KAŠK (Ar. kešk, Turk. keşk), Persian term used primarily for a popular processed dairy food but also applied to various grain products, both in Iran and widely in the Middle East.
Iranian languages. In Middle Persian the word kašk is attested in the Pahlavi text Xusraw ud rēdag (sec. 26, ed. Monchi-zadeh) in adjectival form: ārd ī kaškēn “barley flour.” This form also occurs as a loanword in the Armenian language by the 5th century CE (Hübschmann, p. 238; Bailey, 1986, p. 462); the historian Ełišē uses kaškēn to mean “barley bread.” Narrating the events of 453/4 CE, he relates that the Sasanian king’s chief mage set a prison ration of 2 barley loaves for each six men among the Christian priests, whom he had separated from the other Armenian prisoners in order to apply greater pressure to convert (Ełišē, tr., p. 195). New Persian kaškin(a) continues that meaning (see below). H. W. Bailey (1979, p. 107) connected the word kašk with those of Eastern Iranian languages—ancient Khotanese chaska “barley” and modern equivalents, such as Šuγnī čušč—and with grain terms of other Indo-European languages.
The word kašk and the constructs nān-e kašk and nān-e kaškin(a) (barley bread) are mentioned several times in Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (V, p. 564; VII, pp. 64.179, 174.2046, 438, 472.533, 474, 537, 545; Wolff, p. 657). Maḥmud Zamaḵšari, a 12th-century Persian lexicographer, cites three preparations from kašk: kaškbā (gruel), kaškāb, and āš-e kašk (broth; Zamaḵšari, pp. 344, 346). For the dish called kašk in Mughal India, see below. In Iran, kaškak (diminutive) is a complex dish, kaškāb (barley water) is a medicinal tisane (Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿin, III, pp. 1651-52), and kašku is barley broth. Kaškin and kaškina designate bread and different kinds of dry preserved foods. Phrase constructs indicate varieties according to color, such as kašk-e siāh (black) and kašk-e sefid (white).
The word kašk in contemporary Persian refers to dry yoghurt (māst-e ḵošk). It is used in many construct terms, such as kašk o bādenjān, a dish made with a mixture of kašk and eggplants. Among pastoralists speaking Iranian languages (e.g., Ṭāleši, Gilaki, Kurdish, Baḵtiāri Lori), kašk or kešk refers to dairy products. This word does not seem to be used by the contemporary Baluchi people who live in Baluchistan, part of the southeasternmost province of Iran. The word was probably replaced by the Turkish term qorut (see below; Doerfer, III, pp. 458-59), which was possibly borrowed from the neighboring Pashtuns. Among the Afghan Pashtuns, kašk, according to Aslanov (p. 680), designates a cereal broth or a bread soup.
Semitic languages. The word kešk, a loanword from Persian (Dozy, p. 472), is used in the Arabic of the Middle East and Egypt, in Syriac, and in Neo-Aramaic. In Arabic, it varies a little in form but greatly in meaning. Ebn al-Sayyār (fl. 4th/10th cent.) mentions numerous composite terms formed with the derivative keškiya, referring to dishes used in Iraq in his time. He classifies them according to the staple (wheat), the taste (sour), and by regions (Ebn al-Sayyār, pp. 102, 165). Later texts mention varieties kešk ḵorāsāni (“of the East”; Kanz al-fawāʾed, p. 193) and Kešk bābeli (“of Babylon”; Ebn al-Bayṭār, I, p. 445), kešk aḥmar (with leaven) and kešk laban (with curd milk; Ebn al-ʿAdim, pp. 870-71). A certain dish called kešk mosabbaʿun (of seven products) is mentioned as a variety prepared for the Mamluk kings in Egypt, but its ingredients are not specified (Ḵalil b. Šāhin, p. 125). Among the Egyptian farmers of the 17th century, kešk was “a popular meal of curded milk with flour and honey,” a kind of halvah (see ḤALWĀ; Mehren, p. 34).
Altaic languages. The terms keš/keş (sour curd), keškek/ keşkek (a dish made with wheat), and keškina/keşkina (barley bread) in Turkish are Persian loanwords. The term kašk in Azeri Turkish, a Persian loanword, is cited as an Azeri loanword in the 19th-century Syriac dialect (Maclean, p. 141).
