Buraniyya (بورانية)

This is one of the most famous and emblematic dishes in medieval Arab cuisine. It is named after Būrān (807-884), the wife of the caliph al-Ma’mūn. Of Persian origin, she was the daughter of one of the ruler’s advisers, and was married to the caliph at the age of ten, but the wedding only took place when she reached 18. The event became legendary because of its opulence and excess; it is said to have lasted for forty days, with pearls being poured down on the couple who were sitting on a golden floor cover encrusted with precious pearls and sapphires. Balls of musk which contained the name of a gift (an estate, horse, etc.), were distributed to the multitude of guests, each of whom could subsequently lay claim to their gift. According to the historian Ibn Khaldun, one hundred and forty mule loads of wood had been brought three times a day for a whole year to the kitchen just for the wedding night, and all of it was consumed in that single night.

In Arab cookery, however, Būrān is even more famous; according to tradition, she was an accomplished cook, renowned for her fried aubergine dishes, which gained huge fame, and several recipes can be found in nearly all medieval Arab cookery books. Whether or not she actually made one for her husband during the celebrations is not known.

The recipe recreated here is a very simple — and delicious one — from The Sultan’s Feast, and requires meat, fried aubergine (in this case last week’s pickled aubergines were used), pepper, coriander seeds, mint, and onions. The meat and onion are boiled before being fried with the spices. The idea is that the meat and seasonings are the dressing for the aubergine.

Būrān’s name — and her recipe — lives on in the present day in the western Algerian burāniyya, which is known as mderbel in the East of the country (many thanks to @theconfusedarab for pointing this out). For the modern dish, take a look at @lapetitepanetiere‘s take on this. And, then, of course, there is the Spanish alboronía, a kind of ratatouille with aubergine still being the key ingredient, alongside other vegetables.

Tuniso-Andalusian pickled aubergine

A wonderful 13th-century recipe for pickling aubergine (تصيير الباذنجان, tasyīr al-bādhinjān). You naturally start off with a batch of fresh luscious aubergine, which are peeled, cleaned, etc., and cut into pieces; you can do them lengthwise or in slices, as it was done for the recreation. The pieces are first boiled in water and salt, and then put in jars — the author suggests pitch-coated or glazed earthenware jars (but a glass storage jar also works fine!) — with some vinegar and water. As usual don’t forget to seal properly, and to top up with water at need. The author also suggests a variant which involves splitting up the batch and adding parsley in one, and fresh mint in the other, to enhance the fragrance. A wonderful idea that you won’t regret! The author gives us another wonderful tip ; why not use these pickled aubergine slices in a būrāniyya?

Spotlight on: Coriander

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is native to the eastern Mediterranean basin, and its use in cooking is already attested in ancient Mesopotamia, where it can be found often in conjunction with cumin and nigella. Its name in Akkadian, kisibirru, is the origin of the Arabic kuzbara (كزبرة), which has the variant spellings kusbara (كسبرة) and kusfara (كسفرة). It was also in use in Ancient Egypt and Greece by at least the 2nd millennium BCE, and later became a mainstay in Roman cuisine — nearly one-fifth of Apicius’ recipes call for coriander, known in Latin as coriandrum (or coliandrum), derived from the Greek koriannon. In English, its name varies depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on; in the UK, it is known as coriander, whereas in North America ‘cilantro’ is preferred, which goes back to the Spanish culantro (itself a descendant of coliandrum), but this only refers to the leaf, not the seeds.

Usually it is the leaves and fruit of the plant that appear in cooking, with the root being used in medicine only. Today, it is only east Asian cuisines — especially Thai — that use the root as a cooking ingredient. In medieval Arab cuisine, coriander was one of the most used spices, both dried (seeds) and fresh, and it is not uncommon for recipes to require a combination of both. In a 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise, dried coriander is said to suit all food, but especially tafāyās (stews) and stuffed (maḥshī) dishes. In Spain, coriander obtained a religious connotation it did not have elsewhere in the Muslim world in that it was considered a ‘Muslim’ herb, just as parsely was considered a ‘Christian’ herb. Indeed, after the Reconquista, the mere fact of eating coriander was considered an un-Christian thing.

