Aug 192015
 

af2a

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.

af1

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.

af2

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.

af3

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.

af7

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.

af8

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.

af6

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.

af5b af5a

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.

af4

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.

Jun 052015
 

ut2

On this date in 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, and the following year was issued as an illustrated book. Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Seminary and an active abolitionist, featured the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings. Assessment of the novel and its title character have undergone profound changes from its first publication to the present day.

ut5

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”

ut8

At the time of the novel’s initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe’s melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for white audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who had escaped from slavery. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom’s passivity against the daring of three African American women who escape from slavery.

ut6

Senator Charles Sumner credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the election of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass praised the novel as “a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery”. Despite Douglass’ enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison’s publication The Liberator suspected a racial double standard in the idealization of Uncle Tom:

Uncle Tom’s character is sketched with great power and rare religious perception. It triumphantly exemplifies the nature, tendency, and results of Christian non-resistance. We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the White man, under all possible outrage and peril, as for the Black man… Talk not of overcoming evil with good—it is madness! Talk not of peacefully submitting to chains and stripes—it is base servility! Talk not of servants being obedient to their masters—let the blood of tyrants flow! How is this to be explained or reconciled? Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the Black man, and another of rebellion and conflict for the White man? When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks who are thus treated, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, long-suffering, and forgiving? Are there two Christs?

The accusation of a double standard may be apt, but I think that this and other critiques miss the point. Stowe upholds the Christian standard (mostly forgotten in the contemporary U.S.) of meeting hatred and bigotry with love, as did Jesus. Modern critics treat Uncle Tom’s servility as weakness rather than a strength (as Stowe intended). This change of attitudes towards Uncle Tom reflects a general cultural shift in the U.S. from tolerance to aggressiveness as the solution to what are perceived as the world’s ills.

James Weldon Johnson, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, expresses an antipathetic opinion in his autobiography:

For my part, I was never an admirer of Uncle Tom, nor of his type of goodness; but I believe that there were lots of old Negroes as foolishly good as he; the proof of which is that they knowingly stayed and worked on the plantations that furnished sinews for the army which was fighting to keep them enslaved.

ut7

In 1949 James Baldwin rejected the emasculation of the title character “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex” as the price of spiritual salvation for a dark-skinned man in a fiction whose African-American characters, in Baldwin’s view, were invariably two dimensional stereotypes. To Baldwin, Stowe was closer to a pamphleteer than a novelist and her artistic vision was fatally marred by polemics and racism that manifested especially in her handling of the title character. Stowe had stated that her sons had wept when she first read them the scene of Uncle Tom’s death, but after Baldwin’s essay it ceased being respectable to accept the melodrama of the Uncle Tom story. Uncle Tom became what critic Linda Williams describes as “an epithet of servility” and the novel’s reputation plummeted until feminist critics led by Jane Tompkins reassessed the tale’s female characters. According to Debra J. Rosenthal in an introduction to a collection of critical appraisals for the Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, overall reactions have been mixed with some critics praising the novel for affirming the humanity of the African American characters and for the risks Stowe assumed in taking a very public stand against slavery before abolitionism had become a socially acceptable cause, and others criticizing the very limited terms upon which those characters’ humanity was affirmed and the artistic shortcomings of political melodrama.

ut9

A specific impetus for the novel was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed heavy fines upon law enforcement personnel in Northern states if they refused to assist the return of people who escaped from slavery. The new law also stripped African Americans of the right to request a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf, even if they were legally free, whenever a single claimant presented an affidavit of ownership. The same law authorized a $1000 fine and six months imprisonment for anyone who knowingly harbored or assisted a fugitive slave. These terms infuriated Stowe, so the novel was written, read, and debated as a political abolitionist tract.

ut11

Stowe drew inspiration for the Uncle Tom character from several sources. The best-known of these was Josiah Henson, an ex-slave whose autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, was originally published in 1849 and later republished in two extensively revised editions after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson was enslaved at birth in 1789. He became a Christian at age eighteen and took up preaching. Henson attempted to purchase his freedom for $450, but after selling his personal assets to raise $350 and signing a promissory note for the remainder Henson’s owner raised the price to $1000; Henson was unable to prove that the original agreement had been for a lesser amount. Shortly afterward Henson was ordered on a trip south to New Orleans, and when he learned that he was to be sold there he obtained a weapon and contemplated murdering his white companions, but decided against violence because his Christian morals forbade it. A sudden illness in one of his companions forced their return to Kentucky, and shortly afterward Henson escaped north with his family, settling in Canada where he became a civic leader.

ut10

Southern plantations were noted for their cooking, and their recipes carried on after the Civil War as what is now classic Southern cuisine. A great many plantation cooks were slave women who created a style that was an amalgam of African and European traditions which was enormously varied across the South. I’ve given a number of recipes here before for hush puppies, hoppin’ John, burgoo, and the like – all personal favorites from my days living in the swamps of North Carolina. Here’s a more upscale recipe from South Carolina still popular today as a summer dish.

