This is a recreation of a recipe from The Sultan’s Feast but salted lemons are part of the earliest Arab culinary tradition, and a similar version can be found in a 13th-century cookery book from Aleppo. The salted lemons are cut up and cured in the juice of limes or sour oranges, added with olive oil and wonderfully aromatic herbs like coriander, parsley, mint and rue. The author tells us that this is the best and tastiest recipe there is. And anyone who tastes the result will surely not disagree with this high praise! It would have been eaten by itself, or as a condiment, but it’s also a wonderful addition to stews, tagines, and the such.
Spotlight on: jujube (عنّاب, unnab)
Also known as the Chinese date, the jujube (Ziziphus jujuba, Z. vulgaris) which is green and bitter when it is unripe, but as it matures, it changes colour and shrinks, eventually looking like a small sweet date. The jujube tree is native to central Asia, and the fruit was already collected there for food as early as 6000 BCE. The tree later spread to the Mediterranean, where it was cultivated by the 1st century BCE. It was introduced to the Romans from Northern Africa. It is related to the lotus (Ziziphus lotus) associated with the story of the ‘Lotus Eaters’ (lotophagi) in Homer’s Odyssey.
Another species in the same genus is the so-called Christ’s thorn jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi) since it was thought that Jesus’ crown of thorns was made from the tree. Known in Arabic as sidr (سدر) or nabaq (نبق), this variety is native to parts of Africa and Western Asia and was already known to the Ancient Egyptians, who used its fruits and leaves for medical purposes. It is also mentioned in the Qur’an where it refers to the ‘lote tree’, most notably the sidrat al-muntahā (سدرة المنتهى, ‘the lote tree of the furthest boundary’), which marks one extreme of the heavenly abode. It also grows in the Arabian Gulf, particularly in Oman and Qatar, where it survives in the harsh conditions because of its hardiness and ability to draw water deep underground,
The jujube was used in Persian as well as in medieval Arab cooking, often in conjunction with almonds and raisins. Jujubes from Gorgan (Iran) were said to be the best, but it was also reported to be grown in Greater Syria. The fruit is mostly associated with Egyptian cuisine, where it was called for in a variety of dishes, such as the ‘Nubian Lady‘ or the local twist on the Abbasid classic ‘sikbaj‘. It was also eaten fresh or dried, whereas the wood of the tree was used in carpentry.
Medically, jujubes were said to be astringent and beneficial for the blood and lungs. When the juice is cooked, it is useful against hotness in the stomach, and coarseness in the chest. However, it engenders phlegm and slows down digestion. According to the physician Ibn Butlan (11th c.) jujube also cause constipation and have very little nutritional value, but are useful as an emmenagogue. However, he generally advised against eating the fruit, particularly for older people.
Spotlight on: camphor
The Arabic name of this aromatic, kāfūr (كافور) goes back to the Middle Persian kāpūr, which, itself has Aramaic and Akkadian antecedents. It refers to the resin extracted from the evergreen camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora; Laurus camphora L.) native to East Asia (China, Japan), or from a tree (Dryobalanops camphor) grown in Borneo. The latter was considered to be much stronger and thus of better quality.
There is no evidence that camphor was known in Greek and Roman Antiquity, and it first appeared in the Mediterranean basin as a medicinal spice in the sixth century CE. Camphor was used in perfumes and as an aromatic in pre-Islamic (Sassanid) Persia, where it was also employed as an embalming agent.
It was clearly known in pre-Islamic Arabia as well since according to the Qur’ān (76:5), “the Righteous will drink of a cup of wine mixed with camphor”. The historian al-Mas’ūdī (d. 956) traced its origin to India, while Marco Polo found that the best camphor came from Fansur in Sumatra which was sold for its weight in gold. Arab merchants brought it to the Mediterranean where it was traded between Egypt, Sicily and the Maghrib.
In cooking, it was called for in a number of savouries as well as sweets, and often in conjunction with musk. It was – and still is – used extensively in perfumes, though Ibn Sīnā warned that regular use makes the hair grey.
Medicinally, it was used for a wide range of applications, with al-Kindī (9th c.), for instance, using it for swollen liver, complaints of the larynx, and inflammations of the mucous membrane in the mouth. It is reported how the physician Ibn Butlān (11th c.) once cleared a woman’s catarrh by stuffing her hair with camphor. Camphor was also prescribed in a compress against fevers or headaches. However, it was said to cause insomnia, generate kidney and bladder stones, as well as being an anaphrodisiac (i.e. it suppresses libido).
