Vegan Tbit: Iraqi Rice Casserole Cooked Overnight

Tbit is something special. When my grandmother, later my father, and eventually me, were cooking Tbit, it was an event. Not something you cook for yourself, nor something you will do every day or even every week. It takes quite some work, it cooks for ages, and the neighbors won’t forgive you for the enchanting smell in the staircase if you won’t invite them to eat too. So every time Tbit was made, it was in a big pot and with many guests. Which made every pot a feast.

So what’s in there? Tbit is the Iraqi version of the Jewish Cholent – a casserole cooked overnight. In old times, when Jews were not to cook on Saturdays, a pot full of goodness was put in a slow burning oven in Friday afternoon, just before Shabat entered, and was slowly cooking until lunchtime the next day. That was the only way to have a warm meal without breaking the prohibition on making fire on Saturdays.

In most versions, Cholent contains meat, potatoes and different kinds of grains and legumes. Iraqi Jews were different. Iraqi cuisine is based on rice, so in this version of Cholent, it was chicken stuffed with rice and meat, seasoned with Baharat, the Iraqi spice mixture that gives this cuisine its magical touch. It is then cooked overnight in a light tomato soup. The result is mellow with deep comforting flavors. The kind of dishes you just make you want to unbotton your pants and sleep until the Shabbat is over.

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In the vegan version, I used three ingredients to replace the meat in the rice – dry smoked tofu of good quality, shiitake and oyster mushroom, and sun-dried tomatoes. The mixture of the three  can come quite close to meaty flavors, while each is contributing a part of it. As for the chicken – I use two solutions. One was layers of very big onions that were boiled, separated and then rolled with stuffing. The second, quite embarrassing, vegan chicken made out of seitan and moulded into a form of half a chicken. You can chose either, or replace the artificial chicken with just two layers of plain seitan.

Ingredients (Stuffing):
1 kg basmati or jasmin rice
3 medium onions
2 cups of chopped mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, porchini)
150g dry smoked tofu of good quality
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes marinated in oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil (best would be the one the tomatoes marinated in)
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
2 tablespoons Iraqi Baharat (if you don’t find it, mix equal amounts of allspice, cinnamon, cardamon and nutmeg with 1/2 the amount of cloves)
1 tablespoon black pepper
salt to taste

Ingredients (Soup):
2-3 liters of water
1 cup tomato concentrate
Salt, pepper, Baharat

Ingredients (Assembly):
1 large potato, thinly sliced
2-3 extremely large onions
4 artificial half chickens (or large seitan slices)

Start with the stuffing – finely chop the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and tofu. Saute the onions in the oil. Once slightly golden, add the mushrooms and tofu. After a minute, add the pepper and Baharat. The kitchen would then start to smell like it would in the next two days. Wash the rice, sieve it, transfer to a bowl, add the tomatoes and the contents of the pan. Season with salt and mix well.

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Stuffing: Start with making the onions. Peel them, carve them with a knife lengthwise until the middle, and boil in water for 5 minutes. Then, let them cook and carefully separate the layers. In each onion “leaf”, place some stuffing and roll tight. Repeat until you finish the onions. Take the “chicken” or seitan slices, place stoffing in the middle, and tie with a string. You should have some extra stuffing left, it’s part of the process.

Start with the assembly. Take a heavy, wide pot that you can put in the oven. Oil the bottom of the pot, place the potato slices. They would prevent the rice and other ingredients from burning. Place one layer of onion rolls, throw some of the remains of stuffing around it. Place the “chickens” or seitan rolls in the middle, and the rest of the onions around them. Cover with the rest of the stuffing.

In another pot, boil the water and mix with the rest of the sauce ingredients. Then, pour it to cover the other ingredients, bring to boil on the stove and transfer, covered, to an oven heated to 100-110 degrees. Bake like that from evening until lunchtime of the day after. Check once in a while if there are enough liquids.

Invite everyone to the table, gently remove the soft parts one by one and make sure everyone gets a bit of everything – of the “chicken”, one or two onion rolls, and a spoonful or two of the free stuffing that drank all the juices all night long. Have some pickled chilies, spring onions, and chopped tomatoes topped with amba next to it, and eat.

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