May 10, 2013

How to Eat, Khaleeji style (traditional)

Among the many gems of description in T.E. Lawrence's classic book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is the following excerpt on a feast prepared for Lawrence and his companions by a prominent sheikh and participant in the Arab revolt, Auda Abu Tayi. I post it here because it reminded me so vividly of eating at weddings and for iftar in Oman.

"This load was set down on the soil of the cleared space between us, where it steamed hotly, while the procession of minor helpers carried in the small cauldrons and copper vats in which the cooking had been done. From them, with much-bruised bowls of enameled iron, they ladled out over the main dish all the inside and outside of the sheep, little bits of yellow intestine, the white tail cushion of fat, brown muscles and meat and skin, all swimming in the liquid butter and grease of the seething. The bystanders watched the work anxiously, with muttered satisfactions when a very juicy bit plopped out.

Pouring these bowls-full of scrap over the heap was warm labor, for the fat was scalding. Every now and then a man would drop his baler with an exclamation, and plunge his burnt fingers, not reluctantly, in his mouth to cool them: but they persevered till at last their scooping rang loudly on the bottoms of the pots, and with a gesture of triumph they fished out the intact livers from their hiding places in the gravy and topped the yawning jaws with them. Then two raised each cauldron and tilted it over the mass, letting the liquid splash down the meat till the crater of the rice was full, and the loose grains at the edge swam in the abundance, and yet they poured till amid exclamations of astonishment from us it was running over and a little pool congealing in the dust. That was the final touch of splendor, and the host called us to come and eat.

We feigned deafness, as manners demanded; at last we heard him and looked suprised at one another, each urging his fellows to move first: till Nasir rose coyly, and then we all came forward, and sank on one knee round the tray wedging in and huddling up till the twenty-two for whom there was space groped around the food. We turned back our right sleeves to the elbow, and taking lead from Nasir with a low, "in the name of God the merciful, the loving-kind," we dipped together.

The first dip for me at least was always cautious, since the liquid fat was so hot that my unaccustomed fingers could seldom bear it: and so I would toy with an exposed and cooling lump of meat till others' excavations had drained my rice segment. We would knead between the fingers, not using the palm, neat balls of rice and fat and liver and meat, all cemented by gentle pressure, and project them by leverage of the thumb from the crooked forefinger into the mouth.

With the right trick and the right construction the little lump held together and came clean off the hand: but when surplus butter and old fragments clung cooling to the fingers they had to be licked carefully to make the next effort slip easier away.

The host stood by the circle encouraging the appetite with pious ejaculations, and we worked at top speed twisting, tearing, cutting and stuffing, never speaking since conversation at a meal would be an insult to its quality, though it was proper to smile thanks when one of the more intimate guests passed across a select fragment or when Mohammed el Dheilan or Farraj gravely handed over a huge barren bone with a blessing. On such occasions, I would return the compliment with some hideous and impossible lump of guts, a flippancy with rejoiced the Howeitat, but which the gracious and aristocratic Nasir saw with disapproval.

As the meat pile wore down (nobody really cared about the rice; the flesh was the luxury) one of the chief Howeitat eating with us would draw his dagger, silver-hilted, set with turquoise, a signed masterpiece of Mohammed ibn Zari of jauf and would cut crisscross from the larger bones long diamonds of meat easily torn up between the fingers; for it was necessary boiled very tender, since it had all to be disposed of with one hand.

At length some of us were nearly filled, and these began to play and pick, glancing sideways at the rest, till they grew slow, and at least ceased eating, elbow on knee and the hand hanging down from the wrist over the tray edge to drip, while the fat and butter and scattered grains of rice cooled and stiffened into a white grease which gummed the fingers together. When all had stopped Nasir cleared his throat meanly, and we rose up together in haste with an explosive, "Our host, God requite it to you," and grouped ourselves outside among the tent ropes while the next twenty guests came forward and inherited our leaving.


Anonymous,  May 10, 2013 at 1:32 AM  

What a fantastic description! Thanks for posting it. i have my grandfather's copy of the Seven Pillars but never read it through. Regards Anne

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