Medieval Arab kitchen hacks 2: The physician’s advice

The physician, philosopher and theologian Ibn Butlan (d. 1066) was one of the leading scholars of his day. Born in Baghdad, he travelled widely across the Muslim world (Aleppo, Cairo, Constantinople) dispensing his immense medical knowledge. He ended up in Antioch (present-day Antakya, in Turkey), where he became a monk (he was a Nestorian Christan), and spent his final days at a monastery. He is best known for his Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (تقويم الصحّة, ‘The Maintenance of Health’), a hygiene and dietetic synopsis in the form of tables, which gained considerable fame and influence in Christian Europe, with Latin (Tacuinum sanitatis) and German translations being printed in 1531 and 1533, respectively. The book contains therapeutic uses of various materia medica and foods, including dishes. His other works include a medical and dietetic manual for ‘monks living in a monastery or far from towns’, extracts from which found their way into several culinary treatises, and Daʿwat al-atibbāʾ (دعوة الأطبّاء, ‘The Physicians’ Dinner Party’), a humorous critique of quacks.

The Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa also contains plenty of cooking and dining advice, some of which was copied in some cookery books. Here are some recommendations for chefs:

Temper saltiness and acridity by boiling in freshwater.

Temper pungency and bitterness with vinegar, sourness with salt, and blandness with spices .

Boil that which is emaciated before cooking it, and coat it with fat before grilling it, and place a pot with freshwater underneath it.

Remove grilled food from the fire while it still retains some moisture.

Do not cover game meat when cooking it.

Do not slaughter an animal on the day it has eaten garlic or onions.

Make sure to remove the scum from meat when cooking it.

Sharpen cleavers to cut the bones to prevent them from shattering, and knives to cut meat so that it does not smell bad.

Scrape the table clean and for peeling onions use a knife that is not used in the cutting of the tharīd.

Use a dedicated ladle and lid for each pot.

Continuously skim off the froth and clean the sides of the pot from anything that can get burnt.

Remedy food that has been burnt by sticking wet paper along the sides of the pot.  

If you need to add water [to the pot], sprinkle it in and rub it along the sides of the pot so as to avoid bad smells.

Do not pound spices or almonds in a malodorous mortar, or put the juices in a rusty receptacle.

Do not ladle things out of the pot before it has stopped boiling and the heat has subsided.

Wash your hands before removing food from the pot.

Do not use vinegar or oil that have been in a copper vessel.

Remove the smell of onions on your hands by fumigating the hands with sandalwood.

Make sure to fry spices and onions, as this is what cooking is all about.

Leave meat high in density overnight to tenderize it, and boil it in water and salt.

Avoid fires with fresh and moist wood because the best fire is that which is free from defects.

If you want to quickly cook meat, throw some borax on it, and add wax, fig twigs, and melon peel to the pot.

When it comes to diners, Ibn Butlan, like many other physicians, prescribed a number of things:

Sweets should be eaten at the end of the meal because they remove the greasy residue of food from the mouth, and because they are very balanced.

Avoid eating vinegar after rice, butter milk with radish, or onions with garlic.

Do not have salty foods or cold water after eating fruits.

One should eat light food, such as vegetables and fruits, before heavy food.

Do not eat and drink at the same time.

Have a light meal in the evening and you will be more active the next day.

Have the table cleared while you still feel like eating, to avoid overindulgnce.

Page containing some of the recommendations for cooks from a presentation copy of the Taqwim al-sihha for the son of Saladin (Salah al-Din), al-Malik al-Zahir (d. 1216), king of Aleppo. [British Library Or1347]

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

Spotlight on: Medieval Food Fraud

In the Middle Ages, markets were subject to a number of quality-control regulations, which were enforced by the market inspector, known as the muhtasib (محتسب). It is said that the Prophet Muhammad, himself, appointed the first officals with jurisdiction over the markets in Mecca and Medina. However, the office of the muhtasib appears not to have been formalized until the 9th century, during the Abbasid caliphate.

The importance attached to ensuring that market traders plied their wares in an ethical manner was such that a considerable number of manuals were produced across the Muslim world — from Muslim Spain to Syria and Iraq — outlining the muhtasib’s supervisory duties and responsibilities. These were, in fact, linked to the meaning of the word hisba (from which muhtasib is derived) as an injunction to promote good and forbid evil, which is incumbent upon every Muslim. In other words, to cheat customers is an unreligious — as well as an unethical and possibly criminal — thing to do. In many respects, the way the muhtasibs operated was very similar to today’s trading standards officers, and they provided a crucial public service.

