Jan 162018
 

Today is the birthday (1516) of Bayinnaung Kyawhtin Nawrahta (ဘုရင့်နောင် ကျော်ထင်နော်ရထာ) king of the Toungoo Dynasty of Burma (Myanmar) from 1550 to 1581. During his 31-year reign, which has been called the “greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma,” Bayinnaung assembled what was probably the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia, which included much of modern-day Myanmar, the Chinese Shan states, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Manipur and Thailand. Bayinnaung was born Ye Htut to Mingyi Swe and Shin Myo Myat. His exact ancestry is unclear. No extant contemporary records, including Hanthawaddy Hsinbyushin Ayedawbon, the extensive chronicle of the king’s reign written two years before his death, mention his ancestry. In 1724, almost a century and a half after his death, Maha Yazawin, the official chronicle of the Toungoo Dynasty, first proclaimed his genealogy. According to Maha Yazawin, he was born to a noble family in Toungoo (Taungoo), then a former vassal state of the Ava Kingdom. Despite the official version of royal descent, oral traditions speak of a less grandiose genealogy, saying that his parents were commoners from Ngathayauk in Pagan district or Htihlaing village in Toungoo district, and that his father was a toddy palm tree climber, then one of the lowest professions in Burmese society. The commoner origin narrative first gained prominence in the early 20th century during the British colonial period as nationalist writers, such as Po Kya, promoted it as proof that even a son of a toddy tree climber could rise to become the great emperor in Burmese society. All history serves the purposes of the historian.

Although he is best remembered for his empire building, Bayinnaung’s greatest legacy was his integration of the Shan states into the Irrawaddy-valley-based kingdoms. After the conquest of the Shan states in 1557–1563, Bayinnaung put in an administrative system that reduced the power of hereditary Shan saophas (hereditary rulers), and brought Shan customs in line with lowland norms. It eliminated the threat of Shan raids into Upper Burma, a longstanding concern to Upper Burma since the late 13th century. His Shan policy was followed by Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885. The Shan are still one of the major ethnic groups in Myanmar with their own language and distinctive culture.

Bayinnaung is considered one of the three greatest kings of Burma, along with Anawrahta and Alaungpaya. Some of the most prominent places in modern Myanmar are named after him. He is also well known in Thailand as Phra Chao Chana Sip Thit (พระเจ้าชนะสิบทิศ, “Victor of the Ten Directions”). His empire was a loose collection of former sovereign kingdoms, whose kings were loyal to him as the Cakkavatti (Universal Ruler), and not to the kingdom of Toungoo. Ava and Siam revolted two years after his death, and by 1599, all the vassal states had revolted, and the Toungoo Empire completely collapsed.

Bayinnaung, who began his reign as a “king without a kingdom,” ended his reign as an “emperor without an empire.” According to Than Tun, Bayinnaung conquered territories not to colonize them but to gain the loyalty of their rulers. He kept conquered kings and lords in their own positions as long as they remained loyal to him. Tun Aung Chain adds that “the extensive polity was held together not so much by formal institutions as personal relationships” based on the concepts of thissa (သစ္စာ, ‘allegiance’) and kyezu (ကျေးဇူး, ‘obligation’).” This was nothing new. Bayinnaung was simply following the then prevailing Southeast Asian administrative model of solar polities in which the high king ruled the core while semi-independent tributaries, autonomous viceroys, and governors actually controlled day-to-day administration and labor. As such, the “King of Kings” governed only Pegu and the Mon country himself, leaving the rest of the realm to vassal kings in Ava, Prome, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Martaban, Siam, and Toungoo. He regarded Lan Na as the most important of all the vassal states, and spent most of his time there in peacetime.

Bayinnaung administered Lower Burma with the help of ministers, the vast majority of whom were of ethnic Mon background. His chief minister was Binnya Dala, known for his military and administrative abilities, and literary talents. He introduced administrative reforms only at the margins. By and large, he simply grafted the prevailing decentralized administration system, which barely worked for petty states like his native Toungoo, to the largest polity ever in the region. It did not work for mid-size kingdoms like Ava, Hanthawaddy, Lan Na, and Siam. He, perhaps inadvertently, did introduce a key reform, which turned out to be the most important and most enduring of his legacies. It was his policy to administer the Shan states, which had constantly raided Upper Burma since the late 13th century. The king permitted the saophas of the states to retain their royal regalia and ceremonies, and feudal rights over their subjects. The office of the saopha remained hereditary. But the incumbent saopha could now be removed by the king for gross misconduct although the king’s choice of successor was limited to members of the saopha’s own family. The key innovation was that he required sons of his vassal rulers to reside in his palace as pages, who served a dual purpose: they were hostages for good conduct of their fathers and they received valuable training in Burmese court life. His Shan policy was followed by all Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885.

Bayinnaung introduced a measure of legal uniformity by summoning learned monks and officials from all over his dominions to prescribe an official collection of law books. The scholars compiled Dhammathat Kyaw and Kosaungchok, based on King Wareru’s dhammathat. The decisions given in his court were collected in Hanthawaddy Hsinbyumyashin Hpyat-hton. He promoted the new law throughout the empire so far as it was compatible with customs and practices of local society. The adoption of Burmese customary law and the Burmese calendar in Siam began in his reign. He also standardized the weights and measurements such as the cubit, tical, and basket throughout the realm.

Another enduring legacy of Bayinnaung was his introduction of a more orthodox Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma and the Shan states. He propagated the religious reforms begun by King Dhammazedi in the late 1470s. He viewed himself as the model Buddhist king and distributed copies of Buddhist scriptures, fed monks, and built pagodas at every new conquered state from Upper Burma and the Shan states to Lan Na and Siam. Some of the pagodas are still intact. Following in the footsteps of Dhammazedi, he supervised mass ordinations at the Kalyani Thein at Pegu in his orthodox Theravada Buddhism in the name of purifying the religion. He prohibited all human and animal sacrifices throughout the kingdom. In particular, he forbade the Shan practice of killing the slaves and animals belonging to a saopha at his funeral. His attempts to eliminate animist nat (spirit) worship from Buddhism, however, failed.

Bayinnaung donated jewels to adorn the crowns of many pagodas, including the Shwedagon, the Shwemawdaw, the Kyaiktiyo, and many less famous ones. He added a new spire to the Shwedagon in 1564 after the death of his beloved queen Yaza Dewi. His main temple was the Mahazedi Pagoda at Pegu, which he built in 1561. He tried but failed to secure the release of the Tooth of Kandy from the Portuguese in 1560. He later interfered with the internal affairs of Ceylon in the 1570s, ostensibly to protect the religion there.

His kingdom was mainly an agrarian state with a few wealthy maritime trading ports. The main ports were Syriam (Thanlyin), Dala, and Martaban. The kingdom exported commodities such as rice and jewels. At Pegu, overseas trade was in the hands of eight brokers appointed by the king. Their honesty and business-like methods won the esteem of European merchants. The capital was so fabulous that contemporary Europeans were said to “never tire of describing Pegu—the long moat full of crocodiles, the walls, the watch-towers, the gorgeous palace, the great processions with elephants and palanquins and grandees in shining robes, the shrines filled with images of massy gold and gems, the unending hosts of armed men, and the apparition of the great king himself.” The king appointed officials to supervise merchant shipping and sent out ships to undertake commercial voyages. The prosperous life at the capital, however, was probably not replicated at the countryside. Annual mobilizations of men greatly reduced the manpower necessary to cultivate the rice fields. Harvests at times fell perilously low, causing severe rice shortages, such as in 1567.

Bayinnaung’s empire was built on what is sometimes called “breathtaking” military conquests, but his success was more than just Portuguese firearms, foreign mercenaries, and massive forces. There was also a strong element of personal charisma. Certainly, he benefitted from the arrival of Portuguese cannon and matchlocks in large quantities. Portuguese weaponry proved superior in accuracy, safety, ballistic weight, and rapidity of fire to Asian-made firearms. Finally, Bayinnaung was able to marshal more manpower than any ruler in the region. He required every new conquered state to provide conscripts for his next campaign. Using both larger forces and superior firearms, he had no trouble reducing Manipur and the entire Shan world to tributary status. His larger forces and their greater fighting experience proved to make the difference against Siam, which too was a wealthy coastal power with a powerful well-equipped military.

It turned out however that Siam was not his greatest adversary. It was the remote mountainous states like Lan Xang, Mohnyin and Mogaung whose guerrilla warfare gave him constant trouble. Many of his men died from starvation and disease while fruitlessly searching for elusive bands of rebels, year after year. (The death toll must have been significant since it is mentioned in the chronicles.) He was fortunate that the charismatic guerrilla leader Setthathirath died. In the end, his military might alone could not bring lasting peace. He needed competent local rulers, who commanded the respect of the local populace, to rule the lands on his behalf.

These individual ingredients alone cannot explain Bayinnaung’s success. The same ingredients were available to his successors. Yet no one (in Burma or elsewhere in the successor states of his empire) could put them together. One historian notes: “From his teens until his death, he was constantly in the field, leading every major campaign in person. The failure of other kings who attempted the same conquests is the measure of his ability.” Bayinnaung died on 10 October 1581 after a long illness. His eldest son and heir-apparent Nanda took over the throne without incident. But the empire, which Bayinnaung had built on military conquests and maintained by both military power and personal relationships with the vassal rulers, crumbled shortly after.

Nowadays Myanmar cooking is divided into homestyle cooking and royal cooking. It’s hard enough for me to describe homestyle cooking, let alone royal style. Hop a plane. The difference between home and royal cooking is more one of quantity than quality. Rice is the staple, and various main dishes and side dishes accompany the rice. Royal meals involve many more dishes than home meals, but the general cooking methods and ingredients are the same (although royal dishes can involve more meat). Indigenous vegetables predominate.  Here are two videos. The first is quite detailed and shows cooking in the Shan style from Inle lake.

The second shows a rather festive dish, and indicates, if the first doesn’t sufficiently, how obscure some of the ingredients are for Westerners.

Nov 062017
 

Today is the birthday (1566) of Suleiman I (سلطان سليمان اول‎ Sultan Süleyman-ı Evvel) commonly known as Suleiman the Magnificent in the West and Kanunî Sultan Süleyman (Lawgiver Suleiman) in his realm, the 10th and longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to his death in 1566. Under his administration, the Ottoman state/empire was at its apogee ruling between 15 and 25 million people in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Suleiman was one of the most prominent monarchs of 16th-century Europe, personally leading Ottoman armies in conquering the Christian strongholds of Belgrade and Rhodes as well as most of Hungary before his conquests were checked at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. He annexed much of the Middle East in his conflict with the Safavids and large areas of North Africa as far west as Algeria. Under his rule, the Ottoman fleet dominated the seas from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and through the Persian Gulf.

Suleiman personally instituted major legislative changes relating to society, education, taxation and criminal law. His reforms, carried out in conjunction with the empire’s chief judicial official Ebussuud Efendi, harmonized the relationship between the two forms of Ottoman law: sultanic (Kanun) and religious (Sharia). He was a distinguished poet and goldsmith, and also was a great patron of the arts, literature and architecture creating what many historians see as the Golden Age of Ottoman culture.

Suleiman broke with Ottoman tradition when he married Hurrem Sultan, a woman from his harem: a Christian of Rusyn origin who converted to Islam, and who became famous in the West by the name Roxelana. Their son Selim II succeeded Suleiman following his death in 1566 after 46 years of rule. Suleiman’s other potential heirs Mehmed and Mustafa had died, the former from smallpox and the latter had been strangled to death 13 years earlier at the sultan’s order. His other son Bayezid was executed in 1561 on Suleiman’s orders, along with his four sons, after a rebellion. Although scholars no longer believe that the empire declined after his death, in the decades after Suleiman’s reign, the empire began to experience significant political, institutional, and economic changes, a phenomenon often referred to as the Transformation of the Ottoman Empire.

Upon succeeding his father, Suleiman began a series of military conquests, eventually suppressing a revolt led by the Ottoman-appointed governor of Damascus in 1521. Suleiman soon made preparations for the conquest of Belgrade from the Kingdom of Hungary—something his great-grandfather Mehmed II had failed to achieve because of John Hunyadi’s strong defense in the region. Its capture was vital in removing the Hungarians and Croats who, following the defeats of the Albanians, Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Byzantines and the Serbs, remained the only formidable force who could block further Ottoman gains in Europe. Suleiman encircled Belgrade and began a series of heavy bombardments from an island in the Danube. Belgrade, with a garrison of only 700 men, and receiving no aid from Hungary, fell in August 1521. The fall of Christendom’s major strongholds spread fear across Europe. As the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to Constantinople noted, “The capture of Belgrade was at the origin of the dramatic events which engulfed Hungary. It led to the death of King Louis, the capture of Buda, the occupation of Transylvania, the ruin of a flourishing kingdom and the fear of neighboring nations that they would suffer the same fate …”

The road to Hungary and Austria lay open, but Suleiman turned his attention instead to the Eastern Mediterranean island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller. In the summer of 1522, taking advantage of the large navy he inherited from his father, Suleiman dispatched an armada of some 400 ships towards Rhodes, while personally leading an army of 100,000 across Asia Minor to a point opposite the island itself. Here Suleiman built a large fortification, Marmaris Castle, that served as a base for the Ottoman Navy. Following the brutal five-month Siege of Rhodes (1522), Rhodes capitulated and Suleiman allowed the Knights of Rhodes to depart.

While Sultan Suleiman was known as “the Magnificent” in the West, he was always Kanuni Suleiman or “The Lawgiver” (قانونی) to his own Ottoman subjects. As the historian Lord Kinross notes, “Not only was he a great military campaigner, a man of the sword, as his father and great-grandfather had been before him. He differed from them in the extent to which he was also a man of the pen. He was a great legislator, standing out in the eyes of his people as a high-minded sovereign and a magnanimous exponent of justice”. The overriding law of the empire was the Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, which as the divine law of Islam was outside of the Sultan’s powers to change. Yet an area of distinct law known as the Kanuns (قانون, canonical legislation) was dependent on Suleiman’s will alone, covering areas such as criminal law, land tenure and taxation. He collected all the judgments that had been issued by the nine Ottoman Sultans who preceded him. After eliminating duplications and choosing between contradictory statements, he issued a single legal code, all the while being careful not to violate the basic laws of Islam. It was within this framework that Suleiman, supported by his Grand Mufti Ebussuud, sought to reform the legislation to adapt to a rapidly changing empire. When the Kanun laws attained their final form, the code of laws became known as the kanun‐i Osmani (قانون عثمانی), or the “Ottoman laws”. Suleiman’s legal code was to last more than three hundred years.

Suleiman gave particular attention to the plight of the rayas, Christian subjects who worked the land of the Sipahis (land-owning cavalry). His Kanune Raya, or “Code of the Rayas”, reformed the law governing levies and taxes to be paid by the rayas, raising their status above serfdom to the extent that Christian serfs would migrate to Turkish territories to benefit from the reforms. Suleiman also played a role in protecting the Jewish subjects of his empire for centuries to come. In late 1553 or 1554, on the suggestion of his favorite doctor and dentist, the Spanish Jew Moses Hamon, the Sultan issued a firman (فرمان) formally denouncing blood libels against the Jews. Furthermore, Suleiman enacted new criminal and police legislation, prescribing a set of fines for specific offenses, as well as reducing the instances requiring death or mutilation. In the area of taxation, taxes were levied on various goods and produce, including animals, mines, profits of trade, and import-export duties. In addition to taxes, officials who had fallen into disrepute were likely to have their land and property confiscated by the Sultan.

