Egyptian-style preserved lemons

These are two variations of preserved lemon from a 15th-century cookery book. The first requires taking salt-cured lemons and stuffing them with ginger, mint, and rue, before cramming them in a container. Saffron and honey are added later. The second type is a bit more tricky as the lemons should be layered on a platter and pressed down with stones, and left for three days. In both cases, the container is sealed with olive oil.

Nigella (شونيز, shuniz)

The Arabic word for this spice (Nigella sativa) is a borrowing from Persian. The aromatic seeds, also known as ḥabba sawdā’ (حَبَّة سَوْداء, ‘black grain’), were often sprinkled on top of bread loaves before baking, but are also found occasionally in some spice mixes and savoury meat dishes. In Persian, it could denote sesame, coriander or pepper. Medically, nigella was thought to be carminative, purifying, and useful against warts, freckles, ulcers, and even spider bites! However, physicians warned that the excessive use of the spice is fatal. According to the 11th-century polymath al-Bīrūnī, droplets of nigella oil serve to treat paralysis and tetanus. For those wishing to grow their own, nigella is a very hardy plant and even thrives in the inhospitable climate of Northeastern England.

Andalusian lamb tharida with cheese and spinach

The tharīd (ثَرِيد) is one of the oldest and most popular dishes in Arab cuisine and usually denotes crumbled bread in a meat or vegetable broth. Deriving its name from the verb tharada (ثَرَدَ), ‘to crumble’, the dish was apparently one of the favourite foods of the Prophet, himself, who reportedly said that “the virtue of ʿĀ’isha [his favourite wife] among women is like that of the tharīd among all food” (فضل عائشة على النساء كفضل الثريد على سائر الطعام). This 13th-century recipe is attributed to a Cordoban physician by the name of Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Bannani, who would apparently make it in spring. It is prepared with diced lamb, salt, onion juice, pepper, coriander seeds, caraway and olive oil. Once this is cooked, spinach, grated cheese and butter are added, before pouring everything onto the bread crumbs. In this recreation, the dish is served with couscous.

Spikenard (sunbul, سُنْبُل)

It denotes the root of several fragrant perennial plants of the Valerian family, which are native to India’s Hymalayan region. Bitter in flavour and musky in odour, spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) was already known in Biblical times, and is mentioned already in the Old Testament (Song of Solomon). It was mainly used in the form of a highly perfumed — and costly — ointment, such as the one used by Mary Magdalen to anoint the feet of Jesus. Its use in cooking is attested in Roman cuisine (in the 1st-century collection attributed to Apicius, there are two recipes requiring the spice – one for a sauce accompanying cold meat, and another for glazed venison) and Byzantine cuisine. In the Muslim world, it was one of the basic aromatic spices, and synonymous with nārdīn (< Gr. nárdos) in Arabic botanical and pharmacological works. It was used in in perfumes, breath sweeteners and the like, as well as in dishes and beverages. Islamic scholars identified a number of varieties, the most famous among them was Indian spikenard (سنبل هندي, sunbul hindī), also known as aromatic (سنبل الطيب, sunbul al-ṭīb) or sparrows’ spikenard (سنبل العصافير, sunbul al-‘aṣāfīr), which was considered the best and most potent. The medicinal uses of spikenard were already known in Antiquity; for instance, both Dioscorides and Pliny recommended it for eye diseases. In Arabic medical and pharmacological literature, it was advised for the liver and stomach, colds, skin conditions, haemorrhoids, uteral tumours, to sweeten the breath, and as a diuretic, abortifacient, and sexual stimulant. In India, its root is still used to prepare a hair perfume.

Spikenard in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’

Cherry chicken

A recipe from a 15th-century Egyptian cookery book. It is one of many fruit stews which were very popular. This dish is very simple to make. The chicken is boiled with galangal and cassia, whereas ripe cherries (قَراصِيا, qarāsiyā) are cooked in the broth with honey, thickened with ground almonds, and scented with rose water, camphor and musk. Serve with flatbread.

