Aleppo quince chicken

This recipe from a 13th-century Syrian cookery book is one of several quince stews. It is a tad labour intensive but, as ever, your toil will be amply rewarded by the result. The chicken is boiled and then fried in sesame oil with some onion. The quinces should be split, cored and deseeded, and then added or, as in the variation recreated here, fried first. Then both are cooked in broth, with a little fresh lemon juice, sugar, saffron, mint, the atraf al-tib spice mix, as well as some pistachios (we are in Aleppo, after all!). Let all those flavours infuse and then it’s time to tuck in. Crusty bread proved to be a good choice to accompany the dish.

Spotlight on: Cardamom

The English word actually refers to two varieties of seeds. The first is the so-called ‘common’ (also green, or lesser) cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), known in Arabic as hāl (هال) or hayl/hīl (هيل). The spice is native to India’s Malabar coast and Indonesia, and though there is evidence that it was already known to Greek authors, it was very rarely used, and only in medicines. The second variety is bigger and is known as ‘black cardamom’ (Amomum subulatum), called qāqulla (قاقلّة) in Arabic.

The terminology presents an interesting mix, with qāqulla going back to the Akkadian qāqullu, whereas hāl/hīl are borrowings from Persian derived from Sanskrit. Persia is also the origin of other names for common cardamom including the term بوا (, ‘odour’) — often rendered as buwwā, despite the final letter being silent –, such as khīr (خير بوا) and hayl bū (هيل بوا). Finally, qardamānā (قردماما) is a borrowing from Greek (kardamomon, καρδάμωμον).

In medieval cookery books from the Near East, green and black cardamom are used in food only in an Abbasid treatise from the 10th century, in a medicinal drink (mayba). In other culinary sources, cardamom appears only in perfumes or hand-washing powders. Interestingly enough, in al-Andalus and the Maghrib, cardamom is used in a few recipes, such as a chicken garlic stew (thawmiya), a jūdhāba (جوذابة), and even some fish dishes.

Medicinally, green cardamom was considered useful for the stomach and liver, and as an anti-emetic, whereas black cardamom was said to be a remedy for nausea and vomiting, while purifying the stomach and bowels. When drunk weekly with oxymel, it is good for epilepsy.

Today, green and black cardamom are mostly associated with Indian cuisine in both savoury and sweet dishes, as well as drinks (e.g. tea). The green variety is considered the best, and is also much more expensive. In the Middle East, green cardamom is an ingredient in in sweet dishes and, especially, as a coffee flavouring.

cardamom in the Book of Theriacs (Bibliothèque nationale de France)


Wisps of incense (بخور, bakhūr)

This recipe for bakhūr Barmakiyya from a 14th-century Egyptian cookery book is named after the Barmakids, a powerful family of Persian origin, several of whose members held high offices — including that of vizier — to a number of Abbasid caliphs in the 8th and 9th centuries. The most renowned member of the family is no doubt Ja’far, who was the favourite companion of Harun al-Rashid, and both occur as protagonists in several stories from the 1001 Nights, often involving them roaming around Baghdad at night. With such great favour came untold wealth and power, but the Barmakid rule came to a brutal end when, for reasons that are still a mystery, Harun suddenly turned on them, had Ja’far executed, and their property confiscated. However, their fame and generosity lived on through many stories in Arabic literature.

In the Arabian Nights, the Barmakids are also involved in a wonderful story where food — or rather the absence thereof — is the plot. A beggar is invited to share a meal at one of the Barmakid houses but finds that all the food is invisible, while his mischievous host (whose name is never mentioned) pretends to be eating and praises the quality of the dishes. The beggar plays along until, at the end of the meal, he rises and hits his host on the neck. When asked why he did this, the beggar apologizes profusely, blaming his behaviour on the effect of the (invisible) wine he was given! The host is so enchanted by this astute reaction that he orders a real banquet be served to the beggar. Much later, the beggar meets with a particularly gruesome way but that, as they say, is another story… The invisible banquet is the origin of the English expression ‘a Barmecide feast’, which refers to pretended or imaginary wealth, generosity or hosptality.

Returning to more fragrant matters, today’s recreation is of an incense which, according to the author of the cookbook, is particularly suited for those in the toilet! It is made with a number of aromatics, such as costus, myrtle leaves, labdanum resin, sour orange and lemon peels, saffron, and honey. So, cook, dry, light up, and let yourself be carried away on the wisps of Mamluk Cairo!

Andalusian grape and fig vinegar

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!

Medieval Arab kitchen hacks

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.

“Preparation for a Feast” (Folio from a Divan of the Persian poet Jami), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Water-and-salt stew (ماء وملح, ma wa milh)

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.

Digital Humanities and Food Studies: Webinar talk

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.

New Book!

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.