February Drink of the Month

[This is cross-posted from Slow Tuesday Night, where the Cocktail of the Month is a regular feature, but I felt like this one is front page material. I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’m wrong.]

When I attended the National Institute of Applied Sciences in Lyon, France, in the 1994-95 school year, I had a Tunisian roommate named Samir. We got along pretty well–despite being an observant Muslim, he forgave me the incident when, as a result of my friends’ “Get Scott Drunk Party,” I made the room uninhabitable to him for a day. His cousin, Hatem, was a student of the Koran as well as engineering, and he visited us often. They liked to chat about Islam and the Koran with me, an American who knew nothing more than it was written by a guy named Mohammed. At first, they were very defensive, but once they figured out I had no preconceptions, it was fun. It helped that I was fascinated by Arabic, and Samir taught me the alphabet and a few words and phrases. It turns out the greeting Samir taught me–“As-sliama”–is specific to Tunisia. (Sorry if I mistransliterated, but I can’t find the right way online.)

After a trip back to Tunisia to visit his family, Samir shared with me some special pastries made by his grandmother. They were out of this world…well, out of my world, anyway. I’d never had so much as halvah, so I’d never experienced anything like these tiny cakes that were bone dry, delicate and crumbly, but permeated with flavor. Sesame was at the fore, of course, but there was pistachio, date, rose, clove, cinnamon, and I’m sure more that I just can’t remember. It was a wonderful gift for him to share his family’s traditions with me.

When the uprisings occurred in Tunisia in 2010, I tried to use the Internet to find Samir, but to no avail; his family name was just too common. I found someone with the exact same name as his cousin, and I wrote him, hoping it might be the same one. I wished them well, explaining why I was writing to someone who was probably a complete stranger (I just couldn’t imagine how Hatem could have aged into the person in the picture I found), and wishing this Hatem well in his new Tunisia.

So, a year ago, Tunisia had its first freely elected president ever, and a wave of Arab protests sparked by the Tunisian uprising would become known as the Arab Spring. You may think me callous to feel celebratory when the Bahraini rebellion was so mercilessly crushed and the Syrian rebellion escalates to full civil war. I tend to think we should celebrate freedom when and where we can, and so my February drink of the month is called the Arab Spring. If you don’t like it, call it some other damn thing.

The Arab Spring

  • 1 oz rose syrup
  • seltzer
  • ice
  • cinnamon stick

Pour the rose syrup over the ice in a rocks glass, fill with seltzer, and stir and garnish with the cinnamon stick. Don’t ditch the cinnamon. I found rose syrup in an Arab foods store, which you may or may not have in your area. If you find rose water instead (I couldn’t find any), that might be more authentic, so go for it and tell me how it tastes!

Note that this is our first non-alcoholic “cocktail” of the month, out of respect for the fellows–Samir and Hatem–who connected me, however tenuously, with Tunisia. It’s sooooo worth it–it is absolutely delicious. Plus, it’s a lovely pink-to-red color if you use rose syrup, which makes it perfect for Valentine’s Day! Double plus, any of our Leaguers who don’t drink can enjoy it with reckless abandon.

For those who couldn’t care less about sipping something non-alcoholic, I understand. So, I’ve tried some variations. You can add a splash of cinnamon schnapps, and that works very well. You can add a shot of vodka before filling with seltzer, and that also works, and of course combining that with the schnapps is good, too. I thought I was brilliant for the idea of replacing the seltzer with champagne, but this fails, as the fruity flavors of the champagne completely cover the rose flavor. Finally, and I haven’t tried this yet, but I know it would work, you can steep homegrown (or organic) rose petals in vodka for a week or so and use that plus red food coloring in place of the rose syrup.

Sorry if it’s too exotic to get all the ingredients, but if you can find them, it’s totally worth trying. Happy Valentine’s Day, and happy anniversary of the beginning of the end of American Imperialism!

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30 thoughts on “February Drink of the Month

  1. Maybe I’m missing the connection between the Tunisian revolution, the Arab Spring and “American imperialism.” If anyone is responsible for Tunisia, it is the Italians. Or maybe you feel the US is always to blame?

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          • James;

            Yes, the US propped up dictators to protect our interests, mainly in response to the Soviets and their expansionist policies, so what?  The world is a crappy dangerous place.  US policies in Egypt produced the Camp David accord and have kept the peace for the most part.  US policies have not by any means been perfect by any means and I think we’ve made some mistakes.  However, the liberal expectation that the US should always have clean hands is naive and dangerous given the realities of the world we live in.

