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This 13th-century dish from Aleppo was originally made with sour oranges or citron, which are used to make a syrupy sauce.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)!

Spotlight on: Emblic Myrobalan (أملج, amlaj)

A member of the Terminalia family, amlaj (Emblica officinalis Gaertn., Phyllanthus emblica L.) is known in English as ‘Indian gooseberry’, as well as by its Hindi and Sanskrit names of, respectively, amla (‘sour’) and amalaki, from which the Arabic word is derived (via the Persian (امله, āmula/amla).

The term ‘myrobalan’ goes back to Greek words for ‘(fragrant) oil’ and ‘acorn’, though the substance was unknown to either the ancient Greeks or the Romans. It is the (dried) fruit of a tree originating in India (or China) from where it was imported by Arab traders already in the early Islamic period. The word is also the origin of ‘mirabelle’, a type of plum, in reference to the similarity in appearance when dried.

The use of amlaj for medicinal and dietary purposes goes back millennia, to ancient Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine, where it is still used to this day for its anti-inflammatory, digestive, antioxidant, and aphrodisiac properties, and even in the treatment of diabetes and cancers. Besides the fruit, the leaves, seeds, and oil are used in confections, pastes, and pickles. Today, it is most often sold in powdered form.

In the Muslim Middle Ages, it was also primarily used in medicine and pharamacology to strengthen the stomach, nerves, heart, and appetite, in the treatment of haemorrhoids, and for its aphrodisiac and anti-emetic properties. According to Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), who remarked on the scarcity of amlaj, it is particularly effective to increase intelligence and memory. It was thought to be especially powerful when macerated in milk (ideally for a number of days), which was known as shīr (the Persian word for ‘milk’) amlaj.

Other members of the myrobalan family used for medicinal purposes are chebulic (or Kabul) myrobalan (halīlaj /ihlīlaj < Sanskrit harītak; Terminalia chebula) and belleric myrobalan (balīlaj < Sanskrit vibhītakī; Terminalia bellerica). They often occur together with amla in a compound, known as itṛīfal (إطريفل< Sanskrit triphalā), which is mentioned in Arabic pharmacological literature as a treatment for a cold stomach and haemorrhoidal pains, whereas the Tunisian physician Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 1004-5) referred to it as an established therapy for hernias. According to the Jewish scholar Maimonides (1138–1204) — the personal physician to Saladin (Salah al-Din) –, it strengthens the limbs, delays ageing and increases sexual potency. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is considered a potent compound, particularly for gastro-intestinal and ophthalmological complaints. Through Arab scholarship, the three myrobalans travelled to Europe very early on; the 12th-century compendium on women’s medicine, known as the Trotula, requires them in a number of recipes, and also mentions a trifera saracenica (‘the Saracen trifera’), alongside a trifera magna (‘greater trifera’).

Halīlaj (Indian hog plum) sometimes appears in Arabic as ijjās Hindī (إجّاص هندي, ‘Indian plum’) and comes in three varieties, yellow, black, and red. The black variety is considered the best, the yellow (Myrobalani citrinae) is smaller and has a more bitter taste. It is known for its high tannin content and has been used as a tanning agent. Black myrobalan also grows in Iran (where it is known as halīleh), and is used there in traditional medicine to treat a number of illnesses, including dementia and diabetes. In Indian (Ayurvedic/Unani) medicine, it is called the ‘King of medicines’, and is recommended for, amongst other things, its purgative and antioxidant effects.

There was very little non-medical use of myrobalans: amlaj occurs only in perfume blends, and black myrobalan is used only in a 10th-century Arabic cookery book, in recipes for an electuary (against colds and body aches) and a conserve (in date syrup and honey).

In his book on Indian spices, the sixteenth-century Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta, said that in India both the black and yellow mirobolanos were commonly used in cooking and in conserves, and also refers to a juice and syrup made from them.

Fresh, dried, and powdered amlaj

The medieval Arab equivalent of garum, only better: murrī (مرّي)


Undoubtedly the most famous condiment of medieval Arab cuisine, the standard version usually involves forty days of fermentation of rotted barley. It has been said to taste like soya sauce, which can indeed serve as an alternative if your pantry is low on the real thing. There will be another post devoted to the various types of murrī, but for now, let me whet your appetite with this wonderful express version for a mint murrī from The Sultan’s Feast. It requires two parts of barley flour and one part of salt to make a faṭīr, an unleavened flatbread. This is left to bake in an oven overnight, but before removing the loaves they should be burnt on the outside and inside. Once they’re ready, they are broken up into pieces and soaked in water with thyme, mint, pine nuts, and citron peels and leaves. Then, everything is put back in the oven for another overnight bake. After straining, you are left with murrī, to which honey is added to break the saltiness. Store in a jar with some olive oil on top to seal. The best way to describe the result is a seasoned soya sauce –very nice and versatile. Forget about garum, it’s all about the murrī! ( #teammurri!)

