North African Beef with pomelo vinegar

A fragrant recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for beef cooked with pomelo vinegar, murrī , garlic, salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander and garlic until it is browned, and the juices dried out. Before serving, it is perfumed with pomelo vinegar, though lemon or sour grape vinegar are suggested variants. The result is a veritable carnivore’s feast, best eaten with some flatbread.

Mamluk salsa

A recreation of a 14th-century Egyptian dipping sauce, known as sals (صَلْص, pl. صُلُوص, sulus), which were very popular at the time. This one was called kāmilī (كاملي) and is made with citron leaves, parsley, lemon balm, salt and lime juice. Before serving, it should get a sprinkling of galangal, ginger, cloves and pepper. The recipe does not specify what is should be served with, but I think fish is the way to go.

The word clearly reflects a European origin, mediated by the Crusades — ultimately deriving from the Latin salsus, ‘salty’ — while the earliest recipes are found in a Syrian collection. However, the ingredients of the Arab sauce gainsay a Europea component in the composition. In Andalusi Arabic, the word salas (صَلَص) refers to watercress (usually known as حرف, hurf), with the Romance jalja (جلجة) or shalsha (شلشة) denoting the sauce.

Medieval Rice Pudding

This recreation of a medieval classic across the Muslim world is based on a recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook. The rice pudding (al-aruzz bi ’l-laban al-ḥalīb; الأرزّ بالبن الحليب) is made with strained sheep’s milk, though the author mentions that cow’s milk is also acceptable, with goat’s milk coming a distant third. The rice is cooked until done, after which it is time to mix in a bit of salt crushed in milk or water by gentle stirring. It is served in a dish with a bowl of honey in the middle. It should be eaten with ‘clean boxwood spoons.’ As the author of the cookbook hailed from Murcia, rice and honey from this region were used in the recreation.

There was a variant with mutton or, especially, chicken, which was, in fact, more common, and was usually known as muhallabiyya, which became the medieval European staple blancmanger. The present-day muhallabiyyas (a milk pudding made with rice or flour) are all made without meat, and thus similar to the recreation. The closest descendant of the medieval meat rice pudding is the Turkish tavuk göğsü.

Medieval North African Chickpeas

This recreation of a 13th-century dish of dried chickpeas from The Exile’s Cookbook is simple to make, but makes for a wonderful vegetarian snack, or side. After cleaning and soaking the chickpeas, they are cooked with onion, pepper, coriander and a little saffron. When they are done, it is time to add some murrī and vinegar and bring to a boil. Then it’s time to serve.

If you think this looks familiar, you’d be right since it may well be a distant ancestor of the modern Tunisian chickpea soup lablabi (لبلابي).

Andalusian roast partridge

The medieval Andalusian cookery books reveal that its people were very partial to game, and there are several recipes for partridge, like this one from The Exile’s Cookbook. After skinning and cleaning the partridge, it is cooked in water, salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander, some onion, almonds, murrī and vinegar. When it is done, it is finished off in the oven together with the strained broth in which it was cooked. This dish is a must for game lovers!

Andalusian Narjisiyya

This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook has deep roots, which can be traced back to Abbasid times and possibly further, to Persia. The earliest narjisiyya (نرجسية) recipes involved adding egg yolks at the end of the cooking process thus creating the impression of narcissus flowers (نرجس, narjis) floating on top, hence the name of the dish.

In al-Andalus, the dish appeared in a different guise, namely as a lamb omelette of sorts being cut up in the shape of a narcissus flower, with the carrots serving as the stamens. The recipe calls for ram (but lamb will do just as well, of course), which is cut up and then cooked halfway through with salt, olive oil, pepper and coriander. Then carrots are cut up lengthwise and ‘planted’ on the meat, while adding some water, vinegar and saffron. Afterwards, it is time to sprinkle on washed rice and then — it is an Andalusian dish, after all! — eggs whipped with saffron. You can cook it either in the pot or in the oven (as in the recreatino). When it is done, the resultant omelette — or quiche — is cut up in the shape of narcissi. The narjisiyya was thought to have aphrodisiac properties as well as being beneficial for those engaged in strenuous exercise.

The Iranian Nargesi Esfanaj is the closest modern descendant, though it may well have predated the Arab dish.

