Because the Imam had not been impressed with me when we first met, and because his approval was vital for me staying in The Gulf, I suffered through a sweltering day in his kitchen. I had thought that I knew heat, but on that first day in the Imam’s kitchen, in that broiling country, I learned fast that I had no clue as to what heat could be. I was so intense that I felt as though my bones were melting. It felt as if I was going to collapse and die at any moment, all day long. My breathing was tight and my body was drained from burning up for so long, but my mind was aflame. My hands moved with a deft precision. I painted flavours with the colours of the spices selected by the Vizier, crafting potions of taste to erupt the Imam’s mind and shatter his preconception of me. It was a wonderful day, in spite of the heat. A fascinating circumstance so far from everything I knew. The Vizier had arranged for me to be let cook in private, once per week as before, and with his choice of foods. With all the tools I could hope for at my disposal, I devised a magic for the Imam.
The feast began with tenderised lamb. I had marinated it in the preferred spices with a balanced ratio of flavours. I achieved this by using one measure of the hottest spice, two parts of the second hottest, three of the third, and so on. It had taken some painful, tear-filled trials, but the expression on the Imam and his guests’ faces were a beautiful enjoyment for me. One could trace their exploration of the flavours and their recognition of each with the subtlest of nods and sighs. I imagined it to be a chorus of taste in which the diner could identify individual flavours, such as a listener would enjoy specific instruments in a symphony – but I could only guess. As they rediscovered the spices which they had lived with all their lives, the Imam’s guests, including the Vizier, all sat in silence. It was such a pleasure to give that joy to people. It was the essence, after all, of what I had set out to do. I used almonds and coriander ground into a paste, then diluted with honey, to glaze a cut of beef taken from the belly of the beast so that crackling would form atop it. None in attendance that day had ever seen crackling, and the Imam’s children took a particular joy the newness of it. They played with it and crunched through it like hungry little mice. Then, I produced long trays filled with small bowls each containing nuggets of fowl dressed in varying spices. Alongside each of the Imam’s guests I also sat a small plate of bread. Now, the grains for the bread were grown in the farms just outside of the palace walls, so the flavour was of the land on which those people lived. It was a piece of them as much as they were of it, and somehow, through the serum’s influence, the simplest and plain of all the dishes I prepared that day became the favourite. The Vizier came to me with the Imam’s words and confirmed that the meal had been more that they had hoped for, however, the bread had shaken their preconceptions of food. The children though me a magician.
The following morning I was called to the Imam who explained through the Vizier that he had been suspicious of me after having that first meal. He was an educated man, a well read and well-travelled man, and the starkness of the meal I had prepared had made him feel naïve. He couldn’t articulate his pleasure and as such had gone to bed the previous night confused about himself and his command of knowledge over the ways of the world. Come morning he had decided that he would be foolish to not grand my wishes. I’m sure that by then he had already begun to plan using me as an instrument as well as a servant. He watched me as the Vizier interpreted his words and the old man’s stare was a vision of wisdom. I thanked the Imam, asking only that I be permitted to attempt some efforts in the rearing of livestock and the farming of crops. He agreed without a second thought, such a thing was nothing to a man of his stature. And so, with a wave of the Imam’s hand I was allotted a scratch of earth.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey