Spotlight on: hemp

Hemp (cannabis sativa) is a member of to the cannabis family, but contains very little THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive constituent, and does not produce any of the effects associated with cannabis. Its use for its psychotropic properties (especially the seeds), as well as for making ropes (from the fibre) and, less commonly, in food goes back several millennia, and is attested in ancient Mesopotamia and Iran.

In Arabic, it is known as shahdānaj (شهدانج) — though technically this denoted only the seeds — or qinnab (قنّب). Both words are borrowings from Persian, the former meaning ‘hemp seed’, and the latter (from the Middle Persian qanab), ‘hemp (rope)’. The 11th-century polymath al-Biruni traced the word back to the Persian shāh dānah, ‘the royal grain’.

As an ingredient in cooking, hemp seeds were used quite sparingly, and are not found at all in mediaeval Andalusian and North African treatises. In the earliest recipe book (10th century) from what is today Iraq, hemp is called for in only three recipes (two for seasoned salts) and one for nougat (ناطف, nātif). Later on, the seeds (often toasted) are almost exclusively associated with turnip pickles, in a couple of recipes from Egypt, the most recent from the 15th century. The only exception is a 13th-century Syrian recipe for a rich multi-seed nutty bread, which, so the author informs us, was also known by ‘the Franks (الإفرنج, al-Ifranj) and the Armenians’ as iflāghūn (إفلاغون). This term is probably a transliteration of the Greek plakous (πλακοῦς) — or its genitive form, plakountos (πλακοῦντος) –, which denoted a type of cake, whose main ingredients were cheese, honey and flour.

In Greek Antiquity, hemp was known for its anaphrodisiac — i.e. libido-reducing — qualities, and was often eaten at the end of the meal, alongside the so-called tragemata (τραγήματα), chewy desserts (mainly dried fruits and nuts), which also accompanied wine, like our present-day ‘nibbles’ .

The infrequent use of hemp seeds in mediaeval Arab cuisine may have something to do with the fact that its consumption was discouraged by physicians. According to Ibn Sina (Avicenna), for instance, hemp seeds are highly flatulent, difficult to digest, harmful to the stomach, and cause headaches. In order to alleviate these harmful effects, Ibn Jazla recommended eating the seeds with almonds, sugar and black poppy seeds, and drinking oxymel afterwards. Al-Razi (Rhazes) added that hemp blurred the sight and advised against having sour fruits or cold water after eating it. However, Ibn Sina advised hemp seed oil as a treatment for dandruff.

Depiction of hemp in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ materia medica (British Library, 0r3366, fol.108r)

Egyptian pickled capers with sumac

A fourteenth-century delicacy requiring capers, vinegar, lemon juice and sumac juice, as well as preserved lemons, garlic, coriander, caraway, and thyme. To round things off, pour good-quality olive oil on top, and let the mixture rest for a while. Refrigerate and use as a multi-purpose condiment!

Egyptian Sweet-and-sour cabbage leaves

For this vegetable side dish (known as ‘mixed cabbage’, كرنب ممزّج, kurunb mumazzaj) from 13th/14th-century Mamluk Egypt white cabbage leaves are boiled and then served with a dressing of vinegar, honey, saffron, hazelnuts, coriander seeds, caraway, and the aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice blend. The result is a delicate combination of sweet and sour flavours that work wonderfully well together. It can be eaten by itself, as a starter, or as a side.

Pickled turnips with pomegranate seeds (لفت بحبّ الرمّان)

This dish was clearly very popular since similar recipes can be found in a number of cookery books, one from 13th-century Syria and two from Egypt (14th and 15th centuries). It is made with pomegranate seeds, wine vinegar, and honey (or sugar). Flavours are enhanced by adding, among other things, mint, rue, aṭrāf al-ṭīb, pepper, ginger, poppy seeds, toasted walnut pieces, and garlic at various stages. For those who wish to heighten the visual effect, one of the recipes recommends colouring the pickles with saffron (yellow), indigo (blue), or rose mallow (red).

Egyptian sweet-and-sour pickled fennel

This 14th-century recipe requires fresh fennel (شمر, shamar ), which is cut into pieces and parboiled into wine vinegar before being steeped in a covered container in a mixture of aṭrāf al-ṭīb (أطراف الطيب), sugar, (toasted) caraway seeds, mint, and rosewater. You will find that it can be stored in a jar for quite a long time (preferably in the fridge). In addition to being very flavoursome, this delicacy allegedly also aids digestion, and the anonymous author recommended it as an anti-gas and anti-bloating medicine, in which case the fennel should be chewed by itself, after meals.

Spotlight on: mace (basbasa, بسباسة)

This aromatic is the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree, a tropical evergreen; to be more precise, it is the covering of the seed, which is nutmeg (jawz bawwā/جوز بوّا, jawz al-tīb/جوز الطيب). Unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, both were introduced to the Mediterranean by Arab merchants. Together with cloves, they were some of the most expensive spices of the Middle Ages, due to the fact that they were only produced in a small Indonesian archipelago to the south of the Molucca Islands. In medieval Arab cuisine, mace was used quite sparingly, and appears primarily in drinks — often digestives or stomachics — and fruit conserves, as well as in perfumes. It is not mentioned in any of the recipes in Arabic cookery books from the Western Mediterranean (al-Andalus, North Africa). Today, it is sold in blades or ground.

Pickled cucumber (خيار مخلّل, khiyar mukhallal)

In medieval Arab food culture, pickling of various vegetables (e.g. garlic, carrot, turnip, cabbage) took pride of place. This 13th-century Egyptian recipe is a wonderful example and requires cucumbers to be soaked in brine and then immersed in wine vinegar and cucumber juice with parsley, mint , rue, tarragon, and several heads of garlic.

Spotlight on: 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.

Depiction of a whale in al-Qazwini’s (d. 1283) encyclopedia Aja’ib al-makhluqat, ‘The Wonders of Creation’ (BSB-, Cod. arab 464, fol. 68v.)

Spotlight on: 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.

Spotlight on: 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.]