Tuesday, March 31, 2020

And Serve it with Mustard, God Willing

The Joy of Cooking—Tenth Century Style.

We may live without poetry, music, and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
He may live without books,—what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope,—what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love,—what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?

          ― Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, The Dinner Hour

One of the things that struck me during my research into the medieval Muslim world is the many ways in which that society, though separated from ours by a thousand years, is nonetheless familiar. And one of the most significant areas of similarity is food. Food was not merely a means of subsistence in the apartments, houses, and palaces of tenth century Islam. It was cuisine. An art form where as much craftsmanship went into the presentation as into the spices. There were multi-course feasts, food fads, take-out meals, celebrity chefs, utensils given as wedding gifts, advice about diet and health, guides to table manners—and cookbooks.

One such cookbook that has come down to us went by the rather ponderous title The Book of Cookery: Preparing Salubrious Foods and Delectable Dishes Extracted from Medical Books and Told by Proficient Cooks and the Wise, written by one Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Nasr al-Warraq. It was translated into English by Nawal Nasrallah, and published in 2007 as Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens.

The Book of Cookery is a veritable encyclopedia of food, comparable to the comprehensive kitchen bibles like The Joy of Cooking or the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook that we all relied on before the Internet came along, and some of us still do. In addition to recipes, there are stories and poems—all about food of course. In God’s Banquet: Food in Classical Arabic Literature, Geert van Gelder calls the poems “the equivalent of the luscious color photographs of modern cookery-books.” The book therefore gives us an invaluable slice of life in the medieval Muslim world, which I'd like to share with you. It's a slice not to be found in the historical chronicles, which, to paraphrase Jean-Henri Fabre, are too busy recording the names of all the royal bastards to bother with a recipe for wheat.

There are plenty recipes for wheat to be found in the Book of Cookery. Harissa, a porridge of grains and shredded meat was a particular favorite (and obviously something different than the North African chili paste we associate with the term today). But porridge is just the beginning. There are stews, roasts, omelets, puddings, kebabs, sausages, trail mixes, sweet syrups for beverages, tapas-like small plates to enjoy with wine, desserts very much like modern baklava, and meat-filled pastries of the sort that every culture on the planet thinks makes its own cuisine unique and special (and which was also called harissa in some places).

The book begins with a complete guide to food and health, based on the ancient Greek theory of the four humors: blood, phlegm, green bile, and black bile. According to this theory, illness was the result of the humors getting out of balance, and the cure was to eat foods with opposite properties of temperature and moisture in order to compensate. Green bile, for instance, was thought to be hot and dry and therefore an excess of it caused fevers. Thus, to cure fever, it needed to be balanced by foods that were cool and moist. Gourds and pomegranates feature prominently.

Still, not all the cures are quite so, well, medieval. I'm sure this recipe for homemade cough drops was every bit as effective as Robitussin AC (the one with codeine in it):

Take 5 mithqals sugar-candy, 5 mithqals excellent-quality frankincense, 1 mithqal opium.

Pound the ingredients separately. Knead them into paste by adding some cold water to them. Set mixture aside for a short while then form it into small balls, the size of the stone of the fruit of the medlar-tree each.

Put one piece under the tongue once a day.

The final chapters contain a lengthy guide to table etiquette. Contrary to what you may have seen from stereotyped Arabs in mid-twentieth century movies, belching at the table was not considered good manners.

Virtually nothing is known about al-Warraq himself, but we nevertheless have a few clues as to how The Book of Cookery came about. In Arabic, “warraq” means paper. Thus, he would have been in the publishing business. He wrote in the book’s preface, “You asked of me, may God bestow longevity upon you, to write a book on dishes cooked for kings, caliphs, lords, and dignitaries, and here it is, may God bestow longevity upon you, an illustrious and fine collection.” Clearly some anonymous person, who was particularly interested in the cuisine of the royal palaces, had commissioned this work. From there we can speculate as to why. Just like us, the people of the tenth century were fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The nouveau riche and the upper middle classes not only wanted to know what their rulers ate—they wanted to be able to duplicate the dishes in their own kitchens (more about that later).

Indeed the rulers took dining seriously. The translator explains that mastering a few dishes was an essential part of the courtier’s art, and a few rulers held cooking contests or were even cooks themselves. Harun ar-Rashid was perhaps the most famous of the caliphs, thanks to the accounts in the The Thousand and One Nights of his nocturnal, incognito prowls about Baghdad. I’ve written previously about his fondness for drinking parties. Apparently he was equally fond of food; he used to beat the cooks if meals weren't to his satisfaction. But his half-brother, Ibrahim, was the real gourmet in the family—an accomplished chef in his own right, and author of a widely read cookbook. It was smart, too. In an era when the brothers of the caliph often spent their lives chained up, because of the threat they posed as potential claimants the throne, a brother who had no apparent interests other than gracious living (Ibrahim's other passions were poetry and music) would be viewed as no threat at all. Al-Warraq apparently had access to his cookbook; some of the recipes and poems are included in The Book of Cookery.

