Silk Route: Baghdad University


I suppose that arriving in Baghdad in the ancient world might  have felt like turning 30 these days.  By the time a traveler along the Silk Route reached Baghdad they would  have already gone about 4,500 KM or or 1850 miles through barbarian territories, over the wine-dark sea of Greece, around crusading armies, past the edge of the Roman Empire into the mysterious and sophisticated world of the Abbasaid and the Persians.

They must have felt like a seasoned traveler,  an adult, someone who has seen the world (I know many 30 years old’s like that – and I was one once). But they would have arrived only to find more mystery than they ever imagined and the realization that the real journey still lay ahead. They might have felt confusion about the best route to take. Beyond the edge of their known world lay windswept steppes and mongol hoards who drank warm blood mixed with milk to stay alive. When someone mentioned the harsh terrain ahead, they will have imagined that they have seen mountains and think on the Alps without any concept of the Himalayas. They would marvel at the strange exoticism of Baghdad but not yet be able to imagine India, Tibet or China.

 

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Like our futures, the road of adventure is never what we expect. We can never see the foreboding and wonder that lies ahead of us. What looks unpalatable, rough, pitiful and uncivilized to us in Baghdad (or in our 30’s), like sheep’s bladder full of blood and milk, we might come to love like a child love’s their mother, on the harsh steppes. Those strange, annoying, seemingly barbaric and childish customs (like telling people what ever they want to hear – truth or not – to avoid conflict) of the people arriving from the East might suddenly be understood and reasonable when you entered the Indian subcontinent or China and encounter a completely different social order. Yes, I think arriving in ancient Baghdad might be a lot like turning 30.

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Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Dishes) was written by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi in 1226, at the end of the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate (an end brought about by the Mongol hoards that destroyed Baghdad in 1258).  The Abbasid were incredibly sophisticated and inclusive of many other cultures, including Chinese as well as Persian and Turkish.  The Caliphate reached the height of its powers in the 9th century when it stretched all through the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea.  Math, science and literature flourished.  One Thousand and One Nights, was written during this time … combining tales of many cultures and giving us Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba. from silkroadgourmet.com

Come to think of it, entering ancient Baghdad might be a lot like relationships too. There is always that looming question – what should we eat tonight?

Mudaqqaqat Hamida (sour meatballs) 

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1 pound ground lamb
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground pepper
1 t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground mastic (use a mortar and pestle, or roll it between foil with a rolling pin)
2/3 c chickpeas, mashed
2 small onions chopped
2 t salt or to taste
oil to brown meat  (leftover fat from cooking a pheasant for added flavor but duck fat, lard or olive oil is fine)
juice of 1 lemon
1 t sumac (optional)
½ t saffron threads
3 T pomegranate molasses
¼ to ½ cup chopped fresh mint (to your taste)
3 cups unsalted stock
1 – 2 drops Aftelier Rose Chef’s Essence or 2-3 T rosewater – to taste
Seeds from 1 pomegranate

Combine the lamb and spices and chickpeas and 1 onion. Roll into balls… small golf ball size is good. Brown in the fat with the rest of the onion and pour off any excess fat.

Add stock or water and lemon juice, sumac, saffron and cook the meatballs till they are done over a medium flame.

Reduce the liquid till it thickens somewhat. Add pomegranate molasses and rose essence/rosewater to taste and cook for another few minutes. The natural sweetness of the reduced stock is perfect with the sour additions. If you don’t reduce the sauce the sourness is unbalanced. Toss in some of the chopped mint and stir. Serve with Pomegranate seeds and fresh mint sprinkled on top.

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“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”  – Epictetus

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.” – Galileo

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