Spotlight on: Carrots

The oldest textual source for the carrot (Daucus carota L.) goes back to the 8th century BCE in a list of plants grown in the royal gardens of Babylon. Known in Arabic as jazar (جزر < Persian gazar) or aṣṭūfūlin (أصطوفولين < Greek staphylinos), it came in three varieties: red(-purple), yellow and white. The (white) wild one (barrī) – as opposed to the (red) cultivated (bustānī) — was known as dūqū (دوقو < Greek daukos, ‘carrot’). Maimonides claimed that in certain countries shaqāqil (a variant of shaqāqul, ‘wild parsnip’) denoted the wild carrot. Both of these were very different, however, from the modern culinary carrot. .

The Arabs introduced the carrot in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 8th century, and some time later in Muslim Spain, where the 12th-century Andalusian agronomer, by Ibn al-‘Awwam describes a juicy flavoursome red variety, and a coarse, less tasty yellow and green variety. He said that they were eaten dressed with oil and vinegar or with vegetables. It was also the Arabs who probably started eating the root, rather than merely the seeds and leaves, as the Greeks did. 

In the medieval Arab culinary tradition, carrots were eaten both raw and cooked, in stews, sweets (such as a carrot khabis), preserves, and even drinks. In what is considered the oldest cookbook, a carrot drink to heat the kidneys, as well as stimulate coitus involved cooking sliced carrots in water, and then mixing the strained off water with honey, mace and nutmeg. Yummy!

Ibn Buṭlān recommended the red sweet winter-harvested variety, whereas Ibn Sīnā likened the cultivated carrot to Greek celery (karafs rūmī), stating that it “is sharply pungent and fragrant.” In the medical tradition, carrots were said to be hot in the highest degree and moist in the second. They were recommended against kidney pains, palpitations, coughs, and as a diuretic. The wild variety, in particular, was considered a powerful sexual stimulant (with enhanced effect when pickled in vinegar). Conversely, al- Kindī prescribed them as a cure for sexual addiction.

On the down side, carrots were said to be very difficult to digest and to generate bad blood, which ill effects could be counteracted by murrī, vinegar and mustard. Ibn Buṭlān recommended its use for those who have cold and moist temperaments and are middle aged. Ibn Sīnā said that the root of cultivated carrot is flatulent and bloating. Interestingly enough, the seeds could be used to remedy flatulence, while carrot jam is easily digested.

carrots in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (Ostler Library)

Egyptian Pomegranate Oxymel Syrup

This oxymel (سكنجبين; sakanjabīn, sikanjabīn) syrup (شراب, sharāb) is found in a 14th-century Egyptian manual and is made by boling rose-water syrup (جلاب, jullāb) and sour pomegranate juice. Before drinking it, dilute with water and add crushed ice to turn it into a refreshing drink! And, don’t forget that it’s also a digestive, so it really is a win-win situation!

According to the physician Najīb al-Dīn al-Smamarqandī, who was active in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, oxymel is harmful to people with weak stomachs, or those suffering from nausea, colds, or nervous weakness. However, oxymel made with quince strengthens the stomach, counters loss of appetite, prevents nausea and sickness, and in convalescents helps strengthen their organs and stimulate their appetite. Oxymel made from pomegranate or apples, on the other hand, strengthens the liver and heart!

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

Medieval Andalusian braided doughnuts

A delicious sweet made with a dough of semolina flour, as well as eggs, and saffron. The braids are fried in olive oil until they’ve turned golden brown. When they are ready, they are taken out of the pan and drenched in honey spiced with aromatics like pepper, cinnamon, and cassia. Serve with a dusting of sugar. And why not go the extra mile by stuffing them with almonds and sugar — I did!