Islamic scholars held that fresh coriander is astringent, strengthens the stomach, staunches bleeding, and is useful against dizziness and epilepsy caused by bilious or phlegmatic fevers. Al-Samarqandī (d. 1222) recommended roasted coriander against palpitations, ulcers and hot swellings, but warned that dried coriander decreases sexual potency and dries out semen (though Ibn Sīnā attributed anaphrodisiac effects to both the fresh and dried varieties). He also claimed fresh coriander should not be eaten by itself, but used to season cooked dishes, while its potency becomes greatly enhanced when used with sumac. Also, when meat is soaked in vinegar and seasoned with coriander, it is more easily digested. Eating too much coriander leads to dim vision and mental confusion.

According to the Andalusian pharmacologist Ibn Khalṣūn (13th c.), (fresh) coriander strengthened the heart of those with hot temperaments (along with, for instance, saffron and caraway), whereas pigeons should be cooked in it (together with vinegar). He also recommended eating coriander with fatty meats and strong spices. As dried coriander keeps food in the stomach until it has been digested, it should be used sparingly, especially in rich dishes. Coriander was also thought to be constipating, while alleviating inflammations in the stomach.

Such is its importance in Arab cooking, even today, that in some North African dialects (e.g. Tunisia), it is also known, simply, as tābil (‘seasoning’).

coriander in a 9th-century Greek manuscript of Dioscorides’ materia medica, with Arabic annotations (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
coriander in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ text (British Library)

Medieval sandwich biscuits: Alluring maidens’ cheeks

There are a few similar recipes for this delicious sweet in 13th-century Egyptian and Syrian cookery books. Their name (خدود الأغاني, khudud al-aghani) is somewhat of a mystery in that it would translate as ‘cheeks of the songs’. However, it is likely that the word is linked to the classical Arabic ghaniya (غانية), which means a beautiful and chaste woman desired by men. Whatever the case may be, the biscuit dough is made with flour, clarified butter, and sesame oil. This will be used to make the slices of the ‘sandwich’. The biscuits are fried and then drenched in rose-water syrup. As for the filler, this is a paste made with flour, sesame oil, musk, syrup, popppy seeds, pistachios, and almonds. When that is done, just smear it on one biscuit slice and top with another. There you have it, the ultimate afternoon sweet! But you’d better invite some guests to help you out — or rather to stop you from polishing off the lot in one go. Consider yourself warned!

Wisps of incense (بخور, bakhūr)

This recipe for bakhūr Barmakiyya from a 14th-century Egyptian cookery book is named after the Barmakids, a powerful family of Persian origin, several of whose members held high offices — including that of vizier — to a number of Abbasid caliphs in the 8th and 9th centuries. The most renowned member of the family is no doubt Ja’far, who was the favourite companion of Harun al-Rashid, and both occur as protagonists in several stories from the 1001 Nights, often involving them roaming around Baghdad at night. With such great favour came untold wealth and power, but the Barmakid rule came to a brutal end when, for reasons that are still a mystery, Harun suddenly turned on them, had Ja’far executed, and their property confiscated. However, their fame and generosity lived on through many stories in Arabic literature.

In the Arabian Nights, the Barmakids are also involved in a wonderful story where food — or rather the absence thereof — is the plot. A beggar is invited to share a meal at one of the Barmakid houses but finds that all the food is invisible, while his mischievous host (whose name is never mentioned) pretends to be eating and praises the quality of the dishes. The beggar plays along until, at the end of the meal, he rises and hits his host on the neck. When asked why he did this, the beggar apologizes profusely, blaming his behaviour on the effect of the (invisible) wine he was given! The host is so enchanted by this astute reaction that he orders a real banquet be served to the beggar. Much later, the beggar meets with a particularly gruesome way but that, as they say, is another story… The invisible banquet is the origin of the English expression ‘a Barmecide feast’, which refers to pretended or imaginary wealth, generosity or hosptality.

