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5 Aug 2020 1:32
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  •   Home > News > International

    Cooking for dictators — chilling stories from the chefs of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein

    A journalist spent years tracking down people who cooked for dictators — from Saddam Hussein to Pol Pot and Fidel Castro. Many were too scared to spill the beans on their former employers, but those who dared told chilling stories.

    Saddam Hussein loved nothing more than a steaming bowl of Thieves' Fish Soup while Idi Amin liked to tuck into lashings of chocolate pudding.

    Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot preferred papaya salad prepped Thai-style with peanuts and fish sauce, while Fidel Castro's passion for dairy products verged on addiction.

    It might seem mundane, or inappropriate, to wonder what these men had for lunch.

    But Witold Szablowski, an author and award-winning Polish journalist, says food played a vital role in dictators' personal lives as well as in their political propaganda.

    Inspired by Cooking History, a documentary about the relationship between Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito and his chef, Szablowski spent years tracking down their former chefs.

    His journey took him "from a godforsaken village in the Kenyan savanna to the ruins of ancient Babylon to the Cambodian jungle where the last of the Khmer Rouge were in hiding".

    The nine-feet-high birthday cake

    Not everyone was willing to spill the beans on their former employers.

    "Some of them had never recovered from the trauma of working for someone who could have had them killed at any moment," Szablowski tells ABC RN's Late Night Live.

    "The hardest to find and the hardest to talk to was [Abu Ali], the chef of Saddam Hussein. He had been hiding since the American invasion of Iraq, which means that when I started looking for him he had already been hiding for 14 or 15 years.

    "He didn't want me to find him. He didn't make things easy."

    It took Szablowski three years to dig Abu Ali out of hiding via a fixer in Iraq and then a further year of secret face-to-face meetings in a hotel on the outskirts of Baghdad before the chef felt he could open up about what he had witnessed from the palace kitchens.

    Like most of the other cooks Szablowski interviewed, Abu Ali had never knowingly applied for the post of 'dictator's chef'.

    Born in Hillah, not far from the ruins of ancient Babylon, he honed his cooking skills working in his uncle's restaurant in Baghdad.

    He went on to work as an army cook and then became a chef at the Ministry of Tourism where he cooked for government ministers, presidents and heads of state.

    The secret service began grooming Abu Ali to become Saddam's personal chef after he caught the president's eye by baking him an elaborate nine-feet-high birthday cake recreating ancient Mesopotamia out of carved fruit and marzipan.

    Tabasco on the Tigris

    One of the most chilling tales Abu Ali finally served up was an account of how Saddam had invited a select band of staff and friends on a 'pleasure' cruise down the river Tigris one day.

    Abu Ali says he was sent into the galley to chop beef, lamb, tomato, onion and parsley, to prep traditional koftas.

    The idea was that he would then be given the day off as Saddam made a great show of laying his carefully prepared skewers on the barbecue and telling the assembled party he was going to cook for them.

    Abu Ali sat quietly to one side, safe in the knowledge that no-one could possibly ruin koftas.

    Abu Ali told Szablowski: "Then the food was served. And all the people who were on the boat, they immediately had a horrible pain in their throats, they felt like their throats were burning ... And because Saddam was crazy, he was really killing people for nothing, they all thought Saddam had poisoned them."

    It turned out the Iraqi dictator had emptied a bottle of Tabasco sauce, a gift from a visiting dignitary, into Abu Ali's kofta mix as a joke.

    "When the chef was recalling this story and telling it to me, he had tears in his eyes just when he remembered the moment because he really thought he was dying," Szablowski says.

    "He told me he was thinking about his family, about his wife, about his children, about the good life he had before."

    Two very different culinary destinies

    Erasmo and Flores, two of the personal chefs who catered for Fidel Castro's culinary whims, ended up on very different career paths.

    Flores was not just a cook but also a food taster, working on the front line to prevent El Comandante from being poisoned.

    "There were so many plots against Castro, so many attempts on his life," Szabloswki says.

    "The CIA alone tried to kill him over 200 times."

    When Szablowski finally tracked down Flores in Cuba, he found "a wreck of a man", living in a ramshackle house swarming with cockroaches.

    Working for Castro for more than three decades had left the former chef's brain addled as he struggled with some form of PTSD.

