Tuniso-Andalusian honeyed curd with figs

A thirteenth-century recipe for a delicious dairy dish, which starts with curdling milk with cardoon flowers; if these are not available, one can easily use thistle, instead, as in the recreation. When the curdling is nearly done, it is time to add honey dissolved in milk. Though it is very tasty eaten plain, the author suggests pairing it with fresh figs, which proves to be solid advice, as ever.

Spotlight on: Aubergine (باذنجان, badhinjan)

The ancestor of the modern aubergine (Solanum melongena) is a wild variety (Solanum incanum) from Africa, but became domesticated around the first century BCE in Asia (probably first in India and then China) before spreading towards the Mediterranean in the seventh century, reaching Spain by the 9th century. It was unknown in Greek or Roman Antiquity. The Arabs were introduced to it by the Persians, though it cannot be excluded that the aubergine reached Arabia directly from India in pre-Islamic times. The Arabic word is a Persian borrowing of Sanskrit origin (vangana), but it was known by a number of other names as well, such as the mysterious ‘snake warts’ (ثآليل الحيات, ta’ālīl al-hayyāt ) in the Maghrib.

In what is considered the earliest Arabic cookery book (10th c.), only nine (out of over 600) dishes call for aubergine, but its popularity clearly grew as time went on since only a few centuries later another Abbasid treatise used it in about ten per cent of the dishes. It was used primarily in stews, fried or stuffed. It was recommended to boil it in salt before cooking to eliminate the bitterness and expel its black juice. Its popularity grew even more in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Christian West, the aubergine came to be considered a ‘Jewish’ vegetable and was thus excluded from the diet of the devout Christian.

Despite its widespread consumption, physicians endowed it with many harmful properties, including causing black bile, obstructions, tumours, haemorrhoids, headaches, and even leprosy. It was thought to be noxious — even lethal — when eaten raw, though Ibn Buṭlān (11th c.) particularly warned against grilling it. According to the 10th-century Iraqi agronomer Ibn Waḥshiyya, aubergine should be eaten fried in oils and fats, with fatty meat. Its negative effects can be counteracted by cooking it with vinegar (though this causes constipation) and caraway. The Andalusian physician Ibn Khalṣūn (13thc.) , for his part, recommended the small white variety, eaten with fatty poultry or lamb.

illustration of the aubergine in the Kitāb al-adwiya al-mufrada (‘The Book of Simple Medicines’) by the Andalusian botanist al-Ghāfiqī (d. 1165). [Ostler Library, McGill University]
aubergine (Melongiana) in a Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Tuniso-Andalusian pickled aubergine

A wonderful 13th-century recipe for pickling aubergine (تصيير الباذنجان, tasyīr al-bādhinjān). You naturally start off with a batch of fresh luscious aubergine, which are peeled, cleaned, etc., and cut into pieces; you can do them lengthwise or in slices, as it was done for the recreation. The pieces are first boiled in water and salt, and then put in jars — the author suggests pitch-coated or glazed earthenware jars (but a glass storage jar also works fine!) — with some vinegar and water. As usual don’t forget to seal properly, and to top up with water at need. The author also suggests a variant which involves splitting up the batch and adding parsley in one, and fresh mint in the other, to enhance the fragrance. A wonderful idea that you won’t regret! The author gives us another wonderful tip ; why not use these pickled aubergine slices in a būrāniyya?

No 200! Spotlight on: Figs (تين, tīn)

One of the most important fruits in the eastern Mediterranean, the fig (Ficus carica) originally hailed from Western Asia but very early on travelled westwards. The fruit was already collected by humans by about 8000 BCE across a vast area, from southern France to Iran. It was a staple in the Ancient Mesopotamian diet, both dried and fresh. Dried figs (together with dates and raisins) were used in the making of a kind of wine, as well as in a fruity bread.

Figs were very popular in Ancient Egypt, too, where cultivation probably started in the fourth millennium BCE. Ancient Egyptians used it especially in breads and cakes, some of which were made entirely out of the fruit, as evidenced by the bread preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It may well be the most represented fruit in tomb reliefs and paintings, some of which show monkeys picking the fruits. Interestingly enough, this practice must have been known across a wide area as shown in the famous story about the monkey and the tortoise in the Persian collection of parables entitled Kalila wa Dimna, where the two protagonists meet when the monkey throws figs at the tortoise who greedily eats them. The practice may well go back to India, which also happens to be the birthplace of the parables, which were first written in Sanskrit before being translated into Persian and then into Arabic.

