Nov 032017
 

Today is the central day (full moon) of Bon Om Touk (បុណ្យអុំទូក]), the Cambodian Royal Water Festival, that marks a reversal of the flow of the Tonlé Sap river. The Tonlé Sap river is unique in that it reverses flow twice a year. The river runs between Tonlé Sap lake in central Cambodia and the Mekong river in Phnom Penh and its direction of flow is determined by the height of the water in the lake. At the end of the monsoon season the lake reaches its maximum height and the Mekong is at its minimum, so flow begins out of the lake into the Mekong. In May/June inflow begins.

The full moon this lunar month, the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, is considered especially fortuitous. At midnight tonight the faithful will worship in temples throughout Cambodia. They will also make offerings of, and eat, ak ambok, a special rice dish produced only for the festival. It is made by parching rice in the husk, pulverizing it flat, then mixing it with banana and coconut. Don’t try this at home !!!

I live in Phnom Penh and so get to witness Bon Om Touk first hand. All of the photos in this post are my own from this year (2017). Bon Om Touk is celebrated in various ways throughout Cambodia, but the biggest and most famous festival takes place in Phnom Penh. Websites say that millions flock here each year, from parts of Cambodia and abroad, but I think that “millions” may be stretching it a bit. Walking around by day and by night has been crowded in places, but relatively easy in comparison with many other festivals I have been to world wide where you can be hemmed in on all sides.

The festival in Phnom Penh has 3 major components:

  1. Boat racing on the Tonlé Sap river.

These races take place over three days, consisting of rowing teams from all over Cambodia representing villages, work organizations, and other associations.  There are about 40 rowers per team, and the races take place continuously in daylight hours. They race in pairs which cross the finish line about once every minute or so. Spectators sit on the palace quay or stand on the banks. It’s not a mob scene, not least because few observers know precisely what’s going on, or who is racing at any particular time.

According to tradition the boat racing dates from the year 1177 when an enemy fleet moved upstream and across Tonlé Sap lake to sack the city of Angkor. Although they did sack it, the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII chased them down the river with his own navy and defeated them.

  1. Illuminated barges.

After dark, illuminated, highly decorated barges sail along the river in front of the palace quay. The barges represent various Cambodian agencies and associations.

3. Fireworks

 

Each night after dusk there are massive firework displays over the river (while the barges are sailing along). They last between 20 and 30 minutes and are non-stop barrages of light and sound.

After the activities on the river there are carnivals near the palace with food, music, and dancing.

You guessed it.  You want Cambodian festival food?  Come to Cambodia.  Here’s a video which shows that the techniques are not that difficult, but you won’t find the ingredients.  I eat this omelet all the time. It’s readily available in the market. It’s common to eat it with plain rice.

Aug 282016
 

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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the March on Washington, or The Great March on Washington, was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history and demanded civil and economic rights for African Americans. Tens of thousands of people headed to Washington D.C. on Tuesday August 27, 1963, and on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, the “march” officially took place culminating in a rally on the mall with speeches and songs. The final scheduled speaker of the rally was Martin Luther King, Jr. who, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his now historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

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The march was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who built an alliance of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations that came together under the banner of “jobs and freedom.” Estimates of the number of participants varied from 200,000 to 300,000. The most widely cited estimate is 250,000 people. Observers estimated that 75–80% of the marchers were Black, which means that a substantial number of marchers were White. The march is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and preceded the Selma Voting Rights Movement which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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OK, if you know your history this is old news to you. If you were alive at the time and living in the US it is even older news, and should be a powerful memory. I was alive at the time but living in Australia, so the event had no impact on me when it happened. When JFK was assassinated later that same year, it made the headlines and I took notice. Segregation in the US, and other Civil Rights problems worldwide, such as apartheid, were what they were and we debated them in school occasionally (in the abstract). Australia had its own racist policies and problems, but they did not have much impact on me. My town was a heavily White town, populated by European immigrants or people of European descent.  There were aborigines living there, and some attended my school. Australia’s racial problems that eventually exploded had to do with colonization, not slavery, so I could not related to racism in the US until I moved there.