Spolight on: caraway (كراويا, karāwayā)
This biennial plant (Carum carvi) is native to Western Asia and the Mediterranean — in fact, it may well be the oldest spice plant to be cultivated in Europe. It was already used in classical Antiquity; Dioscorides likened it to anise seed and said that it promotes digestion, while the root can boiled and eaten just like carrot. It became very popular in Roman times and is required in a number of recipes in Apicius’ cookery book (4th c.)
Its Arabic name also sometimes occurs as karwiyā, whereas in English its other names include meridian fennel and Persian cumin. The wild variety was known in Arabic as qardamāna (قردمانة) or qardamānā (قردمانا).
In medieval Arab cooking, caraway seeds (the dried fruit of the plant) were frequently used — often toasted and ground — in a variety of dishes, condiments, and sauces. The anonymous author of a 13th-century Andalusian treatise recommended it for dishes with cabbage and spinach, or tharīds (vegetables and meat in a broth with bread), since it improves their taste and dispels wind caused by the vegetables. However, caraway (and coriander) should never be used in ṭafāyās (stews).
Medicinally, it was considered an effective anti-emetic, anthelmintic, digestive, diuretic, as well as being useful against hiccups and palpitations. It is better for the stomach than cumin, while the best variety is the cultivated one. Ibn Jazla (11th c.) stated that it can be harmful to the lungs, which is remedied with wild thyme. According to al-Samarqandī (13th c.), caraway is constipating, and Ibn Khalṣūn (13th c.) said it was harmful to the stomach and reduces appetite, and recommended eating it with cinnamon.
Today, caraway is mostly used to flavour sweet dishes and bakery goods, especially certain types of bread. It is also an ingredient in the Tunisian chilli paste harisa (هريسة).
Spotlight on: Pepper
One of the oldest and most utilised spices in history, pepper (Piper nigrum) was originally grown on the Malabar coast (southwest India). It starts as berries of a perennial climbing vine which are harvested as soon as they ripen and have turned red. The peppercorns are then left out to dry out in the sun, after which they turn black. For white pepper, the berries are left on the vine longer and are then soaked so that the white seed can be extracted more easily before drying it. The white variety is less fragrant and aromatic.
In Greek Antiquity, where pepper is first attested in around 400BCE, only two kinds were known, black and ‘long pepper’ (Piper longum). The latter is another species of the pepper family, and tends to refer to the variety grown in the Himalayas and southern India. There is also a species grown in Malaysia, and known as ‘Javanese’ long pepper (Piper retrofractum). It is, in fact, long pepper that was most used in the Mediterranean basin, and it is its Sanskrit name, pipali, which is the origin of the Greek peperi, and thus the English ‘pepper.’
In Roman times, the spice really came into its own and the naturalist Pliny (1st c. CE) refers to black, white and long pepper, adding that the last cost twice as much as the second, which, in turn, was more expensive than the black. In Apicius’ cookery book (4th c.), pepper is the single-most important spice, and is used in nearly 90% of dishes.
In the Arabic-speaking world, the same three varieties of pepper (fulful‘, filfil)) were known and used: black (aswad), white (abyaḍ), and long pepper (dār fulful < Persian). It was also sometimes referred to as ḥabb Hindī (‘Indian seeds’) and bābārī (a Greek borrowing). The Arabic fulful goes back to the above Sanskrit word, via Persian.
According to the oldest Arabic geographical manual, pepper was sourced from Kīlah, which has been identified as Kra, in the Malay Peninsula. In his ‘Wonders of Creation‘ (see illustration below), al-Qazwini explains that pepper comes from a tall tree that grows in India in the region called Malabar (Malibar, مليبار), close to the water; it bears fruit in summer and winter, and its grains are blown in the water by the wind, after which they shrink. The Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (13th c.) lists a number of other members of the pepper family (seven in total), including fulful al-Ṣaqāliba (‘Slav pepper’) and fulful al-mā’ (‘water pepper’).
In cooking, black pepper was one of the most used spices and is called for — usually ground — in many savoury dishes, condiments, etc. A 15th-century Egyptian author said that it has a powerful effect and enhances the smell of the food, and thus one does not need a large quantity of it. Furthermore, pepper was apparently also used in dishes containing cassia and galangal in order to reduce the flavour of the these spices. In Islamic medicine, black pepper was used extensively, including as a digestive, appetizer, diuretic, and aphrodisiac.
White pepper was used very sparingly in medieval Arab cuisine, and according to a 12th-author, it was only used for medicinal purposes. Long pepper, too, appears relatively rarely; it is found in a number of recipes in a 10th-century Abbasid treatise and just twice in a 13th-century Syrian collection book, but is absent from other cookery manuals. However, long pepper was not infrequently used in medicinal compounds.
