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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Aug 192015
 

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Afghan Independence Day is celebrated in Afghanistan on this day to commemorate the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919. The treaty granted complete independence from Britain; although Afghanistan was never a part of the British Empire. The British fought three wars with Afghanistan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842) led to the defeat of the entire British-led Indian invaders by Afghan forces under Akbar Khan somewhere along the Kabul-Jalalabad Road, near the city of Jalalabad. After this defeat, the British-led forces returned to Afghanistan on a special mission to rescue their prisoners of war but quickly made a complete withdrawal.

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The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80) first began with a British defeat followed by their victory at the Battle of Kandahar, which, in turn led to Abdur Rahman Khan becoming the new emir and the start of friendly British-Afghan relations. The British were given control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs in exchange for protection against the Russians and Persians.

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The Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 led the British to give up control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs.

For well over a century Afghanistan has been politically unstable and grindingly poor. The reason are not hard to understand but the solutions are very difficult to find. Foremost is the presence of conflict, both internal and external. Internal conflict arises from issues I have talked about many times before. The nation of Afghanistan is a conglomeration of ethnicities bound together politically by certain accidents of history, but usually at each other’s throats. Outside invasion has been a fact of life for centuries.

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The country sits at a crossroads where numerous civilizations have interacted and often fought. It has been home to various peoples through the ages, among them the ancient Iranian peoples who established the dominant role of Indo-Iranian languages in the region. At many times, the land has been part of large regional empires, among them the Achaemenid Empire, the Macedonian Empire, the Indian Maurya Empire, and the Islamic Empire.

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Many kingdoms have also risen to power in Afghanistan, such as the Greco-Bactrians, Kushans, Hephthalites, Kabul Shahis, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Khiljis, Kartids, Timurids, Mughals, and finally the Hotak and Durrani dynasties that were the foundation of the modern state. The formation of modern Afghanistan mirrors the creation of nation states in Europe and Africa out of diverse ethnicities, with all the attendant turbulence, but magnified. Modern major powers, such as Russia and the U.S., who believe they can come in and sort things out by imposing their will through sheer overwhelming might need to pay more attention to the history books.

Afghanistan is surprisingly uniform culturally despite its ethnic and linguistic diversity. The majority of Afghans are Muslim (although with some diversity in interpretation), dress similarly, listen to the same music, share a generally similar worldview, and enjoy the same foods. In the southern and eastern region, as well as western Pakistan which was historically part of Afghanistan, the Pashtun people dominate. The western, northern, and central regions of Afghanistan are influenced by neighboring Central Asian and Persian cultures. Afghans living in cities, particularly Kabul, are further influenced to some degree by Indian culture through Bollywood films and music.

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Afghanistan has long been famous for carpet making. One of the most exotic and distinctive of all oriental rugs is the Shindand or Adraskan (named after local Afghan towns), woven in the Herat Province, in western Afghanistan. Strangely elongated human and animal figures are their signature look. The carpet can be sold across Afghanistan with the most based in Mazar-e Sharif. Another staple of Afghanistan is the Baluchi rug, most notably Baluchi prayer rugs. They are made by Afghanistan’s Baloch people in the south-western part of the country.

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Afghan cuisine is largely based upon the nation’s chief crops, such as wheat, maize, barley and rice. Accompanying these staples are native fruits and vegetables as well as dairy products such as milk, yogurt and whey. Kabuli Palaw is the national dish of Afghanistan. Kabuli Palaw, also called Qabili Pulao or simply pilav, is an pilaf dish consisting of steamed rice mixed with raisins, carrots, and lamb. Kabuli Palaw is made by cooking basmati or long grained rice in a brothy sauce (which makes the rice brown). This dish may be made with lamb, chicken, or beef, but lamb is preferred. I like to use shanks but any cut is all right. Meaty lamb neck is flavorful. You can also use goat. Kabuli Palaw is finished off by being baked in the oven and may be topped with fried sliced carrots, raisins, orange peel strips, and chopped nuts such as pistachios or almonds. The meat is covered by the rice or buried in the rice mixture.

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Kabuli Palaw

Ingredients

4 lbs lamb
2 large onions, sliced
salt
3 pints hot light stock
1½ lb cooked basmati or long grain rice

Sauce

2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp ground cumin
3 carrots, cooked and shredded
½ cup raisins
½ cup pistachios or slivered almonds
1 orange peel cut in julienne strips

Instructions

Simmer the lamb and onions, in light stock for about 2 hours, or until very tender.

Remove and cool the lamb, reserving the stock. Remove any bones from the lamb breaking the meat in large pieces.

Sauté the carrots in a little butter until lightly browned. Set aside.

For the stock sauce, brown the onions in butter in a large, deep skillet and then remove from the heat.

Add the cardamom and cumin and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon together with onion to form a paste.

Add about 1 pt of the lamb stock and simmer for a few minutes stirring with a whisk to combine.

Put the cooked rice, stock sauce and lamb into a large lidded casserole. Place the carrots, raisins, orange peel, and nuts on top. Cover and cook in the oven for about 35 to 45 minutes at 325°F. Add a little extra stock if it dries too much.

To serve fluff the rice and all the ingredients together and mound on a heated serving platter.

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.

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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.