Andalusian bedded sardines

This is a rather unusual recipe from a cookery book written by a 13th-century Andalusian emigré to Tunis which is the only source to include sardine dishes. Besides sardines, you need fresh coriander, fresh mint, fresh fennel, and onions, all of which are chopped very finely. The greens and fish are layered alternately into a casserole and then baked in the oven, after adding some more spices like cinnamon, ginger and mastic. Wait until it is golden brown and then enjoy!

Spotlight on: Medieval Food Fraud

In the Middle Ages, markets were subject to a number of quality-control regulations, which were enforced by the market inspector, known as the muhtasib (محتسب). It is said that the Prophet Muhammad, himself, appointed the first officals with jurisdiction over the markets in Mecca and Medina. However, the office of the muhtasib appears not to have been formalized until the 9th century, during the Abbasid caliphate.

The importance attached to ensuring that market traders plied their wares in an ethical manner was such that a considerable number of manuals were produced across the Muslim world — from Muslim Spain to Syria and Iraq — outlining the muhtasib’s supervisory duties and responsibilities. These were, in fact, linked to the meaning of the word hisba (from which muhtasib is derived) as an injunction to promote good and forbid evil, which is incumbent upon every Muslim. In other words, to cheat customers is an unreligious — as well as an unethical and possibly criminal — thing to do. In many respects, the way the muhtasibs operated was very similar to today’s trading standards officers, and they provided a crucial public service.

Markets in the Muslim world contained a large number of food providers as most people ate out for most of their meals since the average home did not have the facilities for cooking, baking, etc. The public had a choice from amongst a dizzying array of specialised providers to satisfy the most varied and demanding of palates, with stalls specialising in fried fish, confectionery, freshly-made zulābiyya, cooked liver, harīsa (a meat porridge), cold snacks (bawārid), grilled and roast meats, sausages, cooked lentils and broad beans, sheep’s heads, etc. And it is in this area, of course, that the muhtasib‘s duties were, literally, of vital importance from a public health perspective. This also explains why they had to verify that traders had the required skills, as in the case of the syrup makers (sharrābiyūn), who also sold electuaries and other medicinal compounds, which could only be prepared from recognized pharmacological manuals.

The large range of potential issues that are mentioned in the hisba manuals clearly reveal that the market inspectors had their work cut out for them, as shown by the following examples from one of the hisba manuals from 12th-century Syria.

Naturally, the more precious the item, the more likely it will be tampered with. So, it is not surprising that saffron is often mentioned in this regard. Then, as now, it was blended with safflower, though other, far more unusual, tactics were also used. One of them involved using chicken breasts and beef boiled in water and then shredded before being dyed with saffron and mixed into the baskets. Other additives included starch or even ground glass! Similarly, camphor was apparently sometimes mixed with waste marble trimmings, or kneaded with resin. Honey, on the other hand, was frequently thinned with water, though this resulted in its resembling semolina in winter, and being watery in summer. As for turmeric, this was bulked up with ground pomegranate skins.

Bread was commonly adulterated by mixing beans, or chickpea and rice flour in with the wheat flour. Stews could be thickened with rice flour, semolina, taro, or starch. The sellers of the already-mentioned harīsa, which was a very popular market food, would not only thicken it with taro, but would instead of good-quality (lamb) meat use sheep’s head meat, or dried beef and camel meat. And like the contemporary visitor to an all-you-can-eat buffet, the medieval diner would be very much aware of the possibility that the harīsa might contain the left-over meat from the previous day — or the one before that!

The manuals give clear instructions on how to identify fraudulent acts, such as changes in colour, consistency, and taste of foodstuffs and ingredients, with the muhtasib being assisted by helpers, who would report on any suspicious behaviour. For instance, in order to detect fraudulent musk — another very expensive commodity — the inspector should put his lips to it; if it is pure musk, he should get a sharp sensation, like fire, in his mouth. If he does not, then the musk has been tampered with. The inspector would also take pre-emptive measures, such as putting a seal on food items, to prevent any subsequent tampering.

Another key area revolved around measures and weights, and muhtasibs went around verifying that traders used the right weights and did not short-change the unsuspecting punter.

When rules were broken, there would naturally follow a punishment, which the inspectors were empowered to carry out. However, the manuals encouraged them to rely on deterrence and reprimand, and to be lenient for first offenders, while the penalty should be commensurate with the crime. The manual lists the muhtasib‘s main tools of the trade, so to speak, as being the whip and the turtur (طرطور), a tall conical cap, which were displayed at his booth in the market, by way of deterrent. In serious cases, or repeat offending, the penalties would be flogging and/or public pillory, with the culprit being forced to wear the turtur as a kind of dunce cap, and paraded about town.

