My lady friend and I recently joined Duluth Sister Cities International. For the uninitiated, it is part of a national organization aimed at promoting better understanding amongst all people and cultures through person-to-person diplomacy and mutual respect. That's a mouthful. It's also just paraphrasing the Duluth Sister Cities mission statement.

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Here's what they're all about: Duluth has five sister cities: Thunder Bay, Canada; Ohara Isumi-city, Japan; Petrozavodsk, Russia; Växj', Sweden; and Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan. Delegates from each city plan international projects and programs such as delegation exchanges, cultural festivals, sculpture exchanges (which can be seen in Duluth's Lake Place Park), language camp and a student exchange program.

My lady friend and I were recently invited to attend one such program: a dinner hosted by the delegation that returned from a visit to our newest sister city, Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan. In anticipation of the dinner, I decided to do a little research on Rania and Iraqi Kurdistan. Of course, my research usually begins and ends with food.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the only autonomous region of Iraq. It is considered by Kurds to be one of four parts of Kurdistan. The other parts are located in Syria, Turkey and Iran. The cuisine is sweet and spicy with spices being used to complement sweet and savory rather than to induce heat. Honey, cheese, yogurt, dried fruits and nuts figure prominently as well as a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Lamb and chicken are the main meats that are eaten.

I chose to make chicken biryani, partly because it embodies all of the elements of Kurdish cuisine and partly because of the controversy surrounding its origin. Biryani is a very popular dish in the Middle East and in India. It is very similar with only minor variations in preparation and ingredients.

Each area claims to have invented it. Whether it originated in Persia and was brought to India by the Mughals or if it already existed in India and Mughal emperor, Babur brought it back with him, we may never know. What we do know is that it is delicious and very indicative of the wonderful food from Iraqi Kurdistan. The eggplant is not authentic, I wanted to see if I could devise a dish that would complement the chicken and remain simple in its preparation. Hopefully, it will be received in the spirit of Sister Cities International as a blending of cultures and an understanding of differences.

Kurdish Chicken Biryani

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, medium dice

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1¼ teaspoon curry powder

¾ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

½ teaspoon ground cloves

2 bay leaves

1 stick cinnamon

1½ tablespoons garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated

1 whole chicken cut into 8 pieces

½ cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 whole tomatoes, diced

¼ cup sesame oil

1 medium carrot, medium dice

1 medium potato, medium dice

½ cup frozen peas

2 cups rice

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

Pinch saffron threads (you can substitute ¼ teaspoon turmeric and ½ teaspoon paprika)

1/4 cup rosewater (you can substitute chicken broth or water but try to get rosewater, if possible)

2 tablespoons raisins

2 tablespoons golden raisins

½ cup nuts (cashews, almonds, pistachios or a mixture of the three)

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Preheat oven to 350. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan or skillet. Saute the onions in the oil for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and spices and saute, stirring, for 1 minute. Push the onion and spices aside in the pan and add the chicken, skin side down. When skin begins to brown, flip pieces over and add pine nuts. Saute, stirring for 30 seconds and add chicken broth and diced tomatoes. Cover pan and simmer on medium low for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the sesame oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan until a little water sputters when dropped into it. Fry the potato and carrot in the oil until lightly brown and crispy. Remove and drain on a paper towel.

After 30 minutes, remove the chicken, stir the peas, carrots and potatoes into the spice and onion mixture and set it aside.

Soak the saffron in the rosewater.

Rinse the rice under cold water until the water runs clear. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil, add olive oil, salt and rice and boil for 10 minutes. Drain rice and place in the bottom of a large casserole or Dutch oven.

Pour the saffron rosewater evenly over the rice. Top with the onion mixture and arrange the chicken pieces on top. Add the raisins and nuts and top with fresh cilantro. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake for another 5 minutes. Top with more cilantro, if desired, and serve.

Roast Eggplant

1 large eggplant, skinned and cut into large cubes

½ teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup chopped pine nuts

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

Zest of 1 lemon

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425. In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with the kosher salt and olive oil. Spread evenly on a cookie sheet, trying to leave a space between the cubes. Roast for 20 minutes. Remove the pan and gently flip the eggplant cubes. Return to the oven and continue to roast for another 10 minutes. While the eggplant finishes roasting, combine the remaining ingredients. Remove the pan from the oven and gently place the eggplant into a bowl. Carefully toss the eggplant with the remaining ingredients and return to the pan. Continue to roast for another 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and squeeze fresh lemon juice all over them. Serve.