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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

May 282013
 

Azerbaijan

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Today is Republic Day in Azerbaijan celebrating the first successful attempt to establish a democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic ( Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti) was founded by the Azerbaijani National Council in Tiflis on 28 May 1918 after the overthrow of the Russian Tsar.  Independence was short lived, however. In 1920 Lenin ordered the Red Army to take over the country because Russia needed Azerbaijan’s oil reserves.  Among the important accomplishments of the brief period of independence was the extension of the right to vote to women, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. In this regard Azerbaijan also preceded the United Kingdom and the United States. Azerbaijan regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but then had a lengthy conflict with Armenia, which gained independence at the same time and then invaded Azerbaijan in a bloody land grab.

Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region, located at the junction of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, a region usually known as Eurasia. It is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south. It has three main geographic zones: the Caspian Sea; the Greater Caucasus mountain range covering about 40% of the nation; and  extensive flatlands at the country’s center .

If you had to use a single word to describe Azerbaijan it would have to be “diverse”  — climates that range from semi-arid desert to mountainous tundra with everything in between, extraordinary biodiversity of both plants and animals, one main language, Azerbaijani (Azeri), and 12 minority languages spoken in select regions spanning both the Altaic and Indo-European language families,  cultural influences coming from both Europe and Asian sources such as Persia (Iran), Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, as well as from ancient conquerors including Scythians and Greeks, five major regional rug  weaving styles with infinite sub-styles (see picture) whose roots stretch back to antiquity, and more. Yet all these influences have synthesized into a recognizable and distinct culture.

Nowhere are the diverse cultural influences and geographic zones more evident than in Azerbaijani cuisine.   Azerbaijani cuisine features dozens of styles of soupy stews each varying according to cook’s choice, some with a base of yogurt. As is common in Eurasian cooking there is a wide variety of shashlik (kebabs), including lamb, beef, chicken, and fish, frequently sold by street vendors with small wood grills. Sturgeon, plentiful in the Caspian Sea, is often skewered and grilled, served with a tart pomegranate sauce called narsharab. Dried fruits and walnuts are used in many dishes. The traditional condiments are salt, black pepper, sumac, and especially saffron, which is grown domestically on the Absheron Peninsula. Other flavorings include  mint, cilantro, dill, basil, parsley, tarragon, leek, chives, thyme, marjoram, green onion, and watercress. The Caspian Sea is fished for sturgeon, Caspian salmon, Caspian kutum (a firm white fish) , sardines, grey mullet, and others. Black caviar from the Caspian Sea is one of Azerbaijan’s best known delicacies, sold worldwide.

One of the most reputed dishes of Azerbaijani cuisine is plov (pilaf) which contains saffron rice layered with other ingredients, quite distinct from Uzbek and Iranian plovs. Azerbaijani cuisine has a kaleidoscope of versions of plov from the various regions of the country, some using meats like chicken and lamb, others with dried fruits, or a combination of both. This recipe comes from Baku (the capital).  It can be eaten by itself or with meat shashlik. The ingredient Alu Bukhara is a tart plum that counteracts the sweetness of the other fruits.  You can find it online, or substitute tart cherries. Many cooks in Azerbaijan make a scorched layer on the bottom of the rice pot called a gazmakh, which is much loved. This may simply be the scorched rice itself or a separate layer of ingredients such as thinly sliced potatoes or flatbread. Here I use a mix of rice, yogurt, and egg.  Basmati rice is best because of its rich flavor, but plain rice will do.

Shirin Plov (Plov with Apricots, Dates and Saffron)

Ingredients:

2 cups long grained basmati (or plain long grained rice)
½ cup cooked and peeled chestnuts
¼ cup dried alu bukhara (or tart cherries)
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup dried apricots
½ cup pitted dates
6 tblsp unsalted butter
¼ tsp powdered saffron in 3 teaspoons of rosewater
2 tbsp yogurt
1 egg

Instructions:

Place the raw rice in a colander and run it under cold water until it runs clear. This is a vital step to prevent the rice being sticky.  Soak the washed rice for about 30 minutes in cold water with a pinch of salt.

In a large, heavy gauge pot boil enough salted water to cook the rice. When the water comes to a full boil drain the rice and add it to the pot. Bring the water back to a rolling boil. Stir the rice from time to time and let it boil for about 5 minutes. Test it. The rice should be soft but not fully cooked. It will be steamed later to cook it through. Err on the side of underdone. Drain the rice and rinse it under cold water.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and toss the fruit in it. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. The fruit should absorb the flavor of the butter and swell, but do not overcook it. The fruit should remain firm. Set aside.

Mix ½ cup of cooked rice, 1 tbsp of melted butter, 2 tbsp of yogurt, 1 egg and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture over the bottom of the rice pot. Then alternate layers of rice and fruit, finishing with a layer of rice.

Pour 3 tbsp of melted butter and the saffron flavored rose water over the top of the rice.

Place a tea towel over the pot and place the lid tightly on top.  Fold the corners of the towel over the lid to prevent them from burning.

Put the pot on a high-medium flame for about 5 minutes and then reduce it to as low as possible. Leave the rice to steam for about 30 minutes.

Serve on a large platter for guests to help themselves.

Serves 4-6 (with side dishes of meat)