Medieval wheat harisa with veal

This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is an Andalusian twist on a classic Arab dish, which goes back to pre-Islamic times. It is made with crushed wheat — the Arabic word harīsa (هريسة) is derived from a verb meaning ‘to mash’ –, which is slow-cooked and then added with fatty veal meat and suet in order to ensure a gluey consistency. But that’s only the half of it — the author recommends keeping some of the harīsa mixture to one side and frying it into patties, which are then added on top as a garnish, together with egg yolks and — if you have any — sparrows (!). A sprinkling of cinnamon, and then it’s time to serve! If you don’t have veal, feel free to use mutton or chicken, while the wheat can be subsituted for rice. Descendants of this dish are still around today, most notably the harees (هريس) of the Gulf and the Armenian harisseh.

Medieval Chicken Pie

This is a recreation of an Abbasid pie known as maghmuma (مغمومة), i.e. ‘concealed’, in that the content is covered by a top sheet of dough. As it was cooked in a tannūr (clay oven), it is also a tannūriyya. The principle is simple — and decidedly modern — one; after lining the bottom of a pan with dough, the chicken pieces are placed on top, after which a variety of spices (including coriander, spikenard, cloves and pepper) and wine vinegar and murrī are added, though for this recreation the variant with raisins and pomegranate seeds was used, alongside eggs and olive oil. Then, it is time to put the roof on the pie! The recipe states that it should be lowered into the tannūr, but your standard kitchen oven works just as well. A true delight.

Andalusian veal and plum stew

This delicate stew from The Exile’s Cookbook is made with plums — probably damson — known in Andalusian Arabic by the very poetic name of ʿayn al-baqar (عين البقر, ‘cows’ eyes’), and this is how they appear in the dish as well! The recipe is similar to another stew, known as Murūziyya (مروزية), which in contemporary Moroccan cuisine denotes a honeyed lamb tajine sometimes including plums. Interestingly enough, the author recounts that these plums were imported from ‘the land of the Christians – may Allah destroy it!’

The recipe calls for prime veal cuts, which are cooked in olive oil, pepper, coriander, cumin, onion and ‘good-quality’ murrī. In the next stage, the damson plums — soaked in some vinegar — are added, and finally some saffron for colouring. The author suggests a variation without onions, but with almonds, chickpeas and cloves of garlic.

The accompaniment to this dish? Well, that just has to be couscous of course!

Spotlight on: the Gazelle

A member of the antilope family sometimes known as ‘the daughter of the sand’ (بنت الرمل, bint al-raml), the gazelle — the English word is a borrowing from the Arabic ghazāl (غزال) — figures prominently in Arabic literature with numerous references to its elegance, beauty and speed. It was sometimes known as ẓabī (ظبي), though this is the usual word for antilope. The word gazelle also has romantic connotations and often denotes a beautiful woman, particularly in poetry and songs.

The gazelle was praised for the quality of its meat, which was the only game meat (لحم الصيد, lahm al-sayd) that met with the approval of physicians, who recommended it for old people and those with a cold temperament. The physician Ibn Butlan (11th c.) explained that if young people want to eat gazelle meat, they should let it rest overnight in pomegranate juice and vinegar. The young fawn (خشف, khishf) are better for young people and suit their temperaments. It would appear that even the heads were eaten at some point, as Ibn Butlan refers to the fact that the heads of sheep are more humid than those of goats, and those of goats more humid than those of gazelles. According to his fellow Baghdadi and contemporary, the pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, gazelle meat is useful against colic and hemiplegia.

The cosmographer al-Qazwini states that the gazelle is the shyest of all animals, but that it is very intelligent as it enters its lair backwards so as to ensure a quick getaway when an enemy is lurking within. It was also unusual in that it was partial to the colocynth (حنظل, hanzal), unlike other wild animals, which avoid it. And when the gazelle drinks seawater and then eats colocynth, the water that flows from its mouth becomes sweet!

There is also a religious connection, with the word ḥūrīyya (the English ‘houri’), which denotes the beautiful maidens of Paradise promised to the devout Muslim in the afterlife. It is related to a word meaning ‘whiteness’ and is especially applied to the eye of a gazelle (in contrast to the deep black of its pupils), as in the expression ḥūr al-ʿīn (حور العين) — the Qur’anic equivalent being ḥūr ʿīn — meaning “having eyes like those of gazelles and of cows,” which was often applied to women.

Despite the praise for gazelle meat, it appears relatively rarely in the medieval culinary treatises, with most of the recipes being found in the Abbasid tradition (9th-10th c.), where it is used in a bārida (باردة, ‘cold dish’), with cuts of the animal being stuffed with almonds and pistachio before being cooked in vinegar and a number of aromatic spices. It would be garnished with parsley, rue and mint before serving. Other recipes include frying the meat, or cooking it in a water-and-salt stew (ماء وملح, mā’ wa milh) with chickpea and onions, as well as mustard and verjuice.