Dilled Rice and Shrimp salad

Ingredients

2 cups cooked long-grain white rice
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly chopped dill, plus extra for garnish
salt and pepper
¼ cup chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish
¼ cup sliced radishes
½ lb. cooked and shelled medium shrimp
1 lemon

Instructions

Combine the oil, vinegar, dill, and salt and pepper to taste in a blender or food processor, and blend until you have a fine emulsion.

Place the rice in a large mixing bowl and pour over the oil and vinegar dressing. Mix well. Add the shrimp and radishes and toss lightly. Cover the bowl and chill for several hours.

Serve with a garnish of fresh dill and green onions and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. You may need to toss the salad to separate the rice after refrigeration.

Apr 282015
 

ni1

On this date in 1253 Nichiren, a Japanese Buddhist monk, chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo publicly for the very first time and declares it to be the essence of Buddhism, thus establishing the sect of Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (日蓮) (April 6, 1222 – November 21, 1282) lived during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra (entitled Myōhō-Renge-Kyō in Japanese)— which contained Gautama Buddha’s teachings towards the end of his life — as the exclusive means to attain enlightenment. Nichiren believed that this sutra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha’s teachings related to the laws of cause and effect, karma, and leading all people without distinction to enlightenment. This devotion to the sutra entails the chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (referred to as daimoku) as the essential practice of the teaching.

Nichiren Buddhism includes various schools such as Nichiren Shōshū, Nichiren Shu and lay movements such as Risshō Kōsei Kai or Soka Gakkai , each claiming to be the only true follower of their founder, with their own interpretations of Nichiren’s teachings. However, despite the differences between schools, all Nichiren sects share the fundamental practice of chanting daimoku. While all Nichiren Buddhist schools regard him as a reincarnation of the Lotus Sutra’s Bodhisattva Superior Practices, Jōgyō Bosatsu (上行菩薩), some schools of Nichiren Buddhism’s Nikkō lineages regard him as the actual Buddha of this age, or the Buddha of the Latter day of the Law and for all eternity.

Nichiren was born on February 16, 1222 in the village of Kominato (today part of the city of Kamogawa), Nagase District, Awa Province (within present-day Chiba Prefecture). Nichiren’s father, a fisherman, was Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, also known as Nukina Shigetada Jiro (d. 1258) and his mother was Umegiku-nyo (d. 1267). On his birth, his parents named him Zennichimaro (善日麿?) which has variously been translated into English as “Splendid Sun” and “Virtuous Sun Boy” among others. The exact site of Nichiren’s birth is believed to be submerged off the shore from present-day Kominato-zan Tanjō-ji (小湊山 誕生寺), a temple in Kominato that commemorates Nichiren’s birth. In his own words, Nichiren stated that he was “the son of a chandala family who lived near the sea in Tojo in Awa Province, in the remote countryside of the eastern part of Japan.”

Nichiren began his Buddhist study at a nearby temple of the Tendai school, Seichō-ji (清澄寺, also called Kiyosumi-dera), at age 11. He was formally ordained at 16 and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō (Rencho meaning Lotus Growth). He left Seichō-ji shortly thereafter to study in Kamakura and several years later traveled to western Japan for more in-depth study in the Kyoto–Nara area, where Japan’s major centers of Buddhist learning were located. In 1233 he went to Kamakura, where he studied Amidism—a pietistic school that stressed salvation through the invocation of Amida (Amitābha), the Buddha of infinite compassion—under the guidance of a renowned master. After having persuaded himself that Amidism was not the true Buddhist doctrine, he passed to the study of Zen Buddhism, which had become popular in Kamakura and Kyōto. He then went to Mount Hiei, the cradle of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, where he found the original purity of the Tendai doctrine corrupted by the introduction and acceptance of other doctrines, especially Amidism and esoteric Buddhism. To eliminate any possible doubts, Nichiren decided to spend some time at Mount Kōya, the centre of esoteric Buddhism, and also in Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, where he studied the Ritsu sect, which emphasized strict monastic discipline and ordination. During this time, he became convinced of the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sutra and in 1253, returned to Seichoji.

