Apr 272018
 

On this date in 711 CE Moorish troops led by Tariq ibn Ziyad landed at Gibraltar to begin what turned into the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. (The name Gibraltar is the Spanish version of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq meaning “Mountain of Tariq”which refers to the Rock of Gibraltar). One can make too much of single dates in history. July 4th 1776 gets celebrated in the US as Independence Day even though the war for independence had already started, and continued for a number years after. Dates get enshrined in history books because people like symbols to hang on to. The Umayyad conquest of Visigothic Hispania, the initial expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate over a large section of the Iberian peninsula, took from 711 to 788. The conquest resulted in the destruction of the Visigoth kingdom and the establishment of the independent Emirate of Córdoba under Abd ar-Rahman I, who completed the unification of Muslim-ruled Iberia, or al-Andalus. The conquest marks the westernmost expansion of both the Umayyad Caliphate and Muslim rule into Europe. One can peg the landing at Gibraltar as significant, but Muslim expansion into Iberia had begun earlier, and continued for many years after.

The historian al-Tabari transmits a tradition attributed to the Caliph Uthman (579 –  656) who stated that the road to Constantinople was through Hispania, “Only through Spain can Constantinople be conquered. If you conquer (Spain) you will share the reward of those who conquer (Constantinople).” The conquest of Hispania followed the conquest of North Africa.

Precisely what happened in Iberia in the early 8th century is uncertain. There is one contemporary Christian source, the Chronicle of 754 (which ends on that date), regarded as reliable but often vague. There are no contemporary Muslim accounts, and later Muslim compilations, such as that of Al-Maqqari from the 17th century, reflect later ideological influence. This paucity of early sources means that detailed specific claims need to be regarded with caution. Historical opinion about the initial nature of the expedition is divided into four directions (I favor #4):

(1) It was sent to aid one side in a civil war in the hope of plunder and future alliance.

(2) It was a reconnaissance force sent to test the military strength of the Visigoth kingdom.

(3) It was the first wave of a full–scale invasion.

(4) It was an unusually large raiding expedition with no direct strategic intentions.

The Visigoths who controlled Iberia from the 5th to the early 8th centuries were successors of the Western Roman empire. They, like other groups who swept over the Roman empire in the 5th century, are known to history as barbarians, because that is what the Romans called them. The word “barbarian” has changed meaning over time, unfortunately, and has corrupted our modern view of them. The Latin word from which the English word derives comes from the Greek βάρβαρος (barbaros), used by the ancient Greeks initially for certain Anatolians whose language sounded to them like, “bar bar bar bar . . .”  So, they were the “bar bar” people. We would say, “blah, blah people” these days. In other words, “barbarian” had no especially negative connotations, it just meant foreigners who spoke an incomprehensible language.

The Visigoths were barbarians in the ancient Roman sense (i.e. non-Romans), not in the modern sense. Therefore, saying that the Moorish conquest of the Visigoths in Iberia was a move that “civilized” a barbarian land is a stretch. This period in European history is often known as the Dark Ages, not because they were especially barbaric, but because we have few historical sources to judge them accurately, and archeology is of only limited help. There is no doubt that Islamic philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and astronomers of the period were more accomplished then European Christians and pagans, and we owe them a great debt because they preserved a great many texts from ancient Greece that Christians destroyed or lost.

Tariq ibn Ziyad was a Muslim Berber client of Musa bin Nusair, the governor of Islamic Africa (Ifriqiya), who invaded Iberia with a disputed number of Berber men (anywhere from 1,700 to 7,000) in 711, while Roderic, king of the Visigoths was in the north fighting the Basques. The tale that Julian, Count of Ceuta, facilitated the invasion, because one of his daughters had been dishonored by Roderic, is apocryphal. By late July, a battle took place at the Guadalete River in the province of Cádiz. Roderic was betrayed by his troops, who sided with his enemies, and the king was killed in battle. The Muslims then took much of southern Spain with little resistance, and went on to capture Toledo, where they executed several Visigothic nobles. In 712, Musa, arrived with another army of 18,000, with large Arab contingents. He took Mérida in 713 and invaded the north, taking Saragossa and León, which were still under king Ardo, in 714. After being recalled by the Caliph, Musa left his son Abd al-‘Aziz in command. By 716, most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic rule, with Septimania taken between 721 and 725.

The first expedition led by Tariq was made up mainly of Berbers who had themselves only recently come under Muslim influence. It is probable that this army represented a continuation of an historic pattern of large-scale raids into Iberia dating to the pre–Islamic period, and hence some historians believe that actual conquest was not originally planned. Both the Chronicle of 754 and later Muslim sources speak of raiding activity in previous years, and Tariq’s army may have been present for some time before the decisive battle. This possibility is supported by the fact that the army was led by a Berber and that Musa, who was a major player in North Africa, only arrived the following year, because as a governor he had not stooped to lead a mere raid, but hurried across once the unexpected triumph by Tariq and the possibilities for further conquests became clear. Several Arab-Muslim writers mention the fact that Tariq had decided to cross the strait of Gibraltar without informing his superior and wali Musa as evidence that he had planned no more than a raid. The Chronicle of 754 states that many townspeople fled to the hills rather than defend their cities, which might support the view that this was expected to be a temporary raid rather than a permanent change of government.

