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Eating to Remember
From Persia to Casablanca: the culinary traditions of the Middle East

By Robert Irwin
The Times Literary Supplement, London
March 31, 2000

In 1980, Terence O'Donnell published Garden of the Brave in War, a volume of reminiscences of his time as farmer in the 1960s and 70s in the province of Fars in Iran. The "Garden of the Brave in War" (the name of his farm) produced pomegranates, apples, sour cherries, quinces, sheep, chicken and bees. O'Donnell's Pickwickian memoir of outings, scrapes and parties is full of evocations of great meals, such as the picnic which preceded and almost superseded a hunting expedition and which consisted of "gazelle, lamb and chicken, two kinds of pilau, spinach cakes, wild rhubarb, yoghurt and herbs, whiskey, brandy and the local date spirits". O'Donnell's book is filled with a nostalgia for a douceur de vivre which the Iranian revolution of 1978-9 has probably placed beyond recovery.

Najmieh K. Batmanglij is an Iranian who lives in the United States, and her cookery book, A Taste of Persia, is suffused with a similar food-laden nostalgia. In a prelude to a recipe for dill rice with fava beans, she recalls the old family retainer who would appear shortly before the Persian New Year bearing a wicker basket edged with violets and narcissi and containing Seville oranges and smoked whitefish. When Batmanglij sets out a recipe for rice with tart cherries, she notes that such cherries are hard to find these days, and that "they always bring back memories". She remembers waiting as a child for the crates of cherries, which "were placed in the garden by the stone fountain and gently sprinkled with water to wash off the dust". She and her sisters "soaked all our senses in sour cherries". A discussion of khoresh, or braise, summons up the memory of her mother chopping herbs: "I can see and smell and hear it still: the various greens of the herbs, the sharp steel of the cleaver with droplets of herb juice on it, the lovely aroma, the faraway trancelike concentration on my mother's angelic face she never wore rings when she cooked - the even quick blows of the cleaver."

Batmanglij stresses the pre-Islamic continuity of Iranian cuisine, and relays the Assyrian Ashurnisapal II's boast that he had given a ten-day feast, including thousands of cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, ducks, geese, doves, stags and gazelles, as well as fruit, vegetables, cheese and nuts, for 47,074 people. (However, Batmanglij's own recipes only cater for eight people at most and usually only for four.) It was under the Sasanian dynasty (third to seventh century AD) that a culture of the dinner table and the drinking bout developed, which combined gastronomic and oenological expertise with a broader grounding in etiquette and the elements of table talk. Much of this culture of the table was passed on to the Arabs in the form of adab (on which see below). The Persians cultivated and disseminated to the rest of the world "the walnut, pistachio, pomegranate, cucumber, broad bean and pea . . . as well as basil, coriander and sesame". In "A Dictionary of Persian Cooking" at the back of the book, Batmanglij makes similar claims for almonds, fenugreek, quince and saffron. Some readers may well be suspicious of such broad claims to Persian priority, which might be thought to smack of gastronomic imperialism. However, the Larousse gastronomique and Alan Davidson's recent Oxford Companion to Food not only support most of these claims, but they even add to the list. It also seems to me likely that Turkish haute cuisine, as it evolved at the Ottoman court, was modelled on that of the Timurids in Persia and Transoxiana in the fifteenth century, when the latter dynasty was at the height of its cultural prestige and an "International Timurid court style" prevailed in other Islamic art forms.

Aline Benayoun, who is of Sephardic Jewish descent, grew up in the pied-noir community of Casablanca, but now lives in London, and her book, Casablanca Cuisine, is also, in part, an exercise in pious memory. Paradoxically, what she recalls are the days when women did not use recipe books or cook "by numbers". Recipes were memorized and orally transmitted, and meals were based on the best that was available in the market on a particular day, rather than on textual prescriptions. Her cookery book is also in part a guide to how to shop in a traditional North African market. She recalls how her mother used to patrol all the stalls, without at first committing herself. Then having noted the freshest foods, she would feign indifference, as she sat down to haggle over their purchase. She used to inspect the length of a chicken's claws to determine its age, and she would inspect its gullet in order to determine whether it had been corn-fed. She chose those fish that had the clearest eyes and the reddest gills. Like A Taste of Persia, Casablanca Cuisine summons up child's-eye visions of mother in the kitchen and of leisurely family feasts. A recipe for an aniseed-flavoured loaf, le pain courant, is preceded by the remark that the pieds noirs who now live in France "bake this bread, like the other dishes which we brought with us from North Africa, as a way of holding on to our past". Pied-noir cookery obviously owes much to the Arabs, but it also draws heavily on Jewish culinary tradition. (In pre-independence Algeria, for example, Jews constituted one fifth of the non-Muslim population.) Pied-noir cooks, like Persian cooks and, for that matter, like medieval English cooks, were particularly fond of combining meats with fruits.