Ibrahim figures in a story that illustrates both how lavish the royal table could be, as well as the rewards that were showered on the top chefs. He had a slave named Bid’a, who “was an exceptionally skillful cook and was the most-gifted expert in making cold dishes and desserts. She was the best, ever.”

During the reign of al-Amin, son of Harun ar-Rashid (so Ibrahim’s nephew), the caliph, hearing what an excellent cook Bid’a was, asked Ibrahim to have her make him some sikbaj—beef stewed in vinegar with eggplant, carrots, and onion, and seasoned with salt, cilantro, coriander, and saffron. And although that may sound like a rather homespun meal to serve in a palace, it’s clear from the recipe—which is included in The Book of Cookery—that it is much fancier than it sounds. In addition to chunks of beef and kid, there are thirteen whole chickens, an entire lamb, and as many quails and sparrows as fit in the pot. The recipe gives very detailed instructions for the presentation:

Take the deepest, largest, and widest bowl available. Put in it pieces of bread cut like triangles and ladle enough broth onto the bread to saturate it.

Now take out the kneeling lamb and place it in the middle of the bowl, as it is—kneeling. Place the chickens and chicks all around it. Arrange the beef chunks into sections around them, and use the kid meat portions as dividers between beef sections. Take out the innards, cut them into triangles, and spread them on top of the meat. [Before you do this,] spread the eggplant, onion, and carrots on the meat, interspersed with portions of the pullets, sparrows and small birds. Decorate the dish with slices of rolled sandwiches, thin meat patties, [four different kinds of sausages], and pieces of cheese. Arrange these as dividers between sections. Whatever empty spaces you see in the dish, fill them in with some nice-looking green herb.

Scatter chopped parsley and rue all over the dish, and serve it with mustard, God willing.

The finished dish, we are told,

looked like a flower orchard embellished and ornamented with all kinds of adornments, like an illustrious bride or a decorated sword.

When the dish was presented, al-Amin was with the exclusive company of Ibrahim, Ishaq al-Mawsili [a famous singer], and just one of his attendants—he was his favorite. Al-Amin was all admiration when he looked at it and its aromas hit his nose. When he tasted it, he found it quite delicious and started sampling all the varieties that were in it. He then said, “Uncle, this dish contains thirty kinds of food, which makes any other dishes unnecessary.”

All that food for four people. I imagine there must have been some leftovers.

In any case, al-Amin was so delighted that he showered his uncle with gifts: “three cases of top quality perfumes, three boats that belonged to [Harun ar-]Rashid, and three bags of money.” Sadly Bid’a, who had done all the work after all, was not quite so well rewarded in that slaveholding society. Still, she was not forgotten. The caliph gave her a necklace that was worth 30,000 silver dirhems. To put that in perspective, it would take a skilled craftsman about fifteen years to earn that much.

A spectacular meal, to be sure. And yet, the cuisine of the caliphs’ kitchens wasn’t that far removed from the food that graced the tables of the middle classes. They ate sikbaj as well. But, as the following anecdote shows, they were definitely interested in how it was done in the palaces. And, as you’ll see, they discovered one important difference:

It is told that a group of men used to get together for a game of chess until midday. For the rest of the day they would socialize at the house of whoever was the host at the time. It happened once that one of the sultan’s chefs stopped by and was invited to join the group, which he did. From then on he started coming on the days when he was free of duty.

Once, the chess-group host asked him to prepare for them a meal similar to what he usually did for the sultan and his choice fell on sikbaj. The sultan’s chef asked the host, “Who is your cook?” The host said his boy servant does the cooking and called for him. The chef asked the servant, “How do you cook sikbaj?” So the boy described the procedure to him and the chef said, “Go and bring me the pot you use in cooking the dish.” The boy did, and the chef asked him to wash it with clay [i.e. smear the pot with clay and then rinse it off with water], which he did repeatedly. Each time he washed the pot, the chef would sniff at it and demand the boy to wash it one more time. He then told him to wash it with parsley, which he did. The chef sniffed at it again and said, “Yes, it is clean now, go and cook sikbaj in it the way you usually do every day.” Having said that, the chef resumed his chess game. The host was under the impression the chef would at some point add his own spices to the dish but he never budged.