On April 28, 1253, he expounded Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō for the first time, marking his Sho Tempōrin (初転法輪: “first turning the wheel of the Law”). With this, he proclaimed that devotion and practice based on the Lotus Sutra was the correct form of Buddhism for the current time. At the same time he changed his name to Nichiren, nichi (日) meaning “sun” and ren (蓮) meaning “lotus.” This choice, as Nichiren himself explained, was rooted in passages from the Lotus Sutra.

After making his declaration, which all schools of Nichiren Buddhism regard as marking their foundation (立宗: risshū), Nichiren began propagating his teachings in Kamakura, then Japan’s de facto capital since it was where the shikken (regent for the shogun) and shogun lived and the government was established. He gained a fairly large following there, consisting of both priests and laity. Many of his lay believers came from among the new samurai class (that is, samurai drawn from the peasant class and not the nobility) .

Among other things, in 1253 Nichiren predicted the Mongol invasions of Japan: a prediction which was validated in 1274. Nichiren viewed his teachings as a method of efficaciously preventing this and other disasters: that the best countermeasure against the degeneracy of the times and its associated disasters was through the activation of Buddha-nature by chanting and the other practices which he advocated.

Nichiren then engaged in writing, publishing various works including his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論?): “Treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” his first major treatise and the first of three remonstrations with government authorities. He felt that it was imperative for the sovereign to recognize and accept the only true and correct form of Buddhism (i.e., 立正: risshō) and the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering (i.e., 安国: ankoku). This “true and correct form of Buddhism”, as Nichiren saw it, entailed regarding the Lotus Sutra as the fullest expression of the Buddha’s teachings and putting those teachings into practice. Nichiren thought this could be achieved in Japan by withdrawing lay support so that the deviant monks would be forced to change their ways or revert to laymen to prevent starving. Based on prophecies made in several sutras, Nichiren attributed the occurrence of the famines, disease, and natural disasters (especially drought, typhoons, and earthquakes) of his day to teachings of Buddhism no longer appropriate for the time.

ni3

Nichiren submitted his treatise in July 1260. Though it drew no official response, it prompted a severe backlash, especially from among priests of other Buddhist schools. Nichiren was harassed frequently, several times with force, and often had to change homes. Nichiren was exiled to the Izu peninsula in 1261, and pardoned in 1263. He was ambushed and nearly killed at Komatsubara in Awa Province in November 1264.

The following several years were marked by successful propagation activities in eastern Japan that generated more resentment among rival priests and government authorities. After one exchange with the influential priest, Ryōkan (良観), Nichiren was summoned for questioning by the authorities in September 1271. He used this as an opportunity to make his second government remonstration. This time to Hei no Saemon (平の左衛門, also called 平頼綱: Taira no Yoritsuna), a powerful police and military figure issued the summons.

Two days later, on September 12, Hei no Saemon and a group of soldiers abducted Nichiren from his hut at Matsubagayatsu, Kamakura. Their intent was to arrest and behead him. According to Nichiren’s account, an astronomical phenomenon — “a brilliant orb as bright as the moon” — over the seaside Tatsunokuchi execution grounds terrified Nichiren’s executioners into inaction. The incident is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and regarded as a turning point in Nichiren’s lifetime called Hosshaku kenpon (発迹顕本), translated as “casting off the transient and revealing the true,” or “Outgrowing the provisional and revealing the essential.”

Unsure of what to do with Nichiren, Hei no Saemon decided to banish him to Sado, an island in the Japan Sea known for its particularly severe winters and a place of harsh exile.

ni8

This exile, Nichiren’s second, lasted about three years and, though harsh and in the long term detrimental to his health, represents one of the most important and productive segments of his life. While on Sado, he won many devoted converts and wrote two of his most important doctrinal treatises, the Kaimoku Shō (開目抄: “On the Opening of the Eyes”) and the Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄: “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”) as well as numerous letters and minor treatises whose content containing critical components of his teaching.

ni5

It was also during his exile on Sado, in 1272, that he inscribed the first Gohonzon (御本尊). This mandala is a visual representation, in Chinese characters, of the Ceremony in the Air. This ceremony is described in the 11th (Treasure Tower) to 22nd (Entrustment) chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Within these chapters it is revealed that all persons can attain Buddhahood in this lifetime and Shakyamuni transfers the essence of the sutra to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Superior Practices (Jogyo), entrusting them with the propagation of the essence of the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon embodies the eternal and intrinsic Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which he identified as the ultimate Law permeating life and the universe.

