Medieval Egyptian coriander stew (كزبرية, kuzbariyya)

Despite the widespread use of coriander (كزبرة, kuzbara), this is one of the few coriander stews in the medieval Arab culinary tradition. This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is made with chicken, onions, sesame oil, various spices, garlic and, of course, a large amount of fresh coriander. Interestingly enough, the author mentions that it is made like a mulūkhiyya (a popular stew made with Jew’s mallow) — was it perhaps a variant made if no Jew’s mallow was available?.

Spotlight on: camphor

The Arabic name of this aromatic, kāfūr (كافور) goes back to the Middle Persian kāpūr, which, itself has Aramaic and Akkadian antecedents. It refers to the resin extracted from the evergreen camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora; Laurus camphora L.) native to East Asia (China, Japan), or from a tree (Dryobalanops camphor) grown in Borneo. The latter was considered to be much stronger and thus of better quality.

There is no evidence that camphor was known in Greek and Roman Antiquity, and it first appeared in the Mediterranean basin as a medicinal spice in the sixth century CE. Camphor was used in perfumes and as an aromatic in pre-Islamic (Sassanid) Persia, where it was also employed as an embalming agent.

It was clearly known in pre-Islamic Arabia as well since according to the Qur’ān (76:5), “the Righteous will drink of a cup of wine mixed with camphor”. The historian al-Mas’ūdī (d. 956) traced its origin to India, while Marco Polo found that the best camphor came from Fansur in Sumatra which was sold for its weight in gold. Arab merchants brought it to the Mediterranean where it was traded between Egypt, Sicily and the Maghrib.

In cooking, it was called for in a number of savouries as well as sweets, and often in conjunction with musk. It was – and still is – used extensively in perfumes, though Ibn Sīnā warned that regular use makes the hair grey.

Medicinally, it was used for a wide range of applications, with al-Kindī (9th c.), for instance, using it for swollen liver, complaints of the larynx, and inflammations of the mucous membrane in the mouth. It is reported how the physician Ibn Butlān (11th c.) once cleared a woman’s catarrh by stuffing her hair with camphor. Camphor was also prescribed in a compress against fevers or headaches. However, it was said to cause insomnia, generates kidney and bladder stones, as well as being an anaphrodisiac (i.e. it suppresses libido).

camphor in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.), Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Ma’muniyya (مأمونية)

This recipe is named after its alleged originator, the famous Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mūn (813–33), a patron of the arts and sciences during whose reign many of the Greek scientific works were translated into Arabic. It must have been a very popular dish as recipes can be found in 13th-century Syrian and 15th-century Egyptian cookery books. It is a kind of rice pudding, which could be made with or without meat, as it is here. The process is pretty straightforward; after pounding rice it is boiled in milk, sugar, and sheep’s tail fat (if you don’t have any to hand, just use ghee instead) to a light pudding. It is served with a garnishing of pistachios, pomegranate seeds, and rock candy.

Andalusian saffron chicken (الجعفرية, al-Ja’fariyya)

A wonderful chicken dish from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise which requires salt, olive oil, vinegar, pepper, coriander, cumin, onions, almonds, chickpeas, garlic, murrī, citron (leaves), fennel, and, of course, saffron. The chicken is first cooked in a pot and then transferred to a glazed casserole dish (tajine) for roasting in the oven until golden brown. It is served with cut hard-boiled eggs and mint.

The author also gives another method of making the chicken which involves frying it in a pan, instead of oven roasting. After it has browned, it is then cooked again with many of the above ingredients, as well as meatballs. When it is done, it is covered with a layer of eggs beaten with spices — a very common finishing to dishes in medieval Andalusian cuisine.

The name of the dish is quite interesting, and is explained in another Andalusian cookery book, which claims that it refers to the amount of saffron it includes as this makes the dish look ‘ja’far‘, i.e. gold of the finest quality. It is also said that it was named after a certain Jaʿfar, who invented it.

