Medieval Egyptian honeyed dates

This succulent recipe from The Sultan’s Feast requires dates to be boiled in vinegar and honey. When they are ready, they’re transferred to a jar. Colour with saffron, and add musk, rose-water and camphor for extra aromatic flavour. The author suggests leaving the dates to cool down in order to ensure their consistency. An absolutely amazing snack to satisfy those late-afternoon hunger pangs!

Medieval sandwich biscuits: Alluring maidens’ cheeks

There are a few similar recipes for this delicious sweet in 13th-century Egyptian and Syrian cookery books. Their name (خدود الأغاني, khudud al-aghani) is somewhat of a mystery in that it would translate as ‘cheeks of the songs’. However, it is likely that the word is linked to the classical Arabic ghaniya (غانية), which means a beautiful and chaste woman desired by men. Whatever the case may be, the biscuit dough is made with flour, clarified butter, and sesame oil. This will be used to make the slices of the ‘sandwich’. The biscuits are fried and then drenched in rose-water syrup. As for the filler, this is a paste made with flour, sesame oil, musk, syrup, popppy seeds, pistachios, and almonds. When that is done, just smear it on one biscuit slice and top with another. There you have it, the ultimate afternoon sweet! But you’d better invite some guests to help you out — or rather to stop you from polishing off the lot in one go. Consider yourself warned!

Almond conserve (لوز مربّى, lawz murabba)

This delightful recipe is included in the 11th-century pharmacological encypclopedia compiled by the Baghdadi scholar Ibn Jazla. It requires large fleshy almonds, which are first boiled in dibs (date syrup) before being left to rest for a couple of days. The final stage involves some more boiling in syrup, after which they are stored in a glass jar. The result is essentially candied almonds, which, in addition to being delicious, are also useful against coughs. Though it was primarily intended to be eaten by itself, the conserve also appears in a number of recipes, such as a rhubarb stew (ريباسية, ribasiyya).

Almond-filled dates in syrup

Stuffing dates was as popular in the past as it is today, and Apicius’ Roman cookery book has what is perhaps the oldest recipe in his list of ‘home-made sweets’ (dulcia domestica). Interestingly enough, his stuffing could also include ground pepper alongside the nuts, with the dates subsequently being sprinkled with salt (!) and candied in honey.

Stuffed dates were also a regular occurrence in the medieval Arab culinary tradition, and recipes can be found in cookery books from both Syria and Egypt, spanning a period of two centuries (13th-15th). For today’s scrumptious ‘honeyed dates’ (رطب معسّل, rutab mu’assal) from The Sultan’s Feast you need fresh dates, which should be left in the shade for a couple days, though one can dispense with this step if you’re buying them at the supermarket! Then, the fun part begins; remove the stones with a needle and stuff a peeled almond in each date (in the Syrian recipe, pistachios were also allowed). Next, they are boiled in a mixture of honey, vinegar, rose water, and saffron. Once the dates have absorbed all the goodness, they’re ready to come out, but before tucking in, do sprinkle some sugar on top, you’ll thank me for it later! I strongly suggest following the author’s advice to spice things up some more by adding musk and spikenard to the mixture. Though recommended for use in cold weather, this delicacy should really be enjoyed all year round. Indeed, the Syrian recipe does not endow the dish with medicinal properties but praises it for being ‘very pleasant’ (جيد مليح, jayyid malih).

Medieval Egyptian date-filled biscuit (كعك بالعجوة, ka’k bi ‘l-‘ajwa)

This recipe is a precursor of the type of biscuit that is still very popular all over the Arab world today, though its origins may in fact go as far back as ancient Egypt. The biscuits are associated with the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan, the Eid al-Fitr (عيد الفطر), and for this reason they are also known, for instance in Egypt, as ka’k al-eid (كعك العيد). Another common name for them, especially in the Levant, is ma’amoul (معمول). Instead of dates, the biscuits can be filled with other dried fruits — figs are a particular favourite — or nuts (pistachios, walnuts), and are often also dusted with sugar. Among Arab Christians, the biscuits are a staple sweet served at Easter. They are also the ancestor of the British and American fig roll.

