Mace (basbasa, بسباسة)

This aromatic is the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree, a tropical evergreen; to be more precise, it is the covering of the seed, which is nutmeg (jawz bawwā/جوز بوّا, jawz al-tīb/جوز الطيب). Unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, both were introduced to the Mediterranean by Arab merchants. Together with cloves, they were some of the most expensive spices of the Middle Ages, due to the fact that they were only produced in a small Indonesian archipelago to the south of the Molucca Islands. In medieval Arab cuisine, mace was used quite sparingly, and appears primarily in drinks — often digestives or stomachics — and fruit conserves, as well as in perfumes. It is not mentioned in any of the recipes in Arabic cookery books from the Western Mediterranean (al-Andalus, North Africa). Today, it is sold in blades or ground.

Andalusian tabahija (طباهجة) trio

This is a 13th-century variation of a dish that was very popular in the Muslim East and starts with meat (lamb) cut into strips. The recipe is of particular interest because it results in the creation of no fewer than three dishes. The first involves the meat, oil, ginger, salt, pepper and water. One third of the dish is then taken and placed in another pot with vinegar. Half of this is transferred to another pan and sprinkled with chopped rue. Finally, add asafoetida to the remaining half and crack five eggs over it.

Sour eggs with celery (bayd masus, بيض مصوص)

This recipe is found in two 13th-century Baghdadi and Egyptian cookery books. It involves sesame oil, eggs, celery, with coriander cumin, cinnamon and mastic. Once they eggs are fried, pour on vinegar, and sprinkle with saffron for colour. The vegetable ingredient merits some attention inasmuch as the Arabic word karafs (كرفس) usually denotes celery, but at the time could also refer to parsley. Modern European celery is not really suited for the dish and the recreation was made with the leaves of Chinese (Nan ling) celery, It also works very well with parsley.

Fish barida (باردة) with herbs

A delicious 10th-century Abbasid recipe for a ‘cold dish’ (bārida), made with watercress, parsley, leeks, fish, and eggs, spiced with pepper, coriander, cumin, and caraway. Of note is the fact that you need to extract the juices from the herbs after crushing them. You can also make three dishes by making it with one of the herbs in separate pots. The fish should be boned — or you can just use fillets, of course!

Pickled cucumber (خيار مخلّل, khiyar mukhallal)

In medieval Arab food culture, pickling of various vegetables (e.g. garlic, carrot, turnip, cabbage) took pride of place. This 13th-century Egyptian recipe is a wonderful example and requires cucumbers to be soaked in brine and then immersed in wine vinegar and cucumber juice with parsley, mint , rue, tarragon, and several heads of garlic.

Andalusian fried red mullet

For this 13th-century recipe, the fish is cleaned and dusted with flour before being fried in olive oil. Then, it is doused with a deliciously rich sauce made with crushed garlic, vinegar, parsley and mint, as well as coarsely pounded walnuts.

Egg-and-cheese dough bread

Ideally, this bread should be made in a traditional dome-shaped clay oven, known as the tannūr (تنور), but in case you don’t have access to a palace kitchen, feel free to use a good home oven. The dough is made with flour, dried cheese (for best results use drained cottage cheese), twenty eggs (yes, you read that right) for every 2.2 kilograms of flour, and milk. The seasonings for the dough include fenugreek, mastic, anise, nigella, coriander, sesame and caraway seeds. Shape the dough into loaves and then bake. This bread is absolutely scrumptious and ideal to make last week’s sandwiches.

Syro-Egyptian filled chicken sandwiches

Though the instructions simply say getting some soft-dough bread from the baker, this re-creation is made with a bread recipe from the same 13th-century Syrian cookery book. That will be the object of the next post, but here we’ll be talking about the filling of the sandwiches, which the author claims were Egyptian in origin.

Start by hollowing out small loaves — you can choose the size you like, but it works best if you shape them into large rolls. The main ingredient is the chicken which should be boiled, fried and shredded before mixing it with the crumbs taken out of the bread, pistachios, parsley, mint and lemon juice. Then stuff the mixture into the loaves, thus making them whole again. Cut into pieces or slices of your liking and, perhaps in reference to their Egyptian origins, pile them up into a pyramid, which is then liberally sprinkled with herbs, as well as violets and narcissus, and garnished with orange. Tuck in immediately, though they are still delicious after a night in the fridge.

According to the author this is one of the most elegant foods (فإنّها من أظرف المآكل) and anyone trying these sandwiches will surely agree!

Medieval Egyptian cottage cheese

This recipe for qanbarīs (قنبريس) is from a 15th-century cookery book and requires vinegar and milk. After boiling the vinegar, the milk is poured in and then the mixture is left overnight to coagulate. It was a particular favourite of the author, who added that some people could not enjoy their food unless there was cheese on the table. Qanbarīs was often sold dried and then dissolved when needed. According to the author of a 13th-century Syrian treatise, the best kind came from Baalbek, the city in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley best known for its magnificent Roman temple complex.