Fish murri

A unique recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook and an Andalusian-North African variant of a medieval staple condiment murrī , made with fish rather than the usual barley. One starts with some ṣīr (صير), which denotes small fish — in this case sprats –, which are placed in a jar with salt and oregano, stirred continually, and left to ferment. Then five times the amount of sweet must is poured on and, following further fermentation, the mixture is strained. Then it is decanted and quince and onions added and left. When it is ready, it is stored in a jar and covered with olive oil. The author recommends serving it in a ceramic bowl together with olive oil and cut-up onions; alternatively, one can add fried eggs, fried fish, and olives. And “if you want the murrī to be red in colour, use black grape juice, whereas the white kind is made with white grape juice.” It can also be made with wine but, so we are reassured, “the fermentation of the must will completely cancel out the effect of the wine.” It takes about three months in total to make the final product, but then again all good things in life take time!

This is a close relative of the Greeks’ garos and the Romans’ garum, whilst there are similarities (except for the spicing) with present-day sauces such as the Iranian mahyawa (مهياوه) — a particular favourite in the Gulf –, the Thai prik nam pla, Vietnamese nuoc cham, or Cambodian teuk trei koh kong.

Mamluk Date Stew

This is a recreation of a recipe from The Sultan’s Feast for a date stew with lamb, known as tamriyya (تمرية), in reference to the word for ‘dried date’, tamr (تمر). There is also a variant made with fresh dates (رطب, ruṭab), called ruṭabiyya (رطبية).

The meat is cut into pieces and then boiled before frying it with salt and spices — the recipe requires sheep’s tail fat, but it works with with any oil or fat of your preference. When the meat is almost done, a layer of almond-stuffed dates is added on top. Use some of the same kind of meat, fashion into date-shaped oblong meatballs, and stuff an almond stuffed inside each. A sprinkling of rose water and saffron finished it all off and the pot should be left to simmer down.

Spotlight on: Olives

The olive tree was domesticated in the Near East about the fourth millennium B.C. and there is evidence of olives being cultivated in pharaonic Egypt, though the Greek geographer Strabo observed they only grew in Alexandria.

Olives were a staple for the average Greek and Roman, and they were usually stored in the dark by layering them with fennel in jars filled with brine. Olive oil must be stored in the dark and with little or no contact with air. They were also used in a popular dip, which, according to the Roman author Cato, was made by pitting the olives, choping them up and then marinating them in oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue and mint.

In Arabic, olives are known as zaytūn (زيتون) and in the medieval culinary tradition its fruit was mostly used for its oil, and less as an ingredient. They were often consumed as a side or snack, seasoned (mutabbal) and preserved in water and salt. Olives were used far more in the Muslim West (al-Andalus and North Africa) than in the East, often also to decorate dishes, or in the stuffing of meat dishes. Olive oil, too, was used far more in the Maghrib, in contrast with the sheep’s tail fat used in the Near East.

Green olives were considered to have a large number of benefits, including as an aphrodisiac. The best are the unripe ones; when salted, they strengthen the stomach, but cut the appetite, and are harmful to the lungs, which can be remedied wth honey.

Black olives are quickly digested. The best types are those that are reddish, rather than entirely black. As they arouse the appetite, they should be eaten before the meal. Mountain olives came highly recommended because they were appetizing and useful against sciatica. They should be eaten in the middle of the meal, with vinegar.

olives in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal

Andalusian Chicken Judhaba

A unique recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook and an Andalusian-North African variant of a medieval classic, the judhaba (جوذابة), a dish of Persian origin which in its Near Eastern iteration was a drip pudding, with a chicken being roasted over a fruit-layered pudding. In the Muslim West, the dish was subject to some dramatic changes and came in two guises, one without chicken and another with chicken buried in layers of flatbreads, which is recreated here.

A plump chicken with its breast split open is cooked with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon, spikenard and cardamom until it is done, after which it is is again cooked in rose water until the liquid has completely evaporated. At this point, it is time to make the flabreads (رقاق, ruqāq), which will be used. The sides and bottom of a a new pot — stone or earthenware — are coated with pounded kidney suet, and then flatrbreads are spread on the bottom, making sure the edges hang over the sides of the pot as they will be used to cover others later.

After sprinkling on sugar, almonds, cloves, spikenard, rose water, camphor and olive oil, another flatbread (or two) are added, on which sugar, almonds, spices, rose water and olive oil are sprinkled. This layering continues until you reach half the height of the pot, which is when you add the chicken to the centre after having rubbed it with saffron dissolved in rose water. Then continue the layering as before until you reach the top of the pot. At this point, the flatbreads dangling over the sides of the pot are used as a cover and then the pot is covered with a lid and sealed with dough before baking until done.

Although the recipe does not specify this, the judhaba was tipped out of the pot maqluba style, simply because it was the easiest way to serve it without destroying this ‘wonderfully crafted dish, fit for kings’, as the author puts it. And on top of that it is very nutritious — as well as being very sweet!

In light of the similarities, this dish may be considered a precursor to the modern Moroccan basṭīla (بسطيلة), usually known in English as pastilla or bstila.