Salted lemons (ليمون مالح, laymun malih)

This is a recreation of a recipe from The Sultan’s Feast but salted lemons are part of the earliest Arab culinary tradition, and a similar version can be found in a 13th-century cookery book from Aleppo. The salted lemons are cut up and cured in the juice of limes or sour oranges, added with olive oil and wonderfully aromatic herbs like coriander, parsley, mint and rue. The author tells us that this is the best and tastiest recipe there is. And anyone who tastes the result will surely not disagree with this high praise! It would have been eaten by itself, or as a condiment, but it’s also a wonderful addition to stews, tagines, and the such.

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)

Tifshila, Tuniso-Andalusian ِlamb and chickpea stew

This is an Andalusian recipe of an eastern dish — sometimes known as tafshīl (طفشيل) — for which recipes can also be found in two Baghdadi cookery books, from the 10th and 13th centuries, respectively. It could also be made without meat, while the usual ingredients included chickpeas, lentils and other pulses, with, in some cases, aubergine, chard, or leek. The Andalusian variant is made with diced yearling ram meat (lamb works well, too!), pepper, coriander seeds, onion, chickpeas, saffron, and vinegar. The texture is supposed to be similar to the famous harīsa (meat porridge), a staple at medieval markets across the Arabic-speaking world. Medicinally, it was said to be beneficial for the chest and for removing phlegm.

Medieval Egyptian Pomegranate Chicken

This is one of the shorter recipes from The Sultan’s Feast, and is also found a 13th-century Syrian cookery book. The dish is somewhat unusual in that it is made with pomegranate seeds. Afterwards, sugar, mint, and cinnamon are added and then a chicken is stewed in the mixture. The result is nothing short of amazing! And if you can still manage dessert after this delicacy, I can recommend the Ma’muniyya. You may well need a bit of a lie-down afterwards, but don’t let that stop you!

Spotlight on: jujube (عنّاب, unnab)

Also known as the Chinese date, the jujube (Ziziphus jujuba, Z. vulgaris) which is green and bitter when it is unripe, but as it matures, it changes colour and shrinks, eventually looking like a small sweet date. The jujube tree is native to central Asia, and the fruit was already collected there for food as early as 6000 BCE. The tree later spread to the Mediterranean, where it was cultivated by the 1st century BCE. It was introduced to the Romans from Northern Africa. It is related to the lotus (Ziziphus lotus) associated with the story of the ‘Lotus Eaters’ (lotophagi) in Homer’s Odyssey.

Another species in the same genus is the so-called Christ’s thorn jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi) since it was thought that Jesus’ crown of thorns was made from the tree. Known in Arabic as sidr (سدر) or nabaq (نبق), this variety is native to parts of Africa and Western Asia and was already known to the Ancient Egyptians, who used its fruits and leaves for medical purposes. It is also mentioned in the Qur’an where it refers to the ‘lote tree’, most notably the sidrat al-muntahā (سدرة المنتهى, ‘the lote tree of the furthest boundary’), which marks one extreme of the heavenly abode. It also grows in the Arabian Gulf, particularly in Oman and Qatar, where it survives in the harsh conditions because of its hardiness and ability to draw water deep underground,

The jujube was used in Persian as well as in medieval Arab cooking, often in conjunction with almonds and raisins. Jujubes from Gorgan (Iran) were said to be the best, but it was also reported to be grown in Greater Syria. The fruit is mostly associated with Egyptian cuisine, where it was called for in a variety of dishes, such as the ‘Nubian Lady‘ or the local twist on the Abbasid classic ‘sikbaj‘. It was also eaten fresh or dried, whereas the wood of the tree was used in carpentry.

Medically, jujubes were said to be astringent and beneficial for the blood and lungs. When the juice is cooked, it is useful against hotness in the stomach, and coarseness in the chest. However, it engenders phlegm and slows down digestion. According to the physician Ibn Butlan (11th c.) jujube also cause constipation and have very little nutritional value, but are useful as an emmenagogue. However, he generally advised against eating the fruit, particularly for older people.

the harvesting of jujube in a 14th-century Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (14th c. British Library)