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                • Scott, do you think the U.S. was purely playing defense in the Middle East?  Do you think none of those states looked to the Soviet Union for support precisely because the U.S. was mucking around over there?  Can you say with certainty that Iran would be a Russian client state today if we hadn’t propped up the idiot Shah?  Do you think the Taliban would have been able to take over Afghanistan so easily without the U.S.’s involvement there against the Soviets in the  ’80s?

                  It goes beyond our policies not being perfect–our policies helped create the problems we’re still dealing with.

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                  • Exactly.  This sounds a lot like the conversation had on your blog about how Americans decline to investigate how their government’s foreign policy actions often times have negative consequences, like those we had in Iran by overthrowing Mossadegh.  Or worse, we excuse it by assuming that our motives are always pure because, well…World War II.

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                  • James:

                    You conveniently forget we supported the Shah b/c Mossadegh  nationalized the oil fields.  As for the Taliban, your amnesia continues given that the US wouldn’t have been there in the first place if the Soviets hadn’t invaded or did you forget that?  Would the Taliban have even existed but for the the Soviets invasion?  I think not but clearly you know better.  If anything, the US should have stayed involved in  Afghanistan and not allowed the power vacuum that occurred after the Soviet retreat. I suppose the UN could have stepped in but they are useless. It is funny how some folks always want the US to be at fault despite the actions of others.

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                    • I wonder if you remember why he wanted to nationalize the oil fields in the first place.

                      Anyway, this is a silly game you’re playing: The U.S. did bad things, bad things that (at least in most cases) it felt were necessary because of the evil Soviet menace, I know, but still bad things, and things that looked a lot like a sort of imperialism. There’s nothing wrong with both admitting this last part and saying that you’re not sure how we could have done it differently in the context of the Cold War. I think you’d be wrong, but at least you’d be staking out a position that didn’t look like knee-jerk “America is never wrong” defensiveness. What youv’e done in the service of this knee-jerk defensiveness is establish that you are a rank relativist who thinks that assassination, coups, and all sorts of other ways of undermining democracy and propping up dictators (one person is usually easier to control than an entire population, eh?) so that we could control various regions or at least keep the Soviets from controlling them, often looking the other way (or worse) in the face of the atrocities that our propped up dictators then committed, is not bad, and not open to criticism, because the Soviets were the bogeyman.

                      Boo! Oh shit, we need another Saddam! Boo! Oh shit, let’s give this guy Bin Laden some stingers!

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                    • Wow, Scott, doubling down, are we?

                      You conveniently forget we supported the Shah b/c Mossadegh  nationalized the oil fields. 

                      So every time a country engages in a stupid economic policy that hurts a British firm, the U.S. should overthrow a democratically elected leader and put in its place a lousy dictator whose reign will ultimately result in a revolution that includes people storming the U.S. Embassy and taking American hostage?   I’ll try to remember that.

                      As for the Taliban, your amnesia continues given that the US wouldn’t have been there in the first place if the Soviets hadn’t invaded or did you forget that? 

                      You seem to think that the U.S. had no choice but to get involved in response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. Given how unsuccessful multiple invaders have been at subduing Afghanistan, a wiser decision on our part might have been to sit back and laugh our asses off at their stupidity.

                      It is funny how some folks always want the US to be at fault despite the actions of others.

                      Oh, look, pseudo-patriotism being used in an effort to obscure a lack of good arguments.  Gee, I’ve never seen anyone try that approach before.

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                    • So every time a country engages in a stupid economic policy that hurts a British firm

                      Except for the fact that it led to the government’s overthrow by us, I’m not sure this was a particularly stupid economic policy. The British had basically said, “We’re going to run these oil fields, and we’ll give you a bit,” without actually consulting the Iranians (they made the deal with a coerced Shah in 1908). What’s more, what they told the Iranians they’d give them in return, and what they’d told the Saudis they’d give in return, were two entirely different things (they were basically splitting the revenues with the Saudis). So the Iranians had a choice: continue to let the British screw them over as a result of a deal made half a century earlier with a Shah who had little choice, or take control of the oil fields from the British. There may have been other options for doing the latter, but I’m not sure what they would have been. The British sure as hell weren’t selling, and attempts to renegotiate the deal had been unsuccessful for decades.

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                    • Chris,

                      To be clear, I don’t think taking the oil fields from the Brits was illegitimate, not a reneging on a contract, given that the Brits imposed control on the oil fields during the mandate era.

                      But stupid in the sense that Iran didn’t have any plans for what to do after nationalization.  All the British oil technicians left the country, Britain froze Iranian assets, and, with the help of its allies, imposed an embargo on Iranian oil. They ended up bringing in less oil revenue than under the Brits.