Nichiren was pardoned in February 1274 and returned to Kamakura in late March. He was again interviewed by Hei no Saemon, who now was interested in Nichiren’s prediction of an invasion by the Mongols. Mongol messengers demanding Japan’s fealty had frightened the authorities into believing that Nichiren’s prophecy of foreign invasion would materialize (which it later did in October of that year. Nichiren, however, used the audience as yet another opportunity to remonstrate with the government.

ni6

His third remonstration also went unheeded, and Nichiren—following a Chinese adage that if a wise man remonstrates three times but is ignored, he should leave the country—decided to go into voluntary exile at Mt. Minobu (身延山) in 1274. With the exception of a few short journeys, Nichiren spent the rest of his life at Minobu, where he and his disciples erected a temple, Kuon-ji (久遠寺), and he continued writing and training his disciples. Two of his works from this period are the Senji Shō (撰時抄: “The Selection of the Time”) and the Hōon Shō (報恩抄: “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude”),which, along with his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論: “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land”), Kaimoku Shō (“The Opening of the Eyes”), and Kanjin no Honzon Shō (“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”), constitute his Five Major Writings. He also inscribed numerous Gohonzon for bestowal upon specific disciples and lay believers. Many of these survive today in the repositories of Nichiren temples such as Taiseki-ji (大石寺) in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a particularly large collection that is publicly aired once a year in April.

ni10

Nichiren spent his final years writing, inscribing Gohonzon for his disciples and believers, and delivering sermons. In failing health, he was encouraged to travel to hot springs for their medicinal benefits. He left Minobu in the company of several disciples on September 8, 1282. He arrived ten days later at the residence of Ikegami Munenaka, a lay believer who lived in what is now Ikegami, the site is marked by Ikegami Honmon-ji. On September 25 he delivered his last sermon on the Risshō Ankoku Ron, and on October 8 he appointed six senior disciples—Nisshō (日昭), Nichirō (日朗), Nikkō (日興), Nikō (日向), Nichiji (日持), and Nitchō (日頂)—to continue leading propagation of his teachings after his death. Nichiren Shoshu believe that Nichiren designated five senior priests, and one successor, Nikko.

On October 13, 1282, Nichiren died in the presence of many disciples and lay believers. His funeral and cremation took place the following day. His disciple Nikkō left Ikegami with Nichiren’s ashes on October 21, reaching Minobu on October 25. Nichiren’s original tomb is sited, as per his request, at Kuonji on Mt. Minobu.

A large political change occurred in the Kamakura period. Before the Kamakura period, the samurai were guards of the landed estates of the nobility. The nobility lost control of the Japanese countryside and fell under the militaristic rule of the peasant class samurai. A military government was set up in Kamakura in 1192. Once the positions of power had been exchanged, the role of the court banquets changed. Before this period, the court cuisine emphasized flavor and nutrition, but it changed to a highly ceremonial and official role.

The first shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo. He punished other samurai who followed the earlier showy banquet style of the nobility. The shogun banquet was called “ōban(椀飯).” The ōban was attended by military leaders from the provinces. The origin of the ōban was a luncheon on festival days attended by soldiers and guards during the Heian period.

The menu usually consisted of the followings:

dried abalone

jellyfish (aemono)

pickled plum (umeboshi)

salt and vinegar for flavoring

rice

However towards the end of this period the honzen ryori banquet, a return to elaborate displays,  became popular again.

ni11

The cuisine of the new samurai class came distinctly from their peasant roots. The meals prepared emphasized simplicity, avoided refinement, ceremony and luxury and shed all Chinese influence.

The Buddhist vegetarian philosophy strengthened during the Kamakura period. It began to spread to the peasants. Those who were involved in the trade of animals which were slaughtered for food or leather were discriminated against. Those who practiced this trade were considered in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life. They were thought of as defiled under Shinto philosophy. This discrimination intensified, and eventually led to the creation of a separate caste called the burakumin.

A plain dish of rice and pickles is still a popular breakfast in Japan. Once when I was in a simple ryokan (guest house) in Uji, center of green tea production, I was sitting at my laptop in the dining area in the early morning and the owner brought me rice and pickles – unasked !! Now rice and pickles is a common staple for me.

ni13

One day I will write a post on the different forms of rice and methods of cooking in Asia. All regions have their own styles (and methods of serving and eating). Japanese rice is shorter grained and glutinous, either polished or unpolished. Uruchi mai is the most common kind of Japanese rice used today. Most of the Japonica rice for sale in the U.S. is grown in California, where the method is dry planting instead of flooded fields, so the quality is a bit different, but acceptable.

I use a rice cooker, so it’s straightforward to make perfect rice every time, and keep it warm for the duration of a meal. Otherwise cook it in the traditional way. Wash the rice in a sieve under cold running water until the water becomes clear. Place in a heavy pot with an equal quantity of water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a low simmer, and cover with a tight lid. Cook for 20 minutes then turn off the heat and let steam, still covered, for another 20 minutes. There is a real art to doing this which is why I, and millions of Asians, use an electric cooker.

I used to make my own Japanese pickles, which involves preparing a tub of the fermented leftovers from sake production. Something of a chore, although the end results are great. It’s easier to buy the pickles in an Asian market.

ni12

Jan 082015
 

aw1

Today is the birthday (1823) of Alfred Russel Wallace OM FRS, a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist. He is best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin’s writings in 1858. This prompted Darwin to publish his own ideas in On the Origin of Species. Wallace did extensive fieldwork, first in the Amazon River basin and then in the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the faunal divide now termed the Wallace Line, which separates the Indonesian archipelago into two distinct parts: a western portion in which the animals are largely of Asian origin, and an eastern portion where the fauna reflect Australasia.

He was considered the 19th century’s leading expert on the geographical distribution of animal species and is sometimes called the “father of biogeograph.” Wallace was one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century and made many other contributions to the development of evolutionary theory besides being co-discoverer of natural selection. These included the concept of warning coloration in animals, and the Wallace effect, a hypothesis on how natural selection could contribute to speciation by encouraging the development of barriers against hybridization.

Wallace was strongly attracted to unconventional ideas (such as evolution). His advocacy of spiritualism and his belief in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans strained his relationship with some members of the scientific establishment. In addition to his scientific work, he was a social activist who was critical of what he considered to be an unjust social and economic system in 19th century Britain. His interest in natural history resulted in his being one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity.

Wallace was a prolific author who wrote on both scientific and social issues; his account of his adventures and observations during his explorations in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, The Malay Archipelago, is regarded as one the best of all journals of scientific exploration published during the 19th century.

Wallace had financial difficulties throughout much of his life. His Amazon and Far Eastern trips were supported by the sale of specimens he collected and, after he lost most of the considerable money he made from those sales in unsuccessful investments, he had to support himself mostly from the publications he produced. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the British scientific community, such as Darwin and Charles Lyell, he had no family wealth to fall back on, and he was unsuccessful in finding a long-term salaried position, receiving no regular income until he was awarded a small government pension, through Darwin’s efforts, in 1881.

Wallace’s contributions to evolutionary biology have now largely been forgotten, and evolution tends to be linked with Darwin only. But Wallace had a profound influence on the field and on Darwin himself. In fact, it has been argued that had he not corresponded with Darwin about his own theories concerning natural selection, Darwin might never have published his. Darwin had sat on his notes for many years because he was aware of the firestorm that would follow – and did. In his lifetime Wallace was one of the most famous scientists in the world, but soon after his death he was forgotten, and remains so. Hence my desire to celebrate him today.

Inspired by the chronicles of earlier travelling naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and William Henry Edwards, Wallace decided that he too wanted to travel abroad as a naturalist. In 1848, Wallace and Henry Bates left for Brazil aboard the ship Mischief. Their intention was to collect insects and other animal specimens in the Amazon rainforest and sell them to collectors back in the United Kingdom. Wallace also hoped to gather evidence of the transmutation of species which was a theory that was largely unsupported by empirical evidence.

Wallace and Bates spent most of their first year collecting near Belém do Pará, then explored inland separately, occasionally meeting to discuss their findings. In 1849, they were briefly joined by another young explorer, botanist Richard Spruce, along with Wallace’s younger brother Herbert. Herbert left soon thereafter (dying two years later from yellow fever), but Spruce, like Bates, would spend over ten years collecting in South America.

