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!

Spotlight on: Pomegranates

The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is probably native to Iran, but spread beyond its homeland very early on, to ancient Mesopotamia and then Egypt, where it arrived before the second millennium BC. The Sumerians knew it as nurma, which is the origin of the Persian anār (انار) as well as the Arabic rummān (رمّان). It continued to travel west along the Mediterranean, to Greece (where it is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey) and can be found in the Iberian Peninsula and France before the start of the Christian era. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder reports that in his day there were nine varieties of pomegranate.

Classical physicians mention three kinds of pomegranates, based on their juice; sweet, winy and acidic. The juice, seeds, rind, and flowers were all used in medicinal applications for a variety of ailments. Known in Greek as roa (ρόα), it is the fruit’s latin name malum granatum (‘seed apple’) that has left a trace in many languages, besides English, such as in the French grenade, the Spanish granada, or the Italian melograno.

In the Muslim world, mainly sour and sweet pomegranates are mentioned, and the fruit has always been held in high esteem, not least because the sweet variety (حُلو, ḥulw) is mentioned several times in the Qur’ān and is one of the fruits of paradise. The pomegranates from Persia and Syria were particularly prized; the Umayyad Emir of Cordoba, ‘Abd al-Rahman, who was a keen collector of exotic fruit and plants, even sent agents out to Syria to acquire varieties grown there for his garden. According to the early 13th-century traveller to Egypt Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, the pomegranates there were of the highest quality, even though they were never really sweet.

The fruit (both the seeds and juice) was an ingredient in many different types of dishes, from savoury to sweet, whereas the sour (حامض, hāmiḍ) pomegranate was used as an aromatic. Stews in which it is a key ingredient were known as rummāniyya (رمّانية), with chicken being the meat of choice in these recipes.

Both the fruit and peel of the pomegranate, but especially the juice, were used in the treatment of diarrhoea, fevers, cough, stomach and liver ailments, to curb yellow bile, and as a diuretic and anaphrodisiac (because of its acidity). The Persian-born physician al-Rāzī (d. 935), who became known in Europe as Rhazes, claimed that the sweet pomegranate bloats the stomach, whereas the sour variety is good against stomach inflammation. The juice made from the seeds of sour pomegranates cooked with honey is beneficial in the treatment of mouth and stomach ulcers. According to Ibn Buṭlān (11th century), the sweet pomegranate is an aphrodisiac, but flatulent (though this can be counteracted by eating sour pomegranate). The Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides (d. 1204), for his part, believed that along with apple and quince, sucking pomegranate seeds after the meal is recommended for everyone as part of a healthy regimen.

pomegranates in a 14th-century botanical manuscript

Spotlight on: quince

In the “Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies” (الحمّال والصبايا الثلاثة, al-ḥammāl wa-l-ṣubāyā al-thalātha) from the 1001 Nights (ألف ليلة وليلة, alf layla wa layla), also known in the West as the Arabian Nights, one of the protagonists praises the quince as it ‘puts to shame the scent of musk and ambergris’, citing the following verse by an anonymous poet:

”The quince combines all of the pleasures of mankind
It is more famous than any other fruit.
It has the taste of wine and the fragrance of musk,
Golden hued, and rounded like the full moon

The origins of the quince (Cydonia oblonga) are shrouded in mystery, but it may have been ancient Mesopotamia; the Arabic word safarjal (سفرجل), in fact, goes back to the Akkadian supurgillu. The Greeks knew two types of quince (sour and sweet), but often considered it a type of apple (mêlon), known as kudonion (κυδώνιον), after its alleged birth place, the Cretan town of Cydonia. In Latin, too, the word for apple (malum) denoted quince (and sometimes even pomegranates or peaches).

Quinces were used in a variety of preparations (often with honey), such as jams, conserves, syrup, or fermented into a wine. When packed in honey, the resulting preserve was known as mêlomeli (μηλόμελι, ‘apple/quince honey’). The first-century botanist Dioscorides said that it was prepared by deseeding quinces and then fully immersing them in honey; after a year, the mixture becomes smooth and resembles wine mixed with honey. It is the linguistic ancestor, by way of Latin, of marmelo, the Portuguese for ‘quince’. Another Portuguese word denoting a quince preserve (quince cheese), marmelada, travelled further westward, and gave English its word for the breakfast favourite marmalade (though today this is associated with citrus fruits). Physicians recommended baking quinces before eating them, and due to their astringent property prescribed them, for instance, as an anti-diarrhoetic. In addition to a quince preserve which called for the whole fruit, including the stems and leaves, the Roman cookery book by Apicius (4th c.) includes recipes for a few stews with quince, leeks and honey, or beef. More unusually, he also gives a fish recipe requiring cooked quinces, pepper, lovage, mint, coriander, rue, honey and wine.

Despite the praise lavished on the quince in the story from the 1001 Nights, it was not used very often in medieval Arab cooking, with fewer than forty recipes requiring it. In what is considered the oldest Arabic culinary cookbook (10th c.), quince appears mostly in medicinal conserves, syrups or beverages, as well as in a chicken stew (زيرباجة, zīrbāja), and a preserved lamb recipe (أهلام, ahlām). In the thirtheenth century, the safarjaliyya (سفرجلية), or quince stew (made with lamb), made its first appearance in cookery books from across the Muslim world: Egypt, Baghdad, al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), North Africa, and Syria. It is an Andalusian recipe for quince jelly that is the direct ancestor of both the Portuguese marmelada and its Spanish cousin dulce de membrillo. Quince was used in meat stews, murrī (a fermented condiment), and pickles. Like before, the quince drinks (often with lemon) and conserves were considered primarily medicinal. In dishes, apples are frequently paired with quince. In 15th-century Egypt, the safarjaliyya was still part of the repertoire, and according to a cookbook from this period, quinces should be preserved by rolling them in fig leaves coated with clay and then drying them out in the sun.

Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) suggested grilling quinces after scooping out the seeds, filling the cavity with honey and then covering the fruit with clay before putting them over hot embers. He recommended it as an anti-emetic, and as a cure for dysentry and hangovers. He also added that one can prevent a hangover by drinking quince syrup after overindulging in wine. The highly astringent qualities of quince strengthen the stomach and Ibn Sīnā advised eating them after meals.

The famous 11th-century peripatetic physician Ibn Butlan (ابن بطلان) advised eating quince both before and after meals as the bits block openings in between the teeth, thus preventing food from lodging in there. He held that quince purifies the stomach when taken before a meal, and loosens the bowels when eaten afterwards. In addition, quince also acts as a diuretic, but can be harmful to the nerves.

quince in al-Qazwini’s encyclopedia, ‘The Wonders of Creation’ (BSB, Cod-arab464, fol. 119r.) [1280]
quince (alongside apples) in the Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ materia medica, with pears appearing on the left-hand page (Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria-ms. 2954, ff. 53v.-54r.) [1254]

Egyptian Sweet-and-sour cabbage leaves

For this vegetable side dish (known as ‘mixed cabbage’, كرنب ممزّج, kurunb mumazzaj) from 13th/14th-century Mamluk Egypt white cabbage leaves are boiled and then served with a dressing of vinegar, honey, saffron, hazelnuts, coriander seeds, caraway, and the aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice blend. The result is a delicate combination of sweet and sour flavours that work wonderfully well together. It can be eaten by itself, as a starter, or as a side.

Spotlight on: Almond milk

One of the most famous staple dishes in medieval Europe was the blancmange(r), which was a sweet rice pudding with chicken. One of the principal ingredients of this dish, whose origins can be traced to the Arab milk pudding muhallabiyya, was almond milk, which was highly prized in Christian Europe since it served a very useful purpose as a substitute for milk during Lent.

Almond milk is obtained by steeping ground almonds in water and then squeezing out the liquid and is thus not really ‘milk’ at all. In medieval Arab cookery books it is often referred to as duhn al-lawz (دهن اللوز, ‘almond oil’), though occasionally the terms mā’ al-lawz (ماء اللوز, ‘almond water’) and halīb al-lawz (حليب اللوز, ‘almond milk’) are also found. This should not be confused with what is today known as ‘almond oil’, which is the extract remaining after pressing dried almond kernels. In a 13th-century North African culinary treatise, the production process for almond milk (or oil in the parlance of the day) is described as follows: “Crush good-quality peeled sweet almonds in a mortar, including their thin [outer] skin, until they have the consistency of brains. Then take fresh water and heat it up in a clean glazed vessel and add one ūqiya (ounce) of hot water for each raṭl (pound) of almonds. Rub them vigorously with your hands until you see their oil come out between your fingers. Then put the almond mixture in a thick cloth and gingerly squeeze it until all of the oil is released. Take the sediment and crush it again with a little hot water. Leave until the water has been absorbed and then vigorously squeeze to express all the oil it holds. One raṭl of almonds yields a quarter or a third of the oil.” Even so, in a few recipes, a distinction appears to be made between almond milk and oil. The answer lies in the description of the process by the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla: “[almond oil] is made by grinding [almonds] and extracting their oil with hot water, or by pounding almonds smooth and turning them into a dough before sprinkling on hot water and kneading them until they release their oil.” The second method would result in what we today would recognize as almond oil used in cooking, though it cannot be excluded either that there was a third method without the use of any water before squeezing out the oil.

The sources reveal that the use of almond oil/milk in Arab cuisine decreased over time, even though the popularity of almonds, themselves, never waned. In the earliest cookery manual, which was probably written in Baghdad around the 10th century CE, it is used in a large variety of dishes, both savoury and sweet (including in one of the oldest recipes for marzipan), and often as a binding or thickening agent. In another Baghdadi book, from the early 13th century, almond oil is required in only a few sweet recipes, such as a jūdhāb. Similarly, a Syrian culinary treatise from the same period only uses it in a chicken stew, a boiled aspragus dish, and ka’k (كعك), as well as in a perfume. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in 13th-century Muslim Spain, it is found in a handful of recipes for frying sweets, such as ka’k, bread pudding, or qatā’if (a kind of crepe). Ibn Jazla included it in sweet dishes like jūdhābs or khabīs. In the Egyptian cookery books from the 14th and 15th centuries, almond milk is called for in a dozen or so recipes, often chicken stews, as well as sweet puddings.

Sweet and bitter almond oil played an important role in both Greek and Islamic medicine. According to Ibn Jazla, sweet almond oil was useful in the treatment of a variety of conditions, including headaches, kidney aches, bladder stones, dysuria, womb aches, chronic coughs, colic, and even rabid dog bites. However, it is harmful for those with weak bowels. Bitter almond oil, on the other hand, is beneficial for the spleen, headaches, colic, earworms, and helps increase menstrual flow. The great Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), for his part, recommended almond oil against colic, while rice cooked with milk and almond oil increases its nutritional value. He also prescribed almond oil in the treatment of sprains, tinnitus, and even to facilitate beard growth.

sweet almonds depicted in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ materia medica (Bologna-Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 2954, fol. 57r)
bitter almonds (Bologna-Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 2954, fol. 56v)