|[image from http://images.8tracks.com/; Still Life With Pomegranate by Mark Schneider]|
"We shape our self / to fit this world / and by the world / are shaped again. / The visible / and the invisible / working together / in common cause, / to produce / the miraculous." [David Whyte, excerpt from Working Together, from The House of Belonging.]
In keeping with my quest to find cuisines shared across the Islamic world and the impact of Islamic cuisines on that of its Western non-Islamic neighbors, I've been reading Nawal Nasrallah's labor of love Annals of the Caliph's Kitchen, a translation of Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's 10th century cookbook Kitabh al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). This cookbook, one of the oldest in the world, is the most comprehensive work of its kind and includes more than 600 recipes from the royal cuisine of the medieval Abbasid court in Baghdad. The recipes showcase food meant for "kings and caliphs and lords and leaders." The methods of medieval Baghdadi Abbasid cuisine explored in this cookbook led to a "lasting cuisine that traveled westwards as far as Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, and eastwards as far as India" according to Nasrallah's research. Furthermore, Nasrallah quotes Bernard Rosenberger as stating that "the re-conquest of Spain and Sicily...introduced first the countries of the Mediterranean and later those of Western Europe to classical Muslim foods and tastes," as well as Anne Wilson whose research shows that the experience of the Crusaders in the Eastern Mediterranean region "was to have a considerable impact on the diet of Western Europe."
Some of us have always thus been inevitably intertwined, at least, in our culinary tastes and histories.
Nasrallah's book reads like an Arabian Nights of cooking in her descriptions of medieval Baghdadi food culture. The food-related excesses she describes as part of courtly culture (whether preparing and eating elaborate meals, seeking out and writing about the most unique ingredients and food experiences, and so on) is not unlike the culture of culinary excess that we live in today, if one has ample disposable income and time, that is. There are many more of us today who can indulge like the Abbasids, perhaps not every day, but certainly a few times every month.
Don't be misled by my cynical tone here. Regardless of the excesses described in this cookbook and in our contemporary consumerist lives, this type of culinary history (like all historical accounts) nevertheless is valuable in that it holds the key to the events that we feel compelled to reenact when presented with similar motivating impulses and influences. Also, I have a more personal reason for reading this history. After a youth somewhat squandered by learning about ancient Romans and ancient Egyptians (neither of whom are directly relevant to my own culinary heritage), I'm trying to fill the gap in my knowledge of one of my own culinary ancestors -- the Abbasids. As a certain witty scholar and fabulous cook I know says "Abbasids are our Romans" with the "us" referring to South Asians whose cuisine and culture have been affected by medieval Islamic food culture.
Recipes are like maps to places we can't return or travel to anymore, or to mythical places that may never have existed. They are keys to memories of events that may never have taken place or histories long forgotten. Each re-creation of a recipe then is an act that requires an imaginative fusion of fact and fiction, of history and memory. In writing about even older recipes, ancient Mesopotamian recipes from the "Yale Babylonian" recipe tablets to be precise, Laura Kelly a/k/a the Silk Road Gourmet writes here: "These ancient recipes are a fascinating challenge for modern cooks—not only because they are a window into the food culture of ancient Mesopotamia, but also because they are actually little more than lists of ingredients, usually with scant information on the amounts of ingredients to use, their form, or even how to prepare the dishes. Although difficult for some to navigate, the recipes allow for a great deal of creativity in using what is on hand or in reinterpreting dishes with favorite local and personal flavors. (In medieval Europe, recipes were typically written like this, and outside the industrialized world they still are.)"
For many if not all of us, each such act is also a small creative gesture (whether or not intentional) towards the daily puzzle that is our identity that we add to, subtract from, discard or destroy, every day. For Nasrallah, who lives in self-imposed exile in Boston Massachusetts after leaving Iraq in 1990, I imagine the recipes and the culinary history she's expended substantial effort to unearth must represent all of these and more. As I read through her book and contemplate the gift it contains (whether or not her readers appreciate it), I feel like taking the next train to Boston, showing up at her door and giving her a great big, tearful hug. Good thing for her, I don't know her address:-)
When, like Nasrallah, we live in exile both from our original places of birth (geographically and psychologically) and in our chosen places of residence (psychologically), when we have one of those hyphenated identities (whether acquired at birth or upon naturalization), often (not every day I hope, but sometimes) "life...is a daily confrontation with micro-aggressions and gestures of alienation" as Zia Haider Rahman, the brilliant author of In The Light Of What We Know, said recently in an opinion piece in the New York Times about life for immigrants and their children in Europe. It's as if the identity puzzle I spoke of above is in the hands of the people who we encounter every day, instead of in our own hands, and they (rather than we) are the ones putting the puzzle together as they see fit based on their own limited knowledge and experiences of who it is the hyphenated puzzle identity standing in front of them may be. As Rahman sees it: "Every battle of ideas is fought on the terrain of language. To the white Briton, the hyphenated identity — Bangladeshi-British, Pakistani-British — only highlights otherness. Each side regards the hyphenated identity as a concession to the other, rather than both rejoicing in a new stripe in a rainbow nation." This resonates to a certain extent with hyphenated Americans like me even though the culture of immigrant assimilation works quite differently in the United States (with its many and diverse state, urban, suburban and rural subcultures) when compared to Britain.