When the table was spread and sikbaj was served, they all marveled at its beauty and excellent aroma. It was noticeably different from what they had been served before and they were curious to know the reason. The chef said, “Do you think that dishes cooked in the sultan’s kitchen are any different from the familiar ones? The ingredients used there are none other than vinegar, greens, meat, eggplant, gourd, saffron, and the like. Indeed, meticulous cleanliness of the ingredients and the pots is all that it takes.”

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credit(s): The Feast Podcast

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Another Fine Mess

An end to America’s longest war is in sight. But don’t trust the Taliban.

By Michael Isenberg.

My sincere wishes that everyone is staying healthy and in good spirits during the coronavirus outbreak.

The crisis has overshadowed many other news stories, including a potentially huge one: On February 29, at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar signed an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” In case you missed it, here is a brief primer on how we got to this point, what the provisions of the agreement are, and where we go from here.

People forget that the war in Afghanistan wasn’t like the war in Iraq. They’re both lumped together now, both “forever wars.” But Iraq was something we chose to do—foolishly, as it turns out. Afghanistan was something we had to do.

The Taliban, which ruled that country, allowed al-Qaeda to use it as a base of operations for terrorist attacks against the West, including the September 11 attacks in the United States. Three thousand people were killed. No responsible government can allow a threat against its own people like that to continue. And so we invaded and have been trying to figure out a way to get out of the mess ever since. But there didn't seem to be one, until now.

In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked about how the new agreement came about: “One of the reasons the Taliban entered into this agreement is because President Trump let us unleash on them. So over the last two and a half years we have been taking it to the Taliban under President Trump. It’s why they came to us and said we want to have a chance for a different course in Afghanistan.”

The negotiations, facilitated by the Qatari government, took place amid a general feeling among all parties that the military situation in Afghanistan had reached a stalemate, and that any progress required a negotiated settlement.

The negotiations haven't been a straight line. Concerned that the ongoing violence raging in the country was excessive, President Trump ordered US negotiators to walk away from the table last September, demanding that the Taliban reduce the level of violence before negotiations continue. Which they did, coming back in December. Indeed, in the week prior to the signing of the agreement, attacks in Afghanistan were reduced sixty to seventy percent, the lowest level in four years. Afghans took advantage of the respite to, among other things, hold bicycle races and dance in the streets.

The agreement itself is startlingly brief, only four pages. And it feels like half of those are filled up with the rather long-winded name the US uses for its opposite number: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban.” I can't help wondering how many hours of negotiation went into that.

The verbiage appears sixteen times, but still, there is some substance buried among the epithets. The main provisions are:

  • US Military Withdrawal: Within 135 days, the 13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan will be drawn down to 8,600, with the remainder to be withdrawn within fourteen months.

  • End to Taliban Support for Terrorist Operations Against the West: “The Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies…[and] will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.”

    In the view of Secretary Pompeo, this provision is the most significant accomplishment of the negotiations. “We did what President Obama had tried to do, which was to get the Taliban to make a public break with al-Qaeda.”

  • End to Sanctions: All US Sanctions against Taliban to be lifted by August 27.

  • Prisoner Exchange: “As a confidence building measure,” up to 5,000 prisoners of the Taliban and 1,000 prisoners “of the other side” are to be released by March 10. A “senior administration official” described these numbers as “aspirational.”

  • Negotiations on the Future of Afghanistan: Even with this agreement in place, and US forces withdrawn, Afghanistan remains a divided, unstable, and violent country. The agreement calls for talks on a political settlement to begin on March 10. A senior administration official explained, “The United States will be present, but this will be an intra-Afghan negotiation,” which will include not only the Afghan government and the Taliban, but also tribal representatives and women’s rights advocates.

    The prospect of an end to America’s longest war—US troops have been in Afghanistan over 18 years—is certainly something to hope for. As Secretary Pompeo said at the signing ceremony, “I am determined to ensure that there are fewer young men and women sitting at Walter Reed and there are fewer young men and women that never return home to their families. And that I am equally determined to make sure that there is never again a terror attack from Afghanistan.”

    And yet there are grounds to be concerned.

    The implementation of the agreement is off to a rocky start due to a number of problems:

    First, the government of Afghanistan is in disarray. A presidential election last fall pitted incumbent Ashraf Ghani against Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of the unity government and former foreign minister. It ended in recriminations and accusations of fraud. After nearly six months, Mr. Ghani was finally declared the winner and took the oath of office on March 9. Mr. Abdullah simultaneously held his own inauguration in the next room.

