"I have never enjoyed anything as much as three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh and rubbing flesh against flesh," wrote Ibn Zuqqa, around the year 816. Eating flesh (and other goodies) is the subject of this rich little book about images of food in classical Arabic literature. The result is as dense and delicious as one of the rice puddings stuffed with dates which appear so often in its pages.

Scholar Geert Jan Van Gelder ably guides the reader through careful analysis of poetry and other classical Arabic texts on food. Among the topics covered are the relation of food to sex, ethical life and food in the afterlife. In Islam, good food is one of God's greatest blessings. Abstaining from food, as during Ramadan, is a way of deepening one's enjoyment of food, rather than an ascetic effort to banish hunger and the need for food.

Though sometimes a little too academic, the book is packed with tasty details, like Islamic theologian al_Ghazali's description of a culinary heaven: "You will look at the fowl in Paradise; as soon as you desire it, it falls down, roasted, in front of you." What gourmand could resist?

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