Education was also important to Suleiman. Schools attached to mosques and funded by religious foundations provided a largely free education to Muslim boys, well in advance of the Christian countries of the time. In his capital, Suleiman increased the number of mektebs (مكتب, primary schools) to 14, teaching boys to read and write as well as the principles of Islam. Young men wishing further education could proceed to one of 8 medreses (مدرسه, colleges), whose studies included grammar, metaphysics, philosophy, astronomy and astrology. Higher medreses provided education of university status, whose graduates became imams (امام) or teachers. Educational centers were often one of many buildings surrounding the courtyards of mosques, others included libraries, baths, soup kitchens, residences and hospitals for the benefit of the public.

Under Suleiman’s patronage, the Ottoman Empire entered the golden age of its cultural development. Hundreds of imperial artistic societies (called the اهل حرف Ehl-i Hiref, “Community of the Craftsmen”) were administered at the Imperial seat, the Topkapı Palace. After an apprenticeship, artists and craftsmen could advance in rank within their field and were paid commensurate wages in quarterly annual installments. Payroll registers that survive testify to the breadth of Suleiman’s patronage of the arts, the earliest of documents dating from 1526 list 40 societies with over 600 members. The Ehl-i Hiref attracted the empire’s most talented artisans to the Sultan’s court, both from the Islamic world and from the recently conquered territories in Europe, resulting in a blend of Arabic, Turkish and European cultures. Artisans in service of the court included painters, book binders, furriers, jewelers and goldsmiths. Whereas previous rulers had been influenced by Persian culture (Suleiman’s father, Selim I, wrote poetry in Persian), Suleiman’s patronage of the arts saw the Ottoman Empire assert its own artistic legacy.

Suleiman himself was an accomplished poet, writing in Persian and Turkish under the takhallus (nom de plume) Muhibbi (محبی, “Lover”). Some of Suleiman’s verses have become Turkish proverbs, such as the well-known “Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story.” When his young son Mehmed died in 1543, he composed a moving chronogram to commemorate the year, “Peerless among princes, my Sultan Mehmed.” In addition to Suleiman’s own work, many great talents enlivened the literary world during Suleiman’s rule, including Fuzuli and Baki.  Suleiman’s most famous verse is:

The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate,
But in this world a spell of health is the best state.
What men call sovereignty is worldly strife and constant war;
Worship of God is the highest throne, the happiest of all estates.

Suleiman also became renowned for sponsoring a series of monumental architectural developments within his empire. The Sultan sought to turn Constantinople into the center of Islamic civilization by a series of projects, including bridges, mosques, palaces and various charitable and social establishments. The greatest of these were built by the Sultan’s chief architect, Mimar Sinan, under whom Ottoman architecture reached its zenith. Sinan became responsible for over three hundred monuments throughout the empire, including his two masterpieces, the Süleymaniye and Selimiye mosques—the latter built in Adrianople (now Edirne) in the reign of Suleiman’s son Selim II. Suleiman also restored the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Jerusalem city walls (which are the current walls of the Old City of Jerusalem), renovated the Kaaba in Mecca, and constructed a complex in Damascus.

Suleiman had two known consorts:

Mahidevran Sultan (m. 1512/14), a Circassian or Albanian “Ottoman”.

Hürrem Sultan (also known as Roxelana) (m. 1531)

Suleiman was infatuated with Hürrem Sultan, a harem girl from Ruthenia, then part of Poland. Western diplomats, taking notice of the palace gossip about her, called her “Russelazie” or “Roxelana”, referring to her Ruthenian origins. She was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, captured by Tatars from Crimea, sold as a slave in Constantinople, and eventually rose through the ranks of the Harem to become Suleiman’s favorite. Breaking with two centuries of Ottoman tradition, Suleiman made a former concubine his legal wife, much to the astonishment of the observers in the palace and the city. He also allowed Hürrem Sultan to remain with him at court for the rest of her life, breaking another tradition—that when imperial heirs came of age, they would be sent along with the imperial concubine who bore them to govern remote provinces of the Empire, never to return unless their progeny succeeded to the throne.

Under his pen name, Muhibbi, Sultan Suleiman composed this poem for Hürrem Sultan:

Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful …
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf …
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this room …
My Istanbul, my karaman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of misery …
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.

