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!

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 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.

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.

Andalusian ‘Jewish’ chicken

This is one of six so-called ‘Jewish’ dishes, which are found in only one 13th-century anonmyous cookery book from Muslim Spain. The chicken is spit-roasted and then dressed with a ‘stuffing’ made with the chicken entrails, walnuts, breadcrumbs, fennel, fresh coriander, eggs, and water. Before serving, garnish with rue, fennel, mint and (toasted) walnuts.

Syro-Egyptian 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!

Ibrahimiyya (rose syrup chicken)

This is one of many mediaeval dishes named after (or created by) the gastronome caliph Ibrahim al-Mahdi (779-839). What is unusual is that this one comes from Andalusia. It is chicken (though you can also use lamb, if you wish) in a sauce of rose syrup with olive oil, vinegar, sugar, pepper, saffron, coriander, salt, and a little bit of onion. Peeled and broken up almonds, pistachios, spikenard and cloves are sprinkled on before ‘crusting’ the dish with a mixture of flour, rose water, camphor, and eggs. The result is a wonderfully tangy symphony of sweet-and-sour flavours.

Pomegranate-glazed chicken

A dish allegedly created by the hedonistic prince Ibrahim Ibn alMahdi (779-839), the half-brother of the famous Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, who makes numerous appearances in the Arabian Nights. Ibn al-Mahdi was known as a singer, poet, and gastronome, and this recipe is probably from his cookery book (كتاب الطبيخ, kitab al-tabikh), which has unfortunately been lost. The dish is essentially a grilled chicken rubbed with salt, thyme, and olive oil, and then basted with the juice of both sweet and sour pomegranates, mixed with murrī. It is served with a rich gravy made with the chicken juices and crushed walnuts. According to the author of the 10th-century treatise who has preserved the recipe, it is “delicious, flavoursome, wondrous, and often used (لذيذة، طيّبة، عجيبة، مستعملة).” Deservedly high praise, indeed.