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 buwwā/جوز بوا, 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: Ambergris (عَنْبَر, ‘anbar)

Also known as grey amber (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 amber’s 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 ’), which mentions the inhabitants of Lanjabālūs (Nicobar Islands) in the Sea of Harkand (Bay of Bengal) trading ambergris for iron with Arab merchants.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) thought that the source of ambergris is a spring (عين, ‘ayn) in the sea, and dismissed the claims that it is the excretion of an animal. He considered grey amber the best, followed by blue and yellow, whereas the black variety is of the worst quality, as it’s obtained from the stomach of fish that have ingested ambergris and is then adulterated with other substances like gypsum or wax. Medicinally, ambergris is beneficial for the brain, senses, and heart.

Ibn al-Bayṭār called ambergris ‘the king of scents’, and 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.

The sixteenth-century Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta, who wrote extensively on the spices of the East, still subscribed to Avicenna’s view that ambergris came from a fountain gushing forth from the bottom of the sea, adding that most of it was cast on the Comoro Islands, Mozambique, and the Maldives. He claimed that he had seen pieces as big as a man, while in Chinese medicine it was thought to be very beneficial for women’s ailments, the heart, the brain, and the stomach.

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.

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.]

Spotlight on: Cassia (دار صيني, dar sini)

This aromatic (Cinnamomum cassia) is also known as Chinese cinnamon, in reference to its place of origin. The bark of the tree was already used in Antiquity in medicines and perfumes, though rarely in food. Ancient scholars believed it came from Arabia. Its preciousness was enhanced by its inaccessibility, which early on became legendary. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, recounts that cassia grows in a shallow lake guarded by bat-like creatures which attack the eyes of those cutting the plant. The Arabic term is derived from the Persian dār chīnī (دار چينى, ‘Chinese wood’) and was sometimes used interchangeably with salīkha (سليخة), but could also refer to ‘true’ (or Ceylon) cinnamon (قِرْة, qirfa). It is, in fact, not certain at all whether the present-day distinction between the two existed at the time. Some scholars only distinguished between dār ṣīnī and a qirfat dār ṣīnī, the latter being less powerful, and imported from China. In Arab cooking, it was one of the most widely used spices, and appears much more frequently than qirfa. Although often ground, recipes sometimes call for sticks (i.e. bark strips). A number of varieties (black, white, greenish, were known. Medicinally, it was used, among other things, to improve dim vision, as a cough remedy, diuretic, and even antidote against scorpion poison. Cassia differs from Ceylon cinnamon in its more reddish colour, rougher texture and stronger, more bitter taste.

al-Ghafiqi, Osler MSS, fol. 112b.