Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011

History on a Plate

In the labyrinthine convention center hosting Beirut's annual food-and-restaurant-industry trade show, visitors are crowded around a celebrity chef presenting a modern twist on a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine: three pinkie-size stuffed grape leaves on a plate with a nouvelle cuisine smear of sauce. Suddenly, a word ripples through the crowd: harisa! The chef is swiftly abandoned as everyone rushes across the hall to another counter, where a balding, rotund cook is stirring a pot almost as wide around as he is. Soon, people are emerging from the scrum, triumphantly bearing paper plates brimming with what looks like a gray porridge. But appearances are deceptive: harisa, a mixture of meat, spices and grains, is a dish worth stampeding for.

People have been savoring this slow-cooked sludge for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Today, harisa — or its Persian and South Asian equivalent, haleem — can be found from the eastern Mediterranean to Kashmir, a sizable swath of the Islamic world Ibn Battuta explored.

Harisa, however, is not merely a Muslim delicacy. According to food historian and cookbook author Claudia Roden, medieval Andalusian Jews ate it on Saturdays, 20th century Iraqi Jews hired Muslim cooks to pound the wheat and meat for them, and Yemeni Jews make it to this day. In Syria and Lebanon, Christians make harisa to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. And in Iraq and Lebanon, Shi'ite Muslims make it to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. In the Indian city of Hyderabad, Hindus argue about the best place to get the dish and whether it tastes better with goat or lamb meat.

The faith, like some of the ingredients, may vary, but all harisa has one thing in common: it is meant to be shared. "What's interesting is that you find the tradition of sharing [it] across all the religions," says Anissa Helou, a cookbook author and expert on Middle Eastern cuisine. Helou, whose grandmother used to make harisa for the poor at the Feast of St. Mary in the Lebanese village of Rechmaya, describes it as a "generosity dish."

References to harisa abound in Middle Eastern history. In the late 7th century, Caliph Mu'awiya of Damascus, leader of the rapidly expanding Islamic world, received a delegation of Arabian Jews from Yemen. No doubt they discussed important matters of state, religion and commerce. But according to medieval historians who wrote about the encounter, the Caliph's first question to his visitors addressed something more urgent: Years earlier, on a journey to Arabia, he had eaten an exquisite dish, a porridge of meat and wheat. Did they know how to make it? They did.

The first written recipe that we know of for harisa dates from the 10th century, when a scribe named Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq compiled a cookbook of the dishes favored by the caliphs of Islam's so-called golden age. The version described in his Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), the world's oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, is strikingly similar to the one people in the Middle East eat to this day.

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