Spotlight on: Beef

Beef was not used very often in medieval Arab cuisine, which preferred lamb and chicken. Beef was, however, the usual meat in the famous vinegar stew, ‘sikbaj’ (سكباج), while in Abbasid cuisine it was also used in a number of cold dishes (بوارد, bawarid). It does not appear at all in a 13th-century Baghdadi recipe collection, and is required in only two dishes in a 15th-century Egyptian cookery book.

Medically, beef was considered dense and to generate putrid blood. It is only good for those who engage in physical work, or for young people. Cheese made from cow’s milk was considered to be the heaviest of all cheeses, whereas rice cooked in cow’s milk was thought to be indigestible.

Beef did not find much favour either in religion, and a famous hadith, for instance, states that the milk and butter of cows are curative, but their meat causes disease.

The above is somewhat at odds with the praising comments by the cosmographer al-Qazwini (13thc.), who stated that the cow is not only very useful, but also one of the strongest animals on earth. Allah did not create it with weapons like wild animals because it is under the protection of human beings who drive away the cows’ enemies. Another reason is that humans have a great need for the animal and if it were equipped with weapons, it might overpower them.

Description of the cow in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 1280CE)

Andalusian fennel ka’k (كعك)

A wonderful savoury biscuit, made with a dough including flour, water, yeast, olive oil, and fennel seeds. Shape the dough into small rings and then bake. Very easy to make and delicious — what’s not to like? And if you think that the result reminds you of something, you’d be right; the biscuits are probably the medieval ancestor of the Italan fennel taralli!

Tuniso-Andalusian crepes (قطايف, qatayif)

This is the Andalusian variant of today’s qatayif, which is a folded crepe with a filling of cream or nuts especially associated with Ramadan all over the Muslim world. Recipes for this type of crepe can be found in a number of cookery books. The one recreated here is from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise. The typical feature — then as now — is that the batter is cooked on only one side.

The word qatayif — though the linguistically correct spelling is, in fact, qata’if (قطائف) — is the plural of qatifa (قطيفة), which denoted a kind of cover to be wrapped around the body when sleeping. This type of qatayif was called mushahhada, which is derived from shuhd, meaning ‘comb honey’.

It starts off with semolina, hot water, yeast and salt. Once you have a batter of the desired consistency, it is dropped into a pan in the form of small round crepes. Once little holes appear on the top, i.e. the uncooked side, remove them, and put in others. The batter can also be added with some salt and milk, if needed. Once you have finished the batch, serve the crepes in a bowl and pour on boiled honey mixed with clarified or fresh butter. Finally, sprinkle on pepper, cinnamon and sugar, and then enjoy!

The present-day qatayif are usually deep-fried after stuffing and then drenched in honey or syrup, though there is an unfried stuffed variety, known as qatayif asafiri (قطائف عصافيري), which translates as ‘the sparrows’ qatayif‘. The Andalusian preparation here is actually closest to the modern Moroccan pancake, the baghrir (بغرير), known in Tunisia as ghrayef (غرايف), which is eaten without a filling, just dipped in butter and honey.

Spotlight on: Rice

First grown in India before 4000 BCE, rice (Oryza sativa) was known to the ancient Greeks in the time of Alexander, who encountered it in Persia. However, it does not appear to have been used as food since only medical authors mention some recipes, including a pudding with goat’s milk. Rice flour is used in a couple of recipes by Apicius as a sauce thickener.

Rice was grown in Mespotamia and Iran before the Christian era and it occupied an important place in Persian cooking from Sassanid times onwards and over the centuries it gradually crowded out grains.

In medieval Arab cooking its earliest use was in rice porridges (aruzziyyat), rice puddings with milk (aruzz bi ‘l-laban), or as a thickener. It was most frequently cooked with the other ingredients (meat, vegetable) in the broth. Several cookery books contain recipes for so-called mufalfal (‘peppered’ < fulful, ‘pepper’) rice, which is a kind of pilaff and involves rinsing the rice before adding it to a stew with meat. The terminology refers to the rice grains being loose, rather than the addition of pepper.

In many areas, rice was an important ingredient in elite cookery, which was reinforced under the Mongols. Rice flour was also used to make bread, but this was generally considered food for the poor.

Rice was introduced in the Western Mediterranean by the Arabs, who cultivated it in Sicily and al-Andalus; in the latter area, its use was mostly restricted to those areas where it was grown (e.g. Valencia), which explains why there are very few Andalusian dishes requiring it.

Medicinally, rice was said to be nourishing, especially when cooked with almonds and milk, and sweetened with sugar. It was also thought to be astringent and useful against ulcers, as well as increasing semen. Some scholars held that eating rice caused good dreams, whereas roughness in the stomach could be remedied by an enema of rice. It was said to cause constipation, which can be counteracted by soaking the rice in water overnight, drinking milk after eating it, or by cooking it with a large amount of fat.

Today, rice is a staple in many Arab cuisines; in some Gulf countries, it is even called ‘aysh, ‘life’, in reference to its importance in the diet. In North Africa, however, couscous or pasta are generally preferred to rice, which is not used in many dishes. Mufalfal rice is now associated with Egypt, not in a stew, but as a side, and often includes vermicelli (sha’iriyya). It may even include pepper!

Illustration of rice in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (Ostler Library)

Tuniso-Andalusian dried tuna omelette

This 13th-century recipe from a cookery book compiled by an Andalusian emigré who settled in Tunisia is one of the few to be made with dried tuna.

After the dried tuna is chopped and fried, it is folded into a mixture containing breadcrumbs, a variety of spices including pepper, coriander, ginger, spikenard, mastic, and saffron), as well as eggs. This is baked in the oven with egg yolks on top, and a dusting of cinnamon and ginger. Once it’s browned on top, it’s ready — leave to cool down and enjoy!

Aleppo quince chicken

This recipe from a 13th-century Syrian cookery book is one of several quince stews. It is a tad labour intensive but, as ever, your toil will be amply rewarded by the result. The chicken is boiled and then fried in sesame oil with some onion. The quinces should be split, cored and deseeded, and then added or, as in the variation recreated here, fried first. Then both are cooked in broth, with a little fresh lemon juice, sugar, saffron, mint, the atraf al-tib spice mix, as well as some pistachios (we are in Aleppo, after all!). Let all those flavours infuse and then it’s time to tuck in. Crusty bread proved to be a good choice to accompany the dish.

Spotlight on: Asafoetida

Also known today by its Hindi name hing, asafoetida (Ferula Assa-foetida) refers to the pungent resinous gum from a giant fennel which grows in the wild in what is today Iran and Afghanistan. Its English name derives from the Persian āzā (ازا, ‘mastic’) combined with the feminine Latin adjective foetida (‘smelly’), in reference to its strong odour, which also explains its less than flattering names and link with the devil in other languages, as in ‘devil’s dung’ in English or merde du diable (‘devil’s excrement’) in French .

It has a very long history and is already mentioned in Akkadian texts as nukhurtu and was used in food in ancient Iran. In the Middle Ages, it was cropped in Persia for export. It was also known in European Antiquity; the Greeks considered it a variety of silphion, which unfortunately has defied identification and has been extinct for centuries. In Roman times, the juice was known as laser or laserpitium, and is called for in several dishes in Apicius’ cookery book.

The Arabic anjudān/anjudhān is a borrowing from Persian and refers to the whole plant or its leaves, whereas ḥiltīt (حلتيت) denoted the gum and maḥrūt (محروت) the root. Another word for the latter was ushturghāz/ushturghār (أشترغاز/أشترغار), another Persian borrowing (from ushtur, ‘camel’; khār, ‘thorn’), though this was sometimes identified as the root of lovage (kāshim, Levisticum officinale). Some scholars mention two kinds of anjudān, one black and foul smelling, and a white fragrant one used in cooking.

