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By 1325, the year Ibn Battuta left home, that golden age had come and gone. But the empire of Islam was still considerable, and when Ibn Battuta traveled through it, a wide network of way stations, maintained mostly by religious scholars and mystics, gave folk a place to rest and mingle with strangers from all four corners of the earth. They shared language, prayer, travel tips, slaves and harisa. In the Persian outpost of Kazarun, the young adventurer stayed at a way station run by Abu Ishaq, a Muslim holy man famous for his hospitality. "It is their custom to serve every visitor, whoever he may be, harisa made from flesh, wheat and ghee," Ibn Battuta noted decades later.
The method of making the dish has remained unchanged for centuries: cooks simmer the wheat overnight, stirring it until the wheat berries burst open and surrender their insides. Then the cooks add the meat and its rich stock, stirring until the flesh disintegrates and joins the general mass of harisa. All this takes hours up to a day, even. When it's done, the cooks form an assembly line, sometimes directly from the cauldron, and pass the harisa out to all comers: pilgrims, the poor, neighbors and strangers.
Nowadays, most people use a pressure cooker, which speeds up the cooking and requires less stirring. But in a village in southern Lebanon, my friend Raed Elamine's extended family still makes harisa the old-fashioned way and distributes vast amounts to visitors and the poor during the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura. A few years ago, he invited me to join them. In a sunny kitchen, a large aluminum pot simmered on the stove next to a giant tray full of chicken bones. On the floor, a large aluminum vat, bigger and thicker than a garbage can, balanced precariously on top of an ancient-looking metal burner attached to a propane tank.
Eight women wearing cardigans dusted with flour down the front started shouting contradictory recipes the minute I walked in the kitchen. Some soak the wheat overnight; others consider this blasphemy. Some use equal parts water and meat, while some adjust the water as they go. Some swear by equal parts wheat and meat, but others skimp on meat. Northern Lebanese cooks like to use cinnamon and allspice; southern cooks might be more likely to use cardamom. Middle Easterners usually top the porridge with cinnamon and melted butter, South Asians with caramelized onions.
The women of Raed's family started working at 3 p.m. the day before, stayed up until 2 in the morning, then woke up five hours later to stir the harisa. It seemed like a lot of work, and I asked why they went through the grind. "It's a symbol, a tradition," said a woman named Malak. "In the church, when they drink the wine and eat the bread it's like that." In other words, a sacrament: a sentiment I think Abu Ishaq might have approved of.
They scooped out a large dollop for me and sprinkled it with cinnamon. It was creamy and savory, with a glow of cinnamon, clove and allspice that unfurled across the tongue. Empires and caliphs may come and go, but some things outlive them all: tradition, hospitality, harisa.
Ciezadlo is the author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War