Spotlight on: Cherries

Cherries are native to western Asia and belong to the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, apricots, and almonds. The wild ancestor of sweet (or ‘bird’) cherries is the Prunus avium, whereas the sour variety goes back to Prunus cerasus. The former was first described in about 300 BCE by the Greek writer Theophrastus.

The sour cherry was imported into Greece from Anatolia and were known in Greek as kerasia (κεράσια), the origin of words in many languages. The Greek word was said to be derived from the name of the town of Kerasousa in Asia Minor (the present-day Turkish city of Giresun).

Dioscorides noted that cherries loosened the bowels when fresh, but constipating when eaten dried. He recommended the gum of cherry trees in diluted wine brings about healthy looks, sharp-sightedness, and good appetite, as well as being a treatment for chronic cough. The Roman naturalist historian Pliny (1st century) also reports Anatolia as the cherry’s place of origin when they arrived in Rome, and that the fruit was introduced to Britain in AD 47. The Romans must have taken to cherries with great gusto since in Pliny’s day eight varieties of cherry were cultivated in Italy.

In Arabic sour cherries were known by the borrowing qarāsiyā (قراصيا, قراسيا) or, in the Muslim West as habb al-mulūk (حبّ الملوك), “king’s berries”. They were reported to grow in Syria and Egypt, and one scholar claimed that qarāsiyā was one of ninety plant species growing on Mount Lebanon from which one could make a living by gathering its fruit.

In medieval Arab cooking, they are used very rarely, in a sweet-and-sour chicken stew, of which variant recipes are found in cookery books from Syria (Aleppo) and Egypt (Cairo) dating from the 13th and 15th centuries. Medicinally, they were said to be an aphrodisiac, while Maimonides, who describes qarāsiyā as a plum, but smaller, with a sour taste, claimed that they are a light purgative. According to the physician Dāwud al-Antākī (15thc.), qarāsiyā can be used to treat depression, fainting fits, thirst, cough, loss of memory, internal wounds, and obstructions in the urinary tract.

Today, qarāsiyā refers to a kind of plum in some dialects (e.g. Syria), while in Standard Arabic, the word for cherries is now karaz (كرز).

sour cherries in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Tacuinum

Spotlight on: Asparagus

The Mediterranean basin is home to several species of wild asparagus, while the garden variety (Asparagus officinalis) was already appreciated in Roman times. Apicius recommended drying it before boiling, and included an asparagus pie in his recipe collection. The sixth-century Byzantine physician — and author of a famous culinary treatise — Anthimus recommended eating it with salt and oil. On the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons used it for medicinal purposes only; it would take until the 16th century for the vegetable to appear on English tables, albeit very rarely until the 17th century.

In medieval Arab cooking, there are only a few recipes requiring asparagus (هليون, hilyawn). It seems to have been highly prized though, and the author of what is considered the earliest Abbasid treatise includes a poem in praise of the vegetable. He recommends eating asparagus boiled and seasoned with olive oil and with murrī, which appears to have been the most usual way of serving it. The same source includes a few stews containing asparagus and, more unusually, an aphrodisiac asparagus drink. A 13th-century collection from Aleppo includes a recipe combining fried eggs and asparagus, a precursor to the modern scrambled egg dish.

The asparagus is conspicuous by its absence from the Egyptian repertoire, but was quite popular in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), where it was eaten with olive oil and vinegar, or as an ingredient in meat stews. The asparagus would also be served with hard-boiled eggs, or wrapped with meat. The vegetable was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula in the ninth century by the most famous exile from the East, the singer and aesthete Ziryab. In Andalusian and North African Arabic it was known as asfarāj (أسفراج), a word derived from its Latin name, asparagus.

In the medical literature, asparagus was identified as a powerful aphrodisiac, as well as being a diuretic (as it had been in Greek sources), and useful against bowel blockages, sciatica, and colitis. When it is cooked with syrup, it is good for bites, but a decoction of asparagus is lethal to dogs!

Asparagus in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (Ostler Library, Toronto)

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: cumin (كمّون, kammun)

The plant (Cuminum cyminum) is native to Central Asia and is attested as early as the second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, where it was already used in cooking. Cumin is also found in a number of (fish) recipes in Apicius’ Roman cookery book.

Arab scholars mentioned several varieties of cumin (for example, Persian, Syrian, Kirmani, Nabataean), whereas the term was also used as a generic to denote other plants: kammūn rūmī/armanī (‘Byzantine/Armenian cumin’, i.e. caraway), kammūn ḥulw (‘sweet cumin’, i.e. aniseed). The variety known as black cumin is referred to in Arabic as ḥabba sawdā’.

In cooking, it was a highly popular aromatic, across all treatises, with the seeds being used whole or ground. The author of a 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise recommends cumin for vinegar dishes, in broth of fried poultry and meat, while its deflatuent and digestive effect makes it suitable for all dishes that contain vinegar or murrī.

Medicinally, it was considered hot and dry, and the seeds of the plant (whether wild or cultivated) were used as a digestive, emmenagogue, aphrodisiac and a cure for urinary, intestinal as well as eye diseases.

garden cumin in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)

wild cumin in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)

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.

