Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs

10 Nov

I look at a map of Greece and am reminded that we are not that far removed from our war-torn neighbors, from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan.  The Internet affirms this, telling me that the distance between Athens and Kabul is about the same as that between Los Angeles and New York, approximately 2500 miles.  I look through my collection of Greek and Middle Eastern cookbooks, and realize that our culinary traditions are also not that far removed from each other.  We all seem to love lamb kabobs with squirts of lemon, and baklavas with walnuts or pistachios , and dolmas with rice and mint, and many of us call our appetizers “Mezze,” although some of us serve hummus, tabouleh, falafel and pita bread on our appetizer plates, while others of us serve cucumber-yogurt Tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves, zucchini fritters and olives.

I think about these things as I read Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories by Anna Badhken, a war reporter who has lived through and written about the Middle East’s most brutal conflicts.  In Peace Meals, Anna writes that one of the most important lessons she has learned from her work is that there is always more to war than the macabre, more to war than “the white-orange muzzle flashes during a midnight ambush; the men high on adrenaline scanning the desert through the scopes of their machine guns as their forefingers caress the triggers; the scythes of razor-sharp shrapnel whirling through the air like lawn-mower blades spun loose; the tortured and the dead.  There are also the myriad brazen, congenial, persistent ways in which life in the most forlorn and violent places on earth shamelessly reasserts itself.  Of those, sharing a meal is one of the most elemental.”

Anna reminisces about these meals, and what they taught her about the people and the conflicts she was trying to understand.  At first I was skeptical, fearing that this would turn out to be a “foodie” book that in the end just trivialized war.  But Anna always talks about the war first, her focus is always first on the suffering. This has led some critics to say that the connection between war and food in the book is too weak and the recipes just an afterthought.  But for me, when Anna does turn her attention to the shared meals, I feel as I imagine she must have felt, as if these were a much-needed source of physical and emotional sustenance, normalcy, and companionship snatched quickly and often as as an afterthought in a relentlessly cruel and deadly world.

Many of the recipes that appear at the end of each chapter I found comfortingly familiar.  I found one, though, that is both familiar and enticingly strange, for Mantwo, Afghan dumplings served with split pea, yogurt and meat sauces.  I’m going to try to make it this weekend, and think of Anna’s bravery in bringing us stories of war and survival in the lands of our neighbors.

From the wonderful blog, Mission: Food, by Victoria. You can visit it at

From Peace Meals: A recipe for Mantwo that serves “8 very hungry people”

For the dough:

  • 8 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons salt

For the split pea sauce:

  • 1 cup dried yellow split peas
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 cups water or broth

For the yogurt sauce:

  • 1-1/2 cups plain yogurt
  • 4 teaspoons chopped fresh mint
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, crushed

For the mantwo stuffing and meat sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 pounds ground beef (or 1 pound ground beef and 1 pound ground lamb)
  • 4 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and grated
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1. Make the dough: Pour the flour into a large bowl and stir in the salt.  Slowly add 3 to 4 cups warm water to the center of the flour; add enough water to make the dough not stick to your fingers but also be pliant.  Knead for 5 minutes, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2. Make the split pea sauce.  Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the peas mash easily.

3. While the peas are cooking, make the yogurt sauce. Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate.

4. Make the stuffing.  Heat the oil in a large skillet. Cook the meat and onions over low heat until all the meat is browned, stirring so that the meat doesn’t clump together. Drain the fat. Stir in 1 cup water, the carrots, salt, cumin, black pepper, coriander, cilantro and parsely and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until all the water evaporates.

5. Remove the dough from the fidge. Cut in half, then halve each piece until you have 52 pieces.  Roll out each piece into thin rounds about 2-1/2 to 3 inches in diameter.  Lay them out on a lightly floured surface).  Mound 2 large spoonfuls of the meat mixture in the center of a dough circle.  Dip a finger in water nad trace it around the edge.  Lay a second piece of dough on top and press around the edge to seal.  Roll up the edge.  Repeat until all the dough is gone.  You should have some meat mixture left over.  Steam the mantwo for 40 minutes.

8. Make the meat sauce.  Combine the remaining meat mixture, 2 tablespoons water, tomato paste, and cayenne pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the water has evaporated.

9. To serve, spread the yogurt sauce on a large serving plate. Put the mantwo on top. Pour the split pea sauce over the mantwo. Top with the meat sauce. Serve hot.


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