In 1968, Claudia Roden published A Book of Middle Eastern Food. This ground-breaking work swiftly established itself as a culinary classic. (A heavily revised second edition appeared in 1985, which, to some extent, drew on feedback from enthusiastic readers.) In the introduction to the first edition, she described how as a schoolgirl in Paris, homesick for Egypt, she would meet up with her relatives every Sunday to eat ful medames: "This meal became a ritual. Considered in Egypt to be a poor man's dish, in Paris the little brown beans became invested with all the glories and warmth of Cairo, our home town, and the embodiment of all that for which we were homesick." Roden's family, like Benayoun's were Sephardic Jews. As well as recipes which were mostly unfamiliar to an English readership, A Book of Middle Eastern Food offered glimpses of an old-fashioned Levantine community in which Arab, Turk, Copt, Armenian, Greek and Jew lived cheek by jowl and borrowed from each other's kitchens.

Claudia Roden's new book, Tamarind and Saffron, takes some of its recipes t from her first book, but the recipes are often pared down and simplified, and the ingredients specified seem to cater for a more health-conscious audience. Roden's favourite recipes are very different from the numerous heavy, greasy dishes I remember having eaten in Turkey and Algeria. She notes in her introduction that Middle Eastern hosts have traditionally favoured elaborate recipes that show one has worked hard for one's guests. However, whereas Benayoun's book emphasizes and reproduces the elaborate, slow pace of pied-noir cooking, Tamarind and Saffron's recipes are swift and extremely simple. The instruction for making walnut and pomegranate paste consists of one short sentence. Those of the book's recipes that I have tried are excellent. Following the directions for making spiced saffron rice, I managed to cook the best rice my wife and I have ever eaten in our lives. It is a measure of the earlier success that Roden in her new book is increasingly confident that exotic Middle Eastern ingredients can be purchased in local stores in Britain. Tamarind and Saffron is lavishly illustrated, but I preferred Roden's spare prose to the images of over-lit, strangely glowing foods. (Batmanglij's photographer has succeeded in producing more naturalistic, mouth-watering pictures.) Geert Jan Van Gelder is Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford. His Of Dishes and Discourse traces the numerous and complex interrelations between food on the one hand and medieval Arabic poetry and belles-lettres on the other. "Literature in any case remains the starting point and focus of this book . . . for the purpose of this study culinary history is considered merely as one of the tools for the understanding, interpretation and appreciation of literary texts."

Although there are hardly any recipes in what is essentially a study of literary etiquette, symbols, metaphors, similes, satires and parodies, Van Gelder does discuss cookery books. Normally the only literary feature of medieval cookery books is their titles, such as, for example, al-Wusla ila l-habib ("Arrival at the Beloved"), "the recipes themselves being written in a factual and unliterary style". There is, however, one exception, the tenth-century Kitab al-Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. In this case, the title, "The Book of Cooking", is perfectly prosaic, but the recipes are interleaved with numerous poems which Van Gelder implausibly suggests "are perhaps the equivalent of the luscious colour photographs of modern cookery books". Although much of the poetry is ecphrastic, some of the poems are actual versified recipes, and, in such cases, it seems probable that the poetry is being offered as an aide-mémoire for the cook. Van Gelder has translated some of the recipe-poems, in which the crisp imperatives that are the common feature of all cookery books are softened and broken up by flowery similes. Thus, halfway through a poem on a meat and narcissus dish, the reader-cook is exhorted by Ibn Sayyar:

Then break an egg on it, like eyes,
Like shining stars of firmament,
Or round narcissus flowers ....

This sort of thing is no longer favoured by the compilers of cookery books.

