Spotlight on: Salt

Both sea and rock salt were known in Antiquity. It was already quarried in Ancient Egypt and the Romans started producing salt on a very large scale. It was especially important for preserving food but salt was also used in cooking; in Greek times already it was sprinkled on meat roasts and fish, whereas there are references to various kinds of seasoned salts, added with, for instance, thyme or cumin. However, the most common salting agent was garum. According to the botanist Dioscorides, the best salt was white, free of stones and dirt, dense and smooth. He particularly recommended salt quarried in Libya, Cyprus and Sicily, and that from marshlands.

Pre-Islamic Arabs already used salt to season their food, but it also played an important role in some of their rites, as in an oath-swearing underpinning alliances. Though primarily referring to table salt (sodium chloride), the Arabic word milḥ (ملح) can also denote other salt-like substances, such as natron. The literature distinguishes between sea salt (ملح بحري, milḥ baḥrī ) and rock salt (ملح برّي, milḥ barrī , i.e. ‘soil salt’). Salt was quarried in various areas (e.g. Persia) or acquired from salt marshes. A premium type or rock salt was known as milḥ darānī, or andarānī, which was considered the purest, i.e. devoid of any dust or rock.

Salt is one of the most used spices and condiments in mediaeval Arab cuisine, both as a seasoning and to preserve various kinds of foods, as well as in pickling. Besides the salting of meat and fish, the sources also include recipes for salted fruit, especially lemons. Some authors recommended adding salt at the end since it can slow down the cooking time of other ingredients. The modern pair of salt and pepper co-occur in half of the recipes requiring salt (especially with fish), and is often also used in dishes including almonds or cassia. Meat was washed with hot water and salt before cooking it. Similarly, aubergine was soaked in salt and water to remove the bitterness. One of the popular dishes in the early Abbasid tradition were mā’ wa milḥ (‘water and salt’) stews, which involved meat being cooked in a broth of water and salt.

The 12th-century physician al-Isrā’ilī recommended using salt to balance food (e.g. fish), when food has no flavour (e.g. gourd); to dry out excessively moist food; and to remove greasiness and bad odours (e.g. fatty and greasy meats); and to reduce sourness.

As a condiment, salt was often mixed and toasted with other spices (e.g. coriander, sesame, nigella, hemp seeds, poppy seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, asafoetida leaves and anise) into milḥ muṭayyab (ملح مطيّب, ‘seasoned salt’). It could also be dyed, for instance, with sumac or saffron, or even indigo.

Salt was put to some unusual use in agriculture; for instance, it was said that to extend the life of a pear tree, it should be covered with salt, which would prevent the fruit from rotting.

Salt was a vector of social and religious connotations as well To the ancient Greeks already sharing salt signified the sharing of a meal but, by extension, hospitality and the establishment of friendship ties. In Arabic, the saying ‘there is bread and salt between us’ (بيننا خبز وملح) still has this meaning.

Various sayings of the Prophet (hadith) commend the use of salt: it is required to make food flavoursome (لا يَصْلُحُ الطعام إلا بالمِلح), and is one of the four divine blessings sent down from the heavens, together with iron, fire and water (أَنزَلَ أربعَ بَرَكاتٍ من السماء إلى الأرض: الحديد والنار والماء والملح). The Prophet is even said to have advised making salt the basis of food because it cures seventy-two illnesses, among them, leprosy, and aches in the tooth, throat and belly.

In Islamic medicine, salt was considered hot and dry in the second degree, with bitter, astringent and dissolvent properties, whereas darānī salt expels wind. Al-Isrā’ilī said salt was effective against malignant ulcers, while Ibn Sīnā recommended it as an antidote for scorpion bites; and to counter the ill effects of opium.

salt in Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (British Library)
selling salt in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s work, Tacuinum sanitatis (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Spotlight on: Mint

The history of the herb is a long one and the ancient Egyptians already used it as a digestive and anti-flatulent. Ancient Greek scholars like Dioscorides believed that mint could prevent women from becoming pregnant, while its juice was thought to staunch blood, arouse sexual desire, and stop hiccups, vomiting and cholera. However, there is little evidence of the use of mint in Greek food and dining.

