to an Oscar Party Sunday night where the host, coincidentally, grilled up a large platter of lamb chops. We really hadn’t planned that, I just wanted to give some to my friend to try. Dinner consisted of every person dipping the meat directly into the sauce bowl. We couldn’t stop; all niceties and manners, like putting some of the sauce neatly on our plates, were tossed out the window in moments. Like the original post said, loving garlic is a requirement. I might even go as far to say that if you want to scare off unwanted suitors, annoying coworkers or roving bands of vampires, eat a lot of this. A LOT. This stuff is pungent. It is one of those intensely flavored sauces that make everything taste better. This makes me happy. I now add it to everything, and you will too. And may I just say, this will make a fabulous addition to your Easter holiday table, especially if you’re roasting a leg of lamb. Between this and that horrid mint jelly, is there really room for debate? It’s not traditional in any sense but I bet my family would love this with the Polish sausage because that is never garlicky enough according to my father. This might just tip the scales.
If you’re planning a trip to Dubai, here are some things worth looking into:
- Tascapade Food Tours – we throughly enjoyed the bike tour but they also do a tour through Deira, the old city and the souks. Probably the best thing we did.
- Yellow Boat Tours – a great, and refreshing way to see the Jumeriah Beach area and Palm Island from a different perspective. Great views of Burj al Arab.
- Burj al Khalifa – the tallest building in the world (for now). You gotta do it, even if it makes you queasy.
- Dubai Mall – even if you’re not a mall person, you will end up here. There is so much to do within these walls its mind-boggling.
- Wafi Gourmet – in the Dubai Mall, a whole lot of delicious. I probably shouldn’t admit this but we ate here four times during my visit, frequently stopping for a “lamb chop” snack. I just could not get enough of that garlic sauce.
- Deira (Old City) – the fish market is great to see as are the Souks, of which there are several, spice, gold and whatnot. Really great to wander about.
- The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – tours and insights into Dubai and the Muslim culture
Seven years ago: Khachpuri
Six years ago: Stovetop Smoked Salmon
Five years ago: Chocolate Cabernet Sauce
Four years ago: Whatchamacallit Brownies
Three years ago: Chocolate Pudding Cake
Two years ago: Chocolate Crème Filled Cupcakes
Last year: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
TOUM – LEBANESE GARLIC PASTE
Makes about 1 ½ cups
Mary’s mom added lime salt at the end, though I didn’t as I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what that was. I think you can buy it on Amazon, if you’re so inclined. If you do, substitute ¼ teaspoon for the salt and add with the lemon juice.
2 large egg whites
½ teaspoon kosher salt
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped (about 1 ½ ounces)
1 cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- In a food processor, pulse the egg whites and salt a few times until foamy.
- Add the chopped garlic and process until smooth, about 1 minute.
- With processor running, pour the oil through the feed tube in a slow steady stream. By the time you pour the last few drops, the mixture should be smooth, fluffy and emulsified.
- While still running, add the lemon juice.
- Place in a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for at least one day. The garlic is very sharp at first but will mellow a bit over time.
- Toum keeps, tightly sealed, up to 3 weeks. Serve with grilled meats, warm pita. Mix in with grilled vegetables or add to cold potatoes with a little mayonnaise for a killer potato salad.