A delicious 10th-century Iraqi dish of carrots and milk, cooked with spikenard, cloves, cassia, ginger, and nutmeg. For those who want to take things up a notch, there is a similar dish, which adds dates (تَمْر, tamr) and ground walnuts. When the mixture has thickened, it is removed from the fire and left to settle. If you think that the resulting dish looks somehow familiar, you’d be right. Except for the absence of cardamom, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the classic Indian desert known as gajar (ka) halwa. Though appearing in an Arabic treatise, the dish was probably born in Persian. Either way, this may well be the oldest recorded recipe of gajar halwa.
The dish was known as al-Jamalī (الجَمَلِي) and is found only in 13th-century Andalusian and North African treatises. The recipe recreated here is taken from a Tunisian manual, and requires fish to be left overnight covered in salt. On the day of cooking, it is washed and dried, before layering into a tajine (shallow earthenware stewing pan). The other ingredients include vinegar, murrī, pepper, saffron, ginger, cumin, mastic, celery seeds, citron leaves, laurel leaves, fennel, thyme, garlic and a lot of olive oil. Place in the oven until the liquid has dried and the top has turned golden brown. It goes wonderfully well with couscous or with some fresh flatbread!
Also known as (grey) ambergris (Ambra grisea), it is a substance secreted from the sperm whale’s gall bladder. The grey variety (which with age turns black) should be distinguished from yellow amber, which is fossilized tree resin. Both have been used in perfumes and medicines, but only yellow amber was (and still is) prized as a gemstone. The ancient Greeks knew it as elektron, which gave the word ‘electricity’, initially meaning static electricity because of its capacity to attract other materials after friction. One of the earliest references to the importation of ambergris can be found in the 9th-century travel book Akhbār al-Sīn wa ‘l-Hind (أخبار الصين والهند, ‘News from China and India ’) where people of an island called Lanjabālūs in the Sea of Harkand (Bay of Bengal) traded ambergris for iron with Arab merchants. Ambergris was used as an ingredient in medicines, incense tablets, and perfumes. In cooking, it appears as a fumigant to scent a bowl or as a flavouring in dishes. Ibn al-Bayṭār, who called ambergris ‘the king of scents’, recommended it (by mouth, in a cream, or as a fumigant) as a remedy for flatulence, migraines, and to strengthen the joints and stomach. He added that ambergris immediately increases the intoxicating effect of wine.
A 13th-century Egyptian recipe for a sweet rose drink, made by boiling sugar syrup with rose petals, preferably fresh, but you can also use dried petals and soak them in water overnight. The result is a brightly coloured delicacy that is a perfect accompaniment for a special day!
The Arabic word maṣṭakā (or maṣṭikā) is a borrowing from the Greek mastíkē. Possibly the world’s oldest chewing gum, it is the aromatic dried resin of the pistachio tree (Pistacia lentiscus), and came in a number of varieties: yellow/white (ʿilk al-Rūm, ‘Greek gum’) and black (terebinth, mostly Egyptian or Iraqi in origin). In classical Antiquity, as now, mastic was associated with the island of Chios as the only place where it could be obtained. In mediaeval Arab cooking, mastic is used in a variety of dishes, including fruit stews and sweets. The other main area of application was in perfumes. Islamic physicians believed it strengthens the stomach and liver, curbs appetite, and improves the appearance of the skin. Just like in ancient Greece, it was used as breath-sweetener and teeth cleanser.
This recipe from 10th-century Baghdad is both flavoursome and easy to make. Cut tender lamb into slices ((شَرائح, sharā’iḥ) and marinate in fresh coriander (cilantro) juice, mixed with asafoetida. Coat the kebabs with olive oil before skewering, and then cook. Serve with rice and a wonderfully delicate dip made with red wine vinegar, murrī (use soy sauce), asafoetida and caraway seeds.
Originally from Aramaic, the word refers to both white and black mustard (seeds). In cooking, the seeds – both whole and ground – are often required, with the black variety being used more often than the white/yellow. It is used to great effect, for instance, in the mustard chicken attributed to the Abbasid caliph al-Wathiq bi-‘llah. Mustard also appears in condiments, including a dip with raisins, known as sināb (صناب). The 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise instructed washing old mustard seeds with hot water before using them. Conversely, fresh mustard seeds do not need to be washed since they are tart without being bitter. The word also occurs twice in the Qur’ān (21:47; 31:16), where it is mentioned that even deeds weighing one mustard seed will be taken into account on the scales of justice. In medicine, cultivated mustard was preferred to the wild variety; it was considered useful against inflammations, tumours, scabies, and sciatica. It was also thought to increase intelligence (if taken on an empty stomach) as well as lust.
This recipe, which is found in 13th- and 15th-century Egyptian cookery books, is the ancestor to the modern Lebanese favourite. Its name betrays a Turkish origin and it is likely that the dish was imported by Turkic tribes from the Central Asian steppes. The oldest recorded ravioli-type dish is the Chinese laowan from the third century CE. The Egyptian recipe requires dough to be made like tuṭmāj, from which round shapes are cut. After adding the stuffing (meat, spikenard, saffron, onion, mint), fold like ravioli and then boil in water. They are served with either yoghurt or macerated pomegranate seeds extract. It’s a good idea to make a good-sized batch so you have enough to freeze for future lunches!
This aromatic (Cinnamomum cassia) is also known as Chinese cinnamon, in reference to its place of origin. The bark of the tree was already used in Antiquity in medicines and perfumes, though rarely in food. Ancient scholars believed it came from Arabia. Its preciousness was enhanced by its inaccessibility, which early on became legendary. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, recounts that cassia grows in a shallow lake guarded by bat-like creatures which attack the eyes of those cutting the plant. The Arabic term is derived from the Persian dār chīnī (دار چينى, ‘Chinese wood’) and was sometimes used interchangeably with salīkha (سليخة), but could also refer to ‘true’ (or Ceylon) cinnamon (قِرْة, qirfa). It is, in fact, not certain at all whether the present-day distinction between the two existed at the time. Some scholars only distinguished between dār ṣīnī and a qirfat dār ṣīnī, the latter being less powerful, and imported from China. In Arab cooking, it was one of the most widely used spices, and appears much more frequently than qirfa. Although often ground, recipes sometimes call for sticks (i.e. bark strips). A number of varieties (black, white, greenish, were known. Medicinally, it was used, among other things, to improve dim vision, as a cough remedy, diuretic, and even antidote against scorpion poison. Cassia differs from Ceylon cinnamon in its more reddish colour, rougher texture and stronger, more bitter taste.