To be clear, I’ll use the words “Black” and “White” (both capitalized) for simplicity, not because I think the terms are unambiguous or neutral. Words matter, and sensitivities change over time. Martin Luther King was comfortable using the word “negro,” but it’s offensive to many now.  Also to be clear, “race” is a cultural term not a biological one. There is ZERO way to define race biologically.  The term “race” can only refer to how you identify yourself, not what your biology reveals about you. One more thing to be clear (especially in light of current political tensions in the US), if you think the color of a person’s skin has ANYTHING to do about ANYTHING (except degree of pigmentation), you are a racist.

The background and content of the March is now mostly forgotten or overshadowed by the lingering legacy of “I Have a Dream” and King’s murder.  The organizers themselves disagreed over the purpose of the march. The NAACP and Urban League saw it as a gesture of support for a civil rights bill that had been introduced by the Kennedy Administration. Randolph, King, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) saw it as a way of raising both civil rights and economic issues to national attention beyond the Kennedy bill. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) saw it as a way of challenging and condemning the Kennedy administration’s inaction and lack of concrete support for civil rights.

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Despite their disagreements, the group came together on a set of goals:

Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation;

Immediate elimination of school segregation;

A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed;

A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;

A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide;

Withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination;

Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens;

A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas;

Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.

Although in years past, Randolph had supported “Negro only” marches, partly to reduce the impression that the civil rights movement was dominated by White communists, organizers in 1963 agreed that Whites and Blacks marching side by side would create a more powerful image.

The Kennedy Administration cooperated with the organizers in planning the March, and one member of the Justice Department was assigned as a full-time liaison. Chicago and New York City (as well as some corporations) agreed to designate August 28 as “Freedom Day” and give workers the day off. The march was not universally supported among civil rights activists. Some, including Rustin (who assembled 4,000 volunteer marshals from New York), were concerned that it might turn violent, which could undermine pending legislation and damage the international image of the movement. The march was condemned by Malcolm X, at the time spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, who termed it the “farce on Washington”

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Organizers pushed hard for an expensive ($16,000) sound system, saying, “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.” The system was obtained and set up at the Lincoln Memorial, but was sabotaged on the day before the March and its operators were unable to repair it. They contacted Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his civil rights liaison Burke Marshall, demanding that the government fix the system. Organizers reportedly told them: “We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?” The system was successfully rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

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The march commanded national attention by preempting regularly scheduled television programs. As the first ceremony of such magnitude ever initiated and dominated by Blacks in the US, the march also was the first to have its nature wholly misperceived in advance. Dominant expectations ran from paternal apprehension to dread. On Meet the Press, reporters grilled Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King about widespread foreboding that “it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting.” Life magazine declared that the capital was suffering “its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.” The Pentagon readied 19,000 troops in the suburbs and the jails shifted inmates to other prisons to make room for those arrested in mass arrests; the city banned all sales of alcoholic beverages; hospitals made room for riot casualties by postponing elective surgery. With nearly 1,700 extra correspondents supplementing the Washington press corps, the march drew a media assembly larger than the Kennedy inauguration two years earlier.

This is the full agenda for the day (click to enlarge):

MS 2003-36 March on Washington Program - front

You can see that there was a lot going on, and King’s speech capped a very full event. Here’s footage of the speech beginning with some images of participants:

Analysis of the speech has pretty well been done to death. It’s hailed as a “masterpiece of rhetoric” etc etc. Stripped of its context I don’t see it as any great piece of brilliant oratory. It’s more or less stock stuff I’ve heard from countless Southern preachers with way too much metaphor for my tastes. It’s been well documented, also, that King had delivered similar speeches before. The point that grabs my attention is that if you watch the video, and don’t just hear the words or read them, you see the key transition. He starts out reading a prepared speech and he glances between it and the crowd. But then he gets to the “I have a dream” section and his prepared speech is in the dust. From then on he speaks from the soul. Supposedly the switch happened when Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Who knows what the speech would have been like if not for that moment?

Of course, the context is all important. People had been traveling days under harsh conditions, the city and the nation were on edge, people had been singing and praying, followed by countless speeches . . . and then King took the stage, and he electrified the crowd and the nation. His speech was a turning point. Even though JFK was assassinated, LBJ kept up the pressure and got key legislation through congress, and leaned on states to pass civil rights laws.