Returning to more fragrant matters, today’s recreation is of an incense which, according to the author of the cookbook, is particularly suited for those in the toilet! It is made with a number of aromatics, such as costus, myrtle leaves, labdanum resin, sour orange and lemon peels, saffron, and honey. So, cook, dry, light up, and let yourself be carried away on the wisps of Mamluk Cairo!

Spotlight on: Musk (مسك)

Known as the king of scents, musk is one of the most precious aromatics in the world to this day. It is produced by the gland of the male musk deer to attract mates; the most prized is Tibetan musk. One of the oldest Arabic accounts of musk is found in a wonderful 9th-century collection entitled ‘News of China and India’ (أخبار الصين والهند, ‘Akhbar al-Sin wa ‘l-Hind’), where it is said that the Tibetan musk ‘gazelles’ feed on spikenard, and that the best quality is the one that the animal has rubbed on stones in the mountains. Their diet was one reason why Tibetan musk was considered superior to that sourced from India or China, which, additionally, was often tampered with by unscrupulous traders. The demand meant musk deer would be hunted and killed for their precious musk pod, which on average contains twenty-five grams of musk.

According to some sources, Khorasan was a major musk hub from where the precious aromatic would be shipped across the Muslim world, and beyond. Another centre was the port of Daybul, from where ships would carry it to various ports along the Arabian gulf.

Its scarcity meant that alternatives were sought, whether synthetic (the 9th-century scholar al-Kindi invented several formulas) or animal, such as castoreum (produced by beavers and known in Arabic as jundubādastar, a borrowing from Persian) — which was already used medicinally by the ancient Greeks –, or civet. Neither of them, however, had the prestige of ‘real’ musk. Civet (which is derived from the Arabic word zabād/زباد) is a paste produced by the anal glands of the ‘civet cat’ (which isn’t really a cat, more like a mongoose), found mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia, to mark territory.

Medicinally, musk was prescribed for a variety of conditions, ranging from headaches, to spasms, a gloomy disposition, and as a diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, and antidote (tiryāq) against venomous stings and bites. It was also considered a highly powerful aphrodisiac.

Due to its wonderful fragrance, musk was primarily used in perfumes, and in cooking as an aromatic (طيب, ṭīb) in a variety of dishes, particularly sweets, and very often in combination with rose-water. Distilled waters would sometimes be infused with musk as well.

Extract from a manuscript (Wellcome Institute) of the cookery book entitled Kanz al-Fawa’id fi tanwī’ al-mawā’id (كنز الفوائد في تنويع الموائد) with a recipe for the distillation of musk water
extracting civet

Pomegranate sibagh (صباغ)

The word sibāgh is derived from a verb (صبغ, sabagha) meaning ‘to colour, dye’ as well as ‘to dip’ and the noun refers to a dipping sauce for bread, fish, meat, etc., and could be made with a variety of ingredients, such as mustard, vinegar, raisins, nuts, and a range of aromatics. The recipe today is one from 10th-century Baghdad and is somewhat of an oddity in that it is a ‘travellers’ dip’ — though there’s no reason one should deprive oneself of the pleasures of this delicacy whilst at home! It’s very simply to make as it merely requires pomegranate seeds and raisins, alongside pepper and cumin, which are all mashed together and then shaped into discs and dried. They can be stored for a long time and are ‘revived’ through dissolution in vinegar. You’re supposed to have it with fish, and this is what it looks like (the vinegar is a recreation of a 13th-century Andalusian recipe)….

Duet of Pickled Walnuts

These are two exceptional recipes from a 14th-century Egyptian cookery book. For both, you, of course, need fresh green walnuts; the book recommends those of April, when they are fully grown. The first recipe is a a tart and tangy one, and starts off with salting the walnuts for about twenty days (no cheating!), until they have released all of the nasty black juice inside, and acquire a slightly sweet taste. After washing them, they’re ready for their second bath, in a mixture of vinegar and the usual suspects of herbs and spices, including garlic and mint.

