“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” the famous 18th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once declared.
It’s a quote that might well have inspired the new book “Dictators’ Dinners: A Bad Taste Guide to Entertaining Tyrants,” co-authored by Victoria Clark and Melissa Scott and available Dec. 31.
“I was surprised that most of them didn’t have huge banquets,” Scott tells Metro.
While a few of these powerful men liked lavish food, most favored very simple national dishes over fancy dining. She adds: “They were actually quite preoccupied with their digestion and weight, when at first I imagined them to be sitting back and enjoying the most extraordinary food they could.”
Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il were really into their food. “Nothing remotely imperfect should ever pass his lips,” said Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, who worked for the Korean leader.
In contrast, the fascist Benito Mussolini, whom you’d expect to be a foodie coming from Italy, had quite singular habits: “He just liked to chew on garlic,” quips Scott.
Il Duce’s favorite dish was a simple salad of roughly chopped raw garlic, dressed with oil and lemon which he maintained was good for his heart – but not really to his wife’s taste. “He used to eat a whole bowl of it,” his wife Rachele is said to have confided to the family cook. “I couldn’t go anywhere near him after that. At night I’d leave him to sleep alone in our room and take refuge in one of the children’s rooms!”
Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ preferred meal was sardines with malunggay leaves, a simple dish supposed to enhance his libido. “They all had preoccupations on how the food would affect them,” explains Scott. “Mao, for example, always struggled with constipation.”
Another surprise came from Adolf Hitler, one of the most notorious vegetarians, but who actually really liked squabs (young pigeon). “He became a vegetarian later in his life, apparently because he was obsessed with his chronic flatulence and constipation and decided that moving away from meat would help,” says the author.
At some point, the Nazi leader was taking up to 28 different drugs to try and solve his bowel issues. “Substances such as essence of Bulgarian peasants’ faeces” were injected into him by his personal physician, reads the chapter dedicated to the dictator.
The writer recounts how her father, who lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, was surprised to learn that “Saddam was worried about his weight and terrified of being poisoned, so much so that he had his food X-rayed.”
Another common point among them is that as they became more withdrawn from their people, they became more obsessed with what they ate.
In some cases, eating habits are also part of a political manifesto. “We have three supposed cannibals in the book – Idi Amin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa and Francisco Macías Nguema – but we couldn’t really find actual real evidence of these allegations,” says the author, who assumes that this myth exaggerated their “strongman” image.
One person whose invitation to dinner Scott would readily accept is with Mobutu, who “used to have these opulent meals; his daughter’s wedding, for example, was incredibly lavish, with lobster and caviar being served. He also really liked Laurent Perrier champagne and good cognacs. Of all the recipes we feature in the book, his ‘Moules marinières’ are probably the most edible.”
Recipe: Mao’s Hong Shao Rou
1 lb pork belly
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 oz granulated sugar
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine or sherry
3⁄4 inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced but with the skin left on
1 star anise
2 dried red chillies
1 small cinnamon stick, or piece of cassia bark
Light soy sauce
1 bunch of spring onions
In just enough water to cover, cook the pork belly in simmering water for three to four minutes until partially cooked. Remove and when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized cubes.
In a hot wok or skillet heat the peanut oil and sugar over a low heat until the sugar has melted. Raise the heat and stir until the sugar caramelises. Plunge the pork belly into a pan of boiling water and simmer for three to four minutes, until partially cooked. Remove, and when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size chunks.
Add the pork and toss in the caramelised sugar. Transfer to a large pan and add the wine and enough water to cover the pork belly. Add the star anise, cinnamon, chillies and ginger. Bring to a gentle boil before turning down the heat and simmering for about one hour.
As soon as the pork is cooked remove from the heat. Turn the heat back up and reduce the sauce. Season with soy sauce, salt and a little sugar, to taste. Return the pork belly to the pot.
Just before serving, sprinkle the chopped spring onions on top. Serve with steamed rice.
Recipe: Mobutu’s moules marinières
4 1/2 lb fresh mussels in their shells, beards removed
2 medium onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Handful parsley stalks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 pint dry white wine
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
4 tbsp of single cream
Clean the mussels. Tap any that are slightly open and, if they fail to close, discard them together with any whose shells are cracked. Rinse again under running water.
Heat a pan large enough to easily hold all the mussels. Add onion and garlic and fry in a little butter until softened.
Add the mussels and wine and bring to the boil. Cover tightly with a lid and then reduce the heat to a simmer for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft.
Remove the lid, bring back to the boil and add the mussels. Replace the lid and cook over a high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time, until all the mussels are open. Add the chopped parsley and cream.