In medieval European cuisines, long pepper was used extensively but fell out of favour by the end of the 17th century and has remained conspicuous by its absence from the European culinary repertoire. Today, long pepper tends to be associated with Asian cuisines.
Spotlight on: Asafoetida
Also known today by its Hindi name hing, asafoetida (Ferula Assa-foetida) refers to the pungent resinous gum from a giant fennel which grows in the wild in what is today Iran and Afghanistan. Its English name derives from the Persian āzā (ازا, ‘mastic’) combined with the feminine Latin adjective foetida (‘smelly’), in reference to its strong odour, which also explains its less than flattering names and link with the devil in other languages, as in ‘devil’s dung’ in English or merde du diable (‘devil’s excrement’) in French .
It has a very long history and is already mentioned in Akkadian texts as nukhurtu and was used in food in ancient Iran. In the Middle Ages, it was cropped in Persia for export. It was also known in European Antiquity; the Greeks considered it a variety of silphion, which unfortunately has defied identification and has been extinct for centuries. In Roman times, the juice was known as laser or laserpitium, and is called for in several dishes in Apicius’ cookery book.
The Arabic anjudān/anjudhān is a borrowing from Persian and refers to the whole plant or its leaves, whereas ḥiltīt (حلتيت) denoted the gum and maḥrūt (محروت) the root. Another word for the latter was ushturghāz/ushturghār (أشترغاز/أشترغار), another Persian borrowing (from ushtur, ‘camel’; khār, ‘thorn’), though this was sometimes identified as the root of lovage (kāshim, Levisticum officinale). Some scholars mention two kinds of anjudān, one black and foul smelling, and a white fragrant one used in cooking.
In medieval Arab cooking asafoetida is used very sparingly across the literature, and is missing from several recipe books. The plant was not known in North Africa or al-Andalus. One of the earliest recipes requires both the leaves and roots with fish and is attributed to the Abbasid gourmet caliph Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (d. 839). In a 13th-century text, asafoetida leaves are used, together with a a whole raft of aromatics in a seasoned salt mixture. The root was also pickled, and a recipe is included in a 15th-century Egyptian cookery book.
Medicinally, asafoetida was thought to make the stomach rough, remove bad breath, fight poisons and bring on menstrual flow, as well as being a diuretic and useful against joint pains. The root, however, was though to be more difficult to digest and more harmful to the stomach than the rensin.
Today, asafoetida is primarily associated with southeast Asian cuisines where it is used in many dishes (particularly as a substitute for garlic and onions), and is usually sold in powdered form, either pure or mixed with rice flour.
Tuniso-Andalusian pickled aubergine
A wonderful 13th-century recipe for pickling aubergine (تصيير الباذنجان, tasyīr al-bādhinjān). You naturally start off with a batch of fresh luscious aubergine, which are peeled, cleaned, etc., and cut into pieces; you can do them lengthwise or in slices, as it was done for the recreation. The pieces are first boiled in water and salt, and then put in jars — the author suggests pitch-coated or glazed earthenware jars (but a glass storage jar also works fine!) — with some vinegar and water. As usual don’t forget to seal properly, and to top up with water at need. The author also suggests a variant which involves splitting up the batch and adding parsley in one, and fresh mint in the other, to enhance the fragrance. A wonderful idea that you won’t regret! The author gives us another wonderful tip ; why not use these pickled aubergine slices in a būrāniyya?
Spotlight on: Coriander
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is native to the eastern Mediterranean basin, and its use in cooking is already attested in ancient Mesopotamia, where it can be found often in conjunction with cumin and nigella. Its name in Akkadian, kisibirru, is the origin of the Arabic kuzbara (كزبرة), which has the variant spellings kusbara (كسبرة) and kusfara (كسفرة). It was also in use in Ancient Egypt and Greece by at least the 2nd millennium BCE, and later became a mainstay in Roman cuisine — nearly one-fifth of Apicius’ recipes call for coriander, known in Latin as coriandrum (or coliandrum), derived from the Greek koriannon. In English, its name varies depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on; in the UK, it is known as coriander, whereas in North America ‘cilantro’ is preferred, which goes back to the Spanish culantro (itself a descendant of coliandrum), but this only refers to the leaf, not the seeds.
