This recipe is included in the earliest Abbasid cookery book and is attributed to the ill-fated Musa al-Hadi, whose caliphate lasted only around a year (785-6) before he was succeeded by his younger brother, the great Harun al-Rashid. The dish is quite simple to make, and requires lamb’s liver, vinegar (it works well with apple cider, too!), murrī (use soya sauce as a substitute), sesame oil, coriander, cumin, caraway, and pepper. The liver is cut into narrow strips and marinated in the seasonings and spices before frying. When serving, sprinkle on some more spices. They make a wonderful liver sandwich, with sauce and trimmings of your choice.
The importance of meat in medieaval Arab cuisine was such that vegetarian dishes were known as ‘counterfeit’ (مزوّرات, muzawwarāt) as they were intended to copy meat dishes, in an attempt to make the diner eat them! Non-meat dishes were associated with Christians (during Lent) and the sick. This 13th-century Andalusian recipe falls in the latter category and was allegedly useful againsttertian and acute fevers (حُمَّى الغِبّ والحمّايات الحادّة). It is prepared by boiling and washing lentils and then cooking them with some gourd, chard, cucumber, vinegar, coriander, cumin, cassia and saffron. The resultant taste should be subtly sweet and sour, and the dish should be served cold.
The origins of this plant (Colocasia esculenta/antiquorum) lie in East Asia, presumably the Indochinese Peninsula, and it is thought to be one of the oldest domesticated food plants. In the Middle East, the taro first made its appearance in Mesopotamia, sometime before or around the 10th century, and later became associated with Egypt. Its early history in Antiquity is shrouded in mystery, not least because the colocasia of the ancient Greeks initially denoted the Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), and only came to refer to the taro around the fourth century. Prior to this, taro was known as aron, which gave the Latin arum. Similar to a small hairy potato in appearance, it has a very starchy flavour. After the potato was introduced, the taro gradually fell out of favour in many places.
Only the root of the plant was eaten, almost always cooked, or fried, as in mediaeval Arab cooking. Use of the taro appears to have increased after the thirteenth century as there is only one recipe requiring it prior to that. It is also worth noting that taro is not found in the culinary treatises of the Islamic West, that is to say North Africa and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) likened it to saltwort, and said that it was salty, astringent, diuretic, and purging. According to the 11th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, taro stimulates sexual desire. The 14th-century Moroccan globetrotter Ibn Baṭṭūṭa would probably have disagreed since he partook of some taro in Mali, where it was the people’s favourite food, and was ill for two months. A companion of his was less lucky and died after eating it. Today taro is commonly used in the cuisines of Asia (where the purple variety is favoured), the Caribbean (where it is referred to as eddo) and, especially, the Pacific Islands (where it is also known as poi).
The dish is found in 13th-century cookbooks from Egypt and Syria. Its Arabic name is سِتّ شناع (sitt shunā’) or ست الشنع (sitt al-shuna’ ) and translates, somewhat mysteriously, as ‘the lady of terrible things’. It is one of relatively few dishes made with taro root. The recipe also calls for meat, hazelnuts, tahini, coriander, and pepper. The taro is fried and serves as a bed for the other ingredients.
Two mediaeval Egyptian recipes from The Sultan’s Feastfor sweets made from gourd, one resembling candy strings, and the other a pudding. The recipes simply call for ‘green sweet gourd’, and were recreated using the more unusual snake gourd. In both cases, the gourd pieces are boiled. The candied strings are made with sugar, honey and rose-water syrup, and garnished with crushed pistachios. The second dish has the consistency of the carrot khabis, and requires poppyseed essence, almond milk, sugar, starch, rose-water syrup, and sesame oil. If you are a purist or mediaevalist, then you should also flavour the sugar with musk.
A dish allegedly created by the hedonistic prince Ibrahim Ibn al–Mahdi (779-839), the half-brother of the famous Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, who makes numerous appearances in the Arabian Nights. Ibn al-Mahdi was known as a singer, poet, and gastronome, and this recipe is probably from his cookery book (كتاب الطبيخ, kitab al-tabikh), which has unfortunately been lost. The dish is essentially a grilled chicken rubbed with salt, thyme, and olive oil, and then basted with the juice of both sweet and sour pomegranates, mixed with murrī. It is served with a rich gravy made with the chicken juices and crushed walnuts. According to the author of the 10th-century treatise who has preserved the recipe, it is “delicious, flavoursome, wondrous, and often used (لذيذة، طيّبة، عجيبة، مستعملة).” Deservedly high praise, indeed.
A delicious quince preserve recipe from 13th-century Andalusia. The Arabic word ma’jūn is related to a verb meaning ‘to knead’, and denotes a paste, usually for medicinal use, though the result is often so tasty that one does not need to be sick to enjoy it! The preparation could not be simpler and requires about a pound of quince and some sugar. According to the author, the jelly can be used to remove bitterness in the mouth, arouse the appetite, and prevents bad vapours (بُخارات, bukhārāt) from rising from the stomach to the brain. You can’t say fairer than that, can you!
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 Persia. 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.