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April 26, 2010

Dining Like Alexander the Great


Our little group attracted curious stares and a hanger-on or two as we made our way through the Metropolitan Museum of Art's hallowed halls. Maybe that was because at each stop, be it a frescoed fragment of an ancient palace, a Bodhisattva statue, or an ornate mummy, the discussion turned quickly to food: the rice and sour cherries served at a palace feast at Persepolis; the exotic fruits and spices of India; the culinary treats buried with those ancient foodies, the Egyptian Pharaohs. A stomach growled amid the din. 

Then again, this was no conventional museum tour. This was Artbites. 

The brainchild of Maite Gomez-Rejón, a trained chef and historian and our guide that evening, 
Artbites melds art, history and cuisine through classes that combine museum trips with hands-on cooking instruction. Gomez-Rejon's subjects range from the Aztecs to Leonardo da Vinci (who knew he was a vegetarian?) to Thomas Jefferson. Although she is based in Los Angeles and holds most of her classes at the Getty Center and other museums in the area, Gomez-Rejon frequently jets to other cities for classes, like the one I was at in New York. (See a schedule here). 

This evening, we were tracing the victorious route of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), the Macedonian king and general who, along with his army of 44,000 hungry men, traveled 22,000 miles from Greece to Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and India in a 12-year trail of conquest and culinary discovery.

At a towering bronze statue of Alexander, Gomez-Rejón, a petite woman in a bright green dress, takes a moment to remind us of the ruler's outsize influence on Hellenistic culture. Before Alexander, statues mainly depicted powerful gods and deities. Alexander, aided by Lysippos, his personal sculptor, was the first to use sculpture and art as propaganda, to portray himself as all powerful, like the gods (in fact, he believed he was the son of Zeus). The statues were scattered across his vast empire. 

Then it was off to trace the great Alexander's travels and culinary adventures as he and his men conquered their way through Egypt (where he founded the city of Alexandria and its famous library), Persia (where he was impressed with the refined civilization but made quick work of the weak ruler, Darius III), and Mesopotamia before pushing on to India. Imagine the delight of young Alexander upon reaching Persia and encountering for the first time such heady wonders as walnuts, sour cherries, pomegranate, and other sumptuous fruits! Or India, where he discovered rice, sugar, bananas, mangoes and other exotic fruit and spices. 

Alexander was a great cultural cross pollinator, as Gomez-Rejón pointed out, and the interplay of cultures lives on today in art -- the stylized Greco-roman mummies, the buff Bodhisattvas wearing Greek sandals -- as well as cuisine. Though Alexander would not return to Greece (he died in Babylon), some of his men would, bringing these exotic foods -- now staples of the modern kitchen -- with them.

After our museum tour was finished, we headed to a nearby rented kitchen to prepare an 8-course feast, inspired by what the great Alexander and his peers might have eaten. The menu (created with the help of Gomez-Rejón's friend, New York-based chef and caterer 
Amanda Pilar Smith), included cucumber and mint salad with orange blossom water; chicken with cinnamon and saffron; lamb meatballs in pomegranate and walnut sauce; and a rice and sour cherry dish that Alexander was served at the magnificent palace in Persepolis (which, sadly, he later burned in a drunken haze). The rice and sour cherries are cooked on the stove in layers, and then turned over like an upside down cake to reveal a crunchy rice crust. 

Finally, we all sat down to enjoy our feast. We didn't recline, as was the fashion back then when dining. And we drank from standard issue wine glasses rather than elaborate silver vessels. But we hoisted those glasses to toast to Alexander and the bounty he had a hand in bringing to our table.

Sour Cherries and Rice (Albalu Polow)
Serves 6

1 pound Basmati rice
1 pound sour cherries, in jar (if fresh, stew in water and sugar until tender and remove stones)
4 tablespoons butter

1. Rinse and drain rice and drop into vigorously boiling water. Let cook for 4 minutes until it is till underdone, and drain quickly. 
2. In a heavy non-stick pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter then spread alternate layers of rice and cherries, starting with rice. Dot the remaining butter and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Put over very low flame for 1/2 hour for the rice to steam and become tender but separate.
3. Carefully turn out just before serving without upsetting the layers.



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