The extensive diffusion of kašk/kešk as a popular variety of food is probably best explained by the fact that its basic ingredients (milk and grain) form the fundamental productions of agro-pastoral societies. However, the exact nature of each variety is not quite clear, since sources up to the 19th century are imprecise concerning this point. In contrast, modern sources are quite specific in showing the complexity of the situation. In those cultures where milk is the original source, each product, including kašk, is named and sets a stage in the culinary process. But the inconsistency of naming between the old sources and modern ones makes it almost impossible to reliably trace the historical development. For example, tarf in (Semnan Province) Turan today (Martin, p. 24; see below) seems different from kašk, while, according to Zamaḵšari (d. 1144), they were synonymous in his time. The term kašk is discussed below in its simple, derivative (suffixed), and construct forms with three criteria according to main ingredient: a milk product, a grain product, and a mixture of both (or one of them plus another ingredient).
PRODUCTS FROM CURD MILK
These are, generally, preserved food items such as dried yogurt or sour milk in the form of small, sun-dried balls called kašk in Iran (Ramazani, p. 70), keš/keş in Turkey (qorut in the Turkish societies of Central Asia; Zenker, s.v.), and kešk in the Middle East (Denizeau, p. 454).
There is also a dry product obtained from buttermilk in the form of small, sun-dried balls, commonly used in Iran, and generally among the agro-pastoral societies. Kašk is popular among the Baḵtiāris (q.v.; Digard, p. 198) but rarely made or consumed by the people of Gilan (Bazin and Bromberger, p. 35). It is prepared there only by the Talesh people of Jowkandān and Siāhčāl, who dry the šowra obtained from buttermilk in the sun (Bazin, II, p. 49). Kašk or kešk is known by the Kurdish of the Hakari district (Rhea) and is very common among the people of Azerbaijan (Bazin and Bromberger, p. 35).
The botanist and pharmacologist Ebn al-Bayṭār (d. 646/ 1248) refers to kešk bābeli (kašk of Babylon) as a variety in the form of black pieces (I, p. 445); this may be the first mention of a dry, black product that is used as a condiment in Iran, Afghanistan, and some parts of Turkey.
The word kašk-e siāh seems to no longer be used in Iran, but the product is still in use and known by the Turkish name qara qorut. Qara qorut, a dark paste used as a condiment among the Azeris, is obtained through the cooking and drying out of kašk (Bazin and Bromberger, p. 35). Qorut is well known and very much appreciated as a hot condiment for winter use among the rural Afghans, as it is by the urbanized people of Tehran, who prepare it from the sour milk that has been heated with a low temperature for a long time (personal communication with Françoise Kotobi).
Tarf, tarp, or tarf-e siāh, a Persian word mentioned by Zamaḵšari (p. 353) as another name of a dish called roḵbin, is defined as “black, dried, curded milk,” that is to say “black kašk” (Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿin, I, p. 486; Vullers, I, p. 436). According to the 17th-century Borhān-e qāṭeʿ (ed. Moʿin, II, p. 941), “some say” roḵbin/raḵbin is a specific product made of kašk, flour, and milk, and is black like qara qorut (cf. Ebn al-Sayyar, tr. Nasrallah, p. 590); some others use the term for anything made with churned soured milk (duḡ). Tarf may be white and similar to kašk-e sefid (white kašk); it is then “sour clotted, milk strained and dried in the sun for winter use” (Steingass, p. 295). In Turan today, tarf is “dried boiled liquid residue of qorut” (Martin, p. 24). In Turkish, keš corresponded to the Persian kašk-e siāh and tarp/tarf in the 19th century (Zenker, s.v.).
The similarity of the terms and products among the speakers of Iranian languages (except Pashto and Baluchi) to those of Turkic speakers indicates the influence of both in the diffusion of the terms and the products. Nevertheless, some differences exist; for instance, kešk designates a soft product among the Kurds and Turks, and a dry product among the people of other Iranian languages and the Azeris.
Medieval sources of medicine discuss the barley tisane in reference to the consumption of kešk, keška, kaškāb, and kašk al-šaʿir. They are apparently influenced by Greek medicine, which considered ptisana (barley water) as a real panacea. Avicenna (d. 1037) recommends that keška be put on hot tumors (II, p. 440). Rāzi (d. 925 or 935 criticizes the use of kaškiya, which provokes inflammations of all kinds (p. 29). Ebn al-Sayyār (10th cent.) prescribes a broth of kašk to treat coughs, fatigue, and pleurisy (p. 269). Kašk al-šaʿir (barley kašk) was a medical recipe in 12th-century Egypt, recommended by Maimonide (d. 1204) in hot weather (p. 39), just as in 12th-century Andalusia, where Ebn Zohr (d. ca. 1162 considered it to be refreshing, evacuating, and very good for fever (p. 11). Samarqandi (early 13th cent.) considers barley kašk prepared with dill as a good emetic to eliminate phlegm (p. 106). According to Ebn al-Bayṭār kaška is made from barley and corresponds exactly to Greek ptisana.
