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.

Spotlight: A crunchy locust anyone?

The use of this insect (Schistocerca gregaria) as food goes back a long time, even if it was not always viewed favourably. The oldest references to eating locusts come from ancient Mesoptamia, where a key component of the diet was a garum-like brine in which either locusts or fish were fermented. This sauce was known as shiqqu and used as a condiment, usually paired with vinegar, and without them no meal was considered complete. Locust shiqqu also had medicinal purposes, for instance to alleviate heartburn, and would even be drunk mixed with pomegranate juice.

In the Bible (Book of Leviticus), locusts and other members of the same family (Acrididae) like crickets and grasshoppers are mentioned as food permitted by God, whereas John the Baptist is said to have survived on locusts and wild honey in the desert.

In ancient Greece, the eating of locusts was seen as barbaric, and the Greek geographer Strabo (d. 24 CE), for instance, used Akridophagoi , ‘locust-eaters’ (akris, ‘locust’), as a derogatory term for a tribe of northeastern Africa.

According to a famous hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad), locusts (جراد, jarād) are said to be a lawful food for Muslims, and the insects make a few appearances in medieval Arab cuisine. At the same time, any references probably included grasshoppers, as the Arabic word denotes both insect varieties but not, however, crickets which are known as sursur (صرصر) or judjud (جدجد).

In the oldest Abbasid cookery book (10th century), locusts appear pickled in brine, just like in ancient Mesopotamia, in a recipe for a condiment known as sihnāt (صحناة), which was usually made with small fish. The only other time locusts are used in a recipe is in a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise, where the insects are boiled and fried, and served with murrī, cinnamon, and pepper.

The absence of locusts from other cookery books can be explained by the fact that they generally reflect a cuisine of the elite, which was devoid of insects of any kind. It is, however, likely that depending on the region and food access, locusts were not an unusual part of the diet in the countryside, particularly during infestations. According to the 12th-century geographer al-Idrīsī, the people of Marrakech were quite partial to the insects, which were sold at market in large quantities.

Locusts (/grasshoppers) were also used in medieval Islamic medicine; Ibn Sīnā, for instance, recommended them in the treatment of urinary incontinence and fevers, and claimed that their legs were useful in the removal of warts. The Nestorian physician Ibn Bakhtishu’ (d. 1058), for his part, suggested a poultice of cooked locusts to treat poisonous bites.

locusts in an early 13th-century manuscript (Bibliothèque nationale de France) of a book written by Ibn Bakhtishu’

Aleppine Lemon Chicken

This 13th-century dish from Aleppo was originally made with sour oranges or citron, which are used to make a syrupy sauce. The chicken is fried separately and then added to the sauce. The chicken is garnished with lemon cuts or slices when serving. As the author says, ‘it’s an unusual dish’ (فإنه نوع غريب)!

Multifruit chicken stew

The oldest version of this recipe goes back to 13th-century Syria, but it was so delicious that it travelled to Egypt, where two centuries later we find it in The Sultan’s Feast. The preparation is in keeping with this type of dish. First, you make a sauce with pomegranate seeds, sugar, ground almonds, ginger, and pieces of quince and apple. The recipe specifies that it should be ‘fathi‘ (فتحي) apples, but any other variety will also work. The next step is to boil and fry chicken, which is then added to the sauce. A very delicate dish with an exquisite sweet-and-sour flavour.

Rhubarb stew (ريباسية, ribasiyya)

As rhubarb is currently in season, what better way to celebrate this much-underused vegetable than by recreating a recipe for a rhubarb stew from The Sultan’s Feast? The instructions are rather minimal, as are the ingredients: meat, spices (what else?), onions, rhubarb juice, sweet almond conserve (murabbā) and mint. A wonderful dish with flavours that are in perfect harmony. What to eat with it? Well, that’s got to be some flatbread to soak up every last drop of the sauce.

Sour orange extravaganza: Naranjiyya (نارنجية)

When sour oranges (nāranj) are in season, there’s only one thing to do, and that is to find recipes to use them in! Fortunately, medieval Arabic cookery books contain several stews to do the trick, like this one from The Sultan’s Feast. It is made with lamb and chicken balls, with pistachios mixed in. The sauce contains galangal, ginger, rose-water syrup, sour oranges (a lot!), some more pistachios, mint, and rose water. One could do worse in life than to heed the advice by the author of the cookery book: “Those who have the acumen to increase flavours have infinite perspicacity and intelligence!”

Medieval Syrian carrot and lamb stew (dinariyya, دينارية)

This recipe from a cookbook compiled in 13th-century Aleppo, takes its name from the fact that the carrots are cut into the shape of dinar (the currency at the time) coins. It is a two-in-one dish in that it involves both chunks of meat (for the recreation lamb is used) and meatballs. The former is boiled with crushed chickpeas, whereas the latter are made with rice, some more crushed chickpeas, and spices, such as corander, pepper, cassia, caraway. After everything is fried (in fat) with some fresh coriander and garlic, broth and carrots cut into coins are added and then everything is left to cook. As a further enhancement of the visual effect, some eggs are cracked on top of the dish at the end. The result attests to the medieval chef’s proficiency at balancing flavours.