    Amid the chaos, further aggravated by the coronavirus crisis, the government hasn’t got its team organized for the intra-Afghan negotiations—they were to have been in Oslo—and two weeks after the March 10 scheduled start, talks have yet to begin.

    Second, the agreement is between the United States and the Taliban; the Afghan government has not bought into all its provisions. The prisoner exchange is a particular sticking point. “The release of prisoners [is] not in the United States' authority,” Mr. Ghani said. “It is the authority of the Government of Afghanistan.” The New York Times reports that Mr. Ghani “would not release the prisoners without concessions from the Taliban, who have refused.”

    Finally, and most tragically, the reduction in violence during the hopeful days leading up to the agreement was short-lived. Attacks have surged since February 29. In fact, just on Friday, a Taliban raid on a government outpost in Zabul Province killed twenty-four Afghani security forces. Significantly, President Trump discussed his concerns about this with Mullah Baradar, the first contact ever between a US president and a Taliban leader.

    But even if these initial hurdles are overcome, this agreement is still deeply flawed.

    The issue is enforcement. We can trust the Taliban as we would adders fanged. And there is no enforcement mechanism spelled out in the four-page agreement to ensure they uphold their end of the agreement. In a letter to Secretary Pompeo, Liz Cheney and twenty-one other Republican members of Congress expressed their concern:

    The Taliban is a terrorist group that celebrates suicide attacks. Haibatullah Akhundzada, the overall leader of the Taliban, sacrificed his own son in a suicide bombing in 2017. Akhundzada’s top deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, runs a network that specializes in devastating suicide bombings, including some of the most heinous attacks in the history of the war. The American people cannot rely on these terrorists to safeguard their security.

    The Taliban also has a history of extracting concessions in exchange for false assurances. They will accept nothing less than a full-scale U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as they seek to establish their totalitarian “Islamic Emirate.” Our withdrawal would then allow terrorist groups in Afghanistan to grow stronger and establish safe havens from which to plot attacks against us. Any promises the Taliban may have made to the U.S. related to counterterrorism cannot be trusted, not least because the group is a long-time ally of al-Qaeda.

    Secretary Pompeo is aware of the issues. “Look, we’re not naïve,” he said, “We all know who the Taliban are and what they have done to America.”

    To ensure enforcement, there are two additional parts to the agreement which aren’t going to be released to the public. State Department officials assure us that they contain “some confidential procedures for implementation and verification of the agreement itself,” but officials are uncomfortably vague and even contradictory as to what these procedures are or what would trigger them.

    The situation is not unlike the one in Vietnam almost half a century ago. The Nixon Administration negotiated a treaty to end what was then America’s longest war. The treaty was the best one they could have gotten under the circumstances—the administration's hand was considerably weakened by Democrats in Congress, who were on the verge of cutting off funding for the war. The resulting treaty was far from ideal: it allowed 160,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam. President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam objected strenuously to this, but President Nixon brought him around with assurances that the US “will react strongly in the event the agreement is violated.”

    Trouble was, when North Vietnam violated the treaty two years later, Nixon was no longer president, and the US not only did not return to Vietnam, but Congress wouldn’t even approve funds for badly needed military supplies to enable the South Vietnamese to fight off the North themselves. Indeed, one freshman senator, a certain Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., wouldn’t even agree to fund the evacuation of Vietnamese refugees.

    The US decision to cut and run from Southeast Asia, and the resulting fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, had far-reaching consequences. The governments that filled the vacuum were vengeful, cruel, and bloody. Globally, the Soviet Union concluded that the US was a paper tiger which didn’t have the stomach to stand by its allies. The Soviets launced a worldwide campaign of wars of “liberation.” With the US paralyzed by fear of "another Vietnam", a 100 million people lost their freedom and at least 5 million lost their lives as one country after another was taken over by the Marxists: Ethiopia (1974), Angola (1975), Benin (1975), Mozambique (1975), Nicaragua (1979), Grenada (1979), and, to bring the discussion full circle, Afghanistan (1978)—the Soviet invasion of that country set in motion the events that led to the September 11 attacks and the US invasion there.

    The agreement with the Taliban is good news. As in Vietnam, it’s probably the best agreement we could have gotten. Our troops—all volunteers—have traveled to one of the worst hellholes on earth and sacrificed more than anyone should have to in order to contain terrorism in Afghanistan. It’s time to bring them home to their families.

    But we need to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam. We need to keep a close eye on the Taliban and be prepared to go back if they violate the agreement. A tall order, but if we don’t, we’ll be in the same position again fifty years from now, trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves from another fine mess.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Subscribe to Islam: the Good, the Bad, and the Everyday