In Other Words

Recipe for Living: Add Rice. Stir.

The grain that sustains the war weary.

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 AfghanCooking.net, 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 your 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.

Photograph by Renée Comet

Styling by Jenne Crovato

In Other Words

Austerity Lentils

What a country cooks when it's collapsing.

Constantinos Polychronopoulos makes lentils. It's not a job per se, but it's as good as it gets in these troubled times. Laid off from his marketing company three years ago, he hasn't found steady work since, so he started a mobile soup kitchen that rotates around Athens, feeding the poor and hungry. He collects donated lentils -- phakes (fah-kess) in Greek -- which he simmers with tomatoes, onions, and bay leaves in a big pot, cooking them down into a brown, filling, garlicky stew. "It's not a handout," he says, ladling it out in a Styrofoam cup. "It's like a communal supper among friends. We're all in the same boat, and we all eat together."

The postcard image of modern Greek pride is a rich, full table of grilled lamb, sharp cheeses, eggplant casseroles, olive oil-drenched tomato salads, and honeyed desserts -- of happy families toasting each other. It's not people fighting over free cabbage, staring into bare refrigerators, or gathering throwaway oranges at open-air produce markets. It's not free lentil stew. The future, all of a sudden, has started to look a lot like the past.

Greece has been in recession since 2008, but the real problems began in 2009, after the government revealed that the country was drowning in public debt. Then came a battery of harsh austerity measures in exchange for billions of euros in bailout loans. In the last three years, the economy has virtually collapsed: The official unemployment rate has nearly tripled to 27 percent. More than 60 percent of those jobless Greeks have been out of work for at least a year.

Those who still have their jobs, even if they've seen their incomes plunge by a third or more, consider themselves lucky. But they no longer stock up on pork chops and imported Gouda cheese, as they did in better times. They eat out less too. On TV, there has been an explosion of "cook-on-the-cheap" shows, including one in which a portly, smiling chef teaches you how to make five elaborate three-course meals for just 50 euros a week. There's also a bestselling cookbook, Starvation Recipes, based on tips from Greeks who survived the famine of World War II. (Sample: Save bread crumbs from the table in a jar to eat later.)

A recent Kapa Research poll found that 71 percent of Greeks find it difficult to get by on their current income. In supermarkets, shoppers talk about the prices -- spending on groceries dropped 8 percent just in the first six months of last year, compared with the same period in 2011 -- and about how little money is left over to pay property taxes and electricity bills. So everyone buys lentils.

And why shouldn't they? A steal at a little more than $1.50 a pound today, lentils were born in Greece. Evidence of cultivation has been found in caves dating as far back as 11,000 B.C. They are ours, and they fueled an empire. In ancient times, a basic lentil soup was a common working-class meal; the wealthy refused to serve it. But it wasn't just the poor who ate this humble legume -- ancient texts are filled with recipes and praise for the lentil. In The Deipnosophists, the ancient rhetorician and foodie Athenaeus of Naucratis noted that many philosophers considered it a virtuous food. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who advocated a simple life to avoid sucking up to a corrupt society, subsisted on lentils. The Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium apparently made a mean stew with leeks, carrots, vinegar, honey, and coriander. Aristotle is said to have liked his lentils with saffron. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, saw other virtues: He prescribed lentils to treat ulcers and hemorrhoids. And the comic playwright Aristophanes called phakes "the sweetest of delicacies."

My mother, Georgia, agrees. Lentils are one of her favorite foods. She associates them with her childhood in rural Crete, where she grew up with six siblings in a one-room stone house. Her mother, Efrosini, made phakes twice a week -- hers were kind of like Zeno's, though plainer, without the honey, coriander, and leeks. My mom and her six siblings would sit in a boisterous circle at lunch, dunking their bread into the soup.

Eating lentils will make you grow tall, my grandmother told her children. And although my mother only grew to be 4 feet, 10 inches, she tried the line on me when I was in junior high and still had ambitions of playing basketball. I was the shortest girl shooting hoops in Williston, North Dakota, where we had moved as my father worked his way up the hotel management business. My father, orphaned at 3, burned with the ambition of the underestimated: As an impoverished child from a vanished village in the Peloponnese, he was told he would never amount to anything. He went on to graduate with a university degree in economics and business management at a time when the elite dominated Greece's college entrance exams.