Pepper in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (British Library)
Illustration of the harvesting of pepper in Salman Tusi’s ‘Book of Wonders’ (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Spotlight on: Beef

Beef was not used very often in medieval Arab cuisine, which preferred lamb and chicken. Beef was, however, the usual meat in the famous vinegar stew, ‘sikbaj’ (سكباج), while in Abbasid cuisine it was also used in a number of cold dishes (بوارد, bawarid). It does not appear at all in a 13th-century Baghdadi recipe collection, and is required in only two dishes in a 15th-century Egyptian cookery book.

Medically, beef was considered dense and to generate putrid blood. It is only good for those who engage in physical work, or for young people. Cheese made from cow’s milk was considered to be the heaviest of all cheeses, whereas rice cooked in cow’s milk was thought to be indigestible.

Beef did not find much favour either in religion, and a famous hadith, for instance, states that the milk and butter of cows are curative, but their meat causes disease.

The above is somewhat at odds with the praising comments by the cosmographer al-Qazwini (13thc.), who stated that the cow is not only very useful, but also one of the strongest animals on earth. Allah did not create it with weapons like wild animals because it is under the protection of human beings who drive away the cows’ enemies. Another reason is that humans have a great need for the animal and if it were equipped with weapons, it might overpower them.

Description of the cow in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 1280CE)

Spotlight on: Rice

First grown in India before 4000 BCE, rice (Oryza sativa) was known to the ancient Greeks in the time of Alexander, who encountered it in Persia. However, it does not appear to have been used as food since only medical authors mention some recipes, including a pudding with goat’s milk. Rice flour is used in a couple of recipes by Apicius as a sauce thickener.

Rice was grown in Mespotamia and Iran before the Christian era and it occupied an important place in Persian cooking from Sassanid times onwards and over the centuries it gradually crowded out grains.

In medieval Arab cooking its earliest use was in rice porridges (aruzziyyat), rice puddings with milk (aruzz bi ‘l-laban), or as a thickener. It was most frequently cooked with the other ingredients (meat, vegetable) in the broth. Several cookery books contain recipes for so-called mufalfal (‘peppered’ < fulful, ‘pepper’) rice, which is a kind of pilaff and involves rinsing the rice before adding it to a stew with meat. The terminology refers to the rice grains being loose, rather than the addition of pepper.

In many areas, rice was an important ingredient in elite cookery, which was reinforced under the Mongols. Rice flour was also used to make bread, but this was generally considered food for the poor.

Rice was introduced in the Western Mediterranean by the Arabs, who cultivated it in Sicily and al-Andalus; in the latter area, its use was mostly restricted to those areas where it was grown (e.g. Valencia), which explains why there are very few Andalusian dishes requiring it.

Medicinally, rice was said to be nourishing, especially when cooked with almonds and milk, and sweetened with sugar. It was also thought to be astringent and useful against ulcers, as well as increasing semen. Some scholars held that eating rice caused good dreams, whereas roughness in the stomach could be remedied by an enema of rice. It was said to cause constipation, which can be counteracted by soaking the rice in water overnight, drinking milk after eating it, or by cooking it with a large amount of fat.

Today, rice is a staple in many Arab cuisines; in some Gulf countries, it is even called ‘aysh, ‘life’, in reference to its importance in the diet. In North Africa, however, couscous or pasta are generally preferred to rice, which is not used in many dishes. Mufalfal rice is now associated with Egypt, not in a stew, but as a side, and often includes vermicelli (sha’iriyya). It may even include pepper!

Illustration of rice in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (Ostler Library)

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.)

Spotlight on: Aubergine (باذنجان, badhinjan)

The ancestor of the modern aubergine (Solanum melongena) is a wild variety (Solanum incanum) from Africa, but became domesticated around the first century BCE in Asia (probably first in India and then China) before spreading towards the Mediterranean in the seventh century, reaching Spain by the 9th century. It was unknown in Greek or Roman Antiquity. The Arabs were introduced to it by the Persians, though it cannot be excluded that the aubergine reached Arabia directly from India in pre-Islamic times. The Arabic word is a Persian borrowing of Sanskrit origin (vangana), but it was known by a number of other names as well, such as the mysterious ‘snake warts’ (ثآليل الحيات, ta’ālīl al-hayyāt ) in the Maghrib.

In what is considered the earliest Arabic cookery book (10th c.), only nine (out of over 600) dishes call for aubergine, but its popularity clearly grew as time went on since only a few centuries later another Abbasid treatise used it in about ten per cent of the dishes. It was used primarily in stews, fried or stuffed. It was recommended to boil it in salt before cooking to eliminate the bitterness and expel its black juice. Its popularity grew even more in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Christian West, the aubergine came to be considered a ‘Jewish’ vegetable and was thus excluded from the diet of the devout Christian.

Despite its widespread consumption, physicians endowed it with many harmful properties, including causing black bile, obstructions, tumours, haemorrhoids, headaches, and even leprosy. It was thought to be noxious — even lethal — when eaten raw, though Ibn Buṭlān (11th c.) particularly warned against grilling it. According to the 10th-century Iraqi agronomer Ibn Waḥshiyya, aubergine should be eaten fried in oils and fats, with fatty meat. Its negative effects can be counteracted by cooking it with vinegar (though this causes constipation) and caraway. The Andalusian physician Ibn Khalṣūn (13thc.) , for his part, recommended the small white variety, eaten with fatty poultry or lamb.

illustration of the aubergine in the Kitāb al-adwiya al-mufrada (‘The Book of Simple Medicines’) by the Andalusian botanist al-Ghāfiqī (d. 1165). [Ostler Library, McGill University]
aubergine (Melongiana) in a Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

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)