Markets in the Muslim world contained a large number of food providers as most people ate out for most of their meals since the average home did not have the facilities for cooking, baking, etc. The public had a choice from amongst a dizzying array of specialised providers to satisfy the most varied and demanding of palates, with stalls specialising in fried fish, confectionery, freshly-made zulābiyya, cooked liver, harīsa (a meat porridge), cold snacks (bawārid), grilled and roast meats, sausages, cooked lentils and broad beans, sheep’s heads, etc. And it is in this area, of course, that the muhtasib‘s duties were, literally, of vital importance from a public health perspective. This also explains why they had to verify that traders had the required skills, as in the case of the syrup makers (sharrābiyūn), who also sold electuaries and other medicinal compounds, which could only be prepared from recognized pharmacological manuals.

The large range of potential issues that are mentioned in the hisba manuals clearly reveal that the market inspectors had their work cut out for them, as shown by the following examples from one of the hisba manuals from 12th-century Syria.

Naturally, the more precious the item, the more likely it will be tampered with. So, it is not surprising that saffron is often mentioned in this regard. Then, as now, it was blended with safflower, though other, far more unusual, tactics were also used. One of them involved using chicken breasts and beef boiled in water and then shredded before being dyed with saffron and mixed into the baskets. Other additives included starch or even ground glass! Similarly, camphor was apparently sometimes mixed with waste marble trimmings, or kneaded with resin. Honey, on the other hand, was frequently thinned with water, though this resulted in its resembling semolina in winter, and being watery in summer. As for turmeric, this was bulked up with ground pomegranate skins.

Bread was commonly adulterated by mixing beans, or chickpea and rice flour in with the wheat flour. Stews could be thickened with rice flour, semolina, taro, or starch. The sellers of the already-mentioned harīsa, which was a very popular market food, would not only thicken it with taro, but would instead of good-quality (lamb) meat use sheep’s head meat, or dried beef and camel meat. And like the contemporary visitor to an all-you-can-eat buffet, the medieval diner would be very much aware of the possibility that the harīsa might contain the left-over meat from the previous day — or the one before that!

The manuals give clear instructions on how to identify fraudulent acts, such as changes in colour, consistency, and taste of foodstuffs and ingredients, with the muhtasib being assisted by helpers, who would report on any suspicious behaviour. For instance, in order to detect fraudulent musk — another very expensive commodity — the inspector should put his lips to it; if it is pure musk, he should get a sharp sensation, like fire, in his mouth. If he does not, then the musk has been tampered with. The inspector would also take pre-emptive measures, such as putting a seal on food items, to prevent any subsequent tampering.

Another key area revolved around measures and weights, and muhtasibs went around verifying that traders used the right weights and did not short-change the unsuspecting punter.

When rules were broken, there would naturally follow a punishment, which the inspectors were empowered to carry out. However, the manuals encouraged them to rely on deterrence and reprimand, and to be lenient for first offenders, while the penalty should be commensurate with the crime. The manual lists the muhtasib‘s main tools of the trade, so to speak, as being the whip and the turtur (طرطور), a tall conical cap, which were displayed at his booth in the market, by way of deterrent. In serious cases, or repeat offending, the penalties would be flogging and/or public pillory, with the culprit being forced to wear the turtur as a kind of dunce cap, and paraded about town.

But it was not just unscrupulous business practices that fell within the muhtasib‘s remit, which was, after all, to uphold moral conduct, and so he would also intervene in other matters that infringed upon public decency, such as the drinking of alcohol, or unmarried/ unrelated men and women consorting.

13th-century market scene, showing craftspeople, traders, and animals (BnF, MSS, Arabe 5847).

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: Food for the Road

In the medieval Islamic world, travel was very important, whether it be for trade, education, or religion (the hajj), and conditions were often hard. As a result, it is hardly surprising that leading physicians paid a great deal of attention to the health and regimen of travellers (تدبير المسافرين, tadbīr al-musāfirīn). Ibn Sina (Avicenna), for instance, said that travellers should divide their rations into portions that are not too big and in keeping with their temperament so as to allow full digestion, whereas herbs, vegetables and fruits should be avoided (unless they are required for medical reasons) as they may produce bad ‘humours’.

Travel often meant going without food or drink for long periods of time and so one should avoid snacks that cause thirst, such as fish, capers, salted foods, and sweets. If there is a shortage of water, vinegar should be added to it, as this quenches thirst. In order better to withstand food deprivation, Ibn Sina recommended food prepared from roast livers and the like, strong liquid fats, almonds, and almond oil, whereas beef fat will help suppress hunger pangs for a long time. He recounts that one man partook of a pound of violet oil in which fat had been dissolved and felt sated for ten days. al-Razi (Rhazes), for his part, suggested chewing pickled onions as a travelling snack, since this assuages hunger. Travellers should also refrain from riding immediately after a full meal, because the decomposition of the food causes thirst.

Scholars made a distinction between travelling to hot or cold regions. When journeying in the former, Ibn Sina suggested travellers eat barley sawīq (see below) and fruit syrups before setting out since riding on an empty stomach greatly reduces one’s strength.
If one is afraid of being caught in a samūm (hot desert whirlwinds), one should eat onions with (or before) thick sour butter milk (دوغ, dūgh) or, especially, onions steeped in it overnight — the onions should be scored before putting them in the milk. Another remedy to deal with the anxiety is to suck on aromatic oils, such as rose oil or gourd-seed oil, as these have a calming effect.

Travellers in cold climes should take provisions that allow them to endure the cold more easily, and according to Ibn Sina, this includes foods with plenty of garlic, walnuts, mustard, asafoetida, which all have hot ‘temperaments’. Yoghurt whey (مصل , masl) can be added to make the garlic and walnuts taste better. Clarified butter (سمن, samn), or ghee, is also good, especially if one drinks wine after eating it. In cold regions, one should drink wine rather than water. Asafoetida, in particular, has a warming effect, especially when taken with wine.

The cookery books also sometimes mention the usefulness of certain foods for travellers, as in the case of khushkānaj (خشكانج), a type of pastry, or hays (حيس) — date balls mixed with nuts –, which are mentioned by both al-Baghdadi (13th century) and al-Warrāq (10th c.), with the latter specifying that this confection tended to be carried by the elite on the hajj.

Al-Warrāq also devoted an entire chapter on the already-mentioned sawīq (سويق) for travellers. This drink was made with toasted wheat grains (or almonds), to which pomegranates, or clarified butter could be added, and which was stored until needed, when water would be added, as well as sugar, to taste. This was already a favourite among Bedouins in pre-Islamic Arabia.

The same author mentions a type of dip, sibāgh (صباغ), which could be made from a number of ingredients, such as yoghurt, raisins, walnuts, and even fish, but often included mustard. One variety in particular was said to be good for the road since it involves kneading a mixture of pomegranate seeds, raisins, pepper and cumin into discs, which can be stored and, when needed, are dissolved in vinegar. This would be eaten with bread.

When the high and mighty travelled, they would, of course, do so with their chefs and portable kitchens, which included braziers, cauldrons, and all the kitchen- and tableware in keeping with their station. In some cases, the challenges of al fresco cooking resulted in a new dishes, as in a famous story of the development of a dish called kushtabiyya (كشتابية) about a Persian king whose Arab chef would prepare meat slices cooked on embers or boiled, eaten with a dip. One day, the cook was caught unawares by the unexpected return to camp of the king, and had not had time to start cooking the meat. In order to speed things up, he put the meat in a pan with some oil and lit the fire. He put the meat in a frying pan, poured in some fat, and fried it. He sprinkled the meat with salted water, and added some chopped onion and spices before covering the pot and letting it stew.

Travel was responsible for the creation of other dishes as well, such as kebabs which would have been skewered on a sword and roasted over a fire.

Al fresco feast, from the Muraqqa’-i gulshan (Gulshan Album), 1599-1609 (Tehran, Golestan Palace, Imperial Library).
Travel cauldron (MIA, Doha, Qatar)
Tray stand (MIA, Doha, Qatar)

Spotlight on: Rose water (ماء الورد, ma al-ward)

Rose water is one of the staple ingredients in medieval Arab cooking and was obtained through distillation (تصعيد, tas’īd) in what is known as an alembic. The word goes back to the Arabic al-anbīq (الأنبيق), itself a transliteration of the Greek ambix (ἄμβιξ). While, today, alembic refers to the still as a whole, al-anbīq only referred to the top, or cap, placed on the vessel that is heated up, known as the ‘cucurbit’ (قرعة, qar’a). The joint (وصل, wasl) between the components is sealed in order to make it watertight. As the drawing below shows, the anbīq is then connected with another vessel, the ‘recipient’ (قابلة, qābila) of the distillate (تقطير, taqtīr). Though invented in ancient Greece in the 4th-century BCE, the instrument was perfected and used extensively by Islamic chemists and alchemists, such as the Persian-born alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan (جابر ابن حيان), who later became known in the Christian West by his latinized name of Geber.

The distillation could be done either by the cucurbit being in direct contact with the fire, or placed on a grate in a vessel with water that is heated up. The alembic was used in the distillation of essential oils, as well as rose water.

Description of the alembic and distilling process by Jabir Ibn Hayyan

The process begins, of course, with roses. The polymath al-Kindī (ca 801-66), who devoted an entire work to distilling perfumes, started with young fresh red roses, from which the calyxes are removed and the petals spread out and left for a while. Once the roses are dried, they are stuffed inside the cucurbit; as it is heated up, the vapours travel through the anbīq and condense as rose water in the recipient. In the industrial production of rose water, several containers were heated up at the same time.

The Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Awwam al-Ishbilī (12th/13th century) said that Syrian roses are the best for drying and distillation, and recommended immature roses, as they begin to blossom around mid-April. He added that wild roses yield a more fragrant rose water than cultivated ones. The geographer al-Dimashqi (d. 1327) claimed that the rose water produced in his native Damascus was exported far and wide, to the Hejaz, Yemen, Abyssinia, and even to the Indian sub-Continent and China. However, in the culinary literature, rose water made from roses grown in Nisibin (the present-day Turkish city of Nusaybin) is mentioned as being the best.

In medieval Arab cooking, rose water was used not only as a sweetener, but also to rub the sides of the pot at the end of the cooking process. Saffron was often dissolved in it, to colour dishes yellow. Rose water could also be infused with musk, honey or camphor. Chicken dishes, in particular, very often called for rose-water, alongside rose-water syrup, sugar, and various nuts (almonds, mint, pistachios). The Sultan’s Feast contains a few recipes for a meat (lamb) māwardiyya (rose-water stew), which, so the author informs us, was previously known as fālūdhajiyya (fālūdhaj, ‘starch pudding’).

The use of rose water in cooking was, like so many things, a Persian borrowing and, in an interesting lexicological twist, the word for rose water in that language, gulāb (گل, ‘rose’; اب, ‘water’) became the word for rose-water syrup in Arabic (جلاب, jul[l]āb). Later on, the word entered English — through Spanish — as ‘julep’ . Today, rose water is still an integral part of Arab and Persian cuisines, particularly to scent various types of sweets (puddings, pastries, ice-cream), often as a alternative, or alongside, orange-blossom water.

Rose water was also endowed with medicinal properties, and according to Ibn Jazla (11th century) it strenghtened the gums and stomach, soothed eye aches, as well as being an anti-emetic.

Picture of an alembic in a Latin translation of Jabir’s work, printed in Strabourg in 1531.

Spotlight on: Rhubarb

Rhubarb (Rheum ribes) originally hails from China but spread to the Mediterranean very early on as it was aready known in Greek antiquity. Dioscorides referred to it as ῥᾶ (rha), but added the variant ῥῆον (rheon), which is how Galen called it. The former name was said to come from the fact that it grew near the river Volga, known in Greek as rha, with Dioscorides specifying that it was ‘the lands above the Bosporus’. The word rheon may go back to the Persian word riwand (also rīwand, rāwand). There is no evidence that it was used in cooking in either ancient Greece or Rome, and it is not even mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History. Medicinally, Dioscorides suggested it was useful against intoxication, flatulence, fatigue, and hiccups, as well as a host of ailments affecting various parts of the body (spleen, liver, kidneys, bladder, chest, uterus, bowels). Previously, rhubarb had already been used in Chinese medicine, against blockages and to flush out the intestines, while a source from the Mongol era includes it in a potion to counter the effects of eating too much — or poisoned — fish!

It is in medieval Arab cuisine that rhubarb is first attested as food, though it is likely that this was a Persian influence; the Arabic word rībās (ريباس) is a borrowing from Persian (alongside ريواس, rewās) meaning ‘sorrel’ or ‘rhapontic’ (false rhubarb). Stews where it is the main ingredient were called rībāsiyya, the oldest recipe for which appears in an early 13th-century Baghdadi cookery book and calls for lamb, onion, rhubarb juice (extracted from the leafstalks), and almonds. In an earlier manual (10th century), rhubarb occurs only as an ingredient in a citron (pulp) stew (حماضية, ḥummāḍiyya), though the author does include a poem in praise of rībāsiyya.