Hürrem and Mahidevran bore Suleiman six sons, four of whom survived past the 1550s: Mustafa, Selim, Bayezid, and Cihangir. Of these, the eldest, was not Hürrem Sultan’s son, but rather Mahidevran Sultan’s, and therefore preceded Hürrem’s children in the order of succession. Hürrem was aware that should Mustafa become Sultan her own children would be strangled. Yet Mustafa was recognized as the most talented of all the brothers and was supported by Pargalı İbrahim Pasha, who was by this time Suleiman’s Grand Vizier. The Austrian ambassador Busbecq would note “Suleiman has among his children a son called Mustafa, marvelously well educated and prudent and of an age to rule, since he is 24 or 25 years old; may God never allow a Barbary of such strength to come near us”, going on to talk of Mustafa’s “remarkable natural gifts”. Hürrem is usually held at least partly responsible for the intrigues in nominating a successor. Although she was Suleiman’s wife, she exercised no official public role. This did not, however, prevent Hürrem from wielding powerful political influence. Since the Empire lacked, until the reign of Ahmed I, any formal means of nominating a successor, successions usually involved the death of competing princes in order to avert civil unrest and rebellions. In attempting to avoid the execution of her sons, Hürrem used her influence to eliminate those who supported Mustafa’s accession to the throne.

Thus in power struggles apparently instigated by Hürrem, Suleiman had Ibrahim murdered and replaced with her sympathetic son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha. By 1552, when the campaign against Persia had begun with Rüstem appointed commander-in-chief of the expedition, intrigues against Mustafa began. Rüstem sent one of Suleiman’s most trusted men to report that since Suleiman was not at the head of the army, the soldiers thought the time had come to put a younger prince on the throne; at the same time he spread rumors that Mustafa had proved receptive to the idea. Angered by what he came to believe were Mustafa’s plans to claim the throne, the following summer upon return from his campaign in Persia, Suleiman summoned him to his tent in the Ereğli valley, saying he would “be able to clear himself of the crimes he was accused of and would have nothing to fear if he came”.

Mustafa was confronted with a choice: either he appear before his father at the risk of being killed; or, if he refused to attend, he would be accused of betrayal. In the end, Mustafa chose to enter his father’s tent, confident that the support of the army would protect him. Busbecq, who claims to have received an account from an eyewitness, describes Mustafa’s final moments. As Mustafa entered his father’s tent, Suleiman’s eunuchs attacked Mustafa, with the young prince putting up a brave defense. Suleiman, separated from the struggle only by the linen hangings of the tent, peered through the chamber of his tent and “directed fierce and threatening glances upon the mutes, and by menacing gestures sternly rebuked their hesitation. Thereupon, the mutes in their alarm, redoubling their efforts, hurled Mustafa to the ground and, throwing the bowstring round his neck, strangled him.”

Cihangir is said to have died of grief a few months after the news of his half-brother’s murder. The two surviving brothers, Selim and Bayezid, were given command in different parts of the empire. Within a few years, however, civil war broke out between the brothers, each supported by his loyal forces. With the aid of his father’s army, Selim defeated Bayezid in Konya in 1559, leading the latter to seek refuge with the Safavids along with his four sons. Following diplomatic exchanges, the Sultan demanded from the Safavid Shah that Bayezid be either extradited or executed. In return for large amounts of gold, the Shah allowed a Turkish executioner to strangle Bayezid and his four sons in 1561, clearing the path for Selim’s succession to the throne five years later.

On 6 September 1566, Suleiman, who had set out from Constantinople to command an expedition to Hungary, died before an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Szigetvár in Hungary and the Grand Vizier kept his death secret during the retreat for the enthronement of Selim II. Just the night before the sickly sultan died in his tent, two months before he would have turned 72. The sultan’s body was taken back to Istanbul to be buried, while his heart, liver, and some other organs were buried in Turbék, outside Szigetvár. A mausoleum was constructed above the burial site, and came to be regarded as a holy place and pilgrimage site. Within a decade a mosque and Sufi hospice were built near it.

