Medieval Arab kitchen hacks 2: The physician’s advice

The physician, philosopher and theologian Ibn Butlan (d. 1066) was one of the leading scholars of his day. Born in Baghdad, he travelled widely across the Muslim world (Aleppo, Cairo, Constantinople) dispensing his immense medical knowledge. He ended up in Antioch (present-day Antakya, in Turkey), where he became a monk (he was a Nestorian Christan), and spent his final days at a monastery. He is best known for his Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (تقويم الصحّة, ‘The Maintenance of Health’), a hygiene and dietetic synopsis in the form of tables, which gained considerable fame and influence in Christian Europe, with Latin (Tacuinum sanitatis) and German translations being printed in 1531 and 1533, respectively. The book contains therapeutic uses of various materia medica and foods, including dishes. His other works include a medical and dietetic manual for ‘monks living in a monastery or far from towns’, extracts from which found their way into several culinary treatises, and Daʿwat al-atibbāʾ (دعوة الأطبّاء, ‘The Physicians’ Dinner Party’), a humorous critique of quacks.

The Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa also contains plenty of cooking and dining advice, some of which was copied in some cookery books. Here are some recommendations for chefs:

Temper saltiness and acridity by boiling in freshwater.

Temper pungency and bitterness with vinegar, sourness with salt, and blandness with spices .

Boil that which is emaciated before cooking it, and coat it with fat before grilling it, and place a pot with freshwater underneath it.

Remove grilled food from the fire while it still retains some moisture.

Do not cover game meat when cooking it.

Do not slaughter an animal on the day it has eaten garlic or onions.

Make sure to remove the scum from meat when cooking it.

Sharpen cleavers to cut the bones to prevent them from shattering, and knives to cut meat so that it does not smell bad.

Scrape the table clean and for peeling onions use a knife that is not used in the cutting of the tharīd.

Use a dedicated ladle and lid for each pot.

Continuously skim off the froth and clean the sides of the pot from anything that can get burnt.

Remedy food that has been burnt by sticking wet paper along the sides of the pot.  

If you need to add water [to the pot], sprinkle it in and rub it along the sides of the pot so as to avoid bad smells.

Do not pound spices or almonds in a malodorous mortar, or put the juices in a rusty receptacle.

Do not ladle things out of the pot before it has stopped boiling and the heat has subsided.

Wash your hands before removing food from the pot.

Do not use vinegar or oil that have been in a copper vessel.

Remove the smell of onions on your hands by fumigating the hands with sandalwood.

Make sure to fry spices and onions, as this is what cooking is all about.

Leave meat high in density overnight to tenderize it, and boil it in water and salt.

Avoid fires with fresh and moist wood because the best fire is that which is free from defects.

If you want to quickly cook meat, throw some borax on it, and add wax, fig twigs, and melon peel to the pot.

When it comes to diners, Ibn Butlan, like many other physicians, prescribed a number of things:

Sweets should be eaten at the end of the meal because they remove the greasy residue of food from the mouth, and because they are very balanced.

Avoid eating vinegar after rice, butter milk with radish, or onions with garlic.

Do not have salty foods or cold water after eating fruits.

One should eat light food, such as vegetables and fruits, before heavy food.

Do not eat and drink at the same time.

Have a light meal in the evening and you will be more active the next day.

Have the table cleared while you still feel like eating, to avoid overindulgnce.

Page containing some of the recommendations for cooks from a presentation copy of the Taqwim al-sihha for the son of Saladin (Salah al-Din), al-Malik al-Zahir (d. 1216), king of Aleppo. [British Library Or1347]

Stuffed aubergines (باذنجان محشي, badhinjan mahshi)

A delightful recipe from The Sultan’s Feast, an earlier version of which can already be found in a 13th-century Syrian cookery book.
It’s a decidedly modern dish and involves scooping out the cores of the aubergine and then stuffing them with meat mince that has been boiled and then seasoned with coriander, caraway, pepper, cassia, coriander and parsley. The aubergines are skewered to keep the stuffing snugly in place and fried, preferably in sheep’s tail fat, until golden. Serve after removing the skewers and sprinkle on dried coriander.

Almond conserve (لوز مربّى, lawz murabba)

This delightful recipe is included in the 11th-century pharmacological encypclopedia compiled by the Baghdadi scholar Ibn Jazla. It requires large fleshy almonds, which are first boiled in dibs (date syrup) before being left to rest for a couple of days. The final stage involves some more boiling in syrup, after which they are stored in a glass jar. The result is essentially candied almonds, which, in addition to being delicious, are also useful against coughs. Though it was primarily intended to be eaten by itself, the conserve also appears in a number of recipes, such as a rhubarb stew (ريباسية, ribasiyya).

Salt from the Wadi…

When the 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi visited Egypt, he noted that firewood was scarce there, and the preserve of the rich. Other people used cow dung as fuel, which he claimed was not as good for cooking, and commonly added natron to the pot to tenderise the meat and other foods, making them cook faster. However, Celebi stated that natron produced harmful effects such as bleary eyes, croaky voices, leprous faces, and hernias in the groin, and bellies that were so extended that it seemed as if the individual was pregnant. He found that most Egyptians suffered from hernias, to the extent that it was considered offensive to address someone as ‘Honoured sir’ (Turkish Behey devletli) as this was a polite way of referring to someone with this condition!

In the medical and pharmacological literature, the terminology is not always consistent as natron (نطرون, natrūn) sometimes also referred to as borax (bawraq) or, more commonly, ‘Armenian borax’ (bawraq Armanī). Technically, borax denotes sodium borate, whereas natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride (salt) and sodium sulfate, the best variety of which was mined in Wadi al-Natrun, west of the Egyptian Delta, and was already used in ancient times in the mummification process, as a drying agent. The fame of Egyptian natron was such was such that it was exported across the Muslim world, and even beyond, to Sicily.

The Swedish naturalist Fredrik Hasselquist, who visited Egypt in the mid-18th century, refers to natrum (sic), as “a salt dug out of a pit or mine, near Mansura in Egypt; it is by the inhabitants called Natrum, being mixt with a Lapis Calcareus (Lime-stone) that ferments with vinegar, of a whitish brown colour. The Egyptians use it, (1.) to put into bread instead of yeast; (2.) To wash linen with it instead of soap. I have been informed, that it is used with success in the tooth-ache, in the manner following: The salt is powdered and put into vinegar, it ferments immediately, and subsides to the bottom. The mouth is washed with this vinegar during the Paroxysm, by which the pain is mitigated, but not taken off entirely.”

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, the French reported on flax being bleached in natron for six, eight or ten days, after which it was boiled in a solution of lime and natron, washed in the Nile, and then exposed to the sun. The Egyptians also added natron to tobacco, to keep it moist.

The 8th-century Persian physician Al-Razi (Rhazes) identified six kinds of borax: bread borax, natron, goldsmith’s b., zarawandī, willow’s b., and tinkār (gold solder). Ibn Sina, for his part, only mentions Armenian borax, which is light, brittle, spongy and rosy (or white in colour), and an African variety.

The use of borax to assist the cooking of meat was actually well established, and can already be found in the work of the 11th-century physician Ibn Butlan, who recommended adding borax, wax, and watermelon veins – or its peel – to the pot. The same advice appears in cookery books, such as The Sultan’s Feast, as well. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), warned about the harmful effects of borax on the stomach (which, according to Ibn Jazla, could be counteracted with gum Arabic), but said it could be useful against dandruff and worms. In the medical literature borax appears in recipes for a wide variety of ailments, ranging from fevers, colic and sciatica, to convulsions.

In ancient Greece, where natron was known as nitron, it was used in cooking quite early, and the botanist Theophrastus (371-287 BCE) already referred to cabbage being boiled in it to improve its flavour. In addition, it may also have been used to preserve the colour, as 14th and 15h-century Egyptian cookery books recommend boiling turnip, beans, cabbage, wild mustard, and chard in it to keep them green. One of the cookery books also uses natron in a few sweets, as well as in a hummus mash. The 15th-century blind physician Da’ud al-Antaki claimed that the best kind of of natron was that which had been ‘roasted’ (mashwī), which already appears as an ingredient in qata’if batter, as an alternative to borax, in a 13th-century Syrian cookbook. Interestingly enough, though natron was an ingredient in Qahiriyya recipes of the 13th and 14th centuries, it is conspicuous by its absence in a 15th- century one.

Medieval Arabic cookery books also mention borax for a variety of uses, as a bread glaze (after dissolving it in water), a leavening agent in dough, in handwashing powders, and even – though very rarely — as a food ingredient (e.g. in a sour-milk stew).

