Medieval Syrian carrot and lamb stew (dinariyya, دينارية)

This recipe from a cookbook compiled in 13th-century Aleppo, takes its name from the fact that the carrots are cut into the shape of dinar (the currency at the time) coins. It is a two-in-one dish in that it involves both chunks of meat (for the recreation lamb is used) and meatballs. The former is boiled with crushed chickpeas, whereas the latter are made with rice, some more crushed chickpeas, and spices, such as corander, pepper, cassia, caraway. After everything is fried (in fat) with some fresh coriander and garlic, broth and carrots cut into coins are added and then everything is left to cook. As a further enhancement of the visual effect, some eggs are cracked on top of the dish at the end. The result attests to the medieval chef’s proficiency at balancing flavours.

Spotlight on: quince

In the “Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies” (الحمّال والصبايا الثلاثة, al-ḥammāl wa-l-ṣubāyā al-thalātha) from the 1001 Nights (ألف ليلة وليلة, alf layla wa layla), also known in the West as the Arabian Nights, one of the protagonists praises the quince as it ‘puts to shame the scent of musk and ambergris’, citing the following verse by an anonymous poet:

”The quince combines all of the pleasures of mankind
It is more famous than any other fruit.
It has the taste of wine and the fragrance of musk,
Golden hued, and rounded like the full moon

The origins of the quince (Cydonia oblonga) are shrouded in mystery, but it may have been ancient Mesopotamia; the Arabic word safarjal (سفرجل), in fact, goes back to the Akkadian supurgillu. The Greeks knew two types of quince (sour and sweet), but often considered it a type of apple (mêlon), known as kudonion (κυδώνιον), after its alleged birth place, the Cretan town of Cydonia. In Latin, too, the word for apple (malum) denoted quince (and sometimes even pomegranates or peaches).

Quinces were used in a variety of preparations (often with honey), such as jams, conserves, syrup, or fermented into a wine. When packed in honey, the resulting preserve was known as mêlomeli (μηλόμελι, ‘apple/quince honey’). The first-century botanist Dioscorides said that it was prepared by deseeding quinces and then fully immersing them in honey; after a year, the mixture becomes smooth and resembles wine mixed with honey. It is the linguistic ancestor, by way of Latin, of marmelo, the Portuguese for ‘quince’. Another Portuguese word denoting a quince preserve (quince cheese), marmelada, travelled further westward, and gave English its word for the breakfast favourite marmalade (though today this is associated with citrus fruits). Physicians recommended baking quinces before eating them, and due to their astringent property prescribed them, for instance, as an anti-diarrhoetic. In addition to a quince preserve which called for the whole fruit, including the stems and leaves, the Roman cookery book by Apicius (4th c.) includes recipes for a few stews with quince, leeks and honey, or beef. More unusually, he also gives a fish recipe requiring cooked quinces, pepper, lovage, mint, coriander, rue, honey and wine.

Despite the praise lavished on the quince in the story from the 1001 Nights, it was not used very often in medieval Arab cooking, with fewer than forty recipes requiring it. In what is considered the oldest Arabic culinary cookbook (10th c.), quince appears mostly in medicinal conserves, syrups or beverages, as well as in a chicken stew (زيرباجة, zīrbāja), and a preserved lamb recipe (أهلام, ahlām). In the thirtheenth century, the safarjaliyya (سفرجلية), or quince stew (made with lamb), made its first appearance in cookery books from across the Muslim world: Egypt, Baghdad, al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), North Africa, and Syria. It is an Andalusian recipe for quince jelly that is the direct ancestor of both the Portuguese marmelada and its Spanish cousin dulce de membrillo. Quince was used in meat stews, murrī (a fermented condiment), and pickles. Like before, the quince drinks (often with lemon) and conserves were considered primarily medicinal. In dishes, apples are frequently paired with quince. In 15th-century Egypt, the safarjaliyya was still part of the repertoire, and according to a cookbook from this period, quinces should be preserved by rolling them in fig leaves coated with clay and then drying them out in the sun.

Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) suggested grilling quinces after scooping out the seeds, filling the cavity with honey and then covering the fruit with clay before putting them over hot embers. He recommended it as an anti-emetic, and as a cure for dysentry and hangovers. He also added that one can prevent a hangover by drinking quince syrup after overindulging in wine. The highly astringent qualities of quince strengthen the stomach and Ibn Sīnā advised eating them after meals.

The famous 11th-century peripatetic physician Ibn Butlan (ابن بطلان) advised eating quince both before and after meals as the bits block openings in between the teeth, thus preventing food from lodging in there. He held that quince purifies the stomach when taken before a meal, and loosens the bowels when eaten afterwards. In addition, quince also acts as a diuretic, but can be harmful to the nerves.

quince in al-Qazwini’s encyclopedia, ‘The Wonders of Creation’ (BSB, Cod-arab464, fol. 119r.) [1280]
quince (alongside apples) in the Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ materia medica, with pears appearing on the left-hand page (Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria-ms. 2954, ff. 53v.-54r.) [1254]

Andalusian ‘Jewish’ chicken

This is one of six so-called ‘Jewish’ dishes, which are found in only one 13th-century anonmyous cookery book from Muslim Spain. The chicken is spit-roasted and then dressed with a ‘stuffing’ made with the chicken entrails, walnuts, breadcrumbs, fennel, fresh coriander, eggs, and water. Before serving, garnish with rue, fennel, mint and (toasted) walnuts.

Andalusian quince pudding

This is a recipe for a starch pudding (similar in texture to a flummery), known as fālūdhaj (فالوذج), which is Persian in origin. First, you need to make some almond milk by crushing (sweet) almonds, adding water and straining the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve, ‘until it becomes like milk.’ In terms of fruit, you can use the juice of pomegranate, apples, pears, gourd, or quince. After bringing the juice to a boil over a gentle fire, add starch until you obtain the required consistency. The 13th-century anonymous author must have been quite partial to this dish since he called it wondrous (عجيب, ‘ajīb)!

Andalusian chickpea pancakes

This recipe from 13th-century Muslim Spain is a whimsical twist on a popular dish in that period and region, the isfiriyya (اسفريا), a kind of omelette. This particular variation is known as ‘counterfeit’ (مزوّرة, muzawwara), because it uses chickpea (gram) flour to make something that looks like isfiriyya. Gram flour is widely available now, but for the purists, this is how you can make it yourself from scratch (which is both cheaper and more fun, anyway!): pound chickpeas, remove the skins and grind. For the batter, add eggs and yeast, as well as some fennel seeds and other spices. The mixture is pan-fried into a thin cake, like a crepe. Serve with honey or a melted cheese mixture. A delicacy!

Spotlight on: hemp

Hemp (cannabis sativa) is a member of to the cannabis family, but contains very little THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive constituent, and does not produce any of the effects associated with cannabis. Its use for its psychotropic properties (especially the seeds), as well as for making ropes (from the fibre) and, less commonly, in food goes back several millennia, and is attested in ancient Mesopotamia and Iran.

In Arabic, it is known as shahdānaj (شهدانج) — though technically this denoted only the seeds — or qinnab (قنّب). Both words are borrowings from Persian, the former meaning ‘hemp seed’, and the latter (from the Middle Persian qanab), ‘hemp (rope)’. The 11th-century polymath al-Biruni traced the word back to the Persian shāh dānah, ‘the royal grain’.

