Salt from the Wadi…

When the 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi visited Egypt, he noted that firewood was scarce there, and the preserve of the rich. Other people used cow dung as fuel, which he claimed was not as good for cooking, and commonly added natron to the pot to tenderise the meat and other foods, making them cook faster. However, Celebi stated that natron produced harmful effects such as bleary eyes, croaky voices, leprous faces, and hernias in the groin, and bellies that were so extended that it seemed as if the individual was pregnant. He found that most Egyptians suffered from hernias, to the extent that it was considered offensive to address someone as ‘Honoured sir’ (Turkish Behey devletli) as this was a polite way of referring to someone with this condition!

In the medical and pharmacological literature, the terminology is not always consistent as natron (نطرون, natrūn) sometimes also referred to as borax (bawraq) or, more commonly, ‘Armenian borax’ (bawraq Armanī). Technically, borax denotes sodium borate, whereas natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride (salt) and sodium sulfate, the best variety of which was mined in Wadi al-Natrun, west of the Egyptian Delta, and was already used in ancient times in the mummification process, as a drying agent. The fame of Egyptian natron was such was such that it was exported across the Muslim world, and even beyond, to Sicily.

The Swedish naturalist Fredrik Hasselquist, who visited Egypt in the mid-18th century, refers to natrum (sic), as “a salt dug out of a pit or mine, near Mansura in Egypt; it is by the inhabitants called Natrum, being mixt with a Lapis Calcareus (Lime-stone) that ferments with vinegar, of a whitish brown colour. The Egyptians use it, (1.) to put into bread instead of yeast; (2.) To wash linen with it instead of soap. I have been informed, that it is used with success in the tooth-ache, in the manner following: The salt is powdered and put into vinegar, it ferments immediately, and subsides to the bottom. The mouth is washed with this vinegar during the Paroxysm, by which the pain is mitigated, but not taken off entirely.”

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, the French reported on flax being bleached in natron for six, eight or ten days, after which it was boiled in a solution of lime and natron, washed in the Nile, and then exposed to the sun. The Egyptians also added natron to tobacco, to keep it moist.

The 8th-century Persian physician Al-Razi (Rhazes) identified six kinds of borax: bread borax, natron, goldsmith’s b., zarawandī, willow’s b., and tinkār (gold solder). Ibn Sina, for his part, only mentions Armenian borax, which is light, brittle, spongy and rosy (or white in colour), and an African variety.

The use of borax to assist the cooking of meat was actually well established, and can already be found in the work of the 11th-century physician Ibn Butlan, who recommended adding borax, wax, and watermelon veins – or its peel – to the pot. The same advice appears in cookery books, such as The Sultan’s Feast, as well. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), warned about the harmful effects of borax on the stomach (which, according to Ibn Jazla, could be counteracted with gum Arabic), but said it could be useful against dandruff and worms. In the medical literature borax appears in recipes for a wide variety of ailments, ranging from fevers, colic and sciatica, to convulsions.

In ancient Greece, where natron was known as nitron, it was used in cooking quite early, and the botanist Theophrastus (371-287 BCE) already referred to cabbage being boiled in it to improve its flavour. In addition, it may also have been used to preserve the colour, as 14th and 15h-century Egyptian cookery books recommend boiling turnip, beans, cabbage, wild mustard, and chard in it to keep them green. One of the cookery books also uses natron in a few sweets, as well as in a hummus mash. The 15th-century blind physician Da’ud al-Antaki claimed that the best kind of of natron was that which had been ‘roasted’ (mashwī), which already appears as an ingredient in qata’if batter, as an alternative to borax, in a 13th-century Syrian cookbook. Interestingly enough, though natron was an ingredient in Qahiriyya recipes of the 13th and 14th centuries, it is conspicuous by its absence in a 15th- century one.

Medieval Arabic cookery books also mention borax for a variety of uses, as a bread glaze (after dissolving it in water), a leavening agent in dough, in handwashing powders, and even – though very rarely — as a food ingredient (e.g. in a sour-milk stew).

Illustration in the Description d’Egypte of the Monastery of Saint Macarius (مقار الكبير) in Wadi al-Natrun.

