Reading Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey, a memoir that documents her experiences of living in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and in Beirut during the 2006 Lebanon hostilities, you quickly become privy to an alternative perspective.
While the book is set against the backdrop of war and offers an intense, often harrowing account of what it’s like to live in proximity to it, it embraces another battle: to preserve a sense of normality when conflict inevitably causes disarray.
As she explains in the introduction to the book, Ciezadlo is of the belief that: “If you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first ... this book is not about the ever-evolving ways in which people kill or die during wars but about how they live before, during and after those wars.”
When we meet to talk more about Day of Honey – which, it was recently announced, is one of three finalists in the non-fiction section of Barnes & Noble’s annual Discover Great New Writers Awards – she describes the book as “a cross between a food memoir and a war memoir; a mix between a very masculine genre [war] – and a traditionally very feminine one [cooking]”.
She says: “Food was a good way of talking about the other side of war. You have this whole other life in a war-torn country or city that revolves around maintaining daily life, instead of destroying it. After all, war or not, you still have to eat and a lot of people put a lot of energy into making that happen, and their story never gets told.”
Ciezadlo’s positioning of food at the very heart of this fight not only to survive, but to maintain a semblance of pre-war life, makes real sense. As she acknowledges, on a basic level we must eat to live, but as Day of Honey shows, solace can also be found in the rituals that revolve around food: the joy of finding a hard-to-source ingredient, the distraction that following a recipe provides, the comforting familiarity of a favourite dish and the sense of achievement from creating something from nothing.
Food, she explains, also allows civilians as well as soldiers to demonstrate their tenacity of spirit and Day of Honey celebrates the actions of such individuals. “The baker keeps the communal oven going so his neighbourhood can have bread; the restaurateur converts his café into a refugee centre; the farmer feeds his neighbours from a dwindling stock of preserves; the parents drive all over Baghdad trying to find an open bakery so their daughter can have a birthday cake.”
Day of Honey is a multifaceted book offering a history of the Middle East, a first-hand account of both Ciezadlo and her husband Mohamad Bazzi’s experiences as foreign correspondents (he was the Middle East bureau chief for Newsday during the Iraq war), an assessment of the issues that arise because of their cross-cultural marriage – she was born in Chicago, he in Beirut – and a real insight into the culinary secrets of the region, documented in recipe form at the back of the book.
“Food is a really excellent way of writing about a place; I have this theory that every person has a signature dish, even if they say they don’t; you just need to spend time with them to discover it – it’s the same with the cities you visit,” Ciezadlo tells me.
This belief was particularly relevant in Baghdad, where she was repeatedly told that, as the title of one of the chapters of the book purports, “Iraq has no cuisine”. Rather than accept this, she decided that although the food the foreigners were eating in Iraq was bad, it did not necessarily mean that was true of all Iraqi food – she just needed to do a little digging. The chapter ends with her deciding that “it had to have a cuisine, and I suspected that cuisine would be good. I decided to go and find it”.
In Day of Honey, food provides a means for Ciezadlo to comprehend the unfamiliar – namely, life in Baghdad and Beirut, to negotiate cultural traditions, alleviate homesickness and to further relationships, most notably and certainly most humorously, when receiving cooking lessons from Umm Hassane, her Lebanese mother-in-law.
Of all the food-related scenes in the book, the one that stands out most is a description of a mezze meal with friends, soon after she arrived in Beirut. She sampled “saucers of hummus with tender spoonfuls of sautéed lamb and pine nuts nestled in their bellybuttons”; ate makdous (aubergine stuffed with chopped walnuts and red peppers) for the first time (“What god lent down and whispered in what mortal ear to put walnuts inside an eggplant?”); and tried the kibbeh nayeh: “The kibbeh slid into my mouth, smooth and almost buttery, until the kick of the spices unfolded. Watching the others, I took a bite of mint and one of raw onion, and the two sharp blades of flavour tore open the bloody taste of the raw lamb.”
