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.

asafoetida in the Book of Simple Drugs by the Andalusian scholar al-Ghafiqi (12th c.)

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’).

coriander in a 9th-century Greek manuscript of Dioscorides’ materia medica, with Arabic annotations (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
coriander in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ text (British Library)

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.

Extract from a manuscript (Wellcome Institute) of the cookery book entitled Kanz al-Fawa’id fi tanwī’ al-mawā’id (كنز الفوائد في تنويع الموائد) with a recipe for the distillation of musk water
extracting civet

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)….

Duet of Pickled Walnuts

These are two exceptional recipes from a 14th-century Egyptian cookery book. For both, you, of course, need fresh green walnuts; the book recommends those of April, when they are fully grown. The first recipe is a a tart and tangy one, and starts off with salting the walnuts for about twenty days (no cheating!), until they have released all of the nasty black juice inside, and acquire a slightly sweet taste. After washing them, they’re ready for their second bath, in a mixture of vinegar and the usual suspects of herbs and spices, including garlic and mint.

The first stage for the second recipe is identical to the first, but things are very different after that since they will be spicy, sweet, and sour. Before fermentation, the walnuts are gusseyed up with some saffron and rosewater. Then, it’s time to cook up a syrup with ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ — including the aromatic aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice mix –, and wine vinegar. If you’re a purist, you will then decant this to a jar perfumed with agarwood and ambergris. If you’re low on those in the pantry, or your home insurance doesn’t cover you for that, you could always use any kind of preserving jar you have to hand. Don’t forget to seal it off, though, and then the walnuts are ready until you are!

tart and tangy…
All things nice with sugar and spice…

Andalusian Pickled Limes

This is another two-for-the-price-of-one recreation of two amazing pickled lime recipes from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian cookery book. The first involves cutting the limes and filling the slits with salt before putting them in their bath of lime vinegar (the post for recreating the mediaeval version will come soon!) and water. Then, it’s time to leave in the sun (or any other warm place you can find if you live in cold northern climes!) for a number of days. Finally, a mixture of capers and honey is added before sealing everything with olive oil and storing for future delectation.

The second recipe (picture No. 2) is similar, except that the stuffing has a much bigger spice kick since it also includes a number of aromatics — cinnamon, spikenard, ginger, pepper, cloves, galangal –, as well as sugar and a little syrup. In addition, mastic is added to the fermentation vinegar. Interestingly enough, the author warns that it should not be touched by anyone who is in a state of ritual impurity — not an uncommon comment at that time as it was believed that this would spoil the dish.

Tuniso-Andalusian Pickled onions

August is fermentation month and we’re kicking off with this 13th-century recipe from a cookery book written by an Andalusian emigré who settled in Tunis. The process involves premium peeled onions, honey, vinegar and water, with the flavour being enhanced with nigella and salt. Like all pickled delicacies, it takes a bit of time, of course, for nature to work its magic. However, in this case the wait isn’t too long; after three days, there’s a final check-up to make sure there’s enough liquid and the taste is to your liking, and voilà it’s ready for use. Don’t forget to store in a sealed the container, though — when you’re not dipping into it, that is! You will never go back to store-bought pickled onions again, I can tell you!

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 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 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 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!