No, that’s not pesto slathered all over a baked sweet potato, it’s zhoug, a spicy Yemeni herb paste made with parsley and cilantro that’s popular throughout the Middle East. With no parmesan or pine nuts and a lot less oil holding it together, zhoug is lighter than pesto and a lot less expensive to make while being just as versatile as the classic Italian sauce/paste/spread. (Oh, and it’s vegan.) Plus, it’s got a kick.
My history with zhoug is not storied or spectacular. I have never traveled to the wadis of Yemen or wound through labyrinthine markets to uncover its origins—though I love the stuff so much now that I’d welcome the opportunity to do either. No, I’ve simply done what most of us do: copied the zhougs I’ve tasted (at a Jewish deli where it is called ‘skug’ and from a little jar bought in a British supermarket) with some help from the Internet, then tweaked my copy so it works for me (not as dry or spicy as the deli’s, not as oily as the jar’s). I make it often and use it liberally, year-round—one of the downsides to basil pesto is you need fresh basil that’s been exposed to summery sun and heat for it to taste like anything, I add it to anything I’d make with pesto and everything else I can think of. Sweet potatoes today, pasta tomorrow. Salads, grains (it can transform a bowl of white rice), egg dishes, vegetable dishes, roasted meats and seafoods, stews…. I honestly can’t get enough of the stuff. And those decorative parsley and cilantro sprigs in the pic are going straight into my next batch of zhoug.
Use this spice paste any way you would pesto in about the same quantities. Try stirring it into yogurt or sour cream as well for a sauce.
1 ½ cups (30 g.) fresh parsley leaves
1 cup (20 g.) cilantro leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. each ground cumin and coriander
1/8 tsp. each ground cloves, cardamom, and black pepper
¼ tsp. salt
1 large banana or Hungarian wax pepper, or 1 small green bell pepper plus ½ small jalapeño pepper or 1 small green bell pepper plus pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ cup olive oil
Pulse the parsley, cilantro, and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Cut the fresh pepper (whichever one(s) you’re using) into small chunks, add to the herbs along with the spices and salt, and pulse until puréed. Add the olive oil, and pulse until a smooth paste forms. Adjust seasonings, and add a little more hot pepper or cayenne, if you like more heat. Store in a jar in the fridge for up to 1 month.