Ottoman palace cuisine under Suleiman and his successors was highly refined, but largely secret. No texts concerning recipes were ever written. This diverse cuisine was perfected in the Imperial palace’s kitchens by chefs brought from various parts of the empire to create and experiment with different ingredients. These chefs were tested and hired simply by their method of cooking rice. They were brought over from various places for the express purpose of experimenting with exotic textures and ingredients and inventing new dishes. Each cook specialized in specific tasks. All dishes intended for the sultan were first passed by the palate of the Chesnidjibashi, or imperial food taster, who tested the food for both poison and taste. A few of the creations of the Ottoman palace’s kitchens filtered down to the common population, but the vast bulk are lost to posterity.

Ayva dolma, stuffed quinces, is believed to have originated in the palace kitchen, and is now a rare but succulent specialty in some parts of the former Ottoman empire.  This recipe comes from Azerbaijan. Getting hold of good-sized quinces is going to be your chief challenge.

Ayva Dolma

Ingredients

200 g/8 oz lamb, ground
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
25 g/1 oz melted butter
4-6 chestnuts
1 tspn ground cinnamon
1 tspn allspice
2-3 strands saffron
salt and pepper
5 soft, ripe quinces
2 tbsp of sugar or honey
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup rich stock (preferably lamb)

Instructions

Steep the saffron in a cup with 1 tablespoon of boiling water. Cover and leave to infuse.

Pierce the chestnuts. Cover them with water in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove them from the water one at a time and shell. They are difficult to peel when dry, so do this one at a time  Roughly chop the shelled chestnuts.

Preheat the oven to 200˚C/400˚F.

Put the ground lamb, chopped onion, chopped chestnuts, spices, melted butter, and salt to taste into a bowl and mix well with your hands.

Mix the honey and lemon juice in a saucer or small bowl.

Wash the quinces and scrub them to remove any down from the skin. Slice off the tops and set them aside. Remove the cores and some of the flesh of the fruit, using a melon baller, to create a hollow for the stuffing. Rub the insides of the quinces with the honey and lemon juice mixture. This step is both for flavor and to prevent the quinces from browning on the inside. Stuff the quinces with the meat mixture, pressing the filling down hard. Put the tops back on as lids. Wrap each quince in foil and stand them upright in a baking dish or ovenproof shallow pan.  Add the stock to the baking dish. Place the dish in the preheated oven and cook for 45 minutes or until the fruit are soft.

Pour the cooking juice over each quince when serving. Serve with rice or fresh crusty bread and plain yoghurt.

Sep 102016
 

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Today is National Day in Gibraltar, a national holiday in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. The day commemorates Gibraltar’s first sovereignty referendum of 1967, in which voters were asked whether they wished to pass to Spanish sovereignty, or remain under British sovereignty, with institutions of self-government. Frankly I find such referenda by the British absurdly cynical and self serving. They did the same in the Malvinas. How about asking New Zealand voters if they wish to remain in the British Commonwealth or have their land returned to the Maori?

It’s the same the world over – legally, semi-legally, or by sheer force, commandeer land from its rightful owners, bring in a raft of British colonists, then years later ask if they want to remain British. How do you think they will vote? Fortunately in places like India, the British were overwhelmed in numbers and got slung out eventually. For centuries the British kept up the absurd pretense that they were developing colonies for the benefit of the local people (who usually fought to keep them out), and would only grant the colonies independence when they could prove they were “civilized” enough to warrant it, whereas the truth was that Britain would grant independence when there wasn’t anything left to steal (and local cultures had been irreparably damaged). In a couple of cases, notably North America and Northern Rhodesia, colonial governments didn’t wait for British approval.

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Gibraltar has been a strategically vital port for the United Kingdom since the early 18th century. An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession on behalf of the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne. The territory was subsequently ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. During World War II it was an important base for the Royal Navy as it controlled the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea, which is only eight miles (13 km) wide at this point. Today Gibraltar’s economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, financial services, and shipping.

The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in a 1967 referendum and again in 2002. Under the Gibraltar constitution of 2006, Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defense and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the Government of the United Kingdom.

