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.
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!
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.
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.
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’).
Known as the king of scents, musk is one of the most precious aromatics in the world to this day. It is produced by the gland of the male musk deer to attract mates; the most prized is Tibetan musk. One of the oldest Arabic accounts of musk is found in a wonderful 9th-century collection entitled ‘News of China and India’ (أخبار الصين والهند, ‘Akhbar al-Sin wa ‘l-Hind’), where it is said that the Tibetan musk ‘gazelles’ feed on spikenard, and that the best quality is the one that the animal has rubbed on stones in the mountains. Their diet was one reason why Tibetan musk was considered superior to that sourced from India or China, which, additionally, was often tampered with by unscrupulous traders. The demand meant musk deer would be hunted and killed for their precious musk pod, which on average contains twenty-five grams of musk.
According to some sources, Khorasan was a major musk hub from where the precious aromatic would be shipped across the Muslim world, and beyond. Another centre was the port of Daybul, from where ships would carry it to various ports along the Arabian gulf.
Its scarcity meant that alternatives were sought, whether synthetic (the 9th-century scholar al-Kindi invented several formulas) or animal, such as castoreum (produced by beavers and known in Arabic as jundubādastar, a borrowing from Persian) — which was already used medicinally by the ancient Greeks –, or civet. Neither of them, however, had the prestige of ‘real’ musk. Civet (which is derived from the Arabic word zabād/زباد) is a paste produced by the anal glands of the ‘civet cat’ (which isn’t really a cat, more like a mongoose), found mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia, to mark territory.
Medicinally, musk was prescribed for a variety of conditions, ranging from headaches, to spasms, a gloomy disposition, and as a diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, and antidote (tiryāq) against venomous stings and bites. It was also considered a highly powerful aphrodisiac.
Due to its wonderful fragrance, musk was primarily used in perfumes, and in cooking as an aromatic (طيب, ṭīb) in a variety of dishes, particularly sweets, and very often in combination with rose-water. Distilled waters would sometimes be infused with musk as well.
One of the most important fruits in the eastern Mediterranean, the fig (Ficus carica) originally hailed from Western Asia but very early on travelled westwards. The fruit was already collected by humans by about 8000 BCE across a vast area, from southern France to Iran. It was a staple in the Ancient Mesopotamian diet, both dried and fresh. Dried figs (together with dates and raisins) were used in the making of a kind of wine, as well as in a fruity bread.
Figs were very popular in Ancient Egypt, too, where cultivation probably started in the fourth millennium BCE. Ancient Egyptians used it especially in breads and cakes, some of which were made entirely out of the fruit, as evidenced by the bread preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It may well be the most represented fruit in tomb reliefs and paintings, some of which show monkeys picking the fruits. Interestingly enough, this practice must have been known across a wide area as shown in the famous story about the monkey and the tortoise in the Persian collection of parables entitled Kalila wa Dimna, where the two protagonists meet when the monkey throws figs at the tortoise who greedily eats them. The practice may well go back to India, which also happens to be the birthplace of the parables, which were first written in Sanskrit before being translated into Persian and then into Arabic.
The ancient Greeks grealy enjoyed eating figs, too, and also used the tree sap as rennet in cheese making. The Romans, so Apicius informs us, made fig wine, and also preserved them in honey, alongside other fruit such as apples, plums, pears, and cherries. He further mentions fig-braised ham as well as a more gruesome fig-fed pork liver dish which used the liver of pigs force-fed with figs which was then cooked in a wine sauce and spices.
In Muslim culture, figs were considered the most nutritious of all fruit. They came in many varieties, but the fresh, peeled white (or yellow) type was thought to be the best. Both the fruit and the leaves were used in medicine, and Muslim physicians recommended figs as a diuretic, appetizer, laxative, antidote for poisons, and aphrodisiac (especially fresh ones). The fruit appears in the title of a chapter (sura) in the Qur’an, as well as in a large number of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), the most famous of which states that the Prophet considered it descended from paradise.
Surprisingly, in spite of this high praise figs appear extremely rarely in the cookery books, and there are several that do not mention figs at all. In the earliest cookery book (10th c.), (dried) figs are called for in a vinegar stew, while a later (13thc.) Egyptian manual adds a fenugreek halva that requires it. Another one (14thc.) — also from Egypt — contains a few recipes for preserving figs, one of which involves submerging them in a liquid made with chard and fig juice. Fig leaves were also used in the making of murrī (a condiment), whereas an Andalusian cookbook contains a recipe for a fig vinegar.
Besides an open fire, food was heated in a number of devices in medieval times, and the cookery books mention several of them. A first group includes the mustawqad (مستوقد), which is only mentioned in the oldest Abbasid manual (10th century), where it is described as a stove built in the form of a trapezium (munharif), half a man’s height tall, with openings to let the smoke out. The kānūn (كانون) was a (portable) brazier, which appears a few times in manuals from both Egypt and Iraq, for the smoking of olives, for toasting bread topped with condiments and eggs (a kind of pizza avant la lettre, if you will), and, in one case, to heat up a harisa (meat porridge). It is possible that there were two types of kānūn, since the instructions for the smoked olives refer to their being placed inside and the door being closed. Interestingly enough, in Muslim Spain, khubz kanuni (‘kanun bread’) referred to bread baked in embers.
In terms of ovens, there were essentially two kinds: the (mud-)brick furn (فرن) and the clay tannūr (تنّور), what is today called a tandoor. The latter goes back to the Babylonian tinuru, and is shaped like a cylinder or bee-hive, with a vent at the bottom (where the fire is kindled) and a hole on top. Already in Babylonian times, it was used to bake bread — most commonly unleavened –with the dough being stuck along the sides. However, in medieval Arab cuisine, it was also used to cook dishes, which would be put inside for slow-cooking after bread baking, placed on top, or even hung inside. Some of the commercial and palace tannūrs were so big that they could accommodate a whole lamb.
The tannūr can be found across the eastern mediterranean very early on as there is evidence of similar cylindrical ovens made out of mud and clay being used in ancient Egypt, as the illustration below shows, with loaves also being stuck along the sides for baking. In fact, the tannūr may just as easily have originated in Egypt, and then spread to Mespotamia.
The conventional oven, furn, is open at the front, with a fire being lit either inside, or underneath a shelf. It was used for baking bread, as well as for the roasting of dishes. The medieval furn would have looked very similar to the one depicted in the late 18th century in the Description d’Egypte.
But was every kitchen equipped with these devices? Well, for a start, only a small percentage of houses had a separate kitchen space, which was the preserve of the elite, some of whose houses even had two kitchens; one with an oven and a kānūn, and another one — without equipment — possibly for prepping the food. However, the Egyptian historian al-Jabarti, writing about the second half of the 18th century, explained that every notable’s house had two kitchens, “one on the lower level for men, and the other in the women’s quarters (harem).”
The average person’s house in urban areas would have had neither the space nor the required ventilation. Indeed, unlike in colder climates, fires were not lit inside since, for the most part, heating was not required, in light of the climate. Another factor was the relatively high price of fuel (wood, in particular), which was outside the reach of the majority of the population. They would, in fact, get all of their hot meals outside, which explains the huge number of public food vendors and stalls. Sometimes, people would prepare some food and have it heated up elsewhere; this was the case for bread, for instance, where the dough would be prepared at home and then sent to a communal oven, as is still the case in some areas today. However, as the cookery books reveal, this practice would also exist for other dishes. A contemporary example can be found in Marrakech, where many families still prepare the famous tanjia in traditional clay jars before sending it to be slow-cooked in the ashes of the communal oven that heats the hammam.
People living in the countryside were not faced with the city-dwellers’ problem of space, and would have had self-made ovens, made of mud, which would not have been very different from those found to this day in some rural areas. There is also evidence that they would have had makeshift outside tannūrs, the average one being approximately one metre in height, and packed with pottery on the outside to preserve the heat.
The English traveller Edward Lane, writing in the early 19th century, described the situation in Egypt at the time: “in the houses of the peasants in Lower Egypt, there is generally an oven (“furn”), at the end furthest from the entrance, and occupying the whole width of the chamber. It resembles a wide bench or seat, and is about breast-high: it is constructed of brick and mud; the roof arched within, – and flat on the top. The inhabitants of the house, who seldom have any night-covering during the winter, sleep upon the top of the oven, having previously lighted a fire within it; or the husband and wife only enjoy this luxury, and the children sleep upon the floor.” For fuel, they used dung of cattle, kneaded with chopped straw, and formed into round flat cakes, known as gilla (جلّة), which can still be found in rural Egypt.
The Arabic words for ‘camel’, jamal and its more classical sister ibil, refer to both the one-humped dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) and the two-humped Camel bactrianus, the so-called Asian camel, which is more common in Persia and Central Asia. The latter species is also called fālij in Arabic. A female camel is known as nāqa, which probably goes back to the Akkadian word with the same meaning, anaqāte.
The animal is already mentioned as food in Classical Antiquity and Greek authors spoke of camels being roasted whole at banquets at Persian courts, whereas Aristotle spoke highly of both camel meat and milk. The Roman emperor Heliogabalus (218-222) was allegedly a great afficianado of camel’s heel, a taste he probably acquired during his childhood in what is today Homs (Syria). Physicians were less favourable, however, and the great Galen stated that only people who were mentally and physically like a camel could eat it.
The Bedouin livelihoods in pre-Islamic Arabia relied on their animal herds, especially the camel, which was their most prized possession due to its multiple uses, as a mount, beast of burden, and a source of drink (its milk), fuel (its dung), and hides. As a result, camels would not usually be slaughtered for meat, unless they were ill or died from natural causes. So, when the pre-Islamic bedouin poet Hatim al-Ta’i (حاتم الطائي) slaughtered several hundred camels to honour visitors, this was considered an extreme act of Bedouin generosity and hospitality. In fact, this and other similar stories — usually involving the slaughtering of animals (especially camels) — made him a legend in Arabic (and Persian) culture, and his name lives on to this day in the saying ‘more generous than Hatim al-Ta’i’ (أكرم من حاتم الطائي).
The camel’s character was not as praiseworthy as its practical benefits and there is frequent mention of its spitefulness and extreme rancorousness, combined with a long memory of those who wronged them!
In Arabic culinary literature, the use of camel meat is only mentioned in what is considered the oldest (10th-century) Abbasid cookery book, which contains a number of camel recipes, known as jazūriyya, from the word jazūr, meaning a slaughtered camel (especially the female). The meat (including the hump) is generally sliced up and cooked (stew or roasted), whereas camel liver also appears as an ingredient. There is also a recipe for a sour drink made from camel’s milk mixed with black pepper and galangal. The author recommended camel milk for liver aches and putrified humours, and its meat for individuals with weak stomachs.
Physicians like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) advised camel’s milk in the treatment of asthma; camel dung for removing scars and warts, pimples, and ulcers, and for swollen joint pains; camel urine for dandruff; camel’s brain with vinegar against epilepsy; camel’s fat for convulsions; and fumigation of a camel’s hump to relieve haemorrhoids. Ibn Bakthishu’ (11th c.) suggested drinking camel’s brain cooked in rainwater in order to combat pains resulting from coldness. Ibn Jazla (12th century), for his part, recommended camel blood against epilepsy, and also includes what is probably the most unusual medicine involving camel; a drink made with dried and crushed camel’s testicles against adder bites — cheers!
The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is a member of the Leporidae (Latin, lepus, ‘hare’) family, which includes various species of hare, and is native to the Western Mediterranean, more specifically Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula. The animal was unknown as food in ancient Greece, and the Romans were the first to import the animals (from Spain) for food, using ferrets to catch them, in the 2nd century BCE. Rabbits and hares were bred and fattened in special warrens, known as leporarium, and the poet Martial (1st century BCE) considered hare the best game meat.
It is unclear when rabbits travelled eastward along the southern Mediterranean, and when they did, their meat was not highly praised since no recipes can be found in any of the Near Eastern medieval Arabic cookery books. In terms of terminology, the Arabic arnab (أرنب) to this day is the word for both hare and rabbit (especially in the Near East), though only the latter is used for food in the present-day Arab world, most famously in the Egyptian mulukhiyya (though this is also made with chicken or beef). Andalusian Arabic had separate words for rabbit, i.e. qunilya (قنلية) or qunayna (قنينة), both going back to the Latin cuniculus, which would also result in the English ‘coney’, as well as Kaninchen (German), konijn (Dutch), and kanin (Danish, Swedish). The linguistic confusion continues to this day in Morocco, where arnab can mean ‘hare’ or ‘rabbit’, but qniya only denotes rabbits. Like in ancient Rome, rabbits were bred for food in al-Andalus. Interestingly enough, though the hare appears in the name of certain dishes called arnabī, none of these require it and were, instead, made with beef, dried tuna, or aubergine!
It is only in their homeland that rabbits and hares were used in cooking, with a number of recipes for both in the anonymous Andalusian cookbook and that compiled in Tunisia by the Andalusian emigré al-Tujībī, both from the 13th century. The animals are usually roasted but also stuffed, in one instance with a rich mixture including some more rabbit meat!
In the medical and pharmacological literature, only arnab is mentioned, though as stated, it probably referred to both hares and rabbits. The 13th-century Andalusian physician Ibn Khalsun recommended young female rabbit, cooked with vinager, murrī, garlic, olive oil, onions and spices. Other scholars also praised hare meat; when eaten with vinegar, it is useful against epilepsy and when roasted, it was considered good for bowel ulcers, as well as being a diuretic. The blood of hares was prescribed in a poultice to remove freckles, pimples and blisters.