Andalusian Aubergine crepes (اسفريا, isfiriya)

A very simple vegetarian dish — after cooking the aubergine, it’s grated and mixed with breadcrumbs, eggs, spices like pepper and cinnamon, as well as murri and olive oil. Once that’s been turned into a batter, it is fried into crepes. The isfiriya (also sometimes known in sources as isfāriyya or isfiriyya) is a typically Andalusian dish and is not found in cookery books from the Near East. It was usually made with meat strips and is a very old dish as it’s already attested in the 10th century.

Spotlight on: Cherries

Cherries are native to western Asia and belong to the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, apricots, and almonds. The wild ancestor of sweet (or ‘bird’) cherries is the Prunus avium, whereas the sour variety goes back to Prunus cerasus. The former was first described in about 300 BCE by the Greek writer Theophrastus.

The sour cherry was imported into Greece from Anatolia and were known in Greek as kerasia (κεράσια), the origin of words in many languages. The Greek word was said to be derived from the name of the town of Kerasousa in Asia Minor (the present-day Turkish city of Giresun).

Dioscorides noted that cherries loosened the bowels when fresh, but constipating when eaten dried. He recommended the gum of cherry trees in diluted wine brings about healthy looks, sharp-sightedness, and good appetite, as well as being a treatment for chronic cough. The Roman naturalist historian Pliny (1st century) also reports Anatolia as the cherry’s place of origin when they arrived in Rome, and that the fruit was introduced to Britain in AD 47. The Romans must have taken to cherries with great gusto since in Pliny’s day eight varieties of cherry were cultivated in Italy.

In Arabic sour cherries were known by the borrowing qarāsiyā (قراصيا, قراسيا) or, in the Muslim West as habb al-mulūk (حبّ الملوك), “king’s berries”. They were reported to grow in Syria and Egypt, and one scholar claimed that qarāsiyā was one of ninety plant species growing on Mount Lebanon from which one could make a living by gathering its fruit.

In medieval Arab cooking, they are used very rarely, in a sweet-and-sour chicken stew, of which variant recipes are found in cookery books from Syria (Aleppo) and Egypt (Cairo) dating from the 13th and 15th centuries. Medicinally, they were said to be an aphrodisiac, while Maimonides, who describes qarāsiyā as a plum, but smaller, with a sour taste, claimed that they are a light purgative. According to the physician Dāwud al-Antākī (15thc.), qarāsiyā can be used to treat depression, fainting fits, thirst, cough, loss of memory, internal wounds, and obstructions in the urinary tract.

Today, qarāsiyā refers to a kind of plum in some dialects (e.g. Syria), while in Standard Arabic, the word for cherries is now karaz (كرز).

sour cherries in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Tacuinum

Spotlight on: Asparagus

The Mediterranean basin is home to several species of wild asparagus, while the garden variety (Asparagus officinalis) was already appreciated in Roman times. Apicius recommended drying it before boiling, and included an asparagus pie in his recipe collection. The sixth-century Byzantine physician — and author of a famous culinary treatise — Anthimus recommended eating it with salt and oil. On the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons used it for medicinal purposes only; it would take until the 16th century for the vegetable to appear on English tables, albeit very rarely until the 17th century.

In medieval Arab cooking, there are only a few recipes requiring asparagus (هليون, hilyawn). It seems to have been highly prized though, and the author of what is considered the earliest Abbasid treatise includes a poem in praise of the vegetable. He recommends eating asparagus boiled and seasoned with olive oil and with murrī, which appears to have been the most usual way of serving it. The same source includes a few stews containing asparagus and, more unusually, an aphrodisiac asparagus drink. A 13th-century collection from Aleppo includes a recipe combining fried eggs and asparagus, a precursor to the modern scrambled egg dish.

The asparagus is conspicuous by its absence from the Egyptian repertoire, but was quite popular in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), where it was eaten with olive oil and vinegar, or as an ingredient in meat stews. The asparagus would also be served with hard-boiled eggs, or wrapped with meat. The vegetable was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula in the ninth century by the most famous exile from the East, the singer and aesthete Ziryab. In Andalusian and North African Arabic it was known as asfarāj (أسفراج), a word derived from its Latin name, asparagus.

In the medical literature, asparagus was identified as a powerful aphrodisiac, as well as being a diuretic (as it had been in Greek sources), and useful against bowel blockages, sciatica, and colitis. When it is cooked with syrup, it is good for bites, but a decoction of asparagus is lethal to dogs!

Asparagus in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (Ostler Library, Toronto)

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)