Tuniso-Andalusian stuffed chicken ‘à la turque’

This 13th-century chicken dish is called al-Turkiyya, ‘the Turkish one’, for reasons that are not quite clear. In Andalusian cuisine, stuffing is an often-encountered method, and this recipe is a wonderful example. The stuffing is made with a large number of ingredients, including eggs, salt, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, coriander seeds, olives, pickled limes, saffron, almonds, and mint. The mixture is stuffed inside the chicken, which is then sewn up before cooking in a pot with water, salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander seeds, as well as some chopped onion. When the bird is done, colour it slightly with saffron, and then put it in the oven to finish the cooking, and browning on all sides. It is served with a garnish of split eggs and mint leafstalks, and a dusting of cinnamon and ginger. Beyond finger-lickin’ good!

Andalusian lamb and pickled lime stew

This is a recreation of a sweet-and-sour 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian dish, which was associated with the countryside, as its name, al-fahsi (الفحصي), is derived from the Andalusian Arabic fahs denoting ‘field’ or ‘meadow’ but, by extension, also means ‘peasant’ and so it could also be translated as the ‘peasant’s dish’. You need a fat ram — I couldn’t find ours, so had to make do with lamb — and add suet, pepper, coriander, onions, and cinnamon. When the dish is nearly done cooking, you can add pickled limes to taste. As it happens, there were some left over from an earlier batch! Serve with a dusting of cinnamon. The author adds that it can also be made with chicken or veal, but if you ask me, I doubt it can taste any better than with lamb…

Buraniyya (بورانية)

This is one of the most famous and emblematic dishes in medieval Arab cuisine. It is named after Būrān (807-884), the wife of the caliph al-Ma’mūn. Of Persian origin, she was the daughter of one of the ruler’s advisers, and was married to the caliph at the age of ten, but the wedding only took place when she reached 18. The event became legendary because of its opulence and excess; it is said to have lasted for forty days, with pearls being poured down on the couple who were sitting on a golden floor cover encrusted with precious pearls and sapphires. Balls of musk which contained the name of a gift (an estate, horse, etc.), were distributed to the multitude of guests, each of whom could subsequently lay claim to their gift. According to the historian Ibn Khaldun, one hundred and forty mule loads of wood had been brought three times a day for a whole year to the kitchen just for the wedding night, and all of it was consumed in that single night.

In Arab cookery, however, Būrān is even more famous; according to tradition, she was an accomplished cook, renowned for her fried aubergine dishes, which gained huge fame, and several recipes can be found in nearly all medieval Arab cookery books. Whether or not she actually made one for her husband during the celebrations is not known.

The recipe recreated here is a very simple — and delicious one — from The Sultan’s Feast, and requires meat, fried aubergine (in this case last week’s pickled aubergines were used), pepper, coriander seeds, mint, and onions. The meat and onion are boiled before being fried with the spices. The idea is that the meat and seasonings are the dressing for the aubergine.

Būrān’s name — and her recipe — lives on in the present day in the western Algerian burāniyya, which is known as mderbel in the East of the country (many thanks to @theconfusedarab for pointing this out). For the modern dish, take a look at @lapetitepanetiere‘s take on this. And, then, of course, there is the Spanish alboronía, a kind of ratatouille with aubergine still being the key ingredient, alongside other vegetables.

Egyptian pistachio stew (fustuqiyya)

Named after one of its principal ingredients, pistachios (فستق, fustuq), this recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is made with meat (lamb) chunks and meatballs, as well as a fair amount of spices, including aṭrāf al-ṭīb, cassia, mastic, salt, and (dried) mint. The broth is thickened with pounded pistachios and everything is left to stew. To cap things off, add lemon juice to the mix. Rose water should be sprinkled on top and rubbed along the sides of the pot for that wonderful sweet-and-sour taste — a chicken delight!

Sikbaj — the return!

Over three years ago, I posted a recreation of one of the most emblematic dishes of medieval Arab cooking, a vinegar stew known as sikbāj (سكباج), with both the dish and the name being a borrowing from Persia (sik, ‘vinegar’; bāj, ‘stew’). The recreation was based on a 10th-century Baghdadi recipe and though the result was flavoursome enough, the sourness of the vinegar was quite overpowering to the modern palate. However, everything deserves a second chance and so here’s another stab, this time using an Egyptian version of the dish from The Sultan’s Feast. It’s made with fatty lamb chunks and a range of herbs, spices and vegetables, including, agarwood, cassia, coriander, onions, leek, carrots, and aubergine, as well as, of course, the eponymous vinegar, tempered with some dibs (date molasses) or honey. The dish is served with almonds, jujubes, dates and raisins sprinkled on top. The result could not have been more different from the first iteration; rather than the tart vinegary kick, there was now a more mellow sweet-and-sour overtone. Probably the biggest difference in the two preparations was the use of the home-made medieval grape-and-fig vinegar, instead of the plain vinegar of the first sikbaj. The recipes, themselves, call for ‘vinegar’ but it is very likely that then — just as now — the cooks would have selected the vinegar of their choice for any given dish, and so, who knows, maybe in this case a fruity vinegar would have been used. At least, that’s what I’d like to think! In any case, when sikbaj is on the menu again, I know which of the two recipes I’d go for…

Spotlight on: Rabbits

The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is a member of the Leporidae (Latin, lepus, ‘hare’) family, which includes various species of hare, and is native to the Western Mediterranean, more specifically Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula. The animal was unknown as food in ancient Greece, and the Romans were the first to import the animals (from Spain) for food, using ferrets to catch them, in the 2nd century BCE. Rabbits and hares were bred and fattened in special warrens, known as leporarium, and the poet Martial (1st century BCE) considered hare the best game meat.

