Spotlight on: Musk (مسك)

Known as the king of scents, musk is one of the most precious aromatics in the world to this day. It is produced by the gland of the male musk deer to attract mates; the most prized is Tibetan musk. One of the oldest Arabic accounts of musk is found in a wonderful 9th-century collection entitled ‘News of China and India’ (أخبار الصين والهند, ‘Akhbar al-Sin wa ‘l-Hind’), where it is said that the Tibetan musk ‘gazelles’ feed on spikenard, and that the best quality is the one that the animal has rubbed on stones in the mountains. Their diet was one reason why Tibetan musk was considered superior to that sourced from India or China, which, additionally, was often tampered with by unscrupulous traders. The demand meant musk deer would be hunted and killed for their precious musk pod, which on average contains twenty-five grams of musk.

According to some sources, Khorasan was a major musk hub from where the precious aromatic would be shipped across the Muslim world, and beyond. Another centre was the port of Daybul, from where ships would carry it to various ports along the Arabian gulf.

Its scarcity meant that alternatives were sought, whether synthetic (the 9th-century scholar al-Kindi invented several formulas) or animal, such as castoreum (produced by beavers and known in Arabic as jundubādastar, a borrowing from Persian) — which was already used medicinally by the ancient Greeks –, or civet. Neither of them, however, had the prestige of ‘real’ musk. Civet (which is derived from the Arabic word zabād/زباد) is a paste produced by the anal glands of the ‘civet cat’ (which isn’t really a cat, more like a mongoose), found mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia, to mark territory.

Medicinally, musk was prescribed for a variety of conditions, ranging from headaches, to spasms, a gloomy disposition, and as a diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, and antidote (tiryāq) against venomous stings and bites. It was also considered a highly powerful aphrodisiac.

Due to its wonderful fragrance, musk was primarily used in perfumes, and in cooking as an aromatic (طيب, ṭīb) in a variety of dishes, particularly sweets, and very often in combination with rose-water. Distilled waters would sometimes be infused with musk as well.

Extract from a manuscript (Wellcome Institute) of the cookery book entitled Kanz al-Fawa’id fi tanwī’ al-mawā’id (كنز الفوائد في تنويع الموائد) with a recipe for the distillation of musk water
extracting civet

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