Wouldn’t it be nice if passing laws changed people overnight? Racist laws got struck down, but racism remained . . . and still remains in the US. It’s depressing to think that we are more than 50 years on from the March and we still have to contend with rampant racism, even though there’s a fair element of the privileged White who want to deny its existence.

It’s very easy to sound racist when recommending food for today, so, instead I give you this site that a Black woman from Tennessee posted:

http://www.aceweekly.com/2013/01/what-were-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-s-favorite-foods-a-guide-to-celebrating-his-birthday/

There’s plenty here to chew on. Her claim is that King enjoyed fried chicken with collards, black-eyed peas, and corn bread on Sundays, growing up in Atlanta. Sounds good to me.

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This comes from the site:

Time to hit the kitchen.

Blackeyed peas can be one of the greatest southern foods you will ever be fortunate enough to put in your mouth. We make an insanely delicious version that is known as Hoppin’ John.

Growing up in Kentucky means you better have a good fried chicken recipe in your arsenal. This is one of the best ones we’ve ever implemented.

Collard greens is another southern staple. We’ve never penned a recipe, cause they are so easy to cook it’s just silly. First and most important, you’ll need a pint of pork stock. This is crucial. Here’s how we make it.

After you have your pork stock ready prep four bunches of collards by washing thoroughly and roughly chopping. Bring pint of pork stock to boil and place collards in kettle. Simmer with lid off til collards are done. You may like them al dente, but we like them “cooked down” which is to say extremely tender. By this time your stock should be almost completely evaporated. Add one cup whipping cream and 1 tablespoon dried red chile flakes to kettle. Cook 20 minutes more. You now have creamy, spicy collards that are so deliciously piggy they will turn even the most ardent hater of greens into a stark raving mad collard green addict.

Cornbread. Once again, we’ve never penned a corn bread recipe cause we can make a pone in our sleep. We’ve done it a thousand times. Here’s a quick primer. Take a cup of self rising corn meal. Add buttermilk til thick batter forms, now add tap water til batter is runny, pour into cold, greased (we use clarified bacon fat) cast iron pan, bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

There are links within the text to recipes. One caution – having a recipe isn’t all you need. To make great Southern fried chicken you have to be born knowing how to make it.  My wife was born in Kentucky and made excellent fried chicken. But she always bowed to her mother whose fried chicken was, indeed, superb. There are a few “secrets” that cooks swear by – such as soaking the chicken pieces overnight in buttermilk – but when it comes down to it, experience is what matters.

May 182015
 

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Today is the birthday (1048) of Omar Khayyám; born Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu’l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī (Persian: ‏غیاثالدینابوالفتحعمرابراهیمخیامنیشابورﻯ‎, ), Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, and Islamic theology. He was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran also known as Persia, and at a young age he moved to Samarkand and obtained his education there. Afterwards he moved to Bukhara and became established as one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period. He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. He also made major contributions to calendar reform which were more accurate than the Gregorian reform made centuries later. His significance as a philosopher and teacher, and his few extant philosophical works, have not received the same attention as his scientific and poetic writings. Al-Zamakhshari referred to him as “the philosopher of the world”. He taught the philosophy of Avicenna for decades in Nishapur.

Outside Iran and Persian-speaking countries, Khayyám has had an impact on literature and societies through the translation of his works and popularization by other scholars. The greatest such impact was in English-speaking countries; the English scholar Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) was the first non-Persian to study him. The most influential of all was Edward FitzGerald (1809–83),[6] who made Khayyám the most famous poet of the East in the West through his celebrated translation and adaptations of Khayyám’s rather small number of quatrains (Persian: رباعیات‎ rubāʿiyāt) in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

He spent part of his childhood in the town of Balkh (in present-day northern Afghanistan), studying under the well-known scholar Sheikh Muhammad Mansuri. He later studied under Imam Mowaffaq Nishapuri, who was considered one of the greatest teachers of the Khorasan region. Throughout his life, Omar Khayyám was tireless in his efforts; by day he would teach algebra and geometry, in the evening he would attend the Seljuq court as an adviser of Malik-Shah I, and at night he would study astronomy and complete important aspects of the Jalali calendar.