She describes food writing as either “really shallow and boring” or “really sophisticated, it all depends on the course you take”. Ciezadlo undoubtedly took the right one and has been instrumental in helping others to do the same. She recently taught a short course at NYU Abu Dhabi called Food in the Global Kitchen, where, much as in Day of Honey, food was used as a “way in”, a means of introducing students to journalism, teaching them more about Abu Dhabi and encouraging them to consider the impact of the food-related decisions we all make every day.
“There are so many topics that you can explore with food as your starting point: the environment, economics, anthropology, sociology, power, global politics,” she says.
“You really can learn so much about the place that you’re in, from a very micro level – the family, for example – to the very macro level of mass economics, and that’s what I wanted to convey to the students.”
Here is the recipe by Annia Ciezadlo’s mother-in-law, Umm Hassane, for yakhnet kusa (courgette stew) as described in Day of Honey. Serves 6 to 8
This is my favourite yakhne, or vegetable stew — perhaps because it was my first — but they’re all exquisite. Once you have the basic formula, you can vary it by substituting 2lb (0.9kg) of whatever vegetables are in season. I love the ones with roasted cauliflower or thick green beans cut in bite-sized chunks. Mohamad likes one with peas and carrots. Invent your own.
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more if needed
1 lb (0.45kg) beef chuck or lamb shoulder, cut into rough 1-inch cubes
18 cups water, divided
3 small or 2 medium-large onions, peeled and cut into quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 allspice berry
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more to taste
2 lb small courgettes
6 tbsp taqlieh (recipe below)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 lemons
2 medium-large Dutch ovens or stockpots
Medium-sized mortar and pestle or food processor
Colander or wire-mesh strainer
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the meat and sear on all sides until well-browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. (It will stick to the bottom of the pot at first; do not try to pry it up. After a few minutes, it should release on its own. If it doesn’t, increase the heat.)
Add six cups of the water, turn the heat up to high and bring to a rolling boil. Turn the heat down a little to medium-high and let it boil until the scum stops rising, about 5 minutes. Pour off the water from this initial boil and discard. Rinse the scum off the meat in a strainer or colander.
Wipe out the pot and add 12 cups of cold water. Add the meat, onions, garlic, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, allspice and 1 tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil again, then turn the heat down to very low. Cover and simmer until the meat is soft, about 2½ hours.
While the meat simmers, cut the courgette into ½-inch rounds and make the taqlieh. When the meat is done, strain the stock through a colander into a second pot. Save the meat and onions. Pick out the spices and bay leaf and discard.
Wipe out the first pot. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and heat over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the taqlieh and sauté for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the sides and bottom constantly so it doesn’t stick or burn.
When the taqlieh releases its fragrance but before it becomes dry enough to stick to the pan, dump in the courgette. Don’t stop stirring. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally to coat each piece of courgette with taqlieh. Add more olive oil if necessary. Do not let it brown.
When the courgette starts to look tired and a little translucent, dump the stock and meat back in and turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer, covered, until the courgette is soft but not mushy, 25 to 45 minutes depending on size of the courgette. Taste it periodically, sticking a fork in the courgette to test for desired firmness. Add salt to taste.
Serve with salt, pepper and lots of fresh lemon juice to taste. Umm Hassane would only ever serve this dish over rice, but I like it with bread, bulghur wheat or even simply as a soup.
Taqlieh: Coriander-Garlic Paste
Makes about 6 tablespoons
1 head garlic, peeled and smashed (about 3 tablespoons mashed)
1 tsp coarse sea salt
1 bunch coriander, thick stems removed, roughly chopped (about 1½ cups)
Pound the garlic and salt in a mortar with a pestle into a paste. Add the coriander and mash them together until you get a chunky, fragrant pesto.
Taqlieh freezes beautifully. I usually make a double recipe, scrape the extra into small containers, and pour over enough olive oil to cover (this seals in the flavour). In a good freezer, it can keep for up to six months.
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