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)

Aphrodisiac chickpea mash

This is a recipe included in the astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s (1201-1274) book on aphrodisiacs, and one which he personally ‘tried and tested’! It is made with yellow chickpeas, which are soaked in water before being peeled and fried. After pounding them, pine kernels and honey are added. Decorate with a mixture of saffron, lemon peel, (true) cinnamon, cassia, and agarwood. The author recommends eating this every day before going to sleep, and claims it did wonders for his potency…

Sour eggs with celery (bayd masus, بيض مصوص)

This recipe is found in two 13th-century Baghdadi and Egyptian cookery books. It involves sesame oil, eggs, celery, with coriander cumin, cinnamon and mastic. Once they eggs are fried, pour on vinegar, and sprinkle with saffron for colour. The vegetable ingredient merits some attention inasmuch as the Arabic word karafs (كرفس) usually denotes celery, but at the time could also refer to parsley. Modern European celery is not really suited for the dish and the recreation was made with the leaves of Chinese (Nan ling) celery. It works very well with parsley, too.

Medieval Egyptian cottage cheese

This recipe for qanbarīs (قنبريس) is from a 15th-century cookery book and requires vinegar and milk. After boiling the vinegar, the milk is poured in and then the mixture is left overnight to coagulate. It was a particular favourite of the author, who added that some people could not enjoy their food unless there was cheese on the table. Qanbarīs was often sold dried and then dissolved when needed. According to the author of a 13th-century Syrian treatise, the best kind came from Baalbek, the city in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley best known for its magnificent Roman temple complex.

Andalusian stuffed eggs (بَيْض مَحْشُو, bayḍ maḥshū)

Eggs were a particular favourite in Muslim Spain, as attested by the many recipes that require them. This delightful 13th-century dish is an egg stuffed with … egg! After boiling the eggs, the yolks are removed and then beaten together with various spices to make a paste, which is then stuffed inside the eggs before frying them in olive oil. Sprinkle on rue, spikenard and cinnamon before serving.

Andalusian ‘counterfeit’ lentils

The importance of meat in medieaval Arab cuisine was such that vegetarian dishes were known as ‘counterfeit’ (مزوّرات, muzawwarāt) as they were intended to copy meat dishes, in an attempt to make the diner eat them! Non-meat dishes were associated with Christians (during Lent) and the sick. This 13th-century Andalusian recipe falls in the latter category and is allegedly useful against tertian and acute fevers (حُمَّى الغِبّ والحمّايات الحادّة). It is prepared by boiling and washing lentils and then cooking them with some gourd, chard, cucumber, vinegar, coriander, cumin, cassia and saffron. The resultant taste should be subtly sweet and sour, and the dish should be served cold.

No 100! Taro root (قُلْقاس , qulqās)

The origins of this plant (Colocasia esculenta/antiquorum) lie in East Asia, presumably the Indochinese Peninsula, and it is thought to be one of the oldest domesticated food plants. In the Middle East, the taro first made its appearance in Mesopotamia, sometime before or around the 10th century, and later became associated with Egypt. Its early history in Antiquity is shrouded in mystery, not least because the colocasia of the ancient Greeks initially denoted the Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), and only came to refer to the taro around the fourth century. Prior to this, taro was known as aron, which gave the Latin arum. Similar to a small hairy potato in appearance, it has a very starchy flavour. After the potato was introduced, the taro gradually fell out of favour in many places.

Only the root of the plant was eaten, almost always cooked, or fried, as in mediaeval Arab cooking. Use of the taro appears to have increased after the thirteenth century as there is only one recipe requiring it prior to that. It is also worth noting that taro is not found in the culinary treatises of the Islamic West, that is to say North Africa and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) likened it to saltwort, and said that it was salty, astringent, diuretic, and purging. According to the 11th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, taro stimulates sexual desire. The 14th-century Moroccan globetrotter Ibn Baṭṭūṭa would probably have disagreed since he partook of some taro in Mali, where it was the people’s favourite food, and was ill for two months. A companion of his was less lucky and died after eating it. Today taro is commonly used in the cuisines of Asia (where the purple variety is favoured), the Caribbean (where it is referred to as eddo) and, especially, the Pacific Islands (where it is also known as poi).

Fried cauliflower

In case you have any cauliflower left from pickling, you might want to try this Syrian recipe for battered and fried cauliflower pieces. The batter is made with eggs, flour, olive oil, spices, walnuts, rue and parsley. Use sesame or olive oil to fry the cauliflower. [Wusla, No. 8.114] As you can eat the dish both hot and cold, it’s a great addition to a picnic! And why not try it as a side with a curry, instead of aloo gobi?

Fried fish-shaped gourd

A 13th-century vegetarian dish which is made by cutting gourd into the shape of a fish before frying it in a batter made of eggs and flour seasoned with cinnamon and coriander. It is served sprinkled with vinegar, murri (a fermented barley condiment which can be replaced with soya sauce) and coriander juice. Vegetarian dishes were commonly made to look like meat or fish dishes in order to entice diners. Indeed, the author introduces the recipe by stating that the dish is able to “mislead sick people who crave fish and the like.” [Andalusian, fol. 54r.]