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)

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) from The Sultan’s Feast 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 a 13th-century Syrian cookbook, 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. Modern echoes of this can be found in modern Turkish, where vegetarian variants of dishes are kown to be ‘lying’ (yalancı), as in the meatless yalancı tavuk göğsü, the descendant of the medieval muhallabiyya. The counterfeit recipe recreated here is from 13th-century al-Andalus 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).