‘The Black Bird’ – Steamed Mussels in a Spicy Fusion Sauce


When I first created this dish, the flavors and looks of it reminded me of ‘El Pajaro Negro’. My first encounter with ‘The Black Bird’ was through a song, gut-wrenching and full of anguish as is quite common in Flamenco music. But, who or what was ‘El Pajaro Negro’ really? This is the story of Ziryab, both mysterious and exotic with elements of 1001 nights.

Around the year 822, it is said that a black slave traveled to Al-Andalus by way of Baghdad, Syria, and Tunisia to the prince’s court in Córdoba. For the scholars of Arabic culture and language, his real name was Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi‘. For ease of conversation let’s stick to Ziryab, his nickname meaning, yes, you guessed it: ‘Black Bird’. The name was presumably given him based on his dark complexion and outstanding singing skills. In addition to being a gifted singer, Ziryab was a virtuoso on the ud and his skill far surpassed that of other musicians of his time. Furthermore, he is credited in influencing social etiquette, clothing styles, and fine dining. Thanks to him, the three-course meal of soup, main course, and dessert came into being.

It seemed only fitting to me to fuse ingredients from different continents to honor Zyriab’s colorful heritage.

(Serves 2)

2 lbs mussels, cleaned and debearded
2t red palm oil
1/4c sweet onion
3 stalks lemongrass, crushed or finely chopped
ginger root, approx. 1 inch, plus 1T finely chopped
galangal root, approx. 1 inch (optional)
6-8 kaffir lime leaves
1/2c black beans pureed
1/2c black beans whole
1c miso broth
1c white wine (Chenin Blanc or Pino Grigio)
2T lime juice
1-2T sriracha (chili sauce)
2T coconut cream
fresh cilantro

Just a note before you start: make sure that the mussels are alive when you purchase them, i.e. the shells should be closed. The mussels should be kept on ice in an open container in the fridge until ready for steaming. This will result in delicious, plump, and soft mussels. Never freeze uncooked mussels, they will die and cook into an unpalatable, rubbery, sticky mess!

Let’s begin: heat red palm oil over medium-high heat in a large wok or sauté pan with lid. Sauté the onion until soft and translucent, 3-5 min. Add the lemongrass, pieces of ginger root, galangal root, and kaffir lime leaves. Sauté briefly, then add the miso broth and crisp white wine. Bring to the boil and let simmer for approx. 5 min for the flavors to meld. Add the mussels and steam covered for 5-10 min until all mussels are open. Remove mussels and set aside. Discard ginger and galangal roots. Spoon out a cup or so of broth and transfer to a blender and purée half a cup of black beans. This will add thickness to your broth. Add purée and remaining beans to the broth, as well as freshly chopped ginger, lime juice, sriracha, and coconut cream. Toss mussels back into broth, stir to coat, briefly reheat, garnish with freshly chopped cilantro, and serve immediately with rustic bread or fine noodle of your choice.

(dedicated to all romantic, curious, and adventurous travelers)