Congratulations to those of you who knew what these roots were!
Called shilsh al-halawa or soapwort or Bois de Panama roots , these are used to make natef. Natef is a type of meringue, similar in texture to marshmallow fluff, that is served alongside a semolina and pistachio pastry called karabij.
These roots are also used to clean Persian rugs here in Lebanon (of course, the method is different than for natef!). If you care to know more about these roots, click here.
Their uses and benefits are numerous!
Seek them out in the US at Middle-Eastern grocers or health food stores or Chinese herbal shops. Another option is to plant them yourself!
The method that I followed was simple; first, soak the roots in water overnight; dump the water and cover the roots with more fresh water. Bring the mixture to a boil and dump the water. Add more fresh water and this time boil the roots for a while until the liquid has evaporated save for a pint. The liquid will have taken on a reddish tint. Cool and drain, placing the liquid in a mixing bowl.
Prepare a sugar syrup and while the syrup is cooking, start beating the soapwort liquid in a mixer at high speed; it will start to froth immediately. Add the hot sugar syrup in a thin stream. The meringue will form within minutes. Add some rose water or another flavoring if you wish. Serve.
NOTE: I will provide an exact recipe once I am done experimenting with it. It will be included in an upcoming cookbook I am working on. If you would like a recipe, I have found one on Anissa‘s blog.
Please note that this meringue does not contain any egg white. There are recipes for natef using egg white (uncooked) but I prefer to avoid them.