Wallace continued charting the Rio Negro for four years, collecting specimens and making notes on the peoples and languages he encountered as well as the geography, flora, and fauna. On 12 July 1852, Wallace embarked for the UK on the brig Helen. After 26 days at sea, the ship’s cargo caught fire and the crew was forced to abandon ship. All of the specimens Wallace had on the ship, mostly collected during the last, and most imporant, years of his trip, were lost. He could save only part of his diary and a few sketches.

Wallace and the crew spent ten days in an open boat before being picked up by the brig Jordeson, which was sailing from Cuba to London. The Jordeson’s provisions were strained by the unexpected passengers, but after a difficult passage on very short rations the ship finally reached its destination on 1 October 1852.

After his return to the UK, Wallace spent 18 months in London living on the insurance payment for his lost collection and selling a few specimens that had been shipped back to Britain prior to his starting his exploration of the Rio Negro. During this period, despite having lost almost all of the notes from his South American expedition, he wrote six academic papers (which included “On the Monkeys of the Amazon”) and two books; Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and Travels on the Amazon. He also made connexions with a number of other British naturalists—most significantly, Darwin.

From 1854 to 1862, age 31 to 39, Wallace travelled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens for sale and to study natural history. A set of 80 bird skeletons he collected in Indonesia and associated documentation can be found in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago led to his proposing the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace line.

aw2

Wallace collected more than 126,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago (more than 80,000 beetles alone). Several thousand of them represented species new to science.] One of his better-known species descriptions during this trip is that of the gliding tree frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, now known as Wallace’s flying frog. While he was exploring the archipelago, he refined his thoughts about evolution and had his famous insight on natural selection. In 1858 he sent an article outlining his theory to Darwin; it was published, along with a description of Darwin’s own theory, in the same year.

Accounts of his studies and adventures there were eventually published in 1869 as The Malay Archipelago, which became one of the most popular books of scientific exploration of the 19th century, and has never been out of print. It was praised by scientists such as Darwin (to whom the book was dedicated), and Charles Lyell, and by non-scientists such as the novelist Joseph Conrad, who called it his “favorite bedside companion” and used it as source of information for several of his novels, especially Lord Jim.

In 1862, Wallace returned to England, where he moved in with his sister Fanny Sims and her husband Thomas. While recovering from his travels, Wallace organized his collections and gave numerous lectures about his adventures and discoveries to scientific societies such as the Zoological Society of London. Later that year, he visited Darwin at Down House, and became friendly with both Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer. During the 1860’s, Wallace wrote papers and gave lectures defending natural selection. He also corresponded with Darwin about a variety of topics, including sexual selection, warning coloration, and the possible effect of natural selection on hybridization and the divergence of species. In 1865, he began investigating spiritualism, his advocacy of which alienated him from many powerful figures in the scientific community.

John Stuart Mill was impressed by remarks criticizing English society that Wallace had included in The Malay Archipelago. Mill asked him to join the general committee of his Land Tenure Reform Association, but the association dissolved after Mill’s death in 1873. Wallace had written only a handful of articles on political and social issues between 1873 and 1879 when, at the age of 56, he entered the debates over trade policy and land reform in earnest. He believed that rural land should be owned by the state and leased to people who would make whatever use of it that would benefit the largest number of people, thus breaking the often-abused power of wealthy landowners in British society. In 1881, Wallace was elected as the first president of the newly formed Land Nationalisation Society. In the next year, he published a book, Land Nationalisation; Its Necessity and Its Aims, on the subject. He criticized the UK’s free trade policies for the negative impact they had on working-class people. In 1889, Wallace read Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and declared himself a socialist. After reading Progress and Poverty, the best-selling book by the progressive land reformist Henry George, Wallace described it as “Undoubtedly the most remarkable and important book of the present century.”

Wallace opposed eugenics, an idea supported by other prominent 19th century evolutionary thinkers, on the grounds that contemporary society was too corrupt and unjust to allow any reasonable determination of who was fit or unfit. In the 1890 article “Human Selection” he wrote “Those who succeed in the race for wealth are by no means the best or the most intelligent …”. In 1898, Wallace wrote a paper advocating a pure paper money system, not backed by silver or gold, which impressed the economist Irving Fisher so much that he dedicated his 1920 book Stabilizing the Dollar to Wallace. Wallace wrote articles on other social and political topics including his support for women’s suffrage, and the dangers and wastefulness of militarism.