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During the campaign leading up to the United Kingdom’s national referendum on whether to leave the European Union (known as ‘Brexit’) the Spanish government warned that if the UK chose to leave, Spain would push to reclaim control over Gibraltar ‘the very next day’.

The Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo warned the UK that if Brexit went ahead Spain could “pounce on us” also stating that “it is safer and more secure for Gibraltar to remain in the EU.” On 23 June 2016 Gibraltar voted with the rest of the United Kingdom on whether the UK should remain in, or leave the European Union. Although the final decision saw the UK decide to leave, Gibraltar overwhelmingly voted to remain in the Union. There was a strong voter turnout of 82% resulting in 19,322 votes to remain and only 872 to leave.

The very day after the result of the Brexit vote, Spain’s acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, as promised, renewed calls for joint Spanish/British control of the peninsula. He labeled the British people’s decision to leave the EU as “a complete change of outlook that opens up new possibilities on Gibraltar not seen for a very long time” speculating that “the Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than before.”

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I have visited Gibraltar once, in 1956, when my family was emigrating from England to Australia. We anchored in the harbor in the night and when I awoke and went out on deck there was the celebrated Rock before me whilst a flotilla of small boats gathered around the ship’s port side. Some of the ship’s crew had rigged up ropes to the deck rails so that passengers could buy souvenirs from the boats via baskets that were hauled up and down. On some of the boats were boys, stripped to their shorts, who dived for coins tossed into the sea by passengers. It was my first glimpse of worlds beyond humdrum British middle-class life and a welcome, sunny change from the grey London winter and storms in the Bay of Biscay. From there, on our travels, I saw Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples, the Greek islands, Suez and Port Said, Aden in Yemen, with Arabs, camels and the magic of the gilly-gilly man, snake dancers in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon),all before the long haul across the equator to Australia. Is it any wonder that I have spent my life traveling the world?

My papa bought a cigarette lighter with a parrot painted on it from a trader on one of the boats. No idea why.  He had been a Royal Navy officer from 1935 to 1944 and must have seen this kind of scene all over the world a dozen times. What I didn’t know until we left Gib was that we had taken on a troupe of flamenco dancers as passengers bound for a tour of Australia, but next day there was no doubt. Tour posters of dancers in severe poses appeared throughout the ship declaring that celebrities were on board.

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Gibraltar cuisine is synthesis of elements, primarily British and Spanish, of course, but with a general Mediterranean eclectic mix to it. Fideos al horno (oven noodles) is a popular Gibraltar dish that has analogs throughout the Mediterranean and the Italian community of the eastern United States (baked ziti).  The basics are that you cook some kind of pasta, mix it with a tomato-based meat sauce, add cheese, and bake. My recipe here is something of a modification of the one found at http://deliciousmartha.com/2015/10/05/fideos-al-horno-receta-tradicional/ . The original is in Spanish and seems a bit bland to me. But I’ll give it more or less as is. It calls for canned or dried mushrooms from the Pyrenees which may be a little hard to obtain. Any strong dried mushrooms will work.

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Start the day before by soaking the mushrooms. The recipe calls for moixernons o senderillas secas (mushrooms from the mountains). Dried porcini will work fine. Put about 2 cups of warm water in a bowl and soak 100 to 200 grams (¼ to ½ lb) of mushrooms overnight.

Take about 4 very ripe medium-size tomatoes and grate them into the mushroom water, discarding the skins. If this is too much trouble, add a can of crushed tomatoes. That’s what I usually do. Add oregano and salt to taste, place in a non-reactive saucepan and simmer gently for about an hour, until the sauce is reduced and thick. Meanwhile cook your pasta. This can be any type of thick spaghetti, linguine, or noodles broken into short pieces. Cook about 500 grams (1 lb) of pasta in rapidly boiling water until barely al dente. Drain and rinse in hot water. In other parts of the Mediterranean and the U.S. cooks use all kinds of pasta — ziti, macaroni,

Mix together the sauce and pasta in a deep casserole. Generously cover the top with grated cheese and bake in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) until the cheese is melted and bubbling – about 10 minutes.