The recipe for this fritter was taken from the The Exile’s Cookbook, and differs from an earlierzalābiyya/zulābiyya (زلابية) recreation based on another cookery book in that yeast is added to make a batter of medium consistency. The process is essentially the same as that found already in the Abbasid tradition and involves dripping the batter into a pan in which olive oil has been heated up. The author suggests a thimble-sized cup with a small hole in the bottom, but I went old school and used a pierced coconut shell, which is recommended in an earlier Abbasid recipe. Failing that, a funnel does the trick as well, of course!
The fun part is that you make shapes — lattices, circles, and so on (in fact, anything you like!). Once the zalābiyyapieces are done, they’re taken out of the pan and drenched in boiled skimmed honey. Leave them to dry a bit and then serve — heaven on a plate!
Unfortunately, physicians had a less than favourable view of these delightful fritters since zalābiyya were said to be slow to digest; harmful to the liver, spleen and kidneys; to cause blockages and thirst. On the other hand, it is possible that we should thank some of those physicians, such as the 12th-century physician al-Isrā’ilī, who recommended eating zalābiyyawith honey to counter some of these harmful properties.
The modern descendants of this sweet include the North African zlabia, the Egyptian and Levantine mushabbak, the Indian jalebi, or the North American funnel cake. In other places, such as Egypt, the word refers to a deep-fried doughnut, known elsewhere as ‘awwāma (عوّامة, ‘floater’), luqmat al-Qāḍī (لقمة القاضي, ‘the judge’s morsel’)or luqayma (لقيمة, ‘little morsel’), depending on the region. In Egypt and the Levant, the medieval zalābiyya has also survived, but under the name of mushabbak (‘latticed’).
Both sea and rock salt were known in Antiquity. It was already quarried in Ancient Egypt and the Romans started producing salt on a very large scale. It was especially important for preserving food but salt was also used in cooking; in Greek times already it was sprinkled on meat roasts and fish, whereas there are references to various kinds of seasoned salts, added with, for instance, thyme or cumin. However, the most common salting agent was garum. According to the botanist Dioscorides, the best salt was white, free of stones and dirt, dense and smooth. He particularly recommended salt quarried in Libya, Cyprus and Sicily, and that from marshlands.
Pre-Islamic Arabs already used salt to season their food, but it also played an important role in some of their rites, as in an oath-swearing underpinning alliances. Though primarily referring to table salt (sodium chloride), the Arabic word milḥ (ملح) can also denote other salt-like substances, such as natron. The literature distinguishes between sea salt (ملح بحري, milḥ baḥrī ) and rock salt (ملح برّي, milḥ barrī , i.e. ‘soil salt’). Salt was quarried in various areas (e.g. Persia) or acquired from salt marshes. A premium type or rock salt was known as milḥ darānī, or andarānī, which was considered the purest, i.e. devoid of any dust or rock.
Salt is one of the most used spices and condiments in mediaeval Arab cuisine, both as a seasoning and to preserve various kinds of foods, as well as in pickling. Besides the salting of meat and fish, the sources also include recipes for salted fruit, especially lemons. Some authors recommended adding salt at the end since it can slow down the cooking time of other ingredients. The modern pair of salt and pepper co-occur in half of the recipes requiring salt (especially with fish), and is often also used in dishes including almonds or cassia. Meat was washed with hot water and salt before cooking it. Similarly, aubergine was soaked in salt and water to remove the bitterness. One of the popular dishes in the early Abbasid tradition were mā’ wa milḥ (‘water and salt’) stews, which involved meat being cooked in a broth of water and salt.
The 12th-century physician al-Isrā’ilī recommended using salt to balance food (e.g. fish), when food has no flavour (e.g. gourd); to dry out excessively moist food; and to remove greasiness and bad odours (e.g. fatty and greasy meats); and to reduce sourness.
As a condiment, salt was often mixed and toasted with other spices (e.g. coriander, sesame, nigella, hemp seeds, poppy seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, asafoetida leaves and anise) into milḥ muṭayyab (ملح مطيّب, ‘seasoned salt’). It could also be dyed, for instance, with sumac or saffron, or even indigo.
Salt was put to some unusual use in agriculture; for instance, it was said that to extend the life of a pear tree, it should be covered with salt, which would prevent the fruit from rotting.
Salt was a vector of social and religious connotations as well To the ancient Greeks already sharing salt signified the sharing of a meal but, by extension, hospitality and the establishment of friendship ties. In Arabic, the saying ‘there is bread and salt between us’ (بيننا خبز وملح) still has this meaning.
Various sayings of the Prophet (hadith) commend the use of salt: it is required to make food flavoursome (لا يَصْلُحُ الطعام إلا بالمِلح), and is one of the four divine blessings sent down from the heavens, together with iron, fire and water (أَنزَلَ أربعَ بَرَكاتٍ من السماء إلى الأرض: الحديد والنار والماء والملح). The Prophet is even said to have advised making salt the basis of food because it cures seventy-two illnesses, among them, leprosy, and aches in the tooth, throat and belly.
In Islamic medicine, salt was considered hot and dry in the second degree, with bitter, astringent and dissolvent properties, whereas darānī salt expels wind. Al-Isrā’ilī said salt was effective against malignant ulcers, while Ibn Sīnā recommended it as an antidote for scorpion bites; and to counter the ill effects of opium.
One of the most emblematic dishes from al-Andalus are the fried cheese buns, known as mujabbana (مجبّنة), for which a number of recipes can be found in the two Andalusian cookery books. This particular re-creation is based on one from The Exile’s Cookbook. And to make it even more special, it was made with cheese from the same source. A future post will be devoted to the latter, for those who want to try their hand at whipping up some medieval cheese.