My father made a decent salary in America, but my mother still cooked lentils at least twice a week. During the subzero Dakota snowstorms, she stewed tomatoes, carrots, and onions into a big pot of lentils. She made lentil-and-rice pilaf, a recipe from the frugal matriarch of a Lebanese immigrant family we knew. Heartbroken after my father died of a heart attack in 1989, just a few days shy of his 53rd birthday, she moved to Minnesota and started a new life on her own. She worked for 18 years in the tailor shop of a department store in a suburb of St. Paul. At potluck lunches there, she brought a lentil-and-parsley salad tossed with cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and wine vinegar. She retired to Athens a few years ago and still makes lentils every week: in soup for the winter, sometimes with a salty kick of smoked herring; braised with leeks in the fall; and tossed with currants and roasted pumpkin seeds in the spring and summer.

My Aunt Zacharoula, a retired tailor herself, lives next door to me and makes phakes at least twice a week, enough for her husband, Thanassis, and her daughter's family of five. Aunt Zacharoula actually hates the taste of lentils. After years of cooking phakes, she says they still taste like boiled rocks. She is also deeply grateful for them. When she goes to church twice a week, she sees the beggars outside. Three years ago, they were mostly destitute immigrants, like the Bangladeshi man who would give her flowers. Now they include Greeks: young mothers, drug addicts, and women like her in their 70s. They get phakes from the church soup kitchen.

"This soup has iron that will give you strength to work and live an extra five years," my aunt says as she sets down a bowl in front of me. I've stopped by for a quick hello this evening, but am not allowed to leave before dinner. My aunt's cousin, Vasso, a diminutive olive farmer in her 70s, is visiting from their village in the Peloponnese.

"I will never understand picky eaters," says Uncle Thanassis, reaching for a piece of bread. He lived in a succession of rural orphanages during World War II, when Nazi forces plundered Athens, seizing food and fuel en masse. At least 300,000 people died of starvation -- a period that older Greeks call the Great Famine. "They had nothing in the city. There were emaciated bodies lying on the street," he says.

"When I was a little girl living through the Nazi occupation," Vasso adds, "we ate wild greens with nothing -- no oil, no salt. Often with no bread."

When the conversation turns to politics, they bristle at the notion of another chancellor in Berlin telling Greece what to do, imposing austerity measures in exchange for bailout loans. A recent poll showed that 80 percent of Greeks think Germany still owes them billions of euros in reparations for the suffering of the war.

"But it is not the same," points out Aunt Zacharoula. "We still have power."

Perhaps. But we are all eating more lentils.

At least once a week, my Athenian neighbor Kyria Fani makes a pot of her peppery phakes, which I smell wafting through the halls of our building. Like my aunt, she cooks for seven people, including her son and his family, who live next door. Kyria Fani and her husband are resilient Pontic Greeks in their 70s. They have worked since they were children and saved all their lives to buy their apartment. A few weeks ago, her husband was beaten and robbed in broad daylight outside our building. He had just withdrawn money from the bank to help his son, whose employer at the shipyard hasn't paid him in nearly a year.

On the first floor, a young father recently lost his job. I hear him talking with his wife about how they can't save money, can't plan for the future. "We can at least still plan for dinner," his wife says. I run into the father and the baby one spring afternoon, when I've just returned from the grocery store. I've stocked up on lentils and have big plans to make a week's worth of dal.

"Ah, lentils!" he says, noticing the bags. "We make them too. Delicious, and they keep your strength up." His eyes are sad, but his voice sounds alive, determined. The day is sunny, the sky that particular shade of Mediterranean blue. We walk together for a few yards before heading in separate directions. "Tha gineis leventi, agori mou, agapi mou," I hear him singing to his son in the stroller. "My boy, my love, you will grow up to be so strong."

Photograph by Renée Comet

Styling by Jenn Crovato