Spolight on: caraway (كراويا, karāwayā)

This biennial plant (Carum carvi) is native to Western Asia and the Mediterranean — in fact, it may well be the oldest spice plant to be cultivated in Europe. It was already used in classical Antiquity; Dioscorides likened it to anise seed and said that it promotes digestion, while the root can boiled and eaten just like carrot. It became very popular in Roman times and is required in a number of recipes in Apicius’ cookery book (4th c.)

Its Arabic name also sometimes occurs as karwiyā, whereas in English its other names include meridian fennel and Persian cumin. The wild variety was known in Arabic as qardamāna (قردمانة) or qardamānā (قردمانا).

In medieval Arab cooking, caraway seeds (the dried fruit of the plant) were frequently used — often toasted and ground — in a variety of dishes, condiments, and sauces. The anonymous author of a 13th-century Andalusian treatise recommended it for dishes with cabbage and spinach, or tharīds (vegetables and meat in a broth with bread), since it improves their taste and dispels wind caused by the vegetables. However, caraway (and coriander) should never be used in ṭafāyās (stews).

Medicinally, it was considered an effective anti-emetic, anthelmintic, digestive, diuretic, as well as being useful against hiccups and palpitations. It is better for the stomach than cumin, while the best variety is the cultivated one. Ibn Jazla (11th c.) stated that it can be harmful to the lungs, which is remedied with wild thyme. According to al-Samarqandī (13th c.), caraway is constipating, and Ibn Khalṣūn (13th c.) said it was harmful to the stomach and reduces appetite, and recommended eating it with cinnamon.

Today, caraway is mostly used to flavour sweet dishes and bakery goods, especially certain types of bread. It is also an ingredient in the Tunisian chilli paste harisa (هريسة).

caraway in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.), Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Andalusian quince jam

This is a variant of the 13th-century quince jelly (معجون السفرجل, ma’jūn al-safarjal); it is equally medicinal in purpose, as well as being extremely tasty! The quince are pounded and then cooked with honey until you obtain the required consistency. A similar recipe is mentioned by the 11th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, who calls it safarjal murabbā, the latter word being the usual word for ‘jam’ in Standard Arabic. This delicacy can easily be preserved, like any other jam, and I’m pleased to report that it has been tried and tested as an accompaniment to musamman!

Spotlight on: cumin (كمّون, kammun)

The plant (Cuminum cyminum) is native to Central Asia and is attested as early as the second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, where it was already used in cooking. Cumin is also found in a number of (fish) recipes in Apicius’ Roman cookery book.

Arab scholars mentioned several varieties of cumin (for example, Persian, Syrian, Kirmani, Nabataean), whereas the term was also used as a generic to denote other plants: kammūn rūmī/armanī (‘Byzantine/Armenian cumin’, i.e. caraway), kammūn ḥulw (‘sweet cumin’, i.e. aniseed). The variety known as black cumin is referred to in Arabic as ḥabba sawdā’.

In cooking, it was a highly popular aromatic, across all treatises, with the seeds being used whole or ground. The author of a 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise recommends cumin for vinegar dishes, in broth of fried poultry and meat, while its deflatuent and digestive effect makes it suitable for all dishes that contain vinegar or murrī.

Medicinally, it was considered hot and dry, and the seeds of the plant (whether wild or cultivated) were used as a digestive, emmenagogue, aphrodisiac and a cure for urinary, intestinal as well as eye diseases.

garden cumin in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)

wild cumin in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)

Spotlight on: Pepper

One of the oldest and most utilised spices in history, pepper (Piper nigrum) was originally grown on the Malabar coast (southwest India). It starts as berries of a perennial climbing vine which are harvested as soon as they ripen and have turned red. The peppercorns are then left out to dry out in the sun, after which they turn black. For white pepper, the berries are left on the vine longer and are then soaked so that the white seed can be extracted more easily before drying it. The white variety is less fragrant and aromatic.

In Greek Antiquity, where pepper is first attested in around 400BCE, only two kinds were known, black and ‘long pepper’ (Piper longum). The latter is another species of the pepper family, and tends to refer to the variety grown in the Himalayas and southern India. There is also a species grown in Malaysia, and known as ‘Javanese’ long pepper (Piper retrofractum). It is, in fact, long pepper that was most used in the Mediterranean basin, and it is its Sanskrit name, pipali, which is the origin of the Greek peperi, and thus the English ‘pepper.’

