Amber (عَنْبَر, ‘anbar)

Also known as (grey) ambergris (Ambra grisea), it is a substance secreted from the sperm whale’s gall bladder. The grey variety (which with age turns black) should be distinguished from yellow amber, which is fossilized tree resin. Both have been used in perfumes and medicines, but only yellow amber was (and still is) prized as a gemstone. The ancient Greeks knew it as elektron, which gave the word ‘electricity’, initially meaning static electricity because of its capacity to attract other materials after friction. One of the earliest references to the importation of ambergris can be found in the 9th-century travel book Akhbār al-Sīn wa ‘l-Hind (أخبار الصين والهند, ‘News from China and India ’) where people of an island called Lanjabālūs in the Sea of Harkand (Bay of Bengal) traded ambergris for iron with Arab merchants. Ambergris was used as an ingredient in medicines, incense tablets, and perfumes. In cooking, it appears as a fumigant to scent a bowl or as a flavouring in dishes. Ibn al-Bayṭār, who called ambergris ‘the king of scents’, recommended it (by mouth, in a cream, or as a fumigant) as a remedy for flatulence, migraines, and to strengthen the joints and stomach. He added that ambergris immediately increases the intoxicating effect of wine.

Mastic (مَصْطَكى)

The Arabic word maṣṭakā (or maṣṭikā) is a borrowing from the Greek mastíkē (μαστίχη), which is derived from a verb meaning ‘to chew’. Possibly the world’s oldest chewing gum, it is the aromatic dried resin of the pistachio tree (Pistacia lentiscus), and came in a number of varieties: yellow/white (ʿilk al-Rūm, ‘Greek gum’) and black (terebinth, mostly Egyptian or Iraqi in origin). In classical Antiquity, as now, mastic was associated with the island of Chios as the only place where it could be obtained. In mediaeval Arab cooking, mastic was used in a variety of dishes, including fruit stews and sweets. The other main area of application was in perfumes. Islamic physicians believed it strengthens the stomach and liver, curbs appetite, and improves the appearance of the skin. Just like in ancient Greece, it was used as breath-sweetener and teeth cleanser.

Mustard (خَرْدَل, khardal)

Originally from Aramaic, the word refers to both white and black mustard (seeds). In cooking, the seeds – both whole and ground – are often required, with the black variety being used more often than the white/yellow. It is used to great effect, for instance, in the mustard chicken attributed to the Abbasid caliph al-Wathiq bi-‘llah. Mustard also appears in condiments, including a dip with raisins, known as sināb (صناب). The 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise instructed washing old mustard seeds with hot water before using them. Conversely, fresh mustard seeds do not need to be washed since they are tart without being bitter. The word also occurs twice in the Qur’ān (21:47; 31:16), where it is mentioned that even deeds weighing one mustard seed will be taken into account on the scales of justice. In medicine, cultivated mustard was preferred to the wild variety; it was considered useful against inflammations, tumours, scabies, and sciatica. It was also thought to increase intelligence (if taken on an empty stomach) as well as lust.

Representation of the mustard plant in a 13th-century manuscript of an Arabic translation of the pharmacopoeia by the Greek botanist Dioscorides (d. 90 CE). [Bibiliothèque nationale de France, mss Arabe 4947, fol. 39r.]

Cassia (دار صيني, dar sini)

This aromatic (Cinnamomum cassia) is also known as Chinese cinnamon, in reference to its place of origin. The bark of the tree was already used in Antiquity in medicines and perfumes, though rarely in food. Ancient scholars believed it came from Arabia. Its preciousness was enhanced by its inaccessibility, which early on became legendary. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, recounts that cassia grows in a shallow lake guarded by bat-like creatures which attack the eyes of those cutting the plant. The Arabic term is derived from the Persian dār chīnī (دار چينى, ‘Chinese wood’) and was sometimes used interchangeably with salīkha (سليخة), but could also refer to ‘true’ (or Ceylon) cinnamon (قِرْة, qirfa). It is, in fact, not certain at all whether the present-day distinction between the two existed at the time. Some scholars only distinguished between dār ṣīnī and a qirfat dār ṣīnī, the latter being less powerful, and imported from China. In Arab cooking, it was one of the most widely used spices, and appears much more frequently than qirfa. Although often ground, recipes sometimes call for sticks (i.e. bark strips). A number of varieties (black, white, greenish, were known. Medicinally, it was used, among other things, to improve dim vision, as a cough remedy, diuretic, and even antidote against scorpion poison. Cassia differs from Ceylon cinnamon in its more reddish colour, rougher texture and stronger, more bitter taste.

al-Ghafiqi, Osler MSS, fol. 112b.

Khorasani salt (مِلْح خُرسانِيّ, milh Khurasani)

A delicately perfumed salt blend from 10th-century Baghdad, named after the Iranian province where it was allegedly invented. It is made by boiling white salt and red wine vinegar, and then adding dried pomegranate seeds, sumac, nigella seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, and asafoetida. This aromatic mixture is extremely versatile and can be used to season a wide variety of dishes.

Sour orange (nāranj, نارَنْج)

Also known as bitter or Seville oranges (Citrus aurantium), the fruit is believed to be native to China and was unknown in the classical world. The Arabic name is derived from the Persian nārang (نارنگ), which is, itself, a Sanskrit borrowing (nārañga). The fruit was introduced to Europe (in al-Andalus) by the Arabs, whereas sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis) do not appear until the end of the Middle Ages. In mediaeval Arab cooking, the sour orange tended to be used in stews. The 13th-century Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār reports that the orange had very green leaves and white blossoms, while the flesh of the fruit is as sour as citron. It was also used to produce an oil which dispels winds and strengthens the joints. The peel strengthens the heart. When the orange juice is drunk with hot water, it is good for gripes, and useful against stings of scorpions and many reptiles. However, the pulp on an empty stomach weakens the liver. His fellow Andalusian Ibn Khalṣūn (14th c.) added that the best variety was large and sweet, and that it should be eaten with sugar. Confusingly, the 12th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla equated nāranj with coconut (jawz hindī).

Sour oranges according to al-Qazwini
al-‘Umarī (14th c.), Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, BNF 2771, fol. 212r.

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.

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’

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!