For the third stop in Cyprus this week, I decided to go with a meze based on cauliflower called moungra.
Mezes (or mezzes) are small plates or appetizers that are very common in the Near East and the Balkans. Some of the most famous ones include taramosalata from Greece, lahm bi ajin from Lebanon or muhammara from Syria.
In Greece and Cyprus, mezé, mezés, or mezédhes (plural) are hot or cold, spicy or savory small dishes. The most common include grilled octopus, sliced hard-boiled eggs, kalamata olives, fava beans, melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), taramosalata (cured fish roe), saganaki (fried cheese) to name a few.
There is one meze that is typical to Cypriot cuisine and that you will often find on the tables of restaurants or sold in jars at the markets in the Island of Love. This particular meze, called moungra, is pickled cauliflower.
As I was researching about moungra, I discovered that cauliflower, which is now a fairly common vegetable around the world, originally came from Cyprus and Asia Minor. It has been described by Arab botanists as early as the 6th century BC, and by Roman botanists like Pliny the Elder, as early as the 2nd century AD. Cauliflower (cauli-fiori) came to Italy through the Etruscans who came from Turkey. It was introduced to Spain by Syrian traders in the 12th century.
It became the rage at the court of Louis XIV and eventually became popular throughout the rest of Europe. Although the first European settlers introduced it to North America in the 17th century, it only became popular on the new continent after the 1920s. The British, who used to call the vegetable Cyprus colewort, actually introduced it to India in 1822 where it made it to a number of popular dishes like aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato curry).
But back to our moungra. Moungra is pickled cauliflower that is fermented over several days in a liquid made of bread dough and vinegar. Although it is enjoyed throughout the year, moungra is traditionally prepared in the households of the devout orthodox for serving on Pure Monday (or Clean Monday), the first day of the 40-day Lent fast before Easter.
We made pickles before on 196 flavors but most of the time, the preparation included just salt, water, vinegar or a combination of those, in addition to spices and herbs, such as in Serbian sarma, Salvadorian curtido, Vietnamese pickled vegetables (for banh mi), or Haitian pikliz used in poul ak nwa.
For moungra, the preparation is rather unique. The recipe asks for some kind of sourdough starter, basically bread dough (including yeast) that is fermented for a few days, before cauliflower is added. Then, the cauliflower, along with spices, is pickled for another week before being ready for consumption.
Yes, it takes at least 7-10 days to prepare a good moungra, so you should plan ahead! But the end result is just divine, with a drizzle of premium olive oil and a dash of sea salt.
Not for the faint of heart… At home, only my son Elior and I loved it. My wife, who doesn’t understand the concept of good bacteria did not even touch it. Moungra definitely has a unique taste and this is exactly why I loved it!
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 1½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cauliflower (2 to 3 lb)
- 8 cups water
- 3 tablespoons white mustard seeds
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup of warm water.
Add remaining water (¾ cup) and add flour and 1 teaspoon of salt in a large glass mixing bowl. Stir until combined and smooth.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and leave for 3 days to ferment.
Cut cauliflower into florets.
Half fill a large pot with water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil.
Add half the cauliflower, return to a boil then take cauliflower out with a slotted spoon. Place immediately into a bowl of cold water and drain in colander. Repeat with remaining cauliflower.
Separately, bring 8 cups of water to a boil.
Let the water cool a little then pour gradually into the fermented dough, stirring well to form a thin milky liquid.
Add red wine vinegar to liquid and stir.
Pound mustard seeds in a mortar just enough to crack them. Sprinkle a little in the base of a large sterilized glass jar.
Place some cauliflower florets in the jar and sprinkle more mustard seeds. Repeat till all the cauliflower and mustard seeds are used.
Pour milky liquid over content, covering cauliflower completely. Cover with lid or plastic wrap.
Each day for 8 days, turn cauliflower with your hand while stirring the milky liquid.
Cauliflower is then ready for eating. Drizzle good quality olive oil and a dash of salt.
Moungra will keep for one month as long as cauliflower is turned every 2 days.