In Roman times, the spice really came into its own and the naturalist Pliny (1st c. CE) refers to black, white and long pepper, adding that the last cost twice as much as the second, which, in turn, was more expensive than the black. In Apicius’ cookery book (4th c.), pepper is the single-most important spice, and is used in nearly 90% of dishes.

In the Arabic-speaking world, the same three varieties of pepper (fulful‘, filfil)) were known and used: black (aswad), white (abyaḍ), and long pepper (dār fulful < Persian). It was also sometimes referred to as ḥabb Hindī (‘Indian seeds’) and bābārī (a Greek borrowing). The Arabic fulful goes back to the above Sanskrit word, via Persian.

According to the oldest Arabic geographical manual, pepper was sourced from Kīlah, which has been identified as Kra, in the Malay Peninsula. In his ‘Wonders of Creation‘ (see illustration below), al-Qazwini explains that pepper comes from a tall tree that grows in India in the region called Malabar (Malibar, مليبار), close to the water; it bears fruit in summer and winter, and its grains are blown in the water by the wind, after which they shrink. The Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (13th c.) lists a number of other members of the pepper family (seven in total), including fulful al-Ṣaqāliba (‘Slav pepper’) and fulful al-mā’ (‘water pepper’).

In cooking, black pepper was one of the most used spices and is called for — usually ground — in many savoury dishes, condiments, etc. A 15th-century Egyptian author said that it has a powerful effect and enhances the smell of the food, and thus one does not need a large quantity of it. Furthermore, pepper was apparently also used in dishes containing cassia and galangal in order to reduce the flavour of the these spices. In Islamic medicine, black pepper was used extensively, including as a digestive, appetizer, diuretic, and aphrodisiac.

White pepper was used very sparingly in medieval Arab cuisine, and according to a 12th-author, it was only used for medicinal purposes. Long pepper, too, appears relatively rarely; it is found in a number of recipes in a 10th-century Abbasid treatise and just twice in a 13th-century Syrian collection book, but is absent from other cookery manuals. However, long pepper was not infrequently used in medicinal compounds.

In medieval European cuisines, long pepper was used extensively but fell out of favour by the end of the 17th century and has remained conspicuous by its absence from the European culinary repertoire. Today, long pepper tends to be associated with Asian cuisines.

Pepper in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (British Library)
Illustration of the harvesting of pepper in Salman Tusi’s ‘Book of Wonders’ (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Medieval Egyptian Duo of Turnip Pickles

Some more delicious pickled turnip recipes from The Sultan’s Feast. For the first, turnips are diced and coloured with saffron, before adding wine vinegar sweetened with honey (you can also use sugar or date syrup), mint, rue, mustard seeds, and aṭrāf al-ṭīb.

The second recipe is a maḥshī (محشي), which in medieval Arab cuisine sometimes referred to a sauce, rather than stuffing, as it does today. This one is made with mustard seeds, raisins, wine vinegar, mint, rue, aṭrāf al-ṭīb, sesame seeds, and toasted hemp seeds.

Medieval chicken tharida (ثريدة)

This 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian recipe is made with chickens — and, if you have some available, capons –, as well as salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander, onions, and chickpeas. The dough is made with semolina, and is folded and smeared with clarified butter (ghee), just like for making musamman. The pastry is cut into pieces which are put in the top pot of a couscoussier, with the chicken being in the lower chamber. When everything is done, the chicken pieces, onion, and chickpeas are put on top of the pastry, with the edges of the serving dish being lined with boiled eggs, olives, and preserved limes. A sprinkle of cinnamon and ginger, and voilà, it’s ready to tuck in!

The author explains that this recipe is a Tunisian speciality, especially in the capital Tunis, and that it is often made at celebrations. It is very similar, of course, to the modern Moroccan dish rfissa (رفيسة), though this is usually prepared with lentils.