In A Taste of Persia, Batmanglij refers to the tenth-century Persian epic poet, Firdawsi, as despising the Arabs who conquered Iran for Islam as rough men who "fed on camel's milk and ate lizards". Naturally, Van Gelder offers a discussion of lizard-eating in its literary context. Poets who were of Persian origin but who wrote in Arabic, such as Bashshar ibn Burd and Abu Nuwas, were particularly inclined to mock the whole Arab race as the eaters of lizards, hedgehogs or locusts. This was a stock literary insult. Strictly speaking, however, it was only the nomadic Arabs who genuinely delighted in eating lizards and locusts. A swarm of locusts, though it spelled disaster for farmers, might be welcomed by the nomads as a delicacy on the wing. "The locusts devour the Bedouin and the Bedouin devours the locusts", as a popular saying had it. The slaughter and cooking of camels is also discussed in Of Dishes and Discourse. In the pre-Islamic qasidas devoted to the themes of the deserted carnp sites, lost loves and journeys to an uncertain future, camels appeared not only as a mode of transport, but also as a food. The preparation of camel's meat features in what is perhaps the most famous of all Arabic poems, the intensely erotic sixth-century qasida by Imru' al-Qays, in which .. . . the virgin of the tribe went on tossing its hacked flesh about and the frilly fat like fringes of twisted silk.

It is a little disappointing that there is no discussion of geophagy in Van Gelder's wide-ranging book (but then he is generally more interested in cooked food than in raw comestibles). There is a well-known reference to earth-eating in al-Tha'alibi's tenth-century belles-lettres work, al-Lata'if al-Ma'arif, "Curious and Entertaining Information", which, as its title suggests, was a compendium of curiosities of all kinds. When the author came to discuss the distinctive products of Nishapur in Iran, he commended the city for its edible earth, "whose like is found nowhere else in the world". It was indeed one of the place's chief exports. The estimable Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) produced monographs on such recondite matters as The Bird Chariot, History of the Finger-print System, The Application of the Tibetan Sexagenary Cycle, Three Tokhavian Bagatelles, The Eskimo Screw as a CultureHistorical Problem, Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times and Insect Musicians and Cricket Champions of China. It was probably inevitable then that Laufer should also write on eartheating. Laufer's Geophagy was published by the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, in 1930. In it, Laufer drew together the various references in medieval Arabic literature to earth-eating for medicinal or epicurean purposes. He also drew attention to the persistence of the practice in his own time among what were mostly working-class women in Iran. "The clay fiends are characterised by leanness and sallow earth-like complexions." Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the brutal political hatchet man of the Umayyad Caliphs, fluent orator and reformer of Arab orthography, was probably the most notorious of the medieval clay-fiends. This brutal man was reputed to have been addicted to earth-eating, and, though he struggled to break the habit, he is reported to have died of it in 714.

Al-Hajjaj does feature in Van Gelder's book, but only as the man who carried out a poll among his followers to find out what their favourite food was. Dates and butter won easily the most votes (and butter seems to have been a favourite subject among poets). Although Of Dishes and Discourse does discuss various forms of rough eating, Van Gelder notes that "Bedouin dishes do not readily lend themselves to lyrical effusions", and it is natural then that he Caliphs, courtiers and literati. The longest of the book's chapters is devoted to "The Text as Banquet", in which medieval Arab deipnosophists are shown playing with food and words, improvising epicurean poems, indulging in flights of gastronomic oratory and citing old Bedouin lore about food. Van Gelder has more than enough material to deal with here, yet it is curious, as he notes, that there is far more medieval Arab poetry about wine than there is about food. The impossibility of living on words alone was a familiar literary theme and was put into fictional form in the Thousand and One Nights, where, in the Hunchback cycle stories, the Barber's sixth brother is welcomed to a "Barmecide feasf' that is, he is urged by a superficially hospitable miser to help himself to as much as he likes of invisible and wholly imaginary foods.

There is more of interest in this book than can even be signalled here, though it is tempting to linger on Van Gelder's discussions of, among other things, coprophagy, anti-vegetarian polemic, edible architecture, the competitive slaughtering of camels, the foods of paradise, the sexual symbolism of the fig and the pumpkin and that curious fantasy, "The War between King Mutton and King Honey". It is important to emphasize, however, that this not primarily a book about eating, but about the nature of literature, and most specifically about adab. Adab has no exact parallel in English, but it can be variously defined as "good breeding", "refinement", "belles-lettres" and simply as "literature". It was customary in medieval adab to mingle the comic and the serious (al-hazl wa'j jidd). Geert Van Gelder has obviously enjoyed the medieval books and manuscripts he has been reading, and his prose is strikingly stylish and lively. Of Dishes and Discourse, a learned work of adab in English, is a pleasure to read, especially since it also includes quite a few very old (but still good) jokes.

Robert Irwin's most recent book is, Night and Houses and the Desert: An anthology of classical Arabic literature.


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