Illustration in the Description d’Egypte of the Monastery of Saint Macarius (مقار الكبير) in Wadi al-Natrun.

Medieval Egyptian Saffron chicken

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast isn’t given a name, but that’s a minor quibble in light of the sheer deliciousness of the end result! The chicken is roasted after being rubbed with walnut (or almond) oil, salt, and saffron. To ensure maximum succulence, the chicken is basted with a sesame oil, salt and saffron sauce. The author tells us that the best kind of chicken to use is one that has been tired out, fattened up and then fed vinegar and rose water before slaughter. However, no need for dramatics — simply marinate the chicken overnight in vinegar and rose water.

Broad bean dish (فولية, fūliyya)

Named after its main ingredient (فول, fūl, ‘broad beans’), this is one of the shortest recipes from The Sultan’s Feast, and one is left pretty much to one’s own devices. The instructions simply state that it should contain fresh thyme (‘as this reduces the broth’) and that, when the beans have finished cooking, one should crack a few eggs in. According to the author, ‘the rest is well known.’ It tastes absolutely great and can be served as a main or (cold) side.

Spotlight: A crunchy locust anyone?

The use of this insect (Schistocerca gregaria) as food goes back a long time, even if it was not always viewed favourably. The oldest references to eating locusts come from ancient Mesoptamia, where a key component of the diet was a garum-like brine in which either locusts or fish were fermented. This sauce was known as shiqqu and used as a condiment, usually paired with vinegar, and without them no meal was considered complete. Locust shiqqu also had medicinal purposes, for instance to alleviate heartburn, and would even be drunk mixed with pomegranate juice.

In the Bible (Book of Leviticus), locusts and other members of the same family (Acrididae) like crickets and grasshoppers are mentioned as food permitted by God, whereas John the Baptist is said to have survived on locusts and wild honey in the desert.

In ancient Greece, the eating of locusts was seen as barbaric, and the Greek geographer Strabo (d. 24 CE), for instance, used Akridophagoi , ‘locust-eaters’ (akris, ‘locust’), as a derogatory term for a tribe of northeastern Africa.

According to a famous hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad), locusts (جراد, jarād) are said to be a lawful food for Muslims, and the insects make a few appearances in medieval Arab cuisine. At the same time, any references probably included grasshoppers, as the Arabic word denotes both insect varieties but not, however, crickets which are known as sursur (صرصر) or judjud (جدجد).

In the oldest Abbasid cookery book (10th century), locusts appear pickled in brine, just like in ancient Mesopotamia, in a recipe for a condiment known as sihnāt (صحناة), which was usually made with small fish. The only other time locusts are used in a recipe is in a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise, where the insects are boiled and fried, and served with murrī, cinnamon, and pepper.

The absence of locusts from other cookery books can be explained by the fact that they generally reflect a cuisine of the elite, which was devoid of insects of any kind. It is, however, likely that depending on the region and food access, locusts were not an unusual part of the diet in the countryside, particularly during infestations. According to the 12th-century geographer al-Idrīsī, the people of Marrakech were quite partial to the insects, which were sold at market in large quantities.

Locusts (/grasshoppers) were also used in medieval Islamic medicine; Ibn Sīnā, for instance, recommended them in the treatment of urinary incontinence and fevers, and claimed that their legs were useful in the removal of warts. The Nestorian physician Ibn Bakhtishu’ (d. 1058), for his part, suggested a poultice of cooked locusts to treat poisonous bites.

locusts in an early 13th-century manuscript (Bibliothèque nationale de France) of a book written by Ibn Bakhtishu’

Chard dip

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is as easy and simple to make as it is tasty, which may explain why it is also found in a 13th-century cookery books from Syria. What could be more straightforward than fresh chard, strained yoghurt and garlic? The result is a kind of proto-tzatziki which is beyond delicious as a snack or starter with some freshly made crusty bread, cold cuts, etc. And why not combine it with salmon on a bagel — even us purists need to take a break every now and again!

Aleppine Lemon Chicken

This 13th-century dish from Aleppo was originally made with sour oranges or citron, which are used to make a syrupy sauce. The chicken is fried separately and then added to the sauce. The chicken is garnished with lemon cuts or slices when serving. As the author says, ‘it’s an unusual dish’ (فإنه نوع غريب)!