In the Muslim West, only The Exile’s Cookbook mentions gazelle meat, in a stew which could also include several other wild animals such as deer, bovine antelope, mountain goat and even ass, with chickpeas, citron, garlic, onion and fennel being the main non-meat ingredients.

illustration of the gazelle by Ibn Bukhtishu’
the gazelle in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’

Andalusian lamb and orache stew

This thirteenth-century recipe from The Exile”s Cookbook is a variation on a spinach stew made with ram, though lamb works very nicely as well in case you can’t get your hands on some ram meat. The meat is cooked first and then the orache, known in Arabic as qaṭaf (قطف) or baqla dhahabiyya (‘golden herb’). It’s not readily available in shops, but very easy to grow and so for the re-creation, the one grown in the garden was used. It is no coincidence that this vegetable is given as an option since it has a very similar taste to spinach. Other ingredients include suet, coriander — both fresh and juiced — and mint. Apparently, this was a dish that was served at banquets, in which case it would have been garnished with fresh cheese before serving. And why not, indeed?

Medieval large-grain couscous

A recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a variation of the famous Berber (Amazigh) dish couscous, this one involving hand-rolled large grains known as muhammas (محمّص). The word is derived from ḥimmiṣ (حمّص), ‘chickpea’, in reference to the shape and size. It is still used in this sense in North African Arabic dialects, alongside others like barkūk, barkukes, abāzīn or mardūd. The importance that is attached to this kind of couscous is such that in some regions it is known, simply, as ‘aysh (‘life’).

It is different from the usual couscous in that semolina is kneaded and shaped into pellets the size of peppercorns which are then dried in the sun before cooking them with the meat of your choice. For the re-creation, chicken was used, but it works just as well with beef or mutton. A wonderful dish.

Tuniso-Andalusian lamb and asparagus casserole

This unusual dish from The Exile’s Cookbook is made with a vegetable that had been imported from the East by the famous Ziryab (9th century). The lamb is cut into chunks and cooked wit olive oil, murri, onions, garlic and a variety of spices and herbs, such as cumin, coriander and citron leaves. The asparagus is cooked separately with vinegar, and coloured with saffron. The third component is eggs, which are fried in a casserole dish with aromatics, after which the asparagus and lamb are added in alternate layers. To cap things off, some more eggs are required — it’s an Andalusian dish after all! — combined with spices and saffron. The mixture is poured on top, followed by egg yolks for garnish before taking the casserole to the oven and so the yolks can set. Not enough eggs, I hear you shriek? Not to worry, why not add a garnish of split [boiled] eggs before serving, as well as a sprinkling of cinnamon and ginger. Not only does it taste wonderful, but it also gives you a few days’ worth of proteins!

Andalusian aphrodisiac tharida

This thirteenth-century recipe from a Tuniso-Andalusian collection is made with a plump poussin, olive oil, salt, cinnamon, coriander seeds, chickpeas, onion juice, egg yolks, breadcrumbs, as well as spikenard, cloves, ginger and pepper. The author suggests that sparrows can also be used instead of chicken or, to increase the effect, both can be cooked together.

The aphrodisiac effect is achieved by the presence of ingredients such as poultry, eggs, and chickpeas, all of which were considered to be sexual stimulants. For an extra boost — as well as to enhance the flavour — carrots (another known aphrodisiac) can also be added to the pot.

No 250! Tuniso-Andalusian apple stew (تفّاحية, tuffahiyya)

Named after its principal ingredient (tuffāḥ, ‘apple’), this 13th-century recipe is made with fatty yearling ram (though I think it’s even better with tender lamb!), which is carved up and cooked with salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander seeds, a little cumin, and some onions. It also requires apples, of course — both sweet and sour, which are peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped. Round off with some saffron and vinegar and then serve with a sprinkling of cinnamon and ginger. If you really want to push the boat out, perfume the dish with musk, ambergris, rose water and camphor, which, so the author assures us, will strengthen the soul and gladden the heart.

Tuniso-Andalusian lamb stew with unripe green almonds

Almonds are used very frequently in medieval Arab cooking, not least as a thickener. In Muslim Spain, the area of Jerez was particularly known for its high-quality almonds. This 13th-century dish is somewhat unusual in that it requires unripe green almonds, which are cooked whole in a wonderful lamb dish with, among other things, onion, garlic, coriander, citron, fennel and (loads of) chickpeas. When the meat and almonds are almost done, it’s time to add some colour with saffron before boosting the dish with some vinegar. The dish was also made with a layer of eggs and spices at the end. Before serving, sprinkle on ginger and, as the author says, and eat and enjoy! To mix things up, the dish can be made with veal, as well.