    Erasmo, on the other hand, thrived in Castro's service, going on to become a prosperous restaurateur.

    Whereas Szablowski had to spend months coaxing other former chefs to tell their stories, Erasmo was not at all reticent about revealing his past.

    He spends most nights of the week behind the stoves at Mama Ines, his popular palader (private restaurant) in Old Havana where the walls are hung with photos of the late Cuban leader, some with celebrities such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, others with Erasmo himself.

    "Erasmo's not afraid to say he cooked for Fidel," Szablowski says. "It's become part of his brand."

    From campfire cooking to the presidential kitchen

    At the age of 16, Erasmo ran away from his hometown of Santa Clara to join the Cuban revolution, progressing up the ranks to become Che Guevara's personal bodyguard. He learned to cook ajiaco (a slow-cooked Cuban soup) with Che's guerilla unit in the Sierra Maestra.

    Erasmo went on to work as part of Castro's security detail, but after demonstrating his skills whipping up food for soldiers on a campfire, he was sent to professional culinary school and promoted to working in the presidential kitchens full-time for the next 30-odd years.

    In his initial conversations with Szablowski, Erasmo persistently towed the party line, insisting that "Fidel always ate the same things as the average Cuban".

    This was hard to believe given the stark privations of Cuba's Periodo Especial, an extended period of economic crisis sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    "The cash flow from Moscow ceased almost overnight and it soon became apparent that the island couldn't manage without it," Szablowsi says.

    "The average Cuban stood in line for hours to buy a rotten tomato. No-one was allowed to catch a single fish without state permission."

    While his compatriots survived by drinking sugar water or eating stray cats and dogs, there is evidence that El Comandante continued to breakfast on quails' eggs and enjoyed lavish dinners of lechon asado (suckling pig).

    Castro's curious obsession with dairy

    Castro's culinary whims did not end there.

    In his essay A Personal Portrait of Fidel, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez, a long-time friend and supporter of Castro, noted how "one Sunday, letting himself go, [Castro] finished off a good-sized lunch with 18 scoops of ice cream".

    This passion for dairy almost led to the Cuban leader's demise.

    In the 1960s, having ascertained Castro's habit of drinking a daily milkshake at the Havana Libre Hotel, the CIA plotted to slip a pill containing botulinum toxin into Castro's chocolate shake.

    The assassination attempt failed when the pill got stuck to the wall of the hotel freezer.

    Castro's obsession with dairy went way beyond his personal diet. After seizing power in Cuba in 1959, he made boosting the island's milk and cattle industries one of his top priorities.

    One of the more bizarre ideas he came up with was using artificial insemination to create a "super-cow", by cross-breeding Cuba's native Cebu cattle with Holstein cows renowned for their milk production.

    The result of Castro's genetic experimentation was 'Ubre Blanca' (White Udder), a cow who catapulted into the Guinness Book of Records in 1982 when she produced 110 litres of milk in a single day — about four times as much as a typical cow yields.

    Cuba's miracle cow

    "Castro fell in love with that cow," Szablowski says.

    "There were months when Fidel spent more time with 'Ubre Blanca' than actually ruling the country. She was that important for him and for the Cuban Revolution that she had her own food tasters.

    "Of course, they were other cows eating the food before it was served to her."

    Ubre Blanca ate better than a lot of Cubans, in fact, living on a fresh fruit diet of oranges and grapefruit whilst classical music played in her state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stable in Nueva Gerona.

    Ubre Blanca's exceptional bovine life came to an end in 1985 when her milk-producing ability dried up.

    "For a few weeks, scientists experimented with her to get her back to her old self, but it didn't work," Szablowski says

    "[Castro] was very upset about it, but then he decided that the cow must be killed. The cow was not useful for the revolution any more."

    Castro was reportedly so distraught that he commissioned a life-sized marble statue of the cow to be erected in her hometown.

    Her passing was commemorated with a full-page obituary in the official Communist newspaper Granma (the same accolade as Che Guevera on his death.)

    Taxidermists stuffed Ubre Blanca and put her body on display at the entrance to the National Cattle Health Centre, near Havana, where she still stands today, a fitting tribute to a dictator's lifelong obsession with food as political propaganda.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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