Inspired by Rahman's eloquently penned NYT piece, this battle for identity is one that I hope to wage in the terrain of food cultures and recipes. When I mention that I like to cook, I'm asked every time whether I cook "my own kind of food". The person harmlessly asking the question means Bangladeshi food, of course. When I say yes I only cook my own kind of food, I mean something quite different. I like to cook, serve, eat, read and learn about, travel for and find food from all the various cultures, places, stories and histories that have shaped who I am (literally and imaginatively) today. Unlike food writing about the exotic other, the exploration I've embarked on here is not for the seekers, keepers and peddlers of authenticity. Not because I've anything against traditional cooking. Far from it. Without some agreement about what tradition requires, there can be no reaction (like mine) to such tradition. The sad truth is that a quest for the "authentic" and who gets to represent the "authentic" leaves those of us with pixelated identities out in the cold. My food writing and recipes are for those who seek the roots they never knew or may have forgotten, that are mistakenly ascribed to them, that they've grafted on to themselves, that they imaginatively recreate or reject as a lifelong endeavor of reimaginings and realizations. These posts and the recipes in them try to capture the "who" of who I am (and those many others like me) as an evolving composite of where we come from, where we've have been and where we aspire to go someday.
The two recipes in this post, one vegan, one not -- Eggplant "Chutney" with Pomegranate Molasses and Abbasid-Style Chicken with Pomegranate Molasses -- are examples of composite recipes imaginatively created from multiple sources. The first is inspired by a sweet and sour chutney-like Bangladeshi dish from my mother's recipe closet handed down to her from her mom, my late nani or maternal grandmother, that I've modified to incorporate pomegranate molasses instead of tamarind paste for sourness, and added a couple of other little twists. For added inspiration, I also read this recipe by a fellow food blogger Imik Simik: Cooling with Gaul for his/her adaptation of Louisa Shafia's Eggplant and Tomato Stew with Pomegranate Molasses from The New Persian Kitchen. The chicken recipe is adapted from Nasrallah's translation of The Book of Recipes. Here's the original recipe by a boon companion to a 9th century Abbasid Caliph. Not too shabby, I say! I cooked it according to methods and using quantities that are my own as an act of reinterpreting a historical recipe for contemporary tastes. The dish uses the ancient Arab and Byzantine condiment murri, for which I substituted tamari or high-quality soy sauce.
As Rahman points out so poignantly, the cultural mainstream's discomfort with otherness is unlikely to go away. So, for those of us who fall into the role of the other, temporarily, permanently or situationally, the least we can do is to fashion this otherness for ourselves in our own chosen images in our reimagined food cultures.
Eggplant "Chutney" with Pomegranate Molasses
|Eggplant with Pomegranate Sauce. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.|
Cooking Time ~30 minutes (Prep ~1 hour)
- 4 Asian Eggplants or 1 Large Eggplant cut into 3 inch long pieces [salt and set aside for an hour, then wash and pat dry carefully]
- 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large tomato, sliced
- 5-6 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp. turmeric powder
- 1/2 tsp. (or 1 tsp. if you prefer more heat) chili/cayenne powder
- 3 Tbsp. oil [I used coconut oil]
- 1 Tbsp. raw honey
- 3 Tbsp. (or less for less sourness) of pomegranate molasses [available in stores that stock Middle Eastern products; I used the fresh kind from Turkey]
- Salt to taste
- A little hot water
- Thai basil (optional) or fresh coriander leaves for garnish
2. Add garlic and tomato and saute for a couple of minutes.
3. Mix the onion garlic mixture thoroughly with the remaining ingredients (except water) and lay out the eggplant slices (skin side up) in a flat saucepan. Heat on medium heat until the liquid released (including any water added sparingly as needed) starts to boil.
4. Cover and simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes until the liquid has almost evaporated. Add hot water sparingly to prevent sticking.
5. Add the honey and pomegranate molasses.
6. Cook for a few more minutes until all the moisture has evaporated. Turn off heat.
7. Garnish with Thai basil, if using, or fresh coriander leaves.
8. Serve at room temperature.
Abbasid-Style Chicken with Pomegranate Molasses
|Abbasid-Style Chicken with Pomegranate Molasses. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.|
Cooking Time ~1 hour (Prep. ~1 hour)
- 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces [since the Abbasids used game birds such as bustard, francolin, grouse and sand grouse, pasture-raised chicken, guinea hen or pheasant would be the more appropriate substitutes; mine is the common person's version with chicken]
- 1/2 bunch parsley leaves, chopped
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1/2 bunch celery stalks with leaves, chopped
- 2 tablespoon Turkish red pepper or cayenne powder or hot paprika powder (optional)
- Whole roasted black pepper (2 Tbsp.), cloves (1 Tbsp.), caraway seeds (1-1/2 Tbsp.), coriander seeds (1 Tbsp.) [place in a sachet for easy removal or ground to a powder]
- Tamari or high-quality soy sauce (2 Tbsp.) or to taste
- Pomegranate molasses (3 Tbsp. or less for less sourness)
- Hot water, as needed
- Fresh coriander or mint leaves for garnish
- Pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
1. Saute onion until translucent.
2. Add chopped parsley leaves and celery stalk with leaves and saute for a few minutes.
3. Lightly brown the chicken on all sides.
4. Add the remaining spices and soy sauce and a little hot water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer on low heat for 45 minutes or so or until chicken is tender.
5. Add pomegranate molasses and cook for a few minutes.
6. Check taste and add salt and adjust sourness, as needed. Turn off heat.
7. Garnish with fresh coriander or mint leaves and pomegranate seeds, if using.
8. Serve immediately, "God willing" (to channel a quirkily lovable expression from medieval Muslim cookbooks).
|Pixelated. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.|