In Other Words

Recipe for Living: Add Rice. Stir.

The grain that sustains the war weary.

Photograph by Renée Comet
Photograph by Renée Comet

The mud-and-straw kitchen clings to the convex desert of northern Afghanistan, a blinding wasteland of salty loess that reaches from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Amu Darya’s muddy current. Each day before lunch, a single phosphorescent sun ray thrusts through a gap in the kitchen’s grass roofing into a blackened water pitcher on the floor.

In this Vermeer glow, Boston, the arthritic, bony wife of Baba Nazar the Hunter, squats before a pair of conical clay ovens raised about a foot out of the dirt floor. She feeds a few pieces of kindling into a side opening and blows on the low flame. Atop one of the ovens balances a soot-smeared cast-iron pot. Boston is cooking rice.

"Afghans love rice," British food writer Helen Saberi notes in her authoritative 2000 book, Afghan Food & Cookery — which includes 39 recipes for main rice dishes alone, illustrated intimately with sketches of Afghan life. In Afghanistan, rice is the measure of everything from a woman’s skills — "An Afghan woman’s reputation as a good cook can hinge solely on how well she prepares her rice," write food bloggers Humaira Ghilzai and Katie Morford on, one of my favorite references for Afghan cuisine — to a pot’s size. "Pans are named after the weight of rice which can be cooked in them," Saberi notes.

"Nothing is more important at the Afghan table than the rice," Ghilzai and Morford write in their introduction to a recipe for palau, the most ubiquitous Afghan rice dish, often bejeweled with carrots, nuts, and dried fruit. They’re downplaying it: If there is no rice at an Afghan table, there probably isn’t anything else, just some cloudy green tea. "If we have rice for dinner, life is good," a Turkoman proverb from the country’s north goes.

Pan out from Boston’s desert home. First domesticated in the Pearl River valley of what is now China between 8,200 and 13,500 years ago, rice today is grown in at least 113 countries on all continents except Antarctica. "Rice is an essential and beloved ingredient in the Arab kitchen," writes May Bsisu, author of The Arab Table, a cookbook I consult often in my own kitchen. Mungo Park, the famed Scottish explorer of Africa, described one supper of rice at the end of the 18th century, in what is today Mali, as "the first good meal … I had enjoyed for a long time." In fact, people in sub-Saharan Africa were eating rice by the year 50 C.E., according to food writer Fran Osseo-Asare.

For almost two decades, my war correspondent’s diet has been heavy on rice. In Central Asia, Arabia, Somalia, Kashmir — and even in Chechnya, where noodles are the starch of choice — a guest of honor occasionally will be treated to a platter of mutton pilaf. In northern Kenya during the 2006 drought, a gaunt mother of four small, malnourished boys shared with me a bowl of the American humanitarian rice that relief workers had unloaded that morning beneath some thorn trees. It was all she had, but it was one of the most generous meals anyone ever had offered me. British adventurer turned parliamentarian Rory Stewart wrote of his winter walk halfway across Afghanistan in 2002: "I had savored the hot rice, the firm floor, the shelter from the wind, and the companionship." Rice, to me, has become symbolic of all these — and, most of all, of our astonishing human stamina and determination to persevere through war, exile, ethnic cleansing, and deep poverty.

According to Rice Around the World in 300 Recipes: An International Cookbook, published by the United Nations (which declared 2004 the International Year of Rice), rice is a daily staple at more than half the world’s tables. In many of these places, there are no tables, just bowls or dastarkhan cloths spread over earthen floors, or simply gnarled palms cupping some communal morsels. Much of that rice sustains people who live in war zones. Imagine a volatile belt that half-girdles our planet from Central Asia to West Africa, where women bend over their hearths handling precious grains, acolytes of an ancient order — the Order of Rice Cooks.

I have a collection of cookbooks from war-wrecked lands, yet these books seem oddly bare, revealing precious little about the circumstances of their recipes. No Afghan cookbook describes the 10-mile trek across the barren desert that Boston’s adult son must make to buy the family’s fortnight supply of rice. No Nigerian cookbook lingers on the discrepancy between the ingredients it lists for its jollof rice, which may include seven types of vegetables, mushrooms, and butter, and their accessibility to a cowherd who feeds a family of six on less than $1.25 a day. No Somali cookbook explains that the availability of grain for surbiyaan — a lamb, yogurt, and rice dish much like the Bedouin mansaf, served at major Muslim holidays and wedding feasts — depends on the mercy of warlords, Islamist militants, and highway robbers who hold up, divert, and pilfer humanitarian convoys.

Likewise, no recipe can convey the elation of sitting down to eat with one’s family after making it through another day during which the world did not kill you outright, of watching between bites as shooting stars slide down an enormous ink-black sky. In such understatedness lies the magic of cookbooks: You are free to fill in your own memories, with you
r own imagination. The recipe is just the basics. Free-associate to taste.