The ancient Greeks grealy enjoyed eating figs, too, and also used the tree sap as rennet in cheese making. The Romans, so Apicius informs us, made fig wine, and also preserved them in honey, alongside other fruit such as apples, plums, pears, and cherries. He further mentions fig-braised ham as well as a more gruesome fig-fed pork liver dish which used the liver of pigs force-fed with figs which was then cooked in a wine sauce and spices.

In Muslim culture, figs were considered the most nutritious of all fruit. They came in many varieties, but the fresh, peeled white (or yellow) type was thought to be the best. Both the fruit and the leaves were used in medicine, and Muslim physicians recommended figs as a diuretic, appetizer, laxative, antidote for poisons, and aphrodisiac (especially fresh ones). The fruit appears in the title of a chapter (sura) in the Qur’an, as well as in a large number of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), the most famous of which states that the Prophet considered it descended from paradise.

Surprisingly, in spite of this high praise figs appear extremely rarely in the cookery books, and there are several that do not mention figs at all. In the earliest cookery book (10th c.), (dried) figs are called for in a vinegar stew, while a later (13thc.) Egyptian manual adds a fenugreek halva that requires it. Another one (14thc.) — also from Egypt — contains a few recipes for preserving figs, one of which involves submerging them in a liquid made with chard and fig juice. Fig leaves were also used in the making of murrī (a condiment), whereas an Andalusian cookbook contains a recipe for a fig vinegar.

Fig trees in a 13th-century manuscript of the famous collection of fables, called Kalila wa Dimna (BNF, mss arabe 3467)
Monkeys harvesting figs in Ancient Egypt

Broad bean dish (فولية, fūliyya)

Named after its main ingredient (فول, fūl, ‘broad beans’), this is one of the shortest recipes from The Sultan’s Feast, and one is left pretty much to one’s own devices. The instructions simply state that it should contain fresh thyme (‘as this reduces the broth’) and that, when the beans have finished cooking, one should crack a few eggs in. According to the author, ‘the rest is well known.’ It tastes absolutely great and can be served as a main or (cold) side.

Chard dip

This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is as easy and simple to make as it is tasty, which may explain why it is also found in a 13th-century cookery books from Syria. What could be more straightforward than fresh chard, strained yoghurt and garlic? The result is a kind of proto-tzatziki which is beyond delicious as a snack or starter with some freshly made crusty bread, cold cuts, etc. And why not combine it with salmon on a bagel — even us purists need to take a break every now and again!

Spotlight on: Rhubarb

Rhubarb (Rheum ribes) originally hails from China but spread to the Mediterranean very early on as it was aready known in Greek antiquity. Dioscorides referred to it as ῥᾶ (rha), but added the variant ῥῆον (rheon), which is how Galen called it. The former name was said to come from the fact that it grew near the river Volga, known in Greek as rha, with Dioscorides specifying that it was ‘the lands above the Bosporus’. The word rheon may go back to the Persian word riwand (also rīwand, rāwand). There is no evidence that it was used in cooking in either ancient Greece or Rome, and it is not even mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History. Medicinally, Dioscorides suggested it was useful against intoxication, flatulence, fatigue, and hiccups, as well as a host of ailments affecting various parts of the body (spleen, liver, kidneys, bladder, chest, uterus, bowels). Previously, rhubarb had already been used in Chinese medicine, against blockages and to flush out the intestines, while a source from the Mongol era includes it in a potion to counter the effects of eating too much — or poisoned — fish!

It is in medieval Arab cuisine that rhubarb is first attested as food, though it is likely that this was a Persian influence; the Arabic word rībās (ريباس) is a borrowing from Persian (alongside ريواس, rewās) meaning ‘sorrel’ or ‘rhapontic’ (false rhubarb). Stews where it is the main ingredient were called rībāsiyya, the oldest recipe for which appears in an early 13th-century Baghdadi cookery book and calls for lamb, onion, rhubarb juice (extracted from the leafstalks), and almonds. In an earlier manual (10th century), rhubarb occurs only as an ingredient in a citron (pulp) stew (حماضية, ḥummāḍiyya), though the author does include a poem in praise of rībāsiyya.

