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The terrorist dinner party

A great equalizer where the devil is seldom in the details

By Glenda Bartosh

The rum was from Cuba, the two kinds of halvah from Lebanon. The assortment of dates, the tamarind-flavoured almonds, the pomegranates, pistachios and the barberries, which added a sharp zing to the basmati rice, were all from Iran. The sweet but tart raisins we used in the lamb stew were from Afghanistan.

I’m sure we wouldn’t have won any points from the 100-mile diet club for our little dinner party, but the simplicity and exoticism combined with the fabulous tastes made it a lot of fun to share with friends.

We cheekily dubbed it “the terrorist dinner”, since most of the ingredients were from “axis of evil” countries or ones known to harbour “terrorists”. We’d obtained them from a lovely little Vancouver shop run by a family from Iran.

Shopping in a store where most of the products come from places that have been written off as evil or been reduced to blood-laced sound bites on the news is a real eye-opener. Holding a brightly-labeled tin of three-bean salad from Palestine, for instance, gives cause for immediate and visceral pause.

Somewhere, a group of Palestinians washed and cooked and seasoned, then tinned the beans. Or they ran the machinery that did. I try to picture them: did they have to wear sanitary uniforms? Hair nets? Are they middle-aged? Young? Happy?

Presumably, a Palestinian designed the green and white label. A Palestinian   photographer took the photo of the bean salad. Does she shoot digitally, or with film? Maybe they even hired a food stylist, since the salad looked pretty darn good. For a humble tin of beans, it goes a long way toward dismantling stereotypes of Palestinians as suicide bombers or Hamas and Hezbollah fighters lobbing rockets at each other, or into Israel.

So what else can we learn through food about the humanness of people living in places we usually see through veils of apprehension or misunderstanding or uncertainty?

Start with Mesopotamia, dubbed the “fertile crescent”: Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Three out of four have been reduced to headlines alternately sensational, fearsome or tragic. But they gave us agriculture itself, not to mention olive oil, baklava, hummus — and, the biggest equalizer of all, ice cream.

Ice cream was the favourite dessert of the ancient caliphs of Baghdad. Sure, people later added eggs and milk and dressed it up a bit, but the earliest ice cream likely came from Mesopotamia — either that or China, now smack dab in the middle of the biggest Communist operation on Earth.

The best ice cream scoop I’ve ever used came from Syria, a place of simple, relatively austere cuisine — lots of bean stews and lentil soups — shaped by poverty and the largely agrarian economy (three out of four workers are farmers). The scoop is a piece of design genius, a simple piece of gently-curving, wedge-shaped brass with a stubby handle of the same metal, as contemporary as it is ancient. Super easy to wash and super easy to use, it effortlessly scoops out the hardest of ice cream.

Try a block of halvah flavoured with rose water from Iran — simple, sophisticated, surprising. You just know the complex taste and texture have been painstakingly refined over the last thousand years or two. And pomegranates. Never mind those hybridized ones from California. Get your hands on a juicy, sweet one from Iran, where the plant originated right through to northern India.

How lucky we Canadians are to be able to trade with and visit Cuba. Dubbed by John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., as “beyond the axis of evil” along with Libya and Syria (Libya has since redeemed itself and gotten off the list), Cuba remains dangerous and, well, evil, in the minds of most Americans.

But we get to toast our friends in Havana with rich, golden 16-year-old Cuban rum and genuine mojitos , or sample Cuban melons from our local store shelves. There’s something very grounding and connective about hefting a nice-looking cantaloupe and then seeing a label, “Product of Cuba”. Who was the farmer who grew it? Did he use mulch or irrigate? Is it from one of those organic farms that sprang up after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the capital for fertilizers and pesticides dried up?

Enjoy a big jeon pancake or a bowl of bi bim bap with the raw egg on top at a Korean restaurant, and you can’t help but wonder if they eat similar dishes in North Korea. If they do, who can afford them? What do they know about us?

But going back to our terrorist dinner, I still can’t get those Afghani raisins out of my mind. Fragrant, a hazy violet/magenta in colour with a bit of desert dust still clinging to some of the creases, they were light years away from the shiny, industrialized, oil-coated raisins we get here. They seemed to say something about the high desert wind and sun, a weathered hand and a scratchy dry, burlap sack. That might be just another stereotype, but at least it’s a more humanistic one.


Rice with Saffron, Almonds and Raisins

If you’d like to try a dish from Iraq that might anchor a dinner party and lead to a deconstruction or two, such as discussing the 655,000 Iraqis the Lancet medical journal estimates have been killed by the American-led invasion, this recipe from Eating the Iraqi Way is simple to make and delicious.

4 cups water (use less for drier rice)

1 tbsp rose water

Pinch of saffron

4 tbsp vegetable oil

2 cups long-grain basmati rice

1 tsp salt

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1/4 cup raw, unsalted, slivered almonds

1/4 cup raisins

In a large saucepan, mix the water, rose water, saffron, salt and 4 tbsp of oil. Bring to a boil on high heat. Add the rice. Return to a boil, then lower to medium heat. Cook, uncovered, until most of the water has been absorbed. Stir from the bottom up, lower the heat, cover, and let simmer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tbsp of oil in a small pan. Fry the almonds until slightly brown. Add the raisins, stirring for a few seconds until fluffy. Remove from heat. Serve the rice on a platter, garnished with the almond-raisin mixture.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who likes to zoom in for a different take.