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.” Who can argue with that?

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.

Layered date galettes

This 13th-century recipe was a speciality of the region around Constantine (Algeria), and was associated with the Kutamiyya Berber tribe. It is known in Arabic as al-murakkaba (المُرَكَّبة, ‘the compound one’) because it involves layers of flat loaves (or galettes) made with semolina dough and eggs, alternating with layers of date paste. After completing the stack with however much dough you have made, pour over honey and clarified butter (ghee). Dust with cinnamon before serving. [Andalusian, fol. 65.r.]    

Candied citron

The recipe for this delightful sweet can be found in 13th- and 15th-century cookery books. Citron is fried in sesame oil and then smothered in honey and rosewater syrup before adding aromatics like saffron, agarwood, and musk. It is served sprinkled with sugar. [Ibn Mubārak Shāh, fol. 22v.]