Chard dip

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is as easy and simple to make as it is tasty, which may explain why it is also found in a 13th-century cookery books from Syria. What could be more straightforward than fresh chard, strained yoghurt and garlic? The result is a kind of proto-tzatziki which is beyond delicious as a snack or starter with some freshly made crusty bread, cold cuts, etc. And why not combine it with salmon on a bagel — even us purists need to take a break every now and again!

Spotlight on: Emblic Myrobalan (أملج, amlaj)

A member of the Terminalia family, amlaj (Emblica officinalis Gaertn., Phyllanthus emblica L.) is known in English as ‘Indian gooseberry’, as well as by its Hindi and Sanskrit names of, respectively, amla (‘sour’) and amalaki, from which the Arabic word is derived (via the Persian (امله, āmula/amla).

The term ‘myrobalan’ goes back to Greek words for ‘(fragrant) oil’ and ‘acorn’, though the substance was unknown to either the ancient Greeks or the Romans. It is the (dried) fruit of a tree originating in India (or China) from where it was imported by Arab traders already in the early Islamic period. The word is also the origin of ‘mirabelle’, a type of plum, in reference to the similarity in appearance when dried.

The use of amlaj for medicinal and dietary purposes goes back millennia, to ancient Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine, where it is still used to this day for its anti-inflammatory, digestive, antioxidant, and aphrodisiac properties, and even in the treatment of diabetes and cancers. Besides the fruit, the leaves, seeds, and oil are used in confections, pastes, and pickles. Today, it is most often sold in powdered form.

In the Muslim Middle Ages, it was also primarily used in medicine and pharamacology to strengthen the stomach, nerves, heart, and appetite, in the treatment of haemorrhoids, and for its aphrodisiac and anti-emetic properties. According to Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), who remarked on the scarcity of amlaj, it is particularly effective to increase intelligence and memory. It was thought to be especially powerful when macerated in milk (ideally for a number of days), which was known as shīr (the Persian word for ‘milk’) amlaj.

Other members of the myrobalan family used for medicinal purposes are chebulic (or Kabul) myrobalan (halīlaj /ihlīlaj < Sanskrit harītak; Terminalia chebula) and belleric myrobalan (balīlaj < Sanskrit vibhītakī; Terminalia bellerica). They often occur together with amla in a compound, known as itṛīfal (إطريفل< Sanskrit triphalā), which is mentioned in Arabic pharmacological literature as a treatment for a cold stomach and haemorrhoidal pains, whereas the Tunisian physician Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 1004-5) referred to it as an established therapy for hernias. According to the Jewish scholar Maimonides (1138–1204) — the personal physician to Saladin (Salah al-Din) –, it strengthens the limbs, delays ageing and increases sexual potency. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is considered a potent compound, particularly for gastro-intestinal and ophthalmological complaints. Through Arab scholarship, the three myrobalans travelled to Europe very early on; the 12th-century compendium on women’s medicine, known as the Trotula, requires them in a number of recipes, and also mentions a trifera saracenica (‘the Saracen trifera’), alongside a trifera magna (‘greater trifera’).

Halīlaj (Indian hog plum) sometimes appears in Arabic as ijjās Hindī (إجّاص هندي, ‘Indian plum’) and comes in three varieties, yellow, black, and red. The black variety is considered the best, the yellow (Myrobalani citrinae) is smaller and has a more bitter taste. It is known for its high tannin content and has been used as a tanning agent. Black myrobalan also grows in Iran (where it is known as halīleh), and is used there in traditional medicine to treat a number of illnesses, including dementia and diabetes. In Indian (Ayurvedic/Unani) medicine, it is called the ‘King of medicines’, and is recommended for, amongst other things, its purgative and antioxidant effects.

There was very little non-medical use of myrobalans: amlaj occurs only in perfume blends, and black myrobalan is used only in a 10th-century Arabic cookery book, in recipes for an electuary (against colds and body aches) and a conserve (in date syrup and honey).