The vegetable seems to have been much more popular in the Levant as most of the rhubarb recipes can be found in a 13th-century Syrian cookbook, which contains three chicken rhubarb stews (or, more precisely, fried chicken with a rhubarb sauce) and two variants with meat (probably lamb) and meatballs (made with rice and chickpeas). The rhubarb is usually boiled into a compote and then strained, though in one case it is pieces that are added to the dish. In fact, the vegetable never really gained popularity in the East, either (no doubt due to its bitter taste) and fell out of favour in Arab cooking for centuries and is today only used in Western-inspired dishes. The closest modern descendant of the rībāsiyya is the Iranian khorest-e rivās (خورشت ريواس), or perhaps this is what originally inspired the Arab dish?

In the medical literature, rhubarb is prescribed in a number of cases and its strength is sometimes compared to citron pulp. The 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla said that the rībāsiyya was made just like ḥummāḍiyya, and that it is good for weak stomachs, but is harmful to the chest, nerves, joints and sexual potency (though this can be remedied by eating a plump chicken!).

According to Ibn Sina (Avicenna), rhubarb (for which he uses the Persian riwand) is imported from China and is the root of a plant. His description of the medicinal uses of rhubarb owe much to Dioscorides as he, too, recommended it for use in skin conditions, liver and stomach illnesses, as well as hiccups, asthma, fevers and insect bites. Ibn Jazla claimed that the best variety came from the Persian mountains, and that it was useful against the plague, hangovers, to sharpen eyesight, as an anti-emetic and for its stomachic properties.

The Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248) said that this plant did not grow anywhere in North Africa or al-Andalus, which, of course, explains why there are no recipes requiring it in medieval cookery books from those regions. He recommended administering it in a rob (رب, rubb), i.e. boiled down into a syrup, against palpitations, and vomiting. The Persian physician al-Samarqandi (d. 1222) added that rhubarb has a constipating effect.

If you want to see what a rībāsiyya looks like, check out this Sunday’s post discussing the recreation of a recipe from The Sultan’s Feast!

the entry on rhubarb in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Biblioteca Universitaria Bologna)
Picture of rhubarb in Tractatus de herbis, an Italian herbal from ca 1440 (British Library, Sloane 4016)

Spotlight on: Pomegranates

The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is probably native to Iran, but spread beyond its homeland very early on, to ancient Mesopotamia and then Egypt, where it arrived before the second millennium BC. The Sumerians knew it as nurma, which is the origin of the Persian anār (انار) as well as the Arabic rummān (رمّان). It continued to travel west along the Mediterranean, to Greece (where it is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey) and can be found in the Iberian Peninsula and France before the start of the Christian era. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder reports that in his day there were nine varieties of pomegranate.

Classical physicians mention three kinds of pomegranates, based on their juice; sweet, winy and acidic. The juice, seeds, rind, and flowers were all used in medicinal applications for a variety of ailments. Known in Greek as roa (ρόα), it is the fruit’s latin name malum granatum (‘seed apple’) that has left a trace in many languages, besides English, such as in the French grenade, the Spanish granada, or the Italian melograno.

In the Muslim world, mainly sour and sweet pomegranates are mentioned, and the fruit has always been held in high esteem, not least because the sweet variety (حُلو, ḥulw) is mentioned several times in the Qur’ān and is one of the fruits of paradise. The pomegranates from Persia and Syria were particularly prized; the Umayyad Emir of Cordoba, ‘Abd al-Rahman, who was a keen collector of exotic fruit and plants, even sent agents out to Syria to acquire varieties grown there for his garden. According to the early 13th-century traveller to Egypt Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, the pomegranates there were of the highest quality, even though they were never really sweet.

The fruit (both the seeds and juice) was an ingredient in many different types of dishes, from savoury to sweet, whereas the sour (حامض, hāmiḍ) pomegranate was used as an aromatic. Stews in which it is a key ingredient were known as rummāniyya (رمّانية), with chicken being the meat of choice in these recipes.

Both the fruit and peel of the pomegranate, but especially the juice, were used in the treatment of diarrhoea, fevers, cough, stomach and liver ailments, to curb yellow bile, and as a diuretic and anaphrodisiac (because of its acidity). The Persian-born physician al-Rāzī (d. 935), who became known in Europe as Rhazes, claimed that the sweet pomegranate bloats the stomach, whereas the sour variety is good against stomach inflammation. The juice made from the seeds of sour pomegranates cooked with honey is beneficial in the treatment of mouth and stomach ulcers. According to Ibn Buṭlān (11th century), the sweet pomegranate is an aphrodisiac, but flatulent (though this can be counteracted by eating sour pomegranate). The Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides (d. 1204), for his part, believed that along with apple and quince, sucking pomegranate seeds after the meal is recommended for everyone as part of a healthy regimen.