The only effective resistance to Muslim conquest was in Asturias, where a Visigothic nobleman, Pelagius (Pelayo), revolted in 718, allied with the Basques and defeated the Muslims at the battle of Covadonga. Resistance also continued in the regions around the Pyrenees with the establishment of the Marca Hispanica from 760 to 785. The Berbers settled in the south and the Meseta Central in Castile. Initially, the Muslims generally left Christians alone to practice their religion, although non-Muslims were subject to Islamic law and treated as second-class citizens. The northern areas of Iberia drew little attention to the conquerors and were hard to defend when taken. The high western and central sub-Pyrenean valleys remained unconquered.

The resistance of 1718 eventually evolved into the Reconquista (the Reconquest) which dragged on for 700 years. The Muslims were generically called Moors even though most were Arabs, and the battle to oust them spawned a series of traditional dances and dramas, including Moros y Cristianos, which I researched for over 30 years. The final act of the Reconquista, the Fall of Granada at the beginning of 1492 http://www.bookofdaystales.com/fall-of-granada/  led almost seamlessly to Columbus’ voyage of discovery and the Spanish conquest of much of the Americas.

Islamic Iberia was known at the time as al-Andalus (الأنْدَلُس ), which eventually metamorphosed into “Andalusia” the shrunken vestige of al-Andalus as the Reconquista progressed. Cooking in al-Andalus is represented by an anonymous MS of the 13th century, brimming with recipe ideas which show how Spanish cooking evolved over the centuries, and how much it owes to Arab influence. Many of the recipes from the MS are translated here: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Andalusian/andalusian1.htm#Heading34 Worth a browse.

This little snippet gives the sense, and also reveals a few problems in actually recreating the recipe which is for a type of lamb sausage. The translator notes that the Arabic for “meatball,” “al-bunduqa,” became the Spanish “albondiga,” but the Arabic is derived from the word “hazelnut,” suggesting that the meatballs of the day were small. Here I will add the necessary caution that etymological reasoning of this sort can trip you up.  The ingredient that baffles most cooks is murri naqî’ It is apparently an ingredient unique to al-Andalus and means “infused” or “marinated” murri. There is a great deal of disagreement about what murri is, although food historians favor the idea that it was a fermented sauce made from barley flour that vaguely resembles soy sauce, and was used as a salt substitute.

Recipe for Mirkâs

It is as nutritious as meatballs and quick to digest, since the pounding ripens its and makes it quick to digest, and it is good nutrition. First get some meat from the leg or shoulder of a lamb and pound it until it becomes like meatballs. Knead it in a bowl, mixing in some oil and some murri naqî’, pepper, coriander seed, lavender, and cinnamon. Then add three quarters as much of fat, which should not be pounded, as it would melt while frying, but chopped up with a knife or beaten on a cutting board. Using the instrument made for stuffing, stuff it in the washed gut, tied with thread to make sausages, small or large. Then fry them with some fresh oil, and when it is done and browned, make a sauce of vinegar and oil and use it while hot. Some people make the sauce with the juice of cilantro and mint and some pounded onion. Some cook it in a pot with oil and vinegar, some make it râhibi with onion and lots of oil until it is fried and browned. It is good whichever of these methods you use.

Sep 092016
 

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Today is the beginning of this year’s (2016) Hajj (حج‎), the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca which is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that they are under obligation to carry out at least once in their lifetimes provided that they are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey, and can support their family during their absence (istita’ah). It is one of the five pillars of Islam, alongside Shahadah (canonical creed), Salat (daily prayer), Zakat (charity), and Sawm (fasting).  Hajj is now one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world.

The pilgrimage occurs from the 8th to 12th (or in some cases 13th) of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, the Islamic year is about eleven days shorter than the solar Gregorian year. Therefore, the Gregorian date of Hajj moves back incrementally from year to year.

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The Hajj is associated with the life of Islamic prophet Muhammad from the 7th century, but elements of the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca are considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Abraham (or Ibrahim in Arabic). During Hajj, pilgrims join various processions of hundreds of thousands of people, who simultaneously converge on Mecca for the week of the Hajj, and perform a series of rituals. In theory each person walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka’aba (the cube-shaped building and the direction of prayer for all Muslims worldwide), runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drinks from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, spends a night in the plain of Muzdalifa, and performs symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing stones at three pillars. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate the three-day global festival of Eid al-Adha. Because the pilgrims number in the millions now it is not possible to perform all of these actions as formally specified, so there are acceptable substitutions. For example, pilgrims can buy tokens for food to be distributed to the poor in place of animal sacrifice.