Pickled fennel trio

The recipes for these delicious condiments are from a 13th-century cookbook produced in Ayyubid Syria. They are as simple to make as they are tasty and involve using medium-cut fennel stems pickled with vinegar, and then sweetened with either sugar or honey. The third variation includes sour yoghurt as well as onions, mint, rue , tarragon, and olive oil. All three have a wonderfully tart taste, and are a great side to all manner of dishes, including sandwiches!

Galangal, galingale

A variety of ginger from Southeast Asia, galangal (Alpinia galanga) is known in Arabic as khawlanjān/khūlanjān (خولنجان), a borrowing from Persian. The aromatic dried root was used in cooking and medicine (in electuaries) in both Europe and the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. Galangal was recommended by physicians for its digestive properties and and prescribed for the treatment of colic, heartburn, and sciatica. It was also considered effective as an aphrodisiac and breath sweetener. According to the 13th-century Andalusian pharmacologist Ibn Khalsun, galangal should be used especially in winter, due to its strength. Today, it is mostly associated with Indonesian cuisine, where it is known as lengkuas, but is also commonly found in Thai dishes, such as the famous Tom Yam. It is sold either whole, or in powdered form.

The world’s oldest nougat recipe

Although the Arabs probably inherited nougat from the Persians, the oldest recorded recipes (six in total) are found in a 10th-century cookery book, where it is called nāṭif (ناطف). There are some recipes for this delicacy in other mediaeval Arabic cookery books, though it is conspicuous by its absence from those compiled in Egypt. In any case, making nougat was serious business, and required a number of dedicated utensils, including a round copper pot for boiling it, a wooden spatula for beating it, as well as a rolling pin and wooden board or marble slab for spreading it out. Even the design of the pot was carefully prescribed; it should have a rounded bottom and three legs to stop it from spinning around when beating and whitening the nougat on a wooden board. It is a bit tricky and labour-intensive to make, but the results are worth it! The recipe recreated here is that for a Harrani nougat, named after the city it allegedly came from (present-day Harran in Turkey). It requires about 1.7 kg of honey, as well as egg-whites, various spices and seeds (e.g. cassia, cloves, spikenard, hemp seeds), and a plethora of fruits and nuts (e.g. almonds, pistachios, dried cocounut). In addition to its cholesterol-enhancing qualities, it was also said to be hard to digest and to cause blockages. Then again, a good thing merits sacrifices! At least, that is what royalty must have thought, too, as the same book contains a nougat recipe made for the great caliph al-Ma’mun as a travel snack ( a bit like our trail mix or energy bar), with the author adding that “one can take it along wherever one goes and it lasts for as long as you like.” Who can argue with that?

The forgotten spice: sumac (سُمّاق)

One of the emblematic spices used in Abbasid cuisine, sumac (Rhus coriaria) was already used in cooking by the ancient Greeks, who imported it from Syria. In mediaeval Arab cuisine, dried sumac berries (as well as husks), were used pounded, or macerated, and strained to make sumac juice, which was used as a marinade for meat, as a cooking liquid, souring ingredient (chicken and lamb stews), or to dye dishes red. The juice of sumac berries was also sometimes boiled down to produce a more condensed mixture, known as sumac dibs, which could be used for souring dishes. Its taste is perhaps best described as a mixture of lemon and vinegar. Scholars distinguished between two kinds of sumac, Khorasani and Syrian, the latter of which is smaller and red like lentil. In Islamic medicine, sumac was said to be useful against bleeding, tooth-ache, nausea, and the spread of ulcers. The extract can be used to colour the hair black. Physcians warned that it causes constipation, and thus dishes containing sumac were recommended for those suffering from diarrhoea. Apparently, the caliph Harun al-Rashid was very partial to the taste, particularly in savoury sumac stews (summāqiyya).

sumac as represented by al-Qazwini (d. 1283) in his ‘Wonders of Creation’ (عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات)