This recipe from a 13th-century Andalusian author requires some time to make — several weeks to be precise –, but then again it’s hardly a secret that all good things in life take time! Grapes and figs (both dried and fresh) are put in a large jar with water and then nature takes its course as the fruit is left to ferment. Make sure to stir the jar regularly and you end up with the most amazing vinegar – delicate, tangy and a touch of sweetness that makes it perfect for a dressing, or just drizzled on some toasted bread!
It should not come as a surprise that a cuisine as technically complex as that of the medieval Arab world required a wide array of skills and tools. We’ll return to the latter in another post, but for now, let’s take a look at some of the advice offered in the cookery books about good culinary practice. There seems to have been a commonly agreed set of rules very early on as a number of cookery books start with a chapter on ‘useful things the cook should know’, which reveal quite a few overlaps across the centuries. Some things will sound very familiar, as they are still applied in modern kitchens, whilst others are perhaps more arcane.
In terms of ingredients, the principal advice was the fresher the better, particularly spices, and one should only pound the quantity that will be used so as not to weaken the potency of the spice. Nor should spices be crushed in a mortar that contains traces of other spices. Incidentally, the material of the mortar also matters; for meat, it should be made out of stone, but for spices, copper.
If you want food to cook quickly, add melon grounds; if it is chickpeas you’re making, throw a few mustard seeds into the pot. When it comes to the sequence of adding ingredients, salt should be added at the end, especially if you’re cooking grains, since it slows down their cooking time. The quantity of spices is linked to the type of dishes; al-Baghdādī (13th c.) suggests using large quantities in fried (dry) dishes, but only a limited amount in sour stews.
Cleanliness and the removal of bad odours are often mentioned, and authors frequently specify using a new pot. Al-Warrāq (10th c.), recommended washing pots both before and after coating the insides with clay. The Sultan’s Feast, for its part, tells us to wash cooking vessels with hot clay, saltwort, and dried roses, after which they should be wiped down with rubbed dried sour orange or citron leaves. Porcelain bowls should be fumigated with mastic and agarwood before putting food in them. And if you overcook the food and it starts smelling, one or two walnuts in the pot apparently does the trick as they absorb the bad odour. They can be used in the same way, to remove any bad smells from a cooking pot.
Join us on the Anglo-Omani Society Spotify podcast for a conversation on Arab travel literature and medieval food…
Check out the CoReMa 2021 Conference where I joined Profs. Alan Grieco and Wendy Pfeffer for a very interesting session entitled ‘Cookery or Medicine?’, and discussed the links between medicine and food in the medieval Arabic culinary tradition.
Despite its uninspiring name, this type of dish was a particular favourite in classical Abbasid cuisine, and involved meat simmered in water and salt, though there is a lot more to it than that, of course! According to the compiler of a 10th-century cookbook, this particular recipe was the creation of the caliph al-Ma’mun, who was also a great patron of the arts and sciences. It requires venison (though any game meat will do), olive oil, galangal, cassia, fresh dill and, of course, salt (though only a handful). And as one meat was never enough, the venison is garnished with sausages! The same book also has a recipe for an accompanying rich sauce made with ground walnuts, almonds and raisins, mustard, murrī, sugar and rose water. The dish works very well with rice or bread.
At today’s webinar on Digital Humanities in the MENA region organized by Hamad bin Khalifa University, I presented an exciting joint project with Prof. George Mikros related to the analysis of recipes in mediaeval Arab cookery books using advanced Natural Language Processing methods. This is the first time state-of-the art Natural Language Processing (NLP) methods are applied to a corpus of mediaeval Arab recipes. The aim is to identify (1) patterns of ingredients and flavours; (2) diachronic changes in the selection and frequency of ingredients; and (3) relationships among the treatises. This analysis will not only help us detect the core themes of Arabic cuisine in medieval times, but will also show how these topics evolved over time as the structure of the constituent ingredients changed. Finally, this information will reveal crucial evidence about the authorship of recipes since quantitative profiling can reveal significant aspects of style. These findings are especially useful in the identification of anonymous texts.
Today is the official release of The Sultan’s Feast, a study, edition and annotated English translation of a fifteenth-century Egyptian cookbook (London: Saqi Books). Based on the sole surviving manuscript, it contains 332 recipes, ranging from bread-making and savoury stews, to roasts, sweets, pickles and condiments, as well as perfumes.
This is a 13th-century Syrian recipe for fragrant chickpea-sized pills made with rosewater, ambergris, sugar, musk, cloves and agarwood. Though primarily intended to sweeten the breath, the lozenges were also used as a digestive, or even to perfume dishes. They should be taken twice a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.
Last Saturday, I joined the team at the Alain Ducasse restaurant Idam led by Executive Chef Damien Leroux for a culinary feast. The menu included mediaeval Arab dishes culled from cookery books from the tenth to fifteenth centuries, from both the Middle East and Muslim Spain (al-Andalus). The meal was preceded by a talk on the museum’s extraordinary collection of mediaeval Arab kitchenware and tableware.
If you are interested in finding out more about the fascinating history of the Arab culinary tradition in the Middle Ages, then this is the site for you! Don’t hesitate to reach out (email@example.com) for more information about recipes, ingredients and any other aspect of this subject.
Check out the background stories about the types of dishes that were cooked, the link between food and medicine, the batterie de cuisine, as well as the dining experience at the time.
The recipe section includes detailed instructions to reproduce some of the ancient culinary delights.