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According to the Qur’an, some components of Hajj trace back to the time of Abraham, conventionally dated around 2000 BCE. By Islamic tradition, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife Hagar (his concubine according to Torah) and his son Ishmael alone in the desert of ancient Mecca. In search of water, Hagar desperately ran seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwah but found none. Returning in despair to Ishmael, she saw the baby scratching the ground with his leg and a water fountain sprang forth underneath his foot. Later, Abraham was commanded to build the Ka’aba (which he did with the help of Ishmael) and to invite people to perform pilgrimage there. The Qur’an refers to these incidents in verses 2:124-127 and 22:27-30. It is said that the archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from Heaven to be attached to the Ka’aba.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, a time known as jahiliyyah, the Ka’aba became associated with religious idols. In 630 CE, Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca, cleansed the Ka’aba by destroying all the idols, and then consecrated the building to Allah. In 632 CE, Muhammad performed his only pilgrimage with a large number of followers, and instructed them on the rites of Hajj. It was from this point that Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam.

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During medieval times, pilgrims would gather in big cities of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq to go to Mecca in groups and caravans comprising tens of thousands of pilgrims, often under state patronage. Hajj caravans, particularly with the advent of the Mamluk Sultanate and its successor, the Ottoman Empire, were escorted by a military force accompanied by physicians under the command of an amir al-hajj. This was done in order to protect the caravan from Bedouin robbers or natural hazards, and to ensure that the pilgrims were supplied with the necessary provisions. Muslim travelers, such as Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta, have recorded detailed accounts of Hajj-travels of medieval times. The caravans followed well-established routes called in Arabic darb al-hajj, lit. “pilgrimage road”, which usually followed ancient routes such as the King’s Highway.

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Until the 20th century the Hajj was generally manageable, although complex and hazardous, in terms of numbers of pilgrims. In the 1920s numbers were actually falling from a peak of about 60,000. But then the trend reversed itself so that there were about 100,000 pilgrims in 1950, and, with the advent of cheap air travel, had reached over 3 million by 2012. The following year the Saudi government limited the number of pilgrims to around 2 million in order to better manage security, transportation, accommodations, sanitation, and food. Even so there have been tragic incidents. In 2015 somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede (official reports vary), and such incidents are not uncommon. Thousands have died in stampedes in the past 25 years.

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In April 1964 celebrated civil rights activist, Malcolm X, performed the Hajj after he had left the Nation of Islam and become a Sunni Muslim. In his Autobiography (as dictated to Alex Haley), he recalls how the Nation of Islam had turned his life around in prison where he was serving time for robbery, but he had become jaded with the loose morals and corruption of leader Elijah Muhammad and decided to quit despite becoming a celebrity within the movement. Several Sunnis approached him and, having converted, convinced him to go on the Hajj. This was to be a transformative event for Malcolm.

He flew to Saudi Arabia to start  his Hajj, but was delayed in Jeddah when his U.S. citizenship and inability to speak Arabic caused his status as a Muslim to be questioned. Only confirmed Muslims may enter Mecca. He had received Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam’s book The Eternal Message of Muhammad with his visa approval, and he contacted the author. Azzam’s son arranged for his release and lent him his personal hotel suite. The next morning Malcolm learned that Prince Faisal had designated him as a state guest. Malcolm  later said:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held.

Well, that was over 50 years ago. Certainly, civil rights for African-Americans in the U.S. have improved since then, but you can hardly say that these Islamic ideals have prospered. In fact Muslims have joined the growing ranks of despised minorities in the U.S. Malcolm’s experiences should have been a lesson. Instead he was murdered.

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The state of holiness known as Ihram has as one of its tenets the notion of the absolute equality of all pilgrims in the eyes of God. To this end, all male pilgrims wear the same garb: two white seamless cloths, with the one wrapped around the waist reaching below the knee and the other draped over the left shoulder and tied at the right side. Women wear ordinary dress that fulfills the Islamic condition of public dress with hands or face uncovered. There are prescribed ablutions in preparation, and during th pilgrimage participants must refrain from certain activities such as clipping the nails, shaving any part of the body, having sexual relations; using perfumes, damaging plants, killing animals, covering the head (for men) or the face and hands (for women); getting married; or carrying weapons.

Beyond the usual Muslim limitations, there are no general food prohibitions for the days of Hajj as in the month of Ramadan http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ramadan/ , although some of the specific rituals, such as circling the Ka’aba, must be done while fasting. The meat plus rice dishes of South Asia and the Middle East – biryani, pilaf etc. – are great dishes for the Hajj days. They are easy to make in large quantity and, as these photos show, are great for communal eating.

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Al kabsa is perfect because it is a national dish of Saudi Arabia where Mecca is located. No surprise that al kabsa can be made numerous ways. It is a complexly spiced dish and nowadays pre-mixed spices are sold for it. I have the same feeling about this as I do about curry powder – that is, I hate it. Make the mix yourself. Some cooks us whole spices, some ground. I prefer ground, but you can take your pick. My favorite method is to brown some onions, then some chicken. Then add spices and sauté to bring out the flavor. Next add stock and tomato paste (or crushed tomatoes) and simmer until the chicken is cooked (about 30 minutes). Remove the chicken and set aside. Add rice to cook in the chicken broth. When the rice is almost cooked, briefly finish off the chicken by grilling it over charcoal or roasting in a pit oven. Bring the dish together by serving the rice on a large platter, mixing in the chicken, then sprinkling with chopped nuts and raisins.  Serve with sliced cucumbers, yoghurt, and flat bread. Here’s a suggestion for ingredients. Of course you can vary the amount and type of spices. This version is common.