As an ingredient in cooking, hemp seeds were used quite sparingly, and are not found at all in mediaeval Andalusian and North African treatises. In the earliest recipe book (10th century) from what is today Iraq, hemp is called for in only three recipes (two for seasoned salts) and one for nougat (ناطف, nātif). Later on, the seeds (often toasted) are almost exclusively associated with turnip pickles, in a couple of recipes from Egypt, the most recent from the 15th century. The only exception is a 13th-century Syrian recipe for a rich multi-seed nutty bread, which, so the author informs us, was also known by ‘the Franks (الإفرنج, al-Ifranj) and the Armenians’ as iflāghūn (إفلاغون). This term is probably a transliteration of the Greek plakous (πλακοῦς) — or its genitive form, plakountos (πλακοῦντος) –, which denoted a type of cake, whose main ingredients were cheese, honey and flour.

In Greek Antiquity, hemp was known for its anaphrodisiac — i.e. libido-reducing — qualities, and was often eaten at the end of the meal, alongside the so-called tragemata (τραγήματα), chewy desserts (mainly dried fruits and nuts), which also accompanied wine, like our present-day ‘nibbles’ .

The infrequent use of hemp seeds in mediaeval Arab cuisine may have something to do with the fact that its consumption was discouraged by physicians. According to Ibn Sina (Avicenna), for instance, hemp seeds are highly flatulent, difficult to digest, harmful to the stomach, and cause headaches. In order to alleviate these harmful effects, Ibn Jazla recommended eating the seeds with almonds, sugar and black poppy seeds, and drinking oxymel afterwards. Al-Razi (Rhazes) added that hemp blurred the sight and advised against having sour fruits or cold water after eating it. However, Ibn Sina advised hemp seed oil as a treatment for dandruff.

Depiction of hemp in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ materia medica (British Library, 0r3366, fol.108r)

Egyptian pickled capers with sumac

A fourteenth-century delicacy requiring capers, vinegar, lemon juice and sumac juice, as well as preserved lemons, garlic, coriander, caraway, and thyme. To round things off, pour good-quality olive oil on top, and let the mixture rest for a while. Refrigerate and use as a multi-purpose condiment!

Tuniso-Andalusian fish casserole

A recipe from a 13th-century treatise by an Andalusian emigré in Tunisia, it is made with fresh fish, which should be salted and left overnight with a weight on top. After boiling the fish, it is cooked with olive oil, murrī (a fermented barley condiment which can be replaced with soya sauce), oregano, fennel stalks, citron leaves, pepper, saffron, spikenard, ginger, and a little mastic. Onions are also added after having been boiled in salty water. The dish is finished off in the oven until the broth has been reduced, and the fish is browned on top.

Flaky laminated flatbread (مسمّنة, musammana)

This recipe is found in two Andalusian cookery books from the 13th century, and is one of relatively few to have survived almost unchanged in the form of the present-day Moroccan breakfast classic, msemmen, which is usually eaten with amlou (أملو, a blend of Argan oil and honey) or honey, and cheese. However, it also brings to mind a bread from further afield, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Indian paratha.

The Andalusian recipe starts with a dough made with fine white flour or semolina (for the recreation, a mixture of both was used), water and salt. The dough is rolled out very thinly and folded several times, with (melted) clarified butter (or ghee) being used to seal the edges (similar to the use of egg wash in modern patisserie). This ingredient actually gives the recipe its name, since musamman means ‘added with clarified butter (samn)’.

The laminated dough results in several thin flaky layers once the musamman is fried; hence, this kind of pastry was also known as muwarraq (مورّق), that is to say, ‘consisting of layers as thin as paper (waraq).’ For best result, the musammana are fried in clarified butter until golden brown. As they can be quite greasy, drain well before serving. The recipe recommends pouring on some (hot) honey and dusting with cinnamon and sugar — there you have it, heaven on a plate!

Egyptian Sweet-and-sour cabbage leaves

For this vegetable side dish (known as ‘mixed cabbage’, كرنب ممزّج, kurunb mumazzaj) from 13th/14th-century Mamluk Egypt white cabbage leaves are boiled and then served with a dressing of vinegar, honey, saffron, hazelnuts, coriander seeds, caraway, and the aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice blend. The result is a delicate combination of sweet and sour flavours that work wonderfully well together. It can be eaten by itself, as a starter, or as a side.