Āb-kašk was in the 12th century a synonym of the Persian tarina/tarḵina (words probably of Greek origin; Zamaḵšari, p. 346). Later on, tarḵina, also called tarḵᵛāna, is mentioned as a thick pottage (Steingass, p. 293; Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿin, I, p. 483).
Kaškbā and āš-e kašk were, according to Zamaḵšari (p. 344), synonyms of tarfbā and the equivalent of Arabic maṣliya; these products were prepared with sour milk or whey (Pers. tarf, Ar. maṣl) as the basic ingredient. Kešk was “gruel from wheat or barley” in 13th-century Egypt (Ebn al-Bayṭār, III, pp. 280-82); it is a “barley cream” in modern Syriac (Lagarde, p. 35). Kašk among contemporary Pashtuns is a thick broth (Russ. kashitsa) or a broth made with pieces of bread (Russ. pokhlyobka; Aslanov, p. 680).
As was described above, the first meaning for suffixed forms and constructs with kašk was “barley bread.” The terms kaškin and kaškina also denote a complex bread “made of barley, millet, beans, and lentils,” and kaškena is defined as a bread “made of wheat, barley, beans and vetches” (Steingass, p. 1033; Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿin. III, p. 1653; for the other usage of kaškena, see below). The mixing of other elements with barley is very common because of the bad quality of barley bread in general. Keškina is barley bread in 19th century Turkish (Zenker, s.v.).
PRODUCTS AND DISHES WITH KAŠK
In the Middle East. Concerning dishes prepared with wheat, leaven, and a variety of vegetables, Ebn al-Sayyār (p. 102) provides the following precise recipe for a Syrian variety called kašk šāmi: “wheat coarsely cracked, then cleaned and boiled in water, then dried and cleaned again until there is no more bran. Knead with hot water in the right quantity, add a little leaven and put in a large receptacle in the sun for six days, covering it during the night, until it becomes well soured, then add thinly cut vegetables—not chicory and watercress (jerjir) since they do not enhance it–but many leeks, fresh coriander, rue, and for those who like it, onions cut into small rounds and pieces, eggplant, squash, cabbage, ḵawḵ al-dibb, which are acid little plums, and good verjuice. Knead all that together and allow it to dry in the sun for five days. Then shape it into round flat cakes.” He also mentions (p. 102) a different dish of kašk šāmi made with laban (soured milk, rib) instead of water and using no vegetables except mint (naʿnāʿ) and celery (karafs).
Kaškena, probably a product of the coastal provinces of Iran, was a kind of preserved food made from “fried wheat which, with onions, beet and purslain-seeds, steeped in fish-jelly and dried in the sun” (Steingass, p. 1033). Borhān-e qāṭeʿ (ed. Moʿin, III, p. 1653) defines it as a synonym of kaškina and gives a similar recipe: “fried wheat with fish-jelly, beets, and purslane seeds, and dried in the sun until it turns sour.”
Kešk is a meal made from coarse flour and milk, which is then dried (13th century). The description of kešk in Ebn al-Haššā’s glossary (p. 63) has no vegetables: “kešk of barley is soaked in sour milk till it turns sour, then it is dried . . . and preserved in round or other shape” (ibid., p. 63). Here kešk of barley means both a certain preparation of the grain of barley (jašiš “coarsely ground”) and the final product. A similar recipe is given by Ebn al-ʿAdim (d. 60/ 1262), the historian of Aleppo: “There are two kinds, kešk al-ḵamir and kešk laban. They are used in different kinds of gruels, pastry dishes, and omelets” (Ebn al-ʿAdim, pp. 870-71).
This kind of preserved food from cereals and dried sour milk has probably been known in the Levant since at least the 13th century. Jakob Bergrenn (p. 265) gives a very similar description, and it is attested among Syrian mountaineers of the 19th and 20th centuries, who preserved it for winter use, sometimes cooking it with qurma (mincemeat preserved in fat) and garlic (Harfouch, p. 304). Today in Lebanon, it is one of the main products of the mune (winter provisions) in the farms of the Beqʿa valley (Kanafani, pp. 49-58).
Kešk was also a very common meal prepared from wheat with sour milk in Egypt in the 19th century (Freytag and Bindseil, IV, p. 39). Edward Lane gives a precise description for the same period (pp. 488-89, n. 3).