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Al Kabsa

1 chicken cut in 8 pieces
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 L chicken stock
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 tsp each black pepper, powdered cloves, powdered cardamom, saffron threads, powdered cinnamon, and powdered nutmeg
1 black lime
2 bay leaves
2 cups basmati or long-grained rice
chopped almonds or pistachios
raisins

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Jun 072016
 

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Today is the first full day of Ramadan in many parts of the world. The timing of events according to Islamic and Jewish calendars is always a bit tricky for me because this blog uses the Gregorian calendar as its baseline. Not only are Islamic and Jewish calendars lunar rather than solar, making them mesh badly with the Gregorian calendar, but the calculations of when days begin and end is also different. The Gregorian calendar uses midnight as the changeover point, but the Islamic and Jewish calendars use sunset (using several different definitions). Then there’s the question of whether certain times and dates for events are local or universal. You may recall, if you read the post, that Bahá’í’s, who use a calendar similar to the Islamic one, have fixed all their times and dates to local times in Tehran. This practice won’t work for the Islamic calendar because the faithful need to know prayer times in their local times, otherwise their whole daily routine would be thrown off. There is also the slightly arcane, but endless, debate as to whether times based on phases of the moon should be determined by astronomical charts and calculations, or by actual observations.

What this all comes down to is that I cannot exactly pinpoint for you when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins (and ends). Without going into a whole song and dance about it I can tell you that today is the first full day of Ramadan in northern Italy, where I currently live, hence the first day of a month of fasting. Although Ramadan began yesterday at sunset, fasting does not begin until sunrise today, and will go on for a full lunar cycle.

The Islamic calendar is fully lunar, unlike the Jewish calendar which is partly lunar and partly solar. Lunisolar calendars, such as the Jewish calendar add intercalary days every so often to make sure that they stay reasonably close to the Gregorian calendar, whereas the Islamic calendar does not. Over time, therefore, Ramadan falls at different times of the solar year, moving back in the Gregorian calendar about 10 or 11 days each year. This year (2016) is especially difficult because the faithful have to fast during daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere this month sees the longest days of the year, including the solstice. Australian Muslims catch a break, on the other hand.  The closer you live to the equator, the less this is a problem from year to year, but the closer you live to the poles, the more it matters. In my neck of the woods Muslims must finish eating and drinking well before 5 am and cannot resume until somewhat after 9 pm.  I am not Muslim, so this is not of concern to me, but I have friends and relatives who are, and they have already anticipated a trying month.

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Ramadan ( رمضان) or Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the month in which the Quran was supposedly revealed to the Prophet. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month is spent by Muslims fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. According to Islam, the Quran was sent down to the lowest heaven during this month, thus being prepared for gradual revelation by Jibreel (Gabriel) to the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Muhammad told his followers that the gates of Heaven would be open for the entire month and the gates of Hell  would be closed. The first day of the next month, Shawwal, is spent in celebration and is observed as the “Festival of Breaking Fast” or Eid al-Fitr . More about that in one month (assuming that I am posting in early July, which is in doubt at this point).

Islamic fasting involves more than just abstaining from eating during daylight hours. Throughout the duration of the fast itself, devout Muslims abstain from certain actions that the Quran has otherwise allowed, including eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse.[Quran 2:187] This is in addition to the standard obligation, generally observed by Muslims, to avoid that which is not permissible under Quranic or shari’a law at any time (for example, ignorant and indecent speech, arguing and fighting, and lustful thoughts). Without observing these standard obligations, fasting (sawm) is rendered useless and is seen simply as an act of starvation and nothing more. Fasting should be a motive to be more than usually benevolent to one’s fellows. Charity to the poor and needy in this month is especially beneficial.

If one is sick, nursing or traveling, one is considered exempt from fasting. Any fasts broken or missed due to sickness, nursing or traveling must be made up as soon as the person is able, and certainly before the next month of Ramadan. According to the Quran, for all other cases, not fasting is only permitted when the act is potentially dangerous to one’s health – for example, for those who are  elderly, and women who are pregnant, or nursing. They are permitted to break the fast, but this breach must be made up later. However, the question of what those suffering a permanent disease should do has not been fully resolved. One view is that they can waive the obligation to fast if advised by a medical expert. In this case some hold that they can provide a poor person with a meal for each day of fasting waived. Nonetheless, such a delinquent person must be willing to fast when healthy if at all possible.