The first stage for the second recipe is identical to the first, but things are very different after that since they will be spicy, sweet, and sour. Before fermentation, the walnuts are gusseyed up with some saffron and rosewater. Then, it’s time to cook up a syrup with ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ — including the aromatic aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice mix –, and wine vinegar. If you’re a purist, you will then decant this to a jar perfumed with agarwood and ambergris. If you’re low on those in the pantry, or your home insurance doesn’t cover you for that, you could always use any kind of preserving jar you have to hand. Don’t forget to seal it off, though, and then the walnuts are ready until you are!

tart and tangy…
All things nice with sugar and spice…

Spotlight on: Figs (تين, tīn)

One of the most important fruits in the eastern Mediterranean, the fig (Ficus carica) originally hailed from Western Asia but very early on travelled westwards. The fruit was already collected by humans by about 8000 BCE across a vast area, from southern France to Iran. It was a staple in the Ancient Mesopotamian diet, both dried and fresh. Dried figs (together with dates and raisins) were used in the making of a kind of wine, as well as in a fruity bread.

Figs were very popular in Ancient Egypt, too, where cultivation probably started in the fourth millennium BCE. Ancient Egyptians used it especially in breads and cakes, some of which were made entirely out of the fruit, as evidenced by the bread preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It may well be the most represented fruit in tomb reliefs and paintings, some of which show monkeys picking the fruits. Interestingly enough, this practice must have been known across a wide area as shown in the famous story about the monkey and the tortoise in the Persian collection of parables entitled Kalila wa Dimna, where the two protagonists meet when the monkey throws figs at the tortoise who greedily eats them. The practice may well go back to India, which also happens to be the birthplace of the parables, which were first written in Sanskrit before being translated into Persian and then into Arabic.

The ancient Greeks grealy enjoyed eating figs, too, and also used the tree sap as rennet in cheese making. The Romans, so Apicius informs us, made fig wine, and also preserved them in honey, alongside other fruit such as apples, plums, pears, and cherries. He further mentions fig-braised ham as well as a more gruesome fig-fed pork liver dish which used the liver of pigs force-fed with figs which was then cooked in a wine sauce and spices.

In Muslim culture, figs were considered the most nutritious of all fruit. They came in many varieties, but the fresh, peeled white (or yellow) type was thought to be the best. Both the fruit and the leaves were used in medicine, and Muslim physicians recommended figs as a diuretic, appetizer, laxative, antidote for poisons, and aphrodisiac (especially fresh ones). The fruit appears in the title of a chapter (sura) in the Qur’an, as well as in a large number of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), the most famous of which states that the Prophet considered it descended from paradise.

Surprisingly, in spite of this high praise figs appear extremely rarely in the cookery books, and there are several that do not mention figs at all. In the earliest cookery book (10th c.), (dried) figs are called for in a vinegar stew, while a later (13thc.) Egyptian manual adds a fenugreek halva that requires it. Another one (14thc.) — also from Egypt — contains a few recipes for preserving figs, one of which involves submerging them in a liquid made with chard and fig juice. Fig leaves were also used in the making of murrī (a condiment), whereas an Andalusian cookbook contains a recipe for a fig vinegar.

Fig trees in a 13th-century manuscript of the famous collection of fables, called Kalila wa Dimna (BNF, mss arabe 3467)
Monkeys harvesting figs in Ancient Egypt

Tuniso-Andalusian Pickled Fish

This 13th-century pickled fish is unusual in that it is one of the very few in the medieval Arabic culinary literature. It is quite simple to make with a fish of your choosing. After gutting and cleaning the fish, it is slightly boiled and then the fermentation fun begins with salt — of course! –, as well as home-made medieval lime vinegar, oregano (or thyme), and our old friend nigella. The fish is kept brined in a jar until required for delectation — as the author usually says: ‘Eat and enjoy, God willing!’