In medieval Arab cooking asafoetida is used very sparingly across the literature, and is missing from several recipe books. The plant was not known in North Africa or al-Andalus. One of the earliest recipes requires both the leaves and roots with fish and is attributed to the Abbasid gourmet caliph Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (d. 839). In a 13th-century text, asafoetida leaves are used, together with a a whole raft of aromatics in a seasoned salt mixture. The root was also pickled, and a recipe is included in a 15th-century Egyptian cookery book.

Medicinally, asafoetida was thought to make the stomach rough, remove bad breath, fight poisons and bring on menstrual flow, as well as being a diuretic and useful against joint pains. The root, however, was though to be more difficult to digest and more harmful to the stomach than the rensin.

Today, asafoetida is primarily associated with southeast Asian cuisines where it is used in many dishes (particularly as a substitute for garlic and onions), and is usually sold in powdered form, either pure or mixed with rice flour.

asafoetida in the Book of Simple Drugs by the Andalusian scholar al-Ghafiqi (12th c.)

Medieval Egyptian honeyed dates

This succulent recipe from The Sultan’s Feast requires dates to be boiled in vinegar and honey. When they are ready, they’re transferred to a jar. Colour with saffron, and add musk, rose-water and camphor for extra aromatic flavour. The author suggests leaving the dates to cool down in order to ensure their consistency. An absolutely amazing snack to satisfy those late-afternoon hunger pangs!

Tuniso-Andalusian honeyed curd with figs

A thirteenth-century recipe for a delicious dairy dish, which starts with curdling milk with cardoon flowers; if these are not available, one can easily use thistle, instead, as in the recreation. When the curdling is nearly done, it is time to add honey dissolved in milk. Though it is very tasty eaten plain, the author suggests pairing it with fresh figs, which proves to be solid advice, as ever.

Spotlight on: Cardamom

The English word actually refers to two varieties of seeds. The first is the so-called ‘common’ (also green, or lesser) cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), known in Arabic as hāl (هال) or hayl/hīl (هيل). The spice is native to India’s Malabar coast and Indonesia, and though there is evidence that it was already known to Greek authors, it was very rarely used, and only in medicines. The second variety is bigger and is known as ‘black cardamom’ (Amomum subulatum), called qāqulla (قاقلّة) in Arabic.

The terminology presents an interesting mix, with qāqulla going back to the Akkadian qāqullu, whereas hāl/hīl are borrowings from Persian derived from Sanskrit. Persia is also the origin of other names for common cardamom including the term بوا (, ‘odour’) — often rendered as buwwā, despite the final letter being silent –, such as khīr (خير بوا) and hayl bū (هيل بوا). Finally, qardamānā (قردماما) is a borrowing from Greek (kardamomon, καρδάμωμον).

In medieval cookery books from the Near East, green and black cardamom are used in food only in an Abbasid treatise from the 10th century, in a medicinal drink (mayba). In other culinary sources, cardamom appears only in perfumes or hand-washing powders. Interestingly enough, in al-Andalus and the Maghrib, cardamom is used in a few recipes, such as a chicken garlic stew (thawmiya), a jūdhāba (جوذابة), and even some fish dishes.

Medicinally, green cardamom was considered useful for the stomach and liver, and as an anti-emetic, whereas black cardamom was said to be a remedy for nausea and vomiting, while purifying the stomach and bowels. When drunk weekly with oxymel, it is good for epilepsy.

Today, green and black cardamom are mostly associated with Indian cuisine in both savoury and sweet dishes, as well as drinks (e.g. tea). The green variety is considered the best, and is also much more expensive. In the Middle East, green cardamom is an ingredient in in sweet dishes and, especially, as a coffee flavouring.

cardamom in the Book of Theriacs (Bibliothèque nationale de France)