In 1898, Wallace published The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Its Failures about developments in the 19th century. The first part of the book covers the major scientific and technical advances of the century; the second part covers what Wallace considered to be its social failures including: the destruction and waste of wars and arms races, the rise of the urban poor and the dangerous conditions in which they lived and worked, a harsh criminal justice system that failed to reform criminals, abuses in a mental health system based on privately owned sanatoriums, the environmental damage caused by capitalism, and the evils of European colonialism. Wallace continued his social activism for the rest of his life, publishing the book The Revolt of Democracy just weeks before his death.

Wallace continued his scientific work in parallel with his social commentary. In 1880, he published Island Life as a sequel to The Geographic Distribution of Animals. In November 1886, Wallace began a ten-month trip to the United States to give a series of popular lectures. Most of the lectures were on Darwinism (evolution through natural selection), but he also gave speeches on biogeography, spiritualism, and socio-economic reform. During the trip, he was reunited with his brother John who had emigrated to California years before. He also spent a week in Colorado, with the American botanist Alice Eastwood as his guide, exploring the flora of the Rocky Mountains and gathering evidence that would lead him to a theory on how glaciation might explain certain commonalities between the mountain flora of Europe, Asia and North America, which he published in 1891 in the paper “English and American Flowers”. He met many other prominent American naturalists and viewed their collections. His 1889 book Darwinism used information he collected on his American trip, and information he had compiled for the lectures.

Wallace assembled a huge collection of flora and fauna which were kept in “cabinets.” Only one of these collections remains in its original cabinet. It consists of 1,700-items consisting of a variety of insects, including butterflies, beetles, moths, shells, flies, bees, praying mantises, tarantulas, seedpods, a hornet’s nest, and a small bird. A collector named Robert Heggestad found this cabinet/collection in Washington DC in 1979 and purchased it for $600 (not knowing who had assembled it). Heggestad began documenting references in Wallace’s work to specimens in the cabinet, resulting in a 62-page report to support the theory that the collection once belonged to Wallace. He also employed graphologist Beverley East to verify the handwriting on the collection. It is Wallace’s only known personal collection still in its original cabinet. Today it is believed that Wallace collected the specimens in the rosewood cabinet for instructional purposes.

On 7 November 1913, Wallace died at home in the country house he called Old Orchard, which he had built a decade earlier. He was 90 years old. His death was widely reported in the press. The New York Times called him “the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century.” Another commentator in the same edition said “No apology need be made for the few literary or scientific follies of the author of that great book on the ‘Malay Archipelago’.”

Some of Wallace’s friends suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, but his wife followed his wishes and had him buried in the small cemetery at Broadstone, Dorset. Several prominent British scientists formed a committee to have a medallion of Wallace placed in Westminster Abbey near where Darwin had been buried. The medallion was unveiled on 1 November 1915.

I thought it fitting to talk about Malay cuisine because of Wallace’s close ties to the Malay region. I enjoy cooking one or two dishes when I can get hold of the ingredients which is easier for me now I am in SW China. But I do not have a kitchen yet, so I will just have to describe it. Malay restaurants are not common in the West, but I did find a good one once in Brighton on the south coast of England.

aw3

Malay cuisine is noted for its complex spice mixes, fiery sambals, coconut milk, and rice. Nasi lemak (Jawi: ناسيلمق) is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, commonly found in Malaysia, where it is considered the national dish. It is also popular in neighboring countries such as Brunei, Singapore, Riau Islands, and Southern Thailand. It is not hard to prepare but you do need pandan leaves to get the right flavor. They can be found in the West, frozen, in Asian stores. They add a flavor similar to basmati rice to plain rice. So, if you cannot get them use basmati as a substitute.

aw4

Basically you use coconut milk in place of water using about a 2:I ratio of milk to rice so that the milk is completely absorbed. Add a few slices of fresh ginger and a knot of pandan leaves for flavoring. The rice is traditionally served with sliced cucumber, fried anchovies, boiled egg, and peanuts with some kind of sambal. But it can accompany any dish. Here’s a little gallery of ideas for you.

aw11 aw10 aw9 aw8 aw7 aw6

Apr 042014
 

senegal1

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.

senegal7

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.

senegal6

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.

senegal4

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.

senegal2

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.

senegal3

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.

Sep 052013
 

alb1

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”).

alb3

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.”

alb4

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.

Al-Biruni_5 Al-Biruni_4

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.

alb5

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