                      Not that Iran was flush with good options, of course, but they weren’t thinking strategically–they weren’t looking beyond step 1.  They would have done much better to line up someone to run their oil fields and condemned them with a decent payment to the Brits.  There would still have been repercussions, but they probably would have been milder.

                      And to the extent Iran had plans to run the oil fields as a government monopoly…stupid.

                      Legitimate, though?  Yes.

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            • OK, I admit it, I can’t resist.

              So Scott, which part of the post are you gleening all of this from? Is it the rose water/rose syrup comparison? Or is it the description of the pastries? At fist I was thinking that maybe anything “rose” related is liberal and anti-American, but it sounds like its hard to get those amazing sounding seseme based pastries in most of the US, so maybe that?

              In either case, I think you totally nailed the point of this post.

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  2. Arabic is coffee flavoured.  It’s nigh-on impossible to meet someone without the ol’ dallah coffee pot being put on for you and the little finjaan cups appear on a little brass tray as if by magic.

    Coffee is made in various ways throughout the Arabic-speaking world and the dallah is a symbol of hospitality, much as we’d think of the Welcome Mat.   There’s a big statue of a dallah in Abu Dhabi.

    If you don’t have a dallah, a thermos bottle will do admirably.

    Cardamom seeds.   They’re easy to find in Indian stores, ask for elaichi.   It’s a little green seed pod.   Grind three parts coffee beans (here your own preferences can take over, Arabs are terribly particular and regional in theirs and everyone hates the Saudi’s tastes in coffee except them)  with one part cardamom seeds.   There’s a special little mortar and pestle used for this but you can do just as well in a standard coffee grinder.  Some folks like to put cloves but this is acquired tastes and I never grind cloves into my coffee.   Sometimes I’ll pitch in a clove into the boil and a splash of rose water into the dallah, depending on who’s drinking it.

    As with tea, boil water, throw it into the thermos, then back into the saucepan.   Don’t put hot coffee into a cold container.   Gently boil one tablespoon of coffee grind for a cup of water for oh, ten or twelve minutes.

    Serve with good dates.  No substitute for dates with coffee.  Don’t bother serving milk and sugar to an Arab, he’s not interested in either.   He wants a nice plump date.   He will drink precisely three little cups of coffee, don’t fill up the finjan, only about half way, it gets cold quickly.

     

     

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    • Or tea.  I was surprised in Syria to find that I was offered tea far more often than coffee.  On the other hand, my Jordanian friend normally offers me coffee, and the Palestinian lady who was once our landlord always offered us coffee.  I’m not sure what’s a personal preference and what is local culture.

      But Arabic coffee is not to be missed.

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    • BlaiseP-

      How does it compare to Turkish coffee?  I thought I hated coffee.  Then I visited Istanbul, had Turkish coffee, and discovered that I love good coffee made well.  Turkish coffee is THICK… they leave the grinds in it and you have to keep stirring it to prevent it from settling.  You’ll end up with a sludge at the bottom that some consider a delicacy, but as a rookie drinker, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it.  I took it with a tiny amount of sugar which, similar to what you said, was somewhat frowned up by the locals, but they understood it standard for the foreigners.  If you asked for it with less sugar, they generally respected you for attempting to remain authentic.  I forget the words now, but there were specific terms to indicate “no sugar”, “little sugar”, and “lots of sugar”, with the third one drawing smirks.  The process was complicated but a joy to watch.

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      • Chris is correct, heh.   Turkish coffee is reduced to fine powder and they put a premium on a thick head of foam.   It’s difficult to make well and is easily burnt.

        My knowledge of Turkey is reduced to a single course on Ottoman Turkish, a strange conflation of Turkish, Arabic and Farsi.   It was the exclusive province of the scribes and lawyers:   it was never a spoken language except within the inner reaches of the early Ottoman courts, rather like Latin in the courts of Europe.   Thereafter it became a strange legal-ese with its own perverse grammar.  Ataturk immediately began to abolish its use.

        We used to be able to take MAC flights from Germany to Incirlik in Turkey.   I could rent a little motor scooter and visit the ruins in Tarsus.   All along the way, people would flag me down and offer me Turkish coffee.   By day’s end, I was completely wired, gesturing helplessly, babbling politely in Arabic and the tattered remains of my 14th century Turkish, trying to avoid yet more of this rocket fuel being poured into my finjan.   It was rather like being a talking dog being fed treats, the object of gentle hilarity.

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  3. Plus, it’s a lovely pink-to-red color if you use rose syrup, which makes it perfect for Valentine’s Day!

    Given the recent Susan G. Komen “Race for the Money” dustup, maybe we could enjoy a much more pro-choice color in our Valentine’s Day drink.

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