Some important historical events during Ramadan are generally believed to include:

1 Ramadan, birth of Sayyid Abdul-Qadir Gilani

2 Ramadan, the Torah (Tawrat) was bestowed on Moses (Musa)

10 Ramadan, death of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid – first wife of Muhammad

12 Ramadan, the Gospel (Injil) was bestowed on Jesus (Isa)

15 Ramadan, birth of Hasan ibn Ali

15 Ramadan, In the Ottoman Empire, the sultan presented trays of baklava to the Janissaries in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alayı

17 Ramadan, death of Aisha bint Abu Bakr – third wife of Muhammad

18 Ramadan, the Psalms (Zabur) were bestowed on David (Dawood)

19 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib was struck on the head by a sword

20 Ramadan, the Conquest of Mecca by Muhammad

21 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib died due to injuries he sustained by a sword

Laylat al-Qadr is observed during one of the last ten days of the month (on an odd night). Muslims believe that this night, which is also known as “The Night of Power,” is better than a thousand months. This is often interpreted to mean that praying throughout this night is rewarded equally with praying for a thousand months (just over 83 years i.e., a lifetime). Many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer. Sects differ as to the most appropriate night, the 23rd and 27th being the two most popular.

You can find any number of Ramadan recipes online. There are no special limitations on what one can eat beyond the regular prohibitions against eating certain foods such as pork, or drinking alcohol. But if you are not going to eat or drink at all during daylight hours it is as well to plan carefully the pre-dawn meal (suhur) and the sunset meal (iftar). Suhur must sustain you through the day, and iftar must not weigh you down before bed. In the evening, dates are usually the first food to break the fast; according to tradition, Muhammad broke his fast with three dates. Following that, Muslims generally adjourn for the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers, after which the main meal is served. Sunni and Shia traditions vary on this point.

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Social gatherings, many times in a buffet style, are frequent at iftar. Traditional dishes are often highlighted, including traditional desserts, and particularly those made only during Ramadan. Water is usually the beverage of choice, but juice and milk are also often available, as are soft drinks and caffeinated beverages. In the Middle East, the iftar meal consists of water, juices, dates, salads and appetizers, one or more main dishes, and various kinds of desserts. Usually, the dessert is the most important part of iftar. Typical main dishes are lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables, or roast chicken served with chickpea-studded rice pilaf. A rich dessert, such as luqaimat, baklava, or kunafeh (a buttery, syrup-sweetened kadaifi noodle pastry filled with cheese), concludes the meal.

Baklava is good to serve because of its long association with Ramadan. It is not difficult to make, although I’ve usually bought it from pastry shops because they often make it as well, or better, than I can make at home. It is normally prepared in large pans. Many layers of phyllo dough, separated with melted butter and vegetable oil, are laid in the pan. A layer of chopped nuts—typically walnuts or pistachios, but hazelnuts are also sometimes used—is placed on top, then more layers of phyllo. Most recipes have multiple layers of phyllo and nuts, though some have only top and bottom pastry.

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Before baking (180 °C, 30 minutes), the dough is cut into regular pieces, often parallelograms (lozenge-shaped), triangles, diamonds or rectangles. After baking, a syrup, which may include honey, rosewater, or orange flower water is poured over the cooked baklava and allowed to soak in.

Baklava is usually served at room temperature, often garnished with ground nuts.

In Turkey, baklava is traditionally made by filling between the layers of dough with pistachios, walnuts, almonds (parts of the Aegean Region) or a special preparation called “kaymak” (not to be confused with kaymak). In the Black Sea Region hazelnuts are commonly used as a filling for baklava. The city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey is famous for its pistachio baklava and it regards itself as the native city for this dish, though it only appears to have been introduced to Gaziantep from Damascus in 1871. In 2008, the Turkish patent office registered a geographical indication for Antep Baklava, and in 2013, Antep Baklavası or Gaziantep Baklavası was registered as a Protected Geographical Indication by the European Commission. In many parts of Turkey, baklava is often topped with kaymak or, in the summer, ice cream (milk cream flavor, called “kaymaklı dondurma”).

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In Armenia, paklava is made with cinnamon and cloves.

In Iran, a drier version of baklava is cooked and presented in smaller diamond-shaped cuts flavored with rose water. The cities of Yazd and Qazvin are famous for their baklava, which is widely distributed in Iran. Persian baklava uses a combination of chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and a rose water-scented syrup and is lighter than other Middle Eastern versions. Azerbaijani pakhlava (made with walnuts or almonds) is widely eaten in Iran, especially in Iranian Azerbaijan.

In Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine, baklava is prepared from phyllo dough sheets, butter, walnuts and sugar syrup. It is cut into lozenge pieces.

Here is one of hundreds of recipes. Normally you buy the phyllo dough frozen. Choice of nuts, flavorings, etc. is entirely up to you. I’ve given a few choices.

Baklava

Ingredients

For the baklava

1 lb walnuts, almonds, or pistachios, coarsely ground, plus more for garnish
½ tsp ground cinnamon, or to taste
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 lb unsalted butter, melted
16 sheets phyllo dough (thawed), cut in half

For the syrup

3 cups sugar
8 oz honey
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice or rosewater

Instructions

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350° F.

Combine the nuts, cinnamon, and breadcrumbs in a bowl.

Brush a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with some of the butter. Layer 10 pieces of phyllo in the dish, brushing each piece with butter before adding the next (keep the remaining dough covered with a damp towel).