pomegranates in a 14th-century botanical manuscript

Spotlight on: quince

In the “Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies” (الحمّال والصبايا الثلاثة, al-ḥammāl wa-l-ṣubāyā al-thalātha) from the 1001 Nights (ألف ليلة وليلة, alf layla wa layla), also known in the West as the Arabian Nights, one of the protagonists praises the quince as it ‘puts to shame the scent of musk and ambergris’, citing the following verse by an anonymous poet:

”The quince combines all of the pleasures of mankind
It is more famous than any other fruit.
It has the taste of wine and the fragrance of musk,
Golden hued, and rounded like the full moon

The origins of the quince (Cydonia oblonga) are shrouded in mystery, but it may have been ancient Mesopotamia; the Arabic word safarjal (سفرجل), in fact, goes back to the Akkadian supurgillu. The Greeks knew two types of quince (sour and sweet), but often considered it a type of apple (mêlon), known as kudonion (κυδώνιον), after its alleged birth place, the Cretan town of Cydonia. In Latin, too, the word for apple (malum) denoted quince (and sometimes even pomegranates or peaches).

Quinces were used in a variety of preparations (often with honey), such as jams, conserves, syrup, or fermented into a wine. When packed in honey, the resulting preserve was known as mêlomeli (μηλόμελι, ‘apple/quince honey’). The first-century botanist Dioscorides said that it was prepared by deseeding quinces and then fully immersing them in honey; after a year, the mixture becomes smooth and resembles wine mixed with honey. It is the linguistic ancestor, by way of Latin, of marmelo, the Portuguese for ‘quince’. Another Portuguese word denoting a quince preserve (quince cheese), marmelada, travelled further westward, and gave English its word for the breakfast favourite marmalade (though today this is associated with citrus fruits). Physicians recommended baking quinces before eating them, and due to their astringent property prescribed them, for instance, as an anti-diarrhoetic. In addition to a quince preserve which called for the whole fruit, including the stems and leaves, the Roman cookery book by Apicius (4th c.) includes recipes for a few stews with quince, leeks and honey, or beef. More unusually, he also gives a fish recipe requiring cooked quinces, pepper, lovage, mint, coriander, rue, honey and wine.

Despite the praise lavished on the quince in the story from the 1001 Nights, it was not used very often in medieval Arab cooking, with fewer than forty recipes requiring it. In what is considered the oldest Arabic culinary cookbook (10th c.), quince appears mostly in medicinal conserves, syrups or beverages, as well as in a chicken stew (زيرباجة, zīrbāja), and a preserved lamb recipe (أهلام, ahlām). In the thirtheenth century, the safarjaliyya (سفرجلية), or quince stew (made with lamb), made its first appearance in cookery books from across the Muslim world: Egypt, Baghdad, al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), North Africa, and Syria. It is an Andalusian recipe for quince jelly that is the direct ancestor of both the Portuguese marmelada and its Spanish cousin dulce de membrillo. Quince was used in meat stews, murrī (a fermented condiment), and pickles. Like before, the quince drinks (often with lemon) and conserves were considered primarily medicinal. In dishes, apples are frequently paired with quince. In 15th-century Egypt, the safarjaliyya was still part of the repertoire, and according to a cookbook from this period, quinces should be preserved by rolling them in fig leaves coated with clay and then drying them out in the sun.

Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) suggested grilling quinces after scooping out the seeds, filling the cavity with honey and then covering the fruit with clay before putting them over hot embers. He recommended it as an anti-emetic, and as a cure for dysentry and hangovers. He also added that one can prevent a hangover by drinking quince syrup after overindulging in wine. The highly astringent qualities of quince strengthen the stomach and Ibn Sīnā advised eating them after meals.

The famous 11th-century peripatetic physician Ibn Butlan (ابن بطلان) advised eating quince both before and after meals as the bits block openings in between the teeth, thus preventing food from lodging in there. He held that quince purifies the stomach when taken before a meal, and loosens the bowels when eaten afterwards. In addition, quince also acts as a diuretic, but can be harmful to the nerves.

quince in al-Qazwini’s encyclopedia, ‘The Wonders of Creation’ (BSB, Cod-arab464, fol. 119r.) [1280]
quince (alongside apples) in the Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ materia medica, with pears appearing on the left-hand page (Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria-ms. 2954, ff. 53v.-54r.) [1254]

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)