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China Miéville's "The City & The City" & Layered Persian Rice

China Miéville's "The City & The City" & Layered Persian Rice

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"I could not see the street or much of the estate." The first line of China Miéville's The City & The City seems straightforward. Yet what begins as a standard detective novel unravels into a story about unconventional borders, and the true meaning of that first line becomes clear. 

Miéville's novel takes place in two fictional cities — Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are separated by a wall. But it's a behavioral wall, a psychological border. Citizens of one city are expected to ignore, or "unsee," the residents of another despite the fact that the two cities often geographically overlap. To breach this border and acknowledge, or even worse, interact with, someone in another city would result in the perpetrator being whisked away by a shadow organization aptly called Breach.

And then there's Orciny, the fabled city between the cities where people are not identifiable as Besź or Ul Qoman, and are therefore unseen by all. 

It's in this setting that Inspector Borlú must solve a murder. When he entertains the possibility that the victim was killed in one city and illegally moved to another, he follows the trail and encounters political dissidents, government bureaucrats, students at a mysterious archeological dig and eventually Breach itself. The novel deals with the themes of ethnic pride, blind nationalism and forgotten histories. It questions the walls, geographical or ideological, that separate us. At its core the novel is solid detective fiction and keeps the reader guessing until the end. Thematically it never felt preachy, allowing the reader to make real social and political comparisons. 

What follows is a recipe inspired by the cuisines in each city as described by Miéville. Ul Qoman dishes tend to be rich and sweet while Besź food leans to the savory side. This Persian Layered Rice features a sweet carrot saffron rice and a savory cumin onion rice. The third layer is a reflection of the mysterious city of Orciny - a purple beet-infused rice with honey and garlic. 

The layers in this dish lay stacked upon each other, illicitly touching. When spooned and served the layers mingle, the borders break down. It can't be helped. It's a culinary breach. In The City & The City, the act of eating such a meal might very well be considered subversive.


PERSIAN LAYERED RICE

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 6 cups of cooked basmati rice
  • chopped pistachios for garnishing

For the Besźel Green Rice

  • 1 tsp vegetable oil 
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 cardamom pods, cracked open
  • 1/2 cup green onions, sliced
  • 1/2 cup peas
  • salt to taste

For the Ul Qoma Yellow Rice

  • 1 tsp vegetable oil 
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  • 2 tbsp warm water or milk
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 cup cashews, chopped
  • 3/4 cup carrots, shredded 
  • 1/4 cup raisins, soaked
  • salt to taste

For the Orciny Purple Rice

  • 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup canned beets, chopped + 3 tbsp liquid from can
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp dried dill 
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • salt to taste

Instructions

Separate the rice evenly into 3 separate mixing bowls. Set aside.

To prepare the green rice, heat the oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, garlic and cardamom pods. The cumin will sizzle and begin to give off an aroma after about 10 seconds. Add the green onions, peas and salt and let the onions soften, stirring frequently, for about 4 minutes. Add the mixture to the first bowl of rice and combine. 

For the yellow rice, begin by soaking the saffron in 2 tbsp of warm water or milk for about 10 minutes. Heat the oil in a small pot over medium heat and add the cashews. After about 1 minute, add the saffron liquid, turmeric, shredded carrot, raisins and salt. Stir until carrots are softened, about 3 minutes. Add this mixture to the second bowl of rice and combine.

For the purple rice, begin again by heating the oil in a small pot. Add the garlic and stir for about a minute. Add the beets, beet liquid, vinegar, honey, dill, pepper and salt. Stir until the mixture is well combined and the beets are heated through. Stir into the third bowl of rice. 

To assemble, layer the rice in a large bowl and invert it onto a serving dish. A spring form pan also works well. Press down firmly on the rice to make sure it's packed tight before inverting or removing the sides. Top with chopped pistachios before serving. This dish is great served at parties or underground anti-Breach meetings. 

Adapted from Foodie On Board & Vegetable Heaven


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