Omar Khayyám’s years in Isfahan were very productive ones, but after the death of the Seljuq Sultan Malik-Shah I (presumably by the Assassins sect), the Sultan’s widow turned against him as an adviser, and as a result, he soon set out on his Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was then allowed to work as a court astrologer, and was permitted to return to Nishapur, where he was renowned for his works, and continued to teach mathematics, astronomy and even medicine.

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I’ll spare you a long rambling discourse on the importance of his mathematical work and simply say that he was centuries ahead of the West which owed him a great debt when his works were finally discovered and translated. I get a little tired of reminding Westerners what a great debt in general the West owes the Medieval Islamic world, not just in preserving the great works of the classical Greek world (including Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle – which Westerners undervalued and generally lost), but in moving their ideas forward. From idiotic Western history textbooks you might, if you are lucky, get a nod to the great Islamic writers of the age, but otherwise you get the impression that the West moved forward all on its own. Particularly in the modern political climate people like Khayyám deserve a great deal more respect. I take it as a personal mission here to right this wrong. See, for example:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/averroes/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ulugh-beg/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ibn-khaldoun/

Let me simply say that it took the West 600 years to catch up with Khayyám in the fields of geometry and algebra, and even then many of their “advances” were eventually proven wrong !!

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The Jalali calendar was introduced by Omar Khayyám alongside other mathematicians and astronomers in Nishapur. Today it is one of the oldest calendars in the world as well as the most accurate solar calendar still in use. Since the calendar uses astronomical calculation for determining the vernal equinox, it has no intrinsic error, but this makes it an observation based calendar.

The Jalali calendar remained in use across Greater Iran from the 11th to the 20th centuries. It is the basis of the Iranian calendar, which is followed today in Iran and Afghanistan. While the Jalali calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian, it is based on actual solar transit, similar to Hindu calendars, and requires an ephemeris (table) for calculating dates. The lengths of the months can vary between 29 and 31 days depending on the moment when the sun crosses into a new zodiacal area (an attribute common to most Hindu calendars). This means that seasonal errors are lower than in the Gregorian calendar.

Omar Khayyám was a notable poet during the reign of the Seljuk ruler Malik-Shah I. Scholars believe he wrote about a thousand four-line verses (quatrains) or rubaiyat, many now lost. He was introduced to the English-speaking world through the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which are poetic, rather than literal, translations by Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883). Other English translations of parts of the rubáiyát  exist, but FitzGerald’s are the most well known. Ironically, FitzGerald’s translations reintroduced Khayyám to Iranians who had long ignored.

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Here’s a small sample – well known in English:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

 

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,

Beside me singing in the Wilderness,

 And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow.

 

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,

 Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,

Lift not thy hands to It for help—for It

 Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

 

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,

 Some letter of that After-life to spell:

And by and by my Soul return’d to me,

 And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

Modern scholars are generally dissatisfied with Fitzgerald’s translation, believing it to be more Western than Eastern, not truly reflecting Khayyám’s philosophy. But if it gets you started, I’m happy. However, it’s a good plan to seek out more literal translations with commentary.

Anything approximating a usable recipe from Khayyám’s era does not exist. Even recipes from as late as the 16th century need heavy interpretation. So instead here is a recipe for Ash Reshteh a modern bean and noodle soup that has its roots in medieval Persia – and, yes, Persia had noodles centuries before Marco Polo supposedly brought them back from China. I’m using a video because, as ever, I am pressed for time.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tc1vDEK1UbI

Sep 052013
 

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Today is the birthday (973) of Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī ( ابوریحان بیرونی‎‎), commonly called Al-Biruni in English.  He was a Muslim, Persian scholar who made contributions to a wide range of subjects including astronomy, mathematics, physics, history, geography, and cultural anthropology. A crater on the moon is named in his honor.