For the medieval biscuit dough in this recipe from The Sultan’s Feast, you need flour, sesame oil, and then, of course, date paste, with some aromatics like rose water, saffron, the aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice mix, pepper and ginger being thrown in for good measure.

Cairene Ramadan treat: medieval honeyed marzipan doughnuts (قاهرية, Qahiriyya)

As the holy month of Ramadan has just started, why not make this recipe for what tastes remarkably like zulābiyya doughnuts (which can also come in the form of fritters), a popular sweet in this season in many countries. The recipe is taken from The Sultan’s Feast. The marzipan filling for the qāhiriyyas is made with sugar, (pounded) almonds, flour, sesame oil, and water. After shaping this into rings, leave them to dry for a little under a day, or so. Then you make a zulābiyya-type batter with flour, yeast, egg whites, as well as rose water and — if you have any to hand — musk and camphor. After drenching the rings in the batter, they are deep-fried, and then dipped in boiled honey. Serve after sprinkling on musk, rose water, and pounded pistachios. Heaven on a plate.

صور ورسائل رمضان كريم.. باقات تهنئة للأحباب والأصحاب ...

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.

Egyptian marmelade oranges (معجون النارنج, ma’jun al-naranj)

We still had some sour oranges left and this 14th-century recipe is just perfect for the en-of-season batch! It has primarily a medicinal purpose in that it combines a stomachic (جوارشن/جوارش, juwārish[n], a borrowing from Persian) and an electuary (معجون, ma’jūn, literally meaning ‘paste’, from the verb , عجن/‘ajana, ‘to knead’), which referred to medicines mixed with honey or juice syrup of some kind. It’s a bit labour- and time intensive, but so worth the effort.

The ma’jūn is made by soaking orange peels for ten days and then boiling them (this removes the bitterness). The next step is to cut up some of the peels which are then added to boiled honey. The remaining peels are kept whole, except for the tops being cut off (don’t throw them away as they will be used later), since they will serve as the receptacles for the juwārish mixture. Naturally, aromatics (saffron) and spices are added as well. The juwārish is made by slow-cooking sour oranges before boiling them in rose water and syrup, and adding spices like cinnamon, cloves, spikenard, and mace. The result is something that most people will recognize as marmelade — did I tell you that’s another Arab invention that was passed on to Europe?

The final step is to cram the stuffing in the orange peels (alternate layering of peels and marmelade works wonderfully well) and then — yes, we’re not done yet! — pour on sugar syrup you’ve prepared in the meantime, and you end up with what is essentially a stuffed toffee (candied) orange.

Medicinally, it would have been recommended as a breath freshener, for its digestive, appetizing and anti-emetic properties, and the fact that it strengthens the heart. It is not certain whether it also had the effect of the lemon stomachic, which slows down intoxication, clears hangovers, as well as increasing sexual potency. Not that any of this matters, though, as people would have just enjoyed it for its own sake, just like toffee apples today.

No 150! Medieval Egyptian Valentine’s Day treat: sugar-dried rose petal conserve (ورد مربّى, ward murabbā)

The word murabbā (or, more correctly, murabban) refers to something made with rubb (ربّ), inspissated or concentrated juice, with murabbayāt (مربّيات) denoting various kinds of preserves, conserves, etc. There are often references to the use of rose murabbā in medieval Arab cookery books, usually as a sweetener in dishes, but none of them gives any recipes. As a result, the recreation required a search elsewhere, and leads us to the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, from whom the method for making a violet murabbā was adapted by replacing the violets with rose petals. The process requires sun-dried rubbed rose petals, sugar, and sugar syrup, followed by some more sun drying (tip: an air dryer does the trick as well). It is more than likely that the dish is Persian in origin, while the closest modern avatar is the Indian gulkand (my thanks to Priya Mina for pointing this out). The outcome is crumbly sweet rosey deliciousness, perfect for sharing on Valentine’s Day!