Oh, my sweet gourd…

Two mediaeval Egyptian recipes from The Sultan’s Feast for sweets made from gourd, one resembling candy strings, and the other a pudding. The recipes simply call for ‘green sweet gourd’, and were recreated using the more unusual snake gourd. In both cases, the gourd pieces are boiled. The candied strings are made with sugar, honey and rose-water syrup, and garnished with crushed pistachios. The second dish has the consistency of the carrot khabis, and requires poppyseed essence, almond milk, sugar, starch, rose-water syrup, and sesame oil. If you are a purist or mediaevalist, then you should also flavour the sugar with musk.

Quince jelly (مَعْجُون السَّفَرْجَل, ma’jun al-safarjal)

A delicious quince preserve recipe from 13th-century Andalusia. The Arabic word ma’jūn is related to a verb meaning ‘to knead’, and denotes a paste, usually for medicinal use, though the result is often so tasty that one does not need to be sick to enjoy it! The preparation could not be simpler and requires about a pound of quince and some sugar. According to the author, the jelly can be used to remove bitterness in the mouth, arouse the appetite, and prevents bad vapours (بُخارات, bukhārāt) from rising from the stomach to the brain. You can’t say fairer than that, can you!

Sweet carrot pudding (خَبِيص الجَزَر, khabis al-jazar)

A delicious 10th-century Iraqi dish of carrots and milk, cooked with spikenard, cloves, cassia, ginger, and nutmeg. For those who want to take things up a notch, there is a similar dish, which adds dates (تَمْر, tamr) and ground walnuts. When the mixture has thickened, it is removed from the fire and left to settle. If you think that the resulting dish looks somehow familiar, you’d be right. Except for the absence of cardamom, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the classic Indian desert known as gajar (ka) halwa. Though appearing in an Arabic treatise, the dish was probably born in Persia. Either way, this may well be the oldest recorded recipe of gajar halwa.

The world’s oldest nougat recipe

Although the Arabs probably inherited nougat from the Persians, the oldest recorded recipes (six in total) are found in a 10th-century cookery book, where it is called nāṭif (ناطف). There are some recipes for this delicacy in other mediaeval Arabic cookery books, though it is conspicuous by its absence from those compiled in Egypt. In any case, making nougat was serious business, and required a number of dedicated utensils, including a round copper pot for boiling it, a wooden spatula for beating it, as well as a rolling pin and wooden board or marble slab for spreading it out. Even the design of the pot was carefully prescribed; it should have a rounded bottom and three legs to stop it from spinning around when beating and whitening the nougat on a wooden board. It is a bit tricky and labour-intensive to make, but the results are worth it! The recipe recreated here is that for a Harrani nougat, named after the city it allegedly came from (present-day Harran in Turkey). It requires about 1.7 kg of honey, as well as egg-whites, various spices and seeds (e.g. cassia, cloves, spikenard, hemp seeds), and a plethora of fruits and nuts (e.g. almonds, pistachios, dried cocounut). In addition to its cholesterol-enhancing qualities, it was also said to be hard to digest and to cause blockages. Then again, a good thing merits sacrifices! At least, that is what royalty must have thought, too, as the same book contains a nougat recipe made for the great caliph al-Ma’mun as a travel snack ( a bit like our trail mix or energy bar), with the author adding that “one can take it along wherever one goes and it lasts for as long as you like.” The delicacy spread throughout the Mediterranean but it is probably in Malta that it achieved the highest status as the emblematic festa  food; as the Maltese saying goes: Festa bla qubbajd mhix festa  (‘A feast without nougat cannot be called a feast)!

Apricot leather (قَمَر الدِّين, Qamar al-Din)

The present-day Qamar al-din refers to a drink made from apricot leather (usually added with rose water), rather than the paste itself. It is a very popular drink (often associated with Ramadan) all over the Middle East, especially in Syria (its original homeland) and Egypt. In the Middle Ages, it was also used in cooking, and is specifically mentioned in a 13th-century Levantine recipe. None of the medieval Arabic culinary treatises provided instructions on how to make it, but thankfully the famous blind Christian physician Dawud al-Antaki (d. 1599) did, in his medical handbook entitled ‘Memento for the wise and a collection of marvellous wonders’ (تذكرة أولي الألباب والجامع للعجب العجاب). It is very straightforward and not different from today’s methods, except in the absence of sugar. After macerating the apricots, they are beaten into a mash, placed on boards coated with sesame oil and left out in the sun. (in case you live in a country in short supply of sunlight, a dehydrator does the trick very nicely, too!) The result, so al-Antaki tells us, should be thin sheets. [al-Antaki, 1884, I, p. 307] In Iran, it is known as the children’s favourite lavashak (لواشک) and denotes fruit rolls, made with a variety of fruits.