Al-Biruni

Al-Biruni was born in the outer district of Kath, the capital of the Afrighid dynasty of Khwarezm (or Chorasmia), now in Uzbekistan. The word Biruni means “from the outer-district” in Persian, and so this became his nisba (sobriquet of affiliation): ” Al-Bīrūnī” = “the Birunian.” His first twenty-five years were spent in Khwarezm where he studied fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and other sciences. His native language was the Iranian dialect, Khwarezmian, which is now extinct and about which very little is known. Al-Biruni wrote in Arabic, and was also conversant with Persian, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Berber.

He was sympathetic to the Afrighids, who were overthrown by the rival dynasty of Ma’munids in 995. He left his homeland for Bukhara, then under the Samanid ruler Mansur II the son of Nuh. There he corresponded with Avicenna (Ibn Sina), famed polymath, and some of these letters are extant. In 998, he went to the court of the Ziyarid amir of Tabaristan, Shams al-Mo’ali Abol-hasan Ghaboos ibn Wushmgir. There he wrote his first important work, al-Athar al-Baqqiya ‘an al-Qorun al-Khaliyya (literally: “The remaining traces of past centuries” and translated as “Chronology of ancient nations” or “Vestiges of the Past”) on historical and scientific chronology, probably around 1000, though he later made some amendments. Accepting the fall of the Afrighids at the hands of the Ma’munids, he made peace with the latter who then ruled Khwarezm. Their court at Gorganj (also in Khwarezm) was gaining fame for its gathering of brilliant scientists.

Folio92 verso of the Al-Biruni Chronology of the World.

In 1017, Mahmud of Ghazni conquered Rey (now part of Tehran). Most scholars, including al-Biruni, were taken to Ghazna, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Al-Biruni was made court astrologer and accompanied Mahmud on his invasions into India, living there for a few years. Al-Biruni became acquainted with the culture and history India. During this time he wrote the Kitab ta’rikh al-Hind “(Book of Indian History”), finishing it around 1030.

95 of 146 books known to have been written by al-Biruni were devoted to astronomy, mathematics, and related subjects like mathematical geography (geodesy). Al- Biruni’s major work on astrology is primarily an astronomical and mathematical text. Only the last chapter concerns astrological prognostication. His endorsement of astrology is limited; in fact he condemns horary astrology as ‘sorcery’. In discussing speculation by other Muslim writers on the possible motion of the Earth, al-Biruni acknowledged that he could neither prove nor disprove it, but commented favorably on the idea that the Earth rotates. He wrote an extensive commentary on Indian astronomy in the Kitab ta’rikh al-Hind, in which he claims to have resolved the matter of Earth’s rotation in a work on astronomy that is no longer extant, his Miftah-ilm-alhai’a (“Key to Astronomy”).

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He carried on a lengthy and sometimes heated, correspondence with Ibn Sina (Avicenna), in which al-Biruni repeatedly attacks Aristotle’s celestial physics. He argues that by simple experiment a vacuum can be shown to exist; he is “amazed” by the weakness of Aristotle’s argument against elliptical orbits on the basis that they would create a vacuum; and he attacks the immutability of the celestial spheres. In his major extant astronomical work, the Mas’ud Canon, Al-Biruni uses his observational data to disprove Ptolemy’s theory of the immobile solar apogee which assumes the earth does not move. Al-Biruni’s eclipse data were used by Richard Dunthorne in 1749 to help determine the acceleration of the moon, and his observational data have entered the larger astronomical historical record, still used today in geophysics and astronomy.

Al-Biruni is one of the most important Muslim authorities on the history of religion. He was a pioneer in the study of comparative religion. He studied Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other religions. He treated religions dispassionately, striving to understand them on their own terms rather than trying to prove them wrong. His underlying concept was that all cultures are at least distant relatives of all other cultures because they are all human constructs and that all humanity was united at one point in distant history. Al-Biruni was disgusted by scholars who failed to use primary sources in their treatment of Hindu religion. He found contemporary sources on Hinduism to be both insufficient and dishonest. Guided by a sense of ethics and a desire to learn, he sought to explain the religious behavior of different groups in their own contexts.  As such he is a significant historical figure in the use of cultural relativism and avoidance of ethnocentrism in anthropology.

albiruni world map

Al-Biruni’s fame as an Indologist rests primarily on two texts. He wrote an encyclopedic work on India called Tarikh Al-Hind (“History of India”) in which he explores nearly every aspect of Indian life, including religion, history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics. He explores religion within a rich cultural context and expresses his objective with simple eloquence:

“I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them, as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.”