The vegetable seems to have been much more popular in the Levant as most of the rhubarb recipes can be found in a 13th-century Syrian cookbook, which contains three chicken rhubarb stews (or, more precisely, fried chicken with a rhubarb sauce) and two variants with meat (probably lamb) and meatballs (made with rice and chickpeas). The rhubarb is usually boiled into a compote and then strained, though in one case it is pieces that are added to the dish. In fact, the vegetable never really gained popularity in the East, either (no doubt due to its bitter taste) and fell out of favour in Arab cooking for centuries and is today only used in Western-inspired dishes. The closest modern descendant of the rībāsiyya is the Iranian khorest-e rivās (خورشت ريواس), or perhaps this is what originally inspired the Arab dish?

In the medical literature, rhubarb is prescribed in a number of cases and its strength is sometimes compared to citron pulp. The 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla said that the rībāsiyya was made just like ḥummāḍiyya, and that it is good for weak stomachs, but is harmful to the chest, nerves, joints and sexual potency (though this can be remedied by eating a plump chicken!).

According to Ibn Sina (Avicenna), rhubarb (for which he uses the Persian riwand) is imported from China and is the root of a plant. His description of the medicinal uses of rhubarb owe much to Dioscorides as he, too, recommended it for use in skin conditions, liver and stomach illnesses, as well as hiccups, asthma, fevers and insect bites. Ibn Jazla claimed that the best variety came from the Persian mountains, and that it was useful against the plague, hangovers, to sharpen eyesight, as an anti-emetic and for its stomachic properties.

The Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248) said that this plant did not grow anywhere in North Africa or al-Andalus, which, of course, explains why there are no recipes requiring it in medieval cookery books from those regions. He recommended administering it in a rob (رب, rubb), i.e. boiled down into a syrup, against palpitations, and vomiting. The Persian physician al-Samarqandi (d. 1222) added that rhubarb has a constipating effect.

If you want to see what a rībāsiyya looks like, check out this Sunday’s post discussing the recreation of a recipe from The Sultan’s Feast!

the entry on rhubarb in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Biblioteca Universitaria Bologna)
Picture of rhubarb in Tractatus de herbis, an Italian herbal from ca 1440 (British Library, Sloane 4016)

Egyptian eggless omelette

As Lent has just started, it seemed a good idea to post a recreation of one of the so-called counterfeit dishes (مزوّرات, muzawwarāt), which usually involve making a meatless dish look as if it is made with meat. These dishes were associated with sick people, but also Christians as meat was prohibited for a substantial part of the Christian calendar. During Lent (and other fasts), animal products — including dairy and eggs — were not allowed either and so one can imagine the eggless omelette satisfying both the stomach and mind of those craving animal protein. Indeed, the author reassures us that it will have everyone convinced that it is made with eggs. The recreation draws on a recipe from the The Sultan’s Feast and calls for chickpeas and onions, as well as olive oil, murrī (use soya sauce instead), salt, coriander, caraway, pepper, and gum Arabic. The mixture is fried in a pan and, believe it or not, it indeed not only looks like a real omelette, but even tastes like one! Sprinkle on Khorasani salt blend or pepper for the full experience!

Andalusian egg cones

This spectacular dish is an Andalusian speciality, and occurs in only one cookery book, from the 13th century. It is one of several dishes named after the conical cooking vessel in which they are prepared, fartūn (فرطون). In case you don’t happen to have one lying around, anything conical, like a slightly adapted funnel, will do the trick. The egg mixture is made by whisking whites and yolks with vinegar, saffron, cinnamon, and some vinegar-cooked almonds. Once that’s ready, it can be poured into your fartūn to cook in a heated bath. When the eggs are done, turn the cone over onto a plate and what comes out should be an egg cone. You can play around with the proportion of spices to change the colouring of the cones so that you end up with something that resembles the spice cones that are so typical of souks all over the Arab world. The egg cones are best eaten warm and freshly made, for instance, for breakfast.

Medieval Egyptian “olives you can eat…”

Depite the rather underwhelming name of this recipe from The Sultan’s Feast, the result is a delectable dip, side, or base for a salad. Pitted olives (you can use green or black, whichever you prefer) are steeped (for three days) in a mixture of oil (sesame and olive), tahini, wine vinegar, hazelnuts, and a variety of spices and herbs, such as sumac, thyme, mint, (toasted) caraway seeds, coriander, and aṭrāf al-ṭīb. One thing’s for sure; once you’ve tasted these olives, you’ll never go back to store-bought ones! And if you want to go old school, you should, of course, make your own tahini as well!