Boston has been cooking rice for 60 years, maybe longer. She cooked rice when a coup in Kabul overthrew the king, when Soviet soldiers came and went through her tiny hamlet, when a land mine they had left behind took her oldest daughter’s fingers and leg. She cooked rice when the Taliban marched past her village, and then the ragtag anti-Taliban soldiers; she cooked when American warplanes rumbled overhead. Her recipe isn’t the fancy qabili spiced with cumin or the savory risotto-like shohla. Hers is the dirty brown and broken rice her son receives in exchange for some kindling in the nearest big village, not the elegant white moon-slivers of basmati. She stews whatever onion she has in vegetable oil and, if her husband’s hunt of the week was successful, some meat. When the onion turns translucent, she adds the rice, salt, and some murky well water. She puts a lid on the pot. She checks the fire. An hour later, upon a dented aluminum serving tray, Boston’s rice is a pellucid and golden quivering mound. It is one of those meals that you remember later not with your tongue but with your very diaphragm.

SPIN THE GLOBE westward now, and zoom in on the Levant. "[A]lways wrap your [cooked] rice in an old blanket for one to three hours.… By wrapping the rice, you give it time to ‘open up’ slowly to produce a better flavor," May Bsisu instructs. Bsisu is Palestinian-American, and her nostalgic vignettes about her childhood meals remind me of the many plates of rice I shared in hole-in-the-wall joints in Amman with my late Palestinian friend Bassam Shream, who was born in Jordan and lived there his entire life, forever homesick for a homeland he never knew. He died in his 30s of a broken heart, like the man in Galway Kinnell’s poem: "His plan is/To look over the far side of the mount/On which Moses died looking this way,/And see the bitter land, and die of desire."

I remember, too, the plate of rice that a mourning Palestinian father thrust at me at the funeral of his suicide-bomber son in Gaza. The boy had been 15; his suicide vest had killed no one but himself. I had not known him, but his father wanted us to mourn together. Palestinian rice brings sad memories, but what is the recipe against melancholy?

Rice, of course.

Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, the 10th-century author of Kitab al-Tabikh, one of the oldest known culinary documents from the Middle Ages, writes: "When cooked with milk and sweetened with sugar, rice is wonderfully nourishing, healthful, and helps increase blood, so know this." Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cooking) is believed to have been published first in Iraq, where, more than a millennium later, I sat in my friend Shatha’s tiled kitchen packed with bowls, pans, strainers, cups, trays, and cast-iron pots. She was cooking her signature spiced rice, stuffed miraculously between the flesh and the skin of a baking chicken. Outside, rival sectarian militias and U.S. troops fought for Baghdad block by bullet-scarred block. It was sheer madness, an unforgivable, hideous derangement. Bombs ripped through markets, coating sidewalks with human viscera and fruit juice; people bled to death in looted hospitals stripped bare of everything, even gauze. But inside Shatha’s kitchen — a kitchen that today no longer belongs to her family, which war has scattered around the globe — we were alive, we were eating rice, goddamnit, and so, for that one evening, we had won.

THIS YEAR, I am herding cattle with a family of Fulani nomads in Mali, the latest front line in the global war on terror. My hosts’ portable hearth is made of three rocks that frame a fire fed by dry manure. Upon it sits the familiar cast-iron pot. Fanta Diakité, the matriarch, flavors her jollof with a mix of dried fish bones, red pepper, dried onions, and salt. In a wooden mortar with a pestle almost as tall as she is, she pounds the spices into a brown powder and mixes it into the pot a few minutes before taking it off the fire.

French bombers growl overhead on their way to drop death upon suspected Islamist strongholds in the desert, and Fanta’s lyre-horned zebu cattle scatter and low, frightened by the unfamiliar racket in the sky. In a straw hut next door, a malarial 9-year-old boy is burning up with fever, or is it the 3-year-old now? Someone is always sick in the camp; only Afghanistan surpasses Mali in infant mortality. But there are no doctors nearby, no medicine, and no money with which to buy it anyway. In April, Fanta’s 2-year-old grandnephew and 15-year-old niece died within one week of each other. I watch Fanta cook, I watch those worry wrinkles gather on her forehead, and I think: We are all so breakable, so close to death.

And then Fanta ladles the rice into a dented aluminum bowl (I have seen such bowls before, in other kitchens, in other war zones), melts some fresh butter over it, and sits down with us on a straw mat next to the resting cows: Fanta, her daughter and grandchildren, her cousins and nieces. The women’s mouths are outlined with dark tattoos; their slat-board ribs show through the wide arm openings in their sun-faded dresses. At Fanta’s invitation — "Bismillah!" — we dip our fingers into our hot dinner. It is not the sticky opalescent rice of Boston’s Afghan desert, not the refined extravagance of Shatha’s Baghdadi basmati. It is not a dish any cookbook ever would bother to include. Where would you go to buy the windblown grit and bits of straw, the particles of burned cow manure from the cooking fire? But I know its taste. It tastes like survival, like an act of defiance against depravity and violence. It says: We are together and alive, for now, so let us eat.

<p> Anna Badkhen is the author, most recently, of The World Is a Carpet. She is working on Walking with Abel, a book about transience. </p>