It is unclear when rabbits travelled eastward along the southern Mediterranean, and when they did, their meat was not highly praised since no recipes can be found in any of the Near Eastern medieval Arabic cookery books. In terms of terminology, the Arabic arnab (أرنب) to this day is the word for both hare and rabbit (especially in the Near East), though only the latter is used for food in the present-day Arab world, most famously in the Egyptian mulukhiyya (though this is also made with chicken or beef). Andalusian Arabic had separate words for rabbit, i.e. qunilya (قنلية) or qunayna (قنينة), both going back to the Latin cuniculus, which would also result in the English ‘coney’, as well as Kaninchen (German), konijn (Dutch), and kanin (Danish, Swedish). The linguistic confusion continues to this day in Morocco, where arnab can mean ‘hare’ or ‘rabbit’, but qniya only denotes rabbits. Like in ancient Rome, rabbits were bred for food in al-Andalus. Interestingly enough, though the hare appears in the name of certain dishes called arnabī, none of these require it and were, instead, made with beef, dried tuna, or aubergine!

It is only in their homeland that rabbits and hares were used in cooking, with a number of recipes for both in the anonymous Andalusian cookbook and that compiled in Tunisia by the Andalusian emigré al-Tujībī, both from the 13th century. The animals are usually roasted but also stuffed, in one instance with a rich mixture including some more rabbit meat!

In the medical and pharmacological literature, only arnab is mentioned, though as stated, it probably referred to both hares and rabbits. The 13th-century Andalusian physician Ibn Khalsun recommended young female rabbit, cooked with vinager, murrī, garlic, olive oil, onions and spices. Other scholars also praised hare meat; when eaten with vinegar, it is useful against epilepsy and when roasted, it was considered good for bowel ulcers, as well as being a diuretic. The blood of hares was prescribed in a poultice to remove freckles, pimples and blisters.

rabbits in a 13th-century manuscript of a work by the physician Ibn Bakhtishu’ (“the rabbit is afraid of all animals and is nocturnal…”)

Andalusian roast (شواء, shuwā’) duck

This is one of the few dishes in the medieval Arabic culinary recipes requiring duck, which in this case is referred to as iwazz al-qirt (أوزّ القرط), a peculiarly Andalusian Arabic term that translates literally as ‘earring goose’ and denotes a kind of duck that remains to be identified. The other interesting feature of this recipe is that it is attributed to one Abu Salih al-Rahbani, who ‘made it in his Kitchen.’

In this 13th-century recipe, the duck is marinated overnight in a mixture of juices (onion, garlic, coriander), murrī, vinegar, olive oil, and a collection of aromatic spices, including cassia, ginger, and cumin. Before putting the duck into the marinade, its skin should be pierced, with the holes being variously stuffed with garlic, almond paste, walnuts, or ginger.

If you happen to have a tannūr (clay oven) handy, put the duck inside — otherwise, just use the oven at home — and when it is cooked to a turn take it out, cut it up and serve with its juices. To say that the result is succulent is not to do it justice. If you do need to describe it, ‘heavenly’ is the word I’d use…

And, in case you feel guilty about such indulgence, bear in mind that it is also for medicinal purposes since, so the author reminds us, it is highly nutritious and strengthening!

Medieval jerky

The preserving of meat and fish through drying, curing (salting), and pickling goes back to ancient Egypt, and in what is considered the oldest Arabic cookery book (10th century), there is already a recipe for antelope (!) jerky (قديد, qadīd). The recipe recreated here is from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian cookery book and can be made with any kind of meat (in this case beef), which is cut it into strips and then put into a marinade of vinegar and salt for about half a day, after which it is seasoned with pepper, dried coriander, cumin, caraway, and murrī. Once these wonderful flavours have infused the meat, it is taken out and hung on a rope in the sun for a day — for those who do not have the luxury of sunlight, feel free to use an air dryer. It is ready when the meat has lost all of its moisture. Store in a jar in dark dry place. Interestingly enough, it was not supposed to be enjoyed as a snack, like today, but to be cooked and used ‘just like fresh meat’.


Stuffed aubergines (باذنجان محشي, badhinjan mahshi)

A delightful recipe from The Sultan’s Feast, an earlier version of which can already be found in a 13th-century Syrian cookery book.
It’s a decidedly modern dish and involves scooping out the cores of the aubergine and then stuffing them with meat mince that has been boiled and then seasoned with coriander, caraway, pepper, cassia, coriander and parsley. The aubergines are skewered to keep the stuffing snugly in place and fried, preferably in sheep’s tail fat, until golden. Serve after removing the skewers and sprinkle on dried coriander.

Medieval Egyptian Saffron chicken

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast isn’t given a name, but that’s a minor quibble in light of the sheer deliciousness of the end result! The chicken is roasted after being rubbed with walnut (or almond) oil, salt, and saffron. To ensure maximum succulence, the chicken is basted with a sesame oil, salt and saffron sauce. The author tells us that the best kind of chicken to use is one that has been tired out, fattened up and then fed vinegar and rose water before slaughter. However, no need for dramatics — simply marinate the chicken overnight in vinegar and rose water.