In Arabic, the word for ‘mint’ is na’na’ (نعناع, نعنع), though, like in Antiquity, it did not have the modern meaning of peppermint (Mentha × piperita) since this is a a cross between watermint and spearmint (Mentha spicata subsp. spicata) and was only described in the late 17th century. Other words for mint varieties included ḥabaq bustānī (حبق بستاني) and fūdhanj (فوذنج), also spelled fūtanj (فوتنج). The latter word is a Middle Persian borrowing, though it probably goes back to a Sanskrit word for several fragrant plants and usually referred to varieties of mint growing next to rivers (Mentha aquatica; fūtanj nahrī/فوتنج نهري), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium; fūtanj barrī/ فوتنج برِّي) , as well as wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare; fūtanj jabalī/فوتنج جبلي ). Besides spearmint, na’na’ often probably referred to whorled mint (Mentha × verticillata), as well as other subspecies.

Mint is one of the most frequently used herbs in medieval Arab cuisine, and was often also added at the end, for decoration and as a flavour enhancer. It was used fresh and dried, as well juiced; in savoury dishes, it is called for in about a quarter of dishes in Andalusian, Iraqi and Syrian treatises, and in a third of Egyptian ones.

Muslim phsyicians claimed mint strengthens and heats the stomach, and suppresses hiccups. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) recommended it to increase sexual desire, whereas a few bunches of mint, together with pomegranate seeds are useful against cholera and vomiting. Ibn Jazla (11th c.) suggested mint juice to staunch blood, and a mint compress for thickening breast milk. According to al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), water mint makes food appetizing, calms nausea, relieves vomiting and diarrhea, and kills worms.

mint (na’na’) in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Britis Library)
water mint in a 9th-century copy of Dioscorides’ text (BNF)

Medieval Syrian pickled pomelo

This recipe from 13th-century Aleppo was apparently created by the maidservants of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt and Damascus (and nephew of the great Salah al-Din), al-Malik al-Kamil (d. 1238), and it is they who taught the author to make it. The recipe is one of very few in the medieval Arab culinary tradition to require pomelo (كبّاد, kubbād). Both the peel (which will be fried) and segments are used, together with wine vinegar, sweetened with honey or sugar. Other ingredients include toasted hazelnuts, the aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice blend, and mint. The mixture should be left for a couple of days to ferment away before it is good to eat. A wonderful accompaniment to many a cold and hot dish!

Spotlight on: sesame

Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a plant that is native to the Indian sub-Continent, which is where it was first cultivated. Its seeds are extremely rich in oil (over 50%) and this was its primary use in early cultures, such as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where it was known, respectively, as shamashshammu and smsmt. The earliest archeological evidence of sesame in Egypt goes back to the era of Tutankhamun, but no seeds have to date been found in Mespotamia.

Textual evidence reveals that it was used as an ingredient and seasoning, as well as in perfumes. It was not used very often in Ancient Rome and Greece, except in cakes. The Akkadian word is the origin of the Greek sésamon (σήσαμον), which is, in turn, the etymon of the Arabic simsim (سمسم). In Western (Maghrebi) Arabic dialects sesame was — and still is — known as juljulān (جلجلان), which was also incorrectly applied to coriander by some authors.

In cooking, it was used both hulled (abyaḍ, ‘white’) and unhulled (aḥmar,‘red’), and the seeds were often toasted. It appears in a paste, the famous tahini (ṭahīn simsim, rahshī), whereas its oil was used for frying and in the making of many sweets, breads, cakes and biscuits. In fact, sesame oil appears in about a quarter of recipes, and in The Sultan’s Feast it is also recommended for cleaning clay jars. In the literature, sesame oil is referred to as duhn al-simsim, duhn al-ḥall (دهن الحل), or shīraj (also shīraq), a borrowing from Persian, where shīrah denoted ‘sesame oil’, as well as ‘new wine’ and the expressed juice of any fruit except olives. Some authors refer to the oil being made with the help of wild (or Syrian) rue (حرمل, harmal). A number of recipes require the use of sesame oil in conjunction with olive oil.

Medically, it was thought to be bad for the stomach and to cause vomiting. An extract of the plant and leaves was recommended for hair, causing it to grow and removing dandruff. According to Ibn Sīnā, it was a potent emmenagogue and, when eaten with flax and cotton seeds, increases sperm and sexual potency. Al-Kindi, for his part, prescribed sesame oil to treat abscesses, toothache, cough, and even insanity!

In folklore, sesame also played an important part, already in ancient Babylonia, as a way of countering magic, and sesame presses were thought to house spirits (jinn). And, of course, children the world over are familiar with the magic formula “Sesame, open [your door]” (iftah ya simsim!) giving access to the cave in the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the 1001 Nights.