Dishes in which kašk is added to vegetables and/or meat are numerous and varied. In 10th-century Iraq, keškiya was a dish prepared with meat, vegetables, and fresh seasonings and left to boil. When it was nearly cooked, finely ground kašk was added and, once the kašk was cooked, cinnamon, thinly cut onions or cloves, and spikenard (sonbol) were added and left on a low fire (Ebn Sayyār, p. 165).
A dish made of wheat cooked in milk was called kaškāb in Iran and kešk in Turkey (Zenker, s.v.). In 17th-century Georgia, kaši was a broth of millet with milk, or a kind of bulgur cooked with milk or with water. Thus, David Tchoubinoff (s.v.) defines kaši as (Fr.) gruau de lait and (Russ.) molochnaya kasha. For the 19th-century Turkmen of Turkey keškin was a dish made of wheat soaked in curdled milk (Bianchi and Kieffer, s.v.)
Kašk is mentioned as a dish of mainly rice and meat prepared in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal emperors in the 16th century. Additional ingredients were kašk (crushed wheat), ghee, peas, onions, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, cloves, cardamom, cumin seeds, and salt. The recipe follows that for harisa, which uses the same base ingredients but adds fewer spices and omits the onions. Kašk is followed by the recipe for ḥalim, stated to be basically the dish kašk but with a mixture of various vegetables (Abu’l-Fażl ʿAllāmi, p. 63).
A dish made into a paste (type harisa) with kaškak as the dominant ingredient was originally a Persian meal. Kaškak is defined by Steingass (p. 1033) as “barley or wheat, especially boiled whole with meat till it has become soft” (cf. Dehḵodā, s.v.). Today the dish seems to be known only to the Armenians of Turkey and northern Iraq. In Syria, among the middle class urbanites of the 15th-16th centuries, it was a dish of meat boiled with wheat (Zayat, s.v.).
In 19th-century Turkey keškek was a “soupe de gruau et de viande bouillie dans le genre de la herissa” (Barbier de Meynard, s.v.; cf. Redhouse, p. 1553); like the harisa, it suggests a dish similar to the Iranian type. The Söz derleme dergisi names the cities where this meal, made from crushed wheat with meat, is in use (Bazin, p. 204).
Among the Armenians of Turkey, wheat soaked overnight is mixed with minced chicken or turkey meat along with one liter of boiling water and half a liter of chicken broth, and the mixture is then cooked on a slow fire until the wheat is tender and the water absorbed; salt and pepper are added for seasoning, and the mixture is then beaten until it turns into a smooth paste. Melted butter mixed with paprika is poured on the dish before it is served. This meal is considered a type of harisa (Union arménienne de Bienfaisance, p. 23). This Armenian recipe is very similar to Persian kaškak and may have been the original Persian recipe borrowed by the Turks.
Conclusion. Kašk, whether a product of milk (Iran), a product of cereals, mainly barley, or a product using both (Middle East, Turkey, Egypt) is, in most cases, a popular preserved food for winter use among many of the agropastoral societies of these regions. It is also much valued by city dwellers, who regard it as a strong condiment that “is hot, good in winter” (Ramażāni, p. 70) and use it as a thickening agent. Kašk-e siāh and kašk/kešk are used both as a condiment and as a staple, being dried sour milk or bulgur and milk, dried and powdered. The pottage kaškbā, “a kind of milk-diet dressed in Muharram” (Steingass, p. 1033), is the dish used particularly on some religious occasions (cf. the definition in Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿin, III, p. 1652: “ḥalim soup” [āš])
In 19th-century Egypt, where many Muslims observed some of the Coptic religious feasts days and customs, a dish of ḵolṭa, made of kašk/kešk, bean sprouts, lentils, rice, and onions, was eaten on Good Friday (Lane, pp. 488-89). In celebration of the birth of a child, a dish made of kašk by the women of the house was sent with a few other dishes to female relatives and friends (Lane, p. 504).
The medieval medical scholars discuss barley preparations, mentioning the qualities of kašk, kaškāb, and kaškbā, but criticizing the dish kaškiya (Rāzi, p. 29). Modern scholars and nutritionists also take great interest in kašk, pointing out the bio-preserving effects of the lactic acid bacteria that it contains in preventing the growth of common, food-spoiling fungi (Tājābādi et al.).
The spread of Persian cultural markers throughout the Middle East and beyond can also be seen in the case of kašk. Its diffusion reached as far as Mexico in 1979, where an experimental trial was conducted in which a gruel-type food called atole was replaced by kašk, a yoghurt cereal product flavored with strawberry and vanilla extracts. It was readily embraced by children and mothers for enhancing the nutritional quality of their food (Cadena and Robinson).
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Originally Published: May 4, 2012
Last Updated: July 27, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XVI, Fasc. 1, p. 70-74