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An example of al-Biruni’s analysis is his summary of why many Hindus hate Muslims. He explains that Hinduism and Islam are totally different from each other, but that this is not the issue at stake.  Hindus in 11th century India had suffered through waves of destructive attacks on many of their cities, and Islamic armies had taken numerous Hindu slaves to Persia.  It was this militarism and not religious principles, according to Al-Biruni, that contributed to Hindus becoming suspicious of all foreigners, not just Muslims. Hindus considered Muslims violent and impure, and did not want to share anything with him. It was all about politics. Religious ideology had nothing to do with the conflict.

Over time, al-Biruni won the welcome of Hindu scholars. He collected books and studied with these Hindu scholars to become fluent in Sanskrit, and translate into Arabic the mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy and other fields of arts as practiced in 11th century India. He was convinced by the arguments offered by Indian scholars who believed earth must be ellipsoid shape with a yet to be discovered continent at earth’s south pole, and that earth’s rotation around the sun is the only way to fully explain the difference in daylight hours by latitude, the seasons, and earth’s relative positions with moon and stars. Al-Biruni was also critical of Indian scribes who he believed carelessly corrupted Indian documents while making copies of older documents. Al-Biruni’s translations as well as his own original contributions reached Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, where they were actively sought.

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While others were killing each one another over religious differences, al-Biruni, though Muslim, had a remarkable ability to engage Hindus in peaceful dialogue. Like Ibn Khaldoun (click here), who came 3 centuries after him, his researches were all guided by laudable principles we would do well to follow: use primary sources whenever possible, check everything against other sources or through experiment, and do not bring your own biases to any investigation.

Al-Biruni’s birthplace is now in Uzbekistan.  Uzbek cuisine is quite similar to the cuisines of Eurasia in general – rice pilaf, kebabs, stuffed vegetables.  Here is a pilaf I like (plov in Uzbek).  Naturally its main ingredient is rice, but the use of greens suffuses the whole dish with a special savor. My technique is not quite the traditional one but I like the results. Traditionally you brown the lamb and onions then add the greens for a quick sauté. Finally you add the rice and liquid and leave it all to steam, covered.  My experience has been that the 20 minutes or so it takes to cook the rice is not enough to make the lamb tender.  So I precook the lamb before adding the greens and rice. You can use any rice, but I prefer basmati for this dish. A tender cut of lamb such as leg is best. You may also use beef instead.

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Uzbek Plov with Greens

Ingredients:

8 tbsps clarified butter
10 ½ oz (300 g) tender lamb, cut in big chunks
2 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
12 oz (350 g) chopped spinach,
1 bunch of fresh coriander finely chopped
2 ½ cups of rice
salt to taste
1 tbsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of fresh ground pepper or to taste
6 cups light stock

Instructions:

Heat 2 tbsps of the butter over medium high heat in a Dutch oven.

Sauté  the onions until translucent and set aside.

Brown the meat.  Add the stock and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Remove the meat from the stock and set aside. Pour off the stock and reserve.

While the meat is cooking thoroughly rinse the rice until the water runs clear.

Rinse the spinach and drain, but leave water clinging to the leaves.

Clean out the Dutch oven, return to the stove and add the remaining butter.  Heat over medium heat. Add the onions and meat to heat through.

Turn the heat to medium low and stir in the spinach and cilantro.  Then add the rice and stir to mix.

Add one cup of stock, turn the heat to high, and let it boil.  Add salt and spices.

Observe how much liquid is in the pot.  It should cover the rice by a little less than an inch (2 cm). Add more stock if there is not enough.

Let the pot boil until all the liquid is evaporated.    When all water is evaporated, mix only the top of pilaf. Set the heat on low, cover with a lid and cook for about 20 min.

Open up the lid after 20 min and again mix only the top of the pilaf. Check to see if the rice is cooked. If not, cover and cook until done.

Uncover and mix all the ingredients together. Serve on a large platter with a salad of your choice (tomatoes and onions are traditional).

Serves 6