The manuscript below (13th c.) is from an Arabic translation of Diosocorides’ Materia medica and shows sesame at the bottom. The translator took some liberties with the original Greek text, though; the fact that the seeds are used ‘to make oil from it, which the people in Egypt use’ becomes ‘it agrees with bilious temperaments’, with the translator adding that sesame is digested slowly which can be remedied by eating it with purslane. The top drawing is of millet (دخن, dukhn), which was the main ingredient in a recently posted Andalusian bread.

Spotlight on: turmeric

The Arabic word for turmeric (Curcuma longa), a spice extracted from a perennial plant hailing from the Indian sub-Continent, is kurkum (كركم), which comes from an ancient Semitic root; the Assyrian kurkanū already denoted turmeric (which was used for medicinal purposes, especially for intestinal blockages), with saffron being azupirānu, the etymon of the Arabic word za’farān (زعفران). It is also related to the Sanskrit word kuṅkuma, which referred to both saffron and turmeric. In Greek and Roman times, the spice does not appear to have been used in food. The earliest use of turmeric was as a dye.

When Marco Polo encountered turmeric in China, he described it as “a vegetable which has all the properties of the true saffron, as well the smell as the colour, and yet it is not really saffron. It is held in great estimation, and being an ingredient in all their dishes, it bears, on that account, a high price.”

Many Muslim scholars considered kurkum a synonym for saffron, but it was sometimes applied to the root of the saffron plant, which is why another name for turmeric was ʿurūq ṣufr (عروق صفر), ‘yellow roots’. In addition, it could also refer to greater celandine.

Muslim physicians though it was useful against mouth ailments and haemorrhoids (al-Kindī, 9th c.), as well as poisons (al-Bīrūnī, 10th/11th c.). According to the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248), turmeric was beneficial for skin diseases, to strengthen the eyesight and even in the treatment of insanity.

In the medieval Arabic culinary tradition, kurkum appears only once, to colour sparrow meat, in a recipe from Mamluk Egypt. However, it is not unlikely that in a number of cases, turmeric was used instead of saffron.

In medieval Europe, turmeric was called ‘Indian saffron’ and was a cheap alternative to the very expensive saffron.

Today, turmeric is most associated with Indian cuisine where it is a staple spice and colouring agent, extracted from the roots of the plant. Not surprisingly, the country is also the world’s largest producer of the spice.

turmeric in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal

Egyptian pickled eggs (بيض مخلّل, bayd mukhallal)

A recipe from The Sultan’s Feast for pickling eggs. The process takes a bit of time since after boiling the eggs, they should be soaked in salty water for a couple of days, after which they are immersed in wine vinegar. Then it is time for the next stage, which involves more vinegar, added with spices and herbs, such as cassia, ginger, cumin, coriander, cloves, rue, and citron leaves. This mixture is put over a fire and when it’s boiling, the eggs are added. To add some pazazz, why not colour the eggs with saffron (yellow) or red (safflower), or both, as you can see here?

Spotlight on: anise

Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is a plant that has been grown for its aromatc seeds since Greek Antiquity and originated from the Eastern Mediterranean. According to Dioscorides, Cretan anise was the best, followed by the Egyptian variety. The Greeks already used it in a medicinal decoction called anisaton, which is the ancestor to the present-day ouzo and raki. Anise seeds were also bound into a sachet which would be put in wine for flavour and its medicinal effects, as a digestive and aphrodisiac. In Roman cuisine, it was used as an aromatic, especially in sauces, and Apicius listed it among the spices a cook should have to hand.

In Arabic, anise is usualy known as anīsūn (أنيسون) but in the literature other names include rāziyānaj Rūmī (رازيانج رومي; ‘Roman fennel’), kammūn abyaḍ ḥulw (‘sweet white cumin’), and — especially in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) — al-ḥabba al-ḥulwa (الحبّة الحلوة; ‘the sweet grain’). It was not used very often in medieval Arab cooking; it is found in recipes for baked goods (ka’k, bread) and condiments such as dips and murrī.

Medically, anise was thought to be useful against flatulence and liver blockages, as well as being a diurretic and emmenagogue. Fumigating the seeds and sniffing the vapours was said to be good for headaches. It is even effective as an antidote to poisons, but, according to Ishaq Ibn Hunayn, it is harmful to the bowels.

anise in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (Ostler Library)
anise in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica (14th c.)

Salted lemons (ليمون مالح, laymun malih)

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.

the harvesting of jujube in a 14th-century Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (14th c. British Library)

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).

camphor in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.), Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University
camphor in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (Bibliothèque nationale de France)