In his book on Indian spices, the sixteenth-century Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta, said that in India both the black and yellow mirobolanos were commonly used in cooking and in conserves, and also refers to a juice and syrup made from them.

Fresh, dried, and powdered amlaj

The medieval Arab equivalent of garum, only better: murrī (مرّي)


Undoubtedly the most famous condiment of medieval Arab cuisine, the standard version usually involves forty days of fermentation of rotted barley. It has been said to taste like soya sauce, which can indeed serve as an alternative if your pantry is low on the real thing. There will be another post devoted to the various types of murrī, but for now, let me whet your appetite with this wonderful express version for a mint murrī from The Sultan’s Feast. It requires two parts of barley flour and one part of salt to make a faṭīr, an unleavened flatbread. This is left to bake in an oven overnight, but before removing the loaves they should be burnt on the outside and inside. Once they’re ready, they are broken up into pieces and soaked in water with thyme, mint, pine nuts, and citron peels and leaves. Then, everything is put back in the oven for another overnight bake. After straining, you are left with murrī, to which honey is added to break the saltiness. Store in a jar with some olive oil on top to seal. The best way to describe the result is a seasoned soya sauce –very nice and versatile. Forget about garum, it’s all about the murrī! ( #teammurri!)

Egyptian pickled leeks

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is already found in an earlier Egyptian cookery book. It is actually a variant of a pickled garlic recipe, and involves leek being cured with salt and barley. The instructions include using a container smeared with pitch and sealing it with clay, but a Mason jar does the trick very nicely, too!

Spotlight on: Ginger

It is thought that ginger (Zingiber officinale) originated in China, though it was very early on also grown in the Indian sub-Continent. In fact, the Greek word zingiberi (ζιγγίβερι) can be traced back to the Sanskrit śṛṅgam (‘horn-shaped’). In ancient Greece and Rome it was already used in both cooking and medicine. According to Dioscorides (1st c. CE), who said ginger tasted like pepper, the plant was grown in ‘Troglodytic Arabia’ (present-day Eritrea), where people boiled it for draughts and mixed it into boiled foods. He added that it was pickled and shipped to Italy in clay vessels, in order to preserve its flavour. In Apicius’ Roman cookbook, ginger is used in a variety of recipes.

In medieval Arab cuisine, ginger (زنجبيل, zanjabīl) was a key ingredient, and was used both whole and ground, in sweet and savoury dishes (with meat as well as fish), and beverages; indeed, the Qur’an (76:17) mentions a ginger-flavoured drink as one of the beneficences of paradise. In the cookery books, ginger is used more often in Near Eastern recipes than those from the Western Mediterranean. It usually co-occurs with pepper, mint, olive oil, salt, and rose water. In Andalusian cuisine, ginger is often sprinkled on dishes before serving, alongside cinnamon and spikenard.

In his book on Simple Drugs (الأدوية المفردة, al-Adwiya al-mufrada), which was translated into Latin by the famous physican Arnaldo de Vilanova, the scholar Abu ’l-Ṣalt Umayya al-Ishbīlī (d. 1134) distinguished between different types of ginger: Frankish (also known as ‘Chinese’), cultivated, and Syrian, equating the last two with elecampane (rāsin). The Frankish variety “grows abundantly in Arab lands, especially Oman, where its leaves are used like those of rue and they put it in their food. (…) It tastes like pepper, and tastes and smells nice. (…) It is imported from India but also grows in the land of the Franks and al-Andalus.  …. It is also called zanghibārī.”

Physicians praised its aphrodisiacal and digestive qualities. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) said it also increased memory, and according to the 13th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Khalṣūn, ginger has no harmful effects whatsoever, provided it is used in moderation. His compatriot, the botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248) added that it is useful against lethargy and venoms. The Persian polymath al-Bīrūnī (d. ca 1052) praised the aphrodisiac properties of ginger conserve (زنجبيل مربّى, zanjabīl murabbā), which also heats the stomach and the liver.

Picture of ginger in the herbal compiled by the 12th-century Andalusian physician al-Ghafiqi entitled Book of Simple Drugs (كتاب الأدوية المفردة, Osler Library, McGill University, Osler MS 7508)

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).