But it was not just unscrupulous business practices that fell within the muhtasib‘s remit, which was, after all, to uphold moral conduct, and so he would also intervene in other matters that infringed upon public decency, such as the drinking of alcohol, or unmarried/ unrelated men and women consorting.

13th-century market scene, showing craftspeople, traders, and animals (BnF, MSS, Arabe 5847).

Almond-filled dates in syrup

Stuffing dates was as popular in the past as it is today, and Apicius’ Roman cookery book has what is perhaps the oldest recipe in his list of ‘home-made sweets’ (dulcia domestica). Interestingly enough, his stuffing could also include ground pepper alongside the nuts, with the dates subsequently being sprinkled with salt (!) and candied in honey.

Stuffed dates were also a regular occurrence in the medieval Arab culinary tradition, and recipes can be found in cookery books from both Syria and Egypt, spanning a period of two centuries (13th-15th). For today’s scrumptious ‘honeyed dates’ (رطب معسّل, rutab mu’assal) from The Sultan’s Feast you need fresh dates, which should be left in the shade for a couple days, though one can dispense with this step if you’re buying them at the supermarket! Then, the fun part begins; remove the stones with a needle and stuff a peeled almond in each date (in the Syrian recipe, pistachios were also allowed). Next, they are boiled in a mixture of honey, vinegar, rose water, and saffron. Once the dates have absorbed all the goodness, they’re ready to come out, but before tucking in, do sprinkle some sugar on top, you’ll thank me for it later! I strongly suggest following the author’s advice to spice things up some more by adding musk and spikenard to the mixture. Though recommended for use in cold weather, this delicacy should really be enjoyed all year round. Indeed, the Syrian recipe does not endow the dish with medicinal properties but praises it for being ‘very pleasant’ (جيد مليح, jayyid malih).

Egyptian pickled leeks

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is already found in an earlier Egyptian cookery book. It is actually a variant of a pickled garlic recipe, and involves leek being cured with salt and barley. The instructions include using a container smeared with pitch and sealing it with clay, but a Mason jar does the trick very nicely, too!

Spotlight on: Ginger

It is thought that ginger (Zingiber officinale) originated in China, though it was very early on also grown in the Indian sub-Continent. In fact, the Greek word zingiberi (ζιγγίβερι) can be traced back to the Sanskrit śṛṅgam (‘horn-shaped’). In ancient Greece and Rome it was already used in both cooking and medicine. According to Dioscorides (1st c. CE), who said ginger tasted like pepper, the plant was grown in ‘Troglodytic Arabia’ (present-day Eritrea), where people boiled it for draughts and mixed it into boiled foods. He added that it was pickled and shipped to Italy in clay vessels, in order to preserve its flavour. In Apicius’ Roman cookbook, ginger is used in a variety of recipes.

In medieval Arab cuisine, ginger (زنجبيل, zanjabīl) was a key ingredient, and was used both whole and ground, in sweet and savoury dishes (with meat as well as fish), and beverages; indeed, the Qur’an (76:17) mentions a ginger-flavoured drink as one of the beneficences of paradise. In the cookery books, ginger is used more often in Near Eastern recipes than those from the Western Mediterranean. It usually co-occurs with pepper, mint, olive oil, salt, and rose water. In Andalusian cuisine, ginger is often sprinkled on dishes before serving, alongside cinnamon and spikenard.

In his book on Simple Drugs (الأدوية المفردة, al-Adwiya al-mufrada), which was translated into Latin by the famous physican Arnaldo de Vilanova, the scholar Abu ’l-Ṣalt Umayya al-Ishbīlī (d. 1134) distinguished between different types of ginger: Frankish (also known as ‘Chinese’), cultivated, and Syrian, equating the last two with elecampane (rāsin). The Frankish variety “grows abundantly in Arab lands, especially Oman, where its leaves are used like those of rue and they put it in their food. (…) It tastes like pepper, and tastes and smells nice. (…) It is imported from India but also grows in the land of the Franks and al-Andalus.  …. It is also called zanghibārī.”

Physicians praised its aphrodisiacal and digestive qualities. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) said it also increased memory, and according to the 13th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Khalṣūn, ginger has no harmful effects whatsoever, provided it is used in moderation. His compatriot, the botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248) added that it is useful against lethargy and venoms. The Persian polymath al-Bīrūnī (d. ca 1052) praised the aphrodisiac properties of ginger conserve (زنجبيل مربّى, zanjabīl murabbā), which also heats the stomach and the liver.

Picture of ginger in the herbal compiled by the 12th-century Andalusian physician al-Ghafiqi entitled Book of Simple Drugs (كتاب الأدوية المفردة, Osler Library, McGill University, Osler MS 7508)