Just because President Bush says the country is bad doesn't stop the food tasting fabulous. Clifford Coonan enjoys some surprising gastronomic delights

We are what we eat, and understanding people's eating habits helps us evaluate international relations. So get to know your Iraqi kibbe or your North Korean spicy cucumber before you deploy your troops.

This is the message of a new book, Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations – a political commentary wrapped in a cookbook, or vice-versa. Think Nigella Lawson in a burkha, or Jamie Oliver in a flak jacket.

Chris Fair is a leading political analyst on south Asia, a former field officer with the UN and an obsessive cook. The book was inspired by dinner parties she held after US President George Bush labelled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil" in January 2002. It reveals much about the population of the three axis states plus seven others, including India, Israel and the US, through what people eat. "I'm obsessed with food," she says. "Everywhere we'd go I'd be looking out for food, driving my husband nuts. I cook to manage stress. I like the logic and timing of it."

The State of the Union speech in which Mr Bush identified the axis was one of the defining moments of international relations so far this century. The apparently random grouping – two bitter enemies living side-by-side in a potentially explosive region and one isolated, impoverished but militarily bristling country – as a philosophical basis for expanding America's "war on terror" puzzled many commentators. Ms Fair found the formulation particularly unsavoury.

The idea for the book began to germinate in this self-described "wonkette" after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Once her two brothers, both members of the Indiana National Guard, were called up in autumn 2002, it took on a more serious tone.

She sprinkles her analysis with elements of humorist P J O'Rourke's vicious irony and food guru Elizabeth David's sense of flavour. But this is not a frivolous book, and makes a valuable point about the insights food can give us into what nation states consider important.

Food and politics have long been connected. To break bread together is a symbol of reconciliation, and the best way to poison a political opponent was always at a banquet. By reading about Pashtun cardamom tea and Israeli carrot salad we can learn a surprising amount about the political situation on the ground.

Ms Fair's experiences have taught her to defy culinary clichés. She insists that Middle Eastern cuisine is more diverse than most people think. Iranian food, say, is not like Arab food, because it uses a lot of fruits and grilled meats and stews that involve fresh or dried fruit.

After years travelling, working and eating in the Middle East and south and south-east Asia, Ms Fair – who has been to all the countries in her book except Cuba and North Korea, which are barred to US citizens – began to hold axis of evil dinner parties.

"When Bush gave his axis of evil speech, I though it was absurd, but also, quite frankly, twisted," she says in her broad Midwestern accent, playing down the seriousness of her point. She is obviously still angry at what the Bush administration was doing to her family.

Geopolitics and food go together like samak masquf (Iraq's national dish) and fresh tomatoes. This can mean food security or competition over who has cultural ownership of a dish. Food is often a metaphor for international relations, and it is impossible to really know anything about your allies or enemies unless you understand something about how they eat.

In the 1990s, the people of North Korea were starving after crops were hit by flooding, but the only adjustment made by the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, was to switch from brandy to bordeaux wine for health reasons. Meanwhile, a potentially rich country such as Cuba has problems with food supply because of a combination of the way the island is run and an American trade embargo.

"In North Korea and Cuba, what is most apparent is rampant food insecurity. Kim Jong-il imports pizza chefs while his people are foraging for bark and food donated by South Korea and China when the mood takes it," says Ms Fair. "Cuba is a country where the Castro revolution has food security issues even though it's surrounded by a sea full of fish," she says.

Food is nationally specific. At her dinner parties, she served a Korean cold beef soup with buckwheat noodles; her guests queued at the microwave to heat it.

What a country declares to be its national food tells us how it wants to be perceived, she says. Food often divides us, rather than unites us and political realities are linked to cuisine. "Take falafel. Israel has falafel as its national food. The Jewish appropriation of falafel as a national dish is viewed by many in the Arab world as similar to Israel's appropriation of the Palestinian territories. It implies the Jews have been eating falafel for thousands of years, which is true but only in a narrow sense. The Arabs say: 'Of all things you have to take, you take falafel'."

In China, food has become a safety issue, she says. "The Chinese don't care who they poison. The incidence of food-borne poisoning is unacceptable. They export so much and we only test a fraction. China doesn't care that it exports poison," she says.

She marvels at the French capacity for obsessing about food definitions and how they will go to extreme lengths to defend these definitions – don't call your sparkling wine champagne, and if the dough is frozen, it's not a baguette.

Although she has happily munched food in some of the more inhospitable places on earth, she draws the line at some foods. "I haven't been to North Korea, but I've been Vietnam and China, places where they eat a lot of critters. I'm a dog lover so I couldn't eat dog. I'm not a fan of lamb testicles, which are popular in the Muslim world. Though in the States we have Prairie Oysters, which are bull's testicles. I regret not eating rat in Burma. In point of fact, rat is probably no different from chicken," she says.

Of American dishes, she particularly likes beer-can chicken, and including American food in the book fits with her attempt to understand the long-term effects of the Bush administration on the role of the US in the world.

At home, she cooks a lot of Cuban pork and her husband's favourite is kabob qabergha (mildly spiced lamb ribs). But her personal choice is to cook Iranian fesenjan chicken, a pomegranate stew with walnuts. "Pomegranate is kind of new to the people in the Midwest. Usually it looks like a cat with a stomach ailment, and I'd say one in two friends and family share my enthusiasm. It's a finicky dish," she says.

Food for thought Recipes that could shape the world

Burma: Phazun Hin Asa (Spicy Shrimp Curry)

Ingredients
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled with tail on
1-4 teaspoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1-inch piece of ginger, finely chopped or grated
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
1-4 serrano chillis or slender Asian chillis, with seeds and veins carefully removed. (Use 1 chilli if you or your guests are pepperphobic, or up to 4 if you want some spice.)
4 Roma tomatoes, finely sliced.
2 cups water (or more as needed)

Garnish
Sprigs of cilantro
Fried onions

Peel and clean the shrimp. In a bowl, toss the shrimp with the fish sauce and salt and let sit for 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a pot. Add turmeric and paprika and fry for 30 seconds. Add the ginger, garlic, onions and chillis and fry until the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes).

Add the tomato slices and cook for another 5 minutes or so.

Add 2 cups water to the spice mixture and mix well to incorporate into a broth. (If it is too thick, add another cup water). Bring to a boil.

Add the shrimp and cook while stirring. The shrimp will curl up and turn pink within about 5 minutes. Continue cooking, allowing the broth to reduce to a gravy. Adjust salt and fish sauce to taste if needed.

Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with sprigs of cilantro and fried onions. Serve with jasmine rice.

Iraq: Samak Masquf

Ingredients

2 whole carp, prepared for baking
1 large onion, diced
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon ground dried limes
1 teaspoon turmeric
olive oil

Place the fish in a foil-lined baking dish. Mix together the other ingredients and spread them over the fish to cover it well. Drizzle with a little oil and bake in a moderate oven for about half an hour

Iran: Fesenjan chicken

Ingredients
2 chickens cut in half
1 medium-sized onion
1/2 cup walnuts, or more according to taste
1/2 cup pomegranate glaze/syrup (from Middle Eastern grocery stores), or twice the quantity if using fresh pomegranates
¾ teaspoon saffron threads
2 teaspoons rock salt

Garnish
cup fresh pomegranate seeds
olive oil or ghee

Puree the onions and walnuts into thick paste. Add pomegranate syrup. Coat chicken and marinate overnight.

Grind some of the rock salt with the saffron in mortar and pestle. Fry chicken pieces with saffron and marinade on both sides. Season to taste. Cover cooking pot and simmer on low heat for about 40 minutes. Remove lid while sauce reduces.

Serve with saffron rice

From: 'Cuisines of the Axis of Evil'. Globe Pequot Press/The Lyons Press, 2008

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