Sprinkle a quarter of the nut mixture over the dough. Layer 4 pieces of phyllo on top, brushing each with butter before adding the next; sprinkle with another quarter of the nut mixture. Add 4 more phyllo pieces on top, brushing each with butter, then add another quarter of the nut mixture, 4 more pieces of phyllo with butter, and the remaining nuts.

Layer the remaining 10 pieces of phyllo on top of the nuts, brushing each with butter; brush the top piece with extra butter. Cut into the baklava to make strips, about 1 ½ inches wide. Then make diagonal slices, about 1 ½ inches apart, to create a diamond pattern.

Bake until golden, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Bring the sugar, honey, and 1 ½ cups of water to a full boil in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice or rosewater and boil 2 more minutes. Then let the syrup cool slightly.

Pour the syrup over the warm baklava. Let the syrup soak in, uncovered, at least 6 hours or overnight.

Garnish with extra nuts.

Apr 042014
 

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Today is Independence Day (1960) in Senegal, officially the Republic of Senegal (République du Sénégal), a West African nation. It is the westernmost country in the mainland of the Old World (or Afro-Eurasia) and owes its name to the Sénégal River that borders it to the east and north. Senegal is externally bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Mauritania to the north, Mali to the east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south; internally it almost completely surrounds The Gambia, namely on the north, east and south, except for The Gambia’s short Atlantic coastline. (see here).   Senegal covers a land area of almost 197,000 km2 (76,000 sq mi), and has an estimated population of about 13 million. The climate is tropical with two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season.

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Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, is located at the westernmost tip of the country on the Cap-Vert peninsula. About 500 kilometers (310 miles) off the coast lie the Cape Verde Islands. During the 17th and 18th centuries, numerous trading posts belonging to various European colonial empires were established along the coast. After French colonization of the territory called French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française, or AOF), the town of St. Louis became the capital; in 1902 it was succeeded by Dakar. When Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, it affirmed its capital as Dakar. The country is part of The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  Senegal is also a member of the African Union (AU) and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States.

Archaeological findings throughout the area indicate that Senegal has been continuously inhabited since the Lower Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) by various ethnic groups. Some kingdoms were created around the 7th century: Takrur in the 9th century, Namandiru and the Jolof Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries. Eastern Senegal was once part of the Ghana Empire. Islam was introduced through contact between the Toucouleur and Soninke in Senegal and the Almoravid dynasty (Berbers from northern Africa), who in turn promoted the religion within Senegal. The Almoravids, with the help of Toucouleur allies, used military force for conversion. This movement faced resistance from ethnicities of traditional religions, the Serers in particular. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Wolof converted peacefully due to the intervention of leaders such as Amadou Bamba, Malik Sy and Sayyidunâ Muhammad Al-imam Laye, who brought their followers with them. They saw Islam as a way to unite and resist European colonialism.

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In the 13th and 14th centuries, the area came under the influence of the empires to the east; the Jolof Empire of Senegal was also founded during this time. In the Senegambia region, between 1300 and 1900, close to one-third of the population was enslaved, typically as a result of captives taken in warfare. In the 14th century the Jolof Empire grew powerful, having united Cayor and the kingdoms of Baol, Sine, Saloum, Waalo, Futa Tooro, and Bambouk. The empire was a voluntary confederacy of various states rather than an empire built on military conquest. The empire was founded by Ndiadiane Ndiaye, a part Serer and part Toucouleur, who was able to form a coalition with many ethnicities, but collapsed around 1549  with the death of the last emperor of Jolof, Lele Fouli Fak Ndiaye, who was killed at the Battle of Danki, which took place near Diourbel , in the ancient region of Baol . He was killed by Amari Ngoné Sobel Fall, the son of the head of the region at the time Amari Ngone Sobel Fall, who would become the first damel (king) of Cayor.

In the mid-15th century, the Portuguese landed on the Senegal coastline, followed by traders representing other countries, including the French. Various European powers—Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain—competed for trade in the area from the 15th century onward. In 1677, France gained control of what had become a minor departure point in the Atlantic slave trade—the island of Gorée next to modern Dakar, used as a base to purchase slaves from the warring cultures on the mainland.

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European missionaries introduced Christianity to Senegal in the 19th century. It was only in the 1850’s that the French began to expand on to the Senegalese mainland – they had abolished slavery and promoted an abolitionist doctrine, adding native kingdoms like the Waalo, Cayor, Baol, and the Jolof Empire. French colonists progressively invaded and took over all the kingdoms except Sine and Saloum under Governor Louis Faidherbe. Senegalese resistance to the French expansion and curtailing of their lucrative slave trade was led in part by Lat-Dior, damel of Cayor, and Maad a Sinig Kumba Ndoffene Famak Joof, the king of Sine, resulting in the Battle of Logandème.

On 4 April 1959 Senegal and the French Sudan merged to form the Mali Federation, which became fully independent on 20 June 1960, as a result of the independence and the transfer of power agreement signed with France on 4 April 1960. Due to internal political difficulties, the Federation broke up on 20 August, when Senegal and French Sudan (renamed the Republic of Mali) each proclaimed independence.

