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.

Medieval Date-filled Ka’k


A recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a delicious ring-shaped biscuit (كعك, ka’k), which is made by boiling pounded dry dates mixed with rose water and aromatics. When the mixture has the required consistency, let it cool down and then mould it into thin rolls which are used as a filling for ka’k dough. Then it’s time for the fun part of shaping the dough into rings before baking them. The taste is very much like the modern ma’moul (معمول). A modern descendant — or perhaps a suriviing ancestor (!) — is the Algerian ka’k al-naqqash (كعك النقّاش), which translates as ‘the engraver’s biscuits’.

Spotlight on: Barberry

The barberry plant (Berberis vulgaris) — or shrub, to be more exact — was known in Arabic as anbarbārīs (أنبرباريس; also ambarbārīs, أمبرباريس), while the Persian borrowing zirishk (زرشک) denoted the fruit, which is bright red and elongated, though the terms were often used interchangeably.

In cooking, barberries, which have a rather tart bitter flavour, are found in a popular stew, called anbarbārīsiyya (أنبرباريسية), amīr bārīsiyya (أمير باريسية) or zirishkiyya (زرشكية), with recipes in Baghdadi, Syrian and Egyptian collections. It was said to be made like a sumac stew (سمّاقية, summaqiyya), and sweetened with sugar. The dish — like the fruit — was Persian in origin; indeed, modern Iranian cuisine still uses barberries, for instance, in the famous rice dish zereshk polo (زرشک پلو), or to flavour poultry. In India, the berries tend to be dried and added to desserts.

Physicians held that barberries strengthened the stomach and the liver, cut thirst, prevented vomiting, and strengthened the heart. They were used in a number of medicinal applications, such as an anti-diarrhoeal recipe, which can be found in cookery books from 15th-century Egypt (The Sultan’s Feast‘) and 13th-century Syria; after boiling the barberries, they should be strained, and thickened with sugar before adding them to chicken with a little bit of mint.

Barberries in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.)

Mamluk Barley Drink for Ramadan

This recipe for a malted barley drink (ماء الشعير, mā’ al-sha’īr) from 14th-century Egypt requires a bit of preparation and timing, but it is very much worth it. The first stage involves sprouting barley after soaking it (this will take several days). Once the barley is dry, it is ground into flour, to which wheat flour is added. After pouring on hot water, it is left overnight, after which cold water is poured before leaving it for a further two days. At the end of that period, it is time to add the leaves of citron, sour orange, rue and mint, together with lemons cut in half and a bit of salt for seasoning. Then leave it aside until the evening, when it is ready.

Before serving, the liquid is strained, and lemon juice, sugar, musk and rose water are added. Then, you’re good to go! Feel free to add some crushed ice for that mocktail effect! It’s truly amazing. This is one of the few ‘Ramadan’ drinks mentioned in the medieval Arabic culinary literature.

Medieval Egyptian Kunafa

This is the ancestor of the favourite Ramadan sweet, which, in its modern version, is made with shredded phyllo soaked in butter or ghee, with a filling of a mixture of cheese or cream and sugar, and topped with pistachios, almonds or walnuts. After it is baked, it is drenched in syrup.

The origins of this sweet are to be found in Egypt; the word comes from the Coptic kenefiten, which denoted a kind of loaf or cake. It was very popular in the Middle Ages, and there are nearly twenty-five recipes across six cookery books from Syria, Egypt, and al-Andalus, between the 13th and 15th centuries. The medieval kunāfa was essentially a thin flatbread, equated with a ruqāq, which was usually fried in oil, rolled up, cut up or kept whole as a crepe. Honey is often involved.

The present recreation is based on a 15th-century Egyptian recipe for a ‘cooked (مطبوخ, matbūkh) kunāfa’ from The Sultan’s Feast. The dough is cut up into thin strips, like noodles, which are cooked in sesame oil, sugar and honey. Once everything has been sufficiently stirred, it’s time to fold in saffron-dyed blanched almonds or pistachios, before adding musk and rose water. According to the author it can be stored in a container and stay good for a year. I must admit I have not put this to the test — anyway, I think the real question, of course, is who would be able to keep this delicacy for that long without eating it!

This particular variety of kunāfa has survived in the Algerian mchelwech (المشلوش), a speciality of the city of Constantine, and, perhaps more suprisingly, the Uzbek national dessert Chak Chak.

Spotlight on: Chestnuts

The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was already well known in ancient Greece, and was called καστανία (the etymon of the Latin castanea) and ‘King’s acorns’ (διοσβάλανοι), whereas Dioscorides called them ‘Sardian acorns’ (βάλανος Σαρδιανή). They were often eaten boiled or roasted as a snack accompanying wine. Chestnut flour was sometimes used to make a bread, though this was considered of poor quality. There is only one recipe from Roman times for cooked and mashed chestnuts in a seasoned honey and vinegar sauce.

In medieval Arabic literature the chestnut was usually known as ‘shāhballūt‘ (شاه بلّوط), a Persian borrowing (itself a calque from the Greek διοσβάλανοι), alongside kastana (كستنة) and, in al-Andalus, qasṭal (قسطل). Its use in cooking was quite rare, with only one Near Eastern recipe. In the Andalusian recipe collections, chestnuts are called for in a total of four recipes. Interestingly enough, in one case, a stew with chicken meatballs, the recipe is listed as an ‘Eastern dish’. The increased use of the sweet chestnut in the Muslim West can be explained by that it was native to the area — indeed, to this day, the sweet chestnut is also known as ‘Spanish chestnut’.

Muslim physicians held that the chestnut were extremely nutritious — in fact more so than any other ‘grains’ — and that it was useful against poisons. However, it was deemed to be very slow to digest and should not be used for people, but only as pig feed.

chestnuts in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’

Tuniso-Andalusian Chestnut Stew

An unsual recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a stew with chicken meatballs and chestnuts, which are used as a sauce thickener. This is one of very few recipes requiring chestnuts, nearly all of them from the Andalusian collections, which contain two recipes each. Besides the chicken and fresh chestnuts (the author explains that one can use dried ones, too, but they have to be boiled first to soften them up), the recipe calls for coriander juice, salt, coriander seeds, pepper, onion juice and olive oil. The chestnuts are mashed and then added to the pot once the meatballs are done. Finally, a sprinkle of vinegar and — it’s an Andalusian recipe after all! — a layer of eggs to top the dish.