Usually it is the leaves and fruit of the plant that appear in cooking, with the root being used in medicine only. Today, it is only east Asian cuisines — especially Thai — that use the root as a cooking ingredient. In medieval Arab cuisine, coriander was one of the most used spices, both dried (seeds) and fresh, and it is not uncommon for recipes to require a combination of both. In a 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise, dried coriander is said to suit all food, but especially tafāyās (stews) and stuffed (maḥshī) dishes. In Spain, coriander obtained a religious connotation it did not have elsewhere in the Muslim world in that it was considered a ‘Muslim’ herb, just as parsely was considered a ‘Christian’ herb. Indeed, after the Reconquista, the mere fact of eating coriander was considered an un-Christian thing.
Islamic scholars held that fresh coriander is astringent, strengthens the stomach, staunches bleeding, and is useful against dizziness and epilepsy caused by bilious or phlegmatic fevers. Al-Samarqandī (d. 1222) recommended roasted coriander against palpitations, ulcers and hot swellings, but warned that dried coriander decreases sexual potency and dries out semen (though Ibn Sīnā attributed anaphrodisiac effects to both the fresh and dried varieties). He also claimed fresh coriander should not be eaten by itself, but used to season cooked dishes, while its potency becomes greatly enhanced when used with sumac. Also, when meat is soaked in vinegar and seasoned with coriander, it is more easily digested. Eating too much coriander leads to dim vision and mental confusion.
According to the Andalusian pharmacologist Ibn Khalṣūn (13th c.), (fresh) coriander strengthened the heart of those with hot temperaments (along with, for instance, saffron and caraway), whereas pigeons should be cooked in it (together with vinegar). He also recommended eating coriander with fatty meats and strong spices. As dried coriander keeps food in the stomach until it has been digested, it should be used sparingly, especially in rich dishes. Coriander was also thought to be constipating, while alleviating inflammations in the stomach.
Such is its importance in Arab cooking, even today, that in some North African dialects (e.g. Tunisia), it is also known, simply, as tābil (‘seasoning’).
Spotlight on: Musk (مسك)
Known as the king of scents, musk is one of the most precious aromatics in the world to this day. It is produced by the gland of the male musk deer to attract mates; the most prized is Tibetan musk. One of the oldest Arabic accounts of musk is found in a wonderful 9th-century collection entitled ‘News of China and India’ (أخبار الصين والهند, ‘Akhbar al-Sin wa ‘l-Hind’), where it is said that the Tibetan musk ‘gazelles’ feed on spikenard, and that the best quality is the one that the animal has rubbed on stones in the mountains. Their diet was one reason why Tibetan musk was considered superior to that sourced from India or China, which, additionally, was often tampered with by unscrupulous traders. The demand meant musk deer would be hunted and killed for their precious musk pod, which on average contains twenty-five grams of musk.
According to some sources, Khorasan was a major musk hub from where the precious aromatic would be shipped across the Muslim world, and beyond. Another centre was the port of Daybul, from where ships would carry it to various ports along the Arabian gulf.
Its scarcity meant that alternatives were sought, whether synthetic (the 9th-century scholar al-Kindi invented several formulas) or animal, such as castoreum (produced by beavers and known in Arabic as jundubādastar, a borrowing from Persian) — which was already used medicinally by the ancient Greeks –, or civet. Neither of them, however, had the prestige of ‘real’ musk. Civet (which is derived from the Arabic word zabād/زباد) is a paste produced by the anal glands of the ‘civet cat’ (which isn’t really a cat, more like a mongoose), found mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia, to mark territory.
Medicinally, musk was prescribed for a variety of conditions, ranging from headaches, to spasms, a gloomy disposition, and as a diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, and antidote (tiryāq) against venomous stings and bites. It was also considered a highly powerful aphrodisiac.
Due to its wonderful fragrance, musk was primarily used in perfumes, and in cooking as an aromatic (طيب, ṭīb) in a variety of dishes, particularly sweets, and very often in combination with rose-water. Distilled waters would sometimes be infused with musk as well.
Pomegranate sibagh (صباغ)
The word sibāgh is derived from a verb (صبغ, sabagha) meaning ‘to colour, dye’ as well as ‘to dip’ and the noun refers to a dipping sauce for bread, fish, meat, etc., and could be made with a variety of ingredients, such as mustard, vinegar, raisins, nuts, and a range of aromatics. The recipe today is one from 10th-century Baghdad and is somewhat of an oddity in that it is a ‘travellers’ dip’ — though there’s no reason one should deprive oneself of the pleasures of this delicacy whilst at home! It’s very simply to make as it merely requires pomegranate seeds and raisins, alongside pepper and cumin, which are all mashed together and then shaped into discs and dried. They can be stored for a long time and are ‘revived’ through dissolution in vinegar. You’re supposed to have it with fish, and this is what it looks like (the vinegar is a recreation of a 13th-century Andalusian recipe)….