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Léopold Sédar Senghor was proclaimed Senegal’s first president in September 1960. Senghor was a very well-read man, educated in France. He was a poet, a philosopher and personally drafted the Senegalese national anthem, “Pincez tous vos koras, frappez les balafons”. He supported pan-African unity and advocated a brand of African socialism.

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Ceebu jen (cheh-boo jen) is one of the most popular dishes in Senegal, especially along the coast, and is considered a national dish. Ceebu jen is a Wolof term meaning “rice and fish” – a mix of fish, rice, tomatoes and cooked vegetables that shows a strong resemblance to Spanish paella and Creole jambalaya. A wide variety of vegetables and fish can be used, making ceebu jen an extremely versatile dish. It can also be spelled thieboudienne, tiéboudienne, thiep bou dien, cep bu jën.

You can use whole fish or fish fillets. Any firm white-fleshed fish works well. If using fillets, try marinating the fillets in the parsley mixture (roff) instead of using it as a stuffing, then add the roff to the onions as they sauté. Most Senegalese also add small amounts of smoked, dried fish (guedge) and fermented snails (yete) to ceebu jen. They add an incomparable, smoky flavor. You can use whatever chile peppers suit your tastes.  Scotch bonnets are closest to Senegalese peppers for flavor and heat.  Use any vegetables you have on hand. Try yams, cassava, potatoes, green beans, zucchini, okra, or bell peppers.

 

Ceebu Jen

Ingredients

2 lbs whole fish (or fillets), cleaned
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
2 or 3 chile peppers, finely chopped
2 or cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
¼ cup tomato paste
5 cups light stock
3 carrots, cut into rounds
½ head cabbage, cut into wedges
½ lb pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cubed
1 eggplant, cubed
2 cups rice
lemons, cut into wedges

 

Instructions

Rinse the fish inside and out with cool water and pat dry. Cut three diagonal slashes about 1/2 inch deep in each side of the fish. Mix the chopped parsley, chile peppers, garlic, salt and pepper and stuff the mixture (called roff) into the slashes on the fish.

Heat the oil in a large, deep pot over medium-high heat. Brown the fish on both sides in the hot oil and reserve.

Add the chopped onions to the hot oil and sauté until cooked through and just beginning to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and about ¼ cup of stock and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in the rest of the stock, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin and eggplant and simmer over medium heat for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked through and tender. Add the browned fish and simmer for another 15 minutes or so. Remove the fish and vegetables and about 1 cup of the broth to a platter, cover and set in a warm oven.

Strain the remaining broth, discarding the solids. Add enough water to the broth to make 4 cups and return to heat. Bring the broth to a boil, stir in the rice and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked through and tender.

Spread the cooked rice in a large serving platter, including any crispy bits (the xooñ) sticking to the bottom of the pan. Spread the vegetables over the center of the rice and top with the fish. Finally, pour the reserved broth over all. Serve with lemon wedges. Ceebu jen is traditionally eaten with the hands from a common serving dish.

Jun 272013
 

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Today is one of several days celebrated as Seven Sleepers Day.  In Germany it is called Siebenschläfertag (I love those German mashed-together words), and it is believed that whatever the weather is on this day, it will remain so for seven weeks.  Apparently this forecast is about as accurate as Groundhog Day forecasts in the U.S. The story of the Seven Sleepers has many versions and is widespread throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds.  It has been told and retold repeatedly from ancient times to the present day.

The earliest Syriac version of the tale states that during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, around 250, seven young men were accused of being Christians. They were given some time to recant their faith, but chose instead to give their worldly goods to the poor and retire to a mountain cave to pray, where they fell asleep. The emperor, seeing that their attitude towards their faith had not changed, ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed. Decius died in 251, and many years passed during which Christianity went from being persecuted to being the state religion of the Roman Empire. At some later time—usually given as during the reign of Theodosius II (408–450)—the landowner decided to open up the sealed mouth of the cave, thinking to use it as a cattle pen. He opened it and found the sleepers inside. They awoke, imagining that they had slept for a single day, and sent one of their number to Ephesus to buy food, with instructions to be careful in case the Romans were to recognize him and seize him. Upon arriving in the city, this youth was astounded to find buildings with crosses attached. The townspeople for their part were amazed to find a man trying to spend old coins from the reign of Decius. The bishop was summoned to interview the sleepers; they told him their miracle story, and died praising God.

As the earliest versions of the legend spread from Ephesus, an early Christian catacomb came to be associated with it, attracting scores of pilgrims. On the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus (near modern Selçuk in Turkey), the cave of the Seven Sleepers with ruins of the church built over it was excavated in 1927–28. The excavation brought to light several hundred graves which were dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls of the church and in the graves. This cave is now a local tourist attraction.

The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Sarug (c. 450-521), which is itself derived from an earlier Greek source, now lost. An outline of this tale appears in De gloria martyrum (Glory of the Martyrs) by Gregory of Tours (538- 594), and in Paul the Deacon’s (720-799) History of the Lombards. The best known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine’s (c. 1230- 1298) “best-seller” Legenda sanctorum (Tales of the Saints).

The story of the Seven Sleepers is probably best known in the Muslim world.  It is told in the Qur’an (Surah 18, verse 9-26). The Qur’anic rendering of this story doesn’t state exactly the number of sleepers; the exact number is believed to be known to God alone. It also gives the number of years that they slept as 300 solar years (equivalent to 309 lunar years). Unlike the Christian story, the Islamic version includes mention of a dog who accompanied the youths into the cave, and was also asleep. But when people passed by the cave it looked as if the dog was just keeping watch at the entrance, making them afraid of seeing what is in the cave once they saw the dog. In Islam, these youths are referred to as “The People of the Cave.”

There are numerous retellings of the tale in early modern and modern literature.   John Donne’s (1572-1631) poem “The good-morrow” contains the lines

were we not wean’d till then?
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?”

Serbian writer Danilo Kiš retells the story of the Seven Sleepers in a short story, “The Legend of the Sleepers”, in his book The Encyclopedia of the Dead. Italian author Andrea Camilleri incorporates the story in his novel The Terracotta Dog. The Seven Sleepers appear in two books of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series; Will Stanton awakens them in The Grey King, and in Silver on the Tree they ride in the last battle against the Dark. The Seven Sleepers series by Gilbert Morris takes a modern approach to the story, in which seven teenagers must be awakened to fight evil in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world.

The Persian–Dutch writer Kader Abdolah gives his own spin on the Islamic version of the story in the 2000 book Spijkerschrift (English trans. 2006 “My Father’s Notebook”), based on the writer’s experience in the left-wing opposition to both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic. At the book’s end the narrator’s sister and fellow-activist escape from prison and together with other escaped political prisoners hide in a mountain cave in north Iran, where they would sleep until Iran is free of oppression.

The legend of the Seven Sleepers has given origin to a number of proverbial phrases: sjusovare or syvsover (or variants), in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, Siebenschläfer in German, zevenslaper in Dutch, hétalvó in Hungarian, sedmispá? in Czech, and a saith cysgadur in Welsh, all literally meaning a “seven sleeper,” that is, someone who sleeps late in the day. In some countries the word is also used to mean the hibernating rodent called the edible dormouse (see blog post for June 25).

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The game of Seven Sleepers was copyrighted by E.I. Horsman in 1891 and included The 24 Puzzle challenge within its directions.  It is a board game played on a board like a chess board but with special markings to denote the original positions of the pieces in the home rank.  The object of the game is to get one’s pieces across the board lined up in original position in one’s opponent’s rank whilst capturing the “sleepers” in the middle.  The game is surprisingly complex and requires considerable strategy to win.

Given that the sleepers were hungry when they awoke and sent one of their number to buy food, I thought a local Turkish recipe found at roadside food stalls would be suitable for the day. Gözleme are flaky pastry packets stuffed with a mix of feta cheese and spinach plus herbs and spices. Variants can be found throughout Turkey and Greece.  They can also be stuffed with ground lamb flavored with garlic, paprika, and cumin.  Once in a while you will come across them with both fillings in one.

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Gözleme

Ingredients:

Dough
2 cups (250 g) plain flour, unbleached
2 cups (250 g) wholemeal flour
pinch of salt
vegetable oil

Filling
2 cups (450 g) grated feta cheese or
2 cups (200 g) finely chopped spinach leaves
½ cup (50 g) chopped fresh mint leaves
½ cup (50 g)chopped flat leaf parsley
½ cup (80 g) chopped green onion
½ cup (80 g) diced white onion
1 tsp (5 g) white pepper
1 tsp (5 g) allspice
1 tsp (5 g) dried oregano
1 tsp (5 g) dried sage

Instructions:

Sift the flours and salt and mix with 1 ½ cups (210 ml) of water in an electric mixer with a dough hook or knead by hand for at least ten minutes.

Keep adding more water a little at a time until you get a very pliable, elastic dough that is easy to knead, but not so watery that it is too sticky to handle.

Dust frequently with the extra flour.

Allow the dough to stand, covered, overnight (at least 10 hours).

When ready to cook, divide the dough into six round portions. Dust with flour.

Roll one of the rounds flat with a rolling pin on a flour-dusted surface, into a rectangle shape, as thinly as possible.

Brush on a little oil, then fold over into a square. Fold over twice more into a square. Repeat the dusting, rolling out to a large rectangle, folding, oiling, dusting process three more times.

Repeat the entire process for each of the six rounds

Take one of the folded dough squares and roll it out very thinly for the final time, into a large square. Sprinkle on the filling sparingly – – as you would for a pizza topping but on half of the square only.

Start with a layer of cheese. Mix the spinach, mint, green onion and parsley together in a bowl, and add some of this as the next layer. Mix together the white onion, spices, and dried herbs, and add some as a final topping.

Fold over the uncovered half of the square to cover the filling. Press down lightly all over.

Cook on a pre-heated oiled heavy skillet (cast iron if possible). Make sure the skillet is not too hot.  It takes about 10 minutes to cook everything through. Turn them often until the outside is golden and crisp.

Cut into smaller squares and serve with lemon wedges.

Yield 6.