This particular variety of mujabbana calls for a semolina dough and fresh cheese which has been washed with water and kneaded into a marrow-like consistency before being left to dry. After adding aniseed, mint juice and fresh coriander juice everything is kneaded together. Once the cheese mix is ready, it’s time to put a pan with olive oil on the heat and start shaping the mujabbanas. It’s a simple — but slightly delicate — process which involves taking a piece of dough and wrapping it over the cheese mixture before deep-frying each piece, making sure that it is golden on all sides. They are served with fresh butter or melted honey, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
The author also gives an alternative, which, so we are told, is how the Andalusians prefer it; the mujabbanas are served in a bowl sprinkled with cinnamon, aniseed and sugar, whereas in the middle there should be a dish with honey into which to dip the buns. A third variant is to mix egg whites into the dough as ‘this will further enhance the taste and delight.’ I can’t think of anyone who would argue with that once they’ve tried it!
The modern Spanish almojábana denotes a popular Colombian cheese bread and, in Spain, a type of cheesecake, or even a fritter made without cheese.
This delicate stew from The Exile’s Cookbook is made with plums — probably damson — known in Andalusian Arabic by the very poetic name of ʿayn al-baqar (عين البقر, ‘cows’ eyes’), and this is how they appear in the dish as well! The recipe is similar to another stew, known as Murūziyya (مروزية), which in contemporary Moroccan cuisinedenotes a honeyed lamb tajine sometimes including plums. Interestingly enough, the author recounts that these plums were imported from ‘the land of the Christians – may Allah destroy it!’
The recipe calls for prime veal cuts, which are cooked in olive oil, pepper, coriander, cumin, onion and ‘good-quality’ murrī. In the next stage, the damson plums — soaked in some vinegar — are added, and finally some saffron for colouring. The author suggests a variation without onions, but with almonds, chickpeas and cloves of garlic.
The accompaniment to this dish? Well, that just has to be couscous of course!
The history of the herb is a long one and the ancient Egyptians already used it as a digestive and anti-flatulent. Ancient Greek scholars like Dioscorides believed that mint could prevent women from becoming pregnant, while its juice was thought to staunch blood, arouse sexual desire, and stop hiccups, vomiting and cholera. However, there is little evidence of the use of mint in Greek food and dining.
In Arabic, the word for ‘mint’ is na’na’ (نعناع, نعنع), though, like in Antiquity, it did not have the modern meaning of peppermint (Mentha × piperita) since this is a a cross between watermint and spearmint (Mentha spicatasubsp. spicata) and was only described in the late 17th century. Other words for mint varieties included ḥabaq bustānī (حبق بستاني) and fūdhanj (فوذنج), also spelled fūtanj (فوتنج). The latter word is a Middle Persian borrowing, though it probably goes back to a Sanskrit word for several fragrant plants and usually referred to varieties of mint growing next to rivers (Mentha aquatica; fūtanj nahrī/فوتنج نهري), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium; fūtanj barrī/ فوتنج برِّي) , as well as wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare; fūtanj jabalī/فوتنج جبلي ). Besides spearmint, na’na’ often probably referred to whorled mint (Mentha × verticillata), as well as other subspecies.
Mint is one of the most frequently used herbs in medieval Arab cuisine, and was often also added at the end, for decoration and as a flavour enhancer. It was used fresh and dried, as well juiced; in savoury dishes, it is called for in about a quarter of dishes in Andalusian, Iraqi and Syrian treatises, and in a third of Egyptian ones.
Muslim phsyicians claimed mint strengthens and heats the stomach, and suppresses hiccups. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) recommended it to increase sexual desire, whereas a few bunches of mint, together with pomegranate seeds are useful against cholera and vomiting. Ibn Jazla (11th c.) suggested mint juice to staunch blood, and a mint compress for thickening breast milk. According to al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), water mint makes food appetizing, calms nausea, relieves vomiting and diarrhea, and kills worms.
What is probably the oldest reference to this snack can be found in a recipe for toasted wheat called qāwūt (قاووت) — a word related to an Arabic root meaning ‘to nourish, feed’, with qūt (قوت) and quwāt (قوات) denoting ‘food’ — in treatises from Mamluk Egypt, including The Sultan’s Feast. The recipe mentions taking the wheat to the chickpea roaster to perform the required task, thus revealing that it was already a popular streetfood even then, as it still is today in many countries.
The recipe mentions the name these crunchy roast chickpeas still have, i.e. qadāma (قضامة), which actually denotes anything that is nibbled, from a verb, qadima (قضم), ‘to nibble or bite on something dry’. Interestingly enough, one of the other meanings of the verb is ‘to have black and broken teeth’ — presumably, due to over-nibbling on snacks!
The chickpeas are soaked, boiled and then roasted over a gentle fire. For this recipe, I just added salt, but today a number of other spices are also used. In Turkey, it is known as leblebi, but, confusingly, in some Arab countries (especially Tunisia) lablabi (لبلابي) denotes a chickpea soup, a popular streetfood.
As I had some of the muḥammaṣ grains left, I decided to put them to good use to make another Andalusian recipe, this time from an anonymous collection, which hails from the same century (13th c.) as The Exile’s Cookbook.
The recipe is a variant of one for making ‘cooked rice’ (أرزّ مطبوخ, aruzz matbukh) but which could also be used for itriyya (إطرية, ‘noodles’) or fidaw(i)sh (فداوش) — the ancestor of the Spanish fideos (a vermicelli-type pasta), as is done for the re-creation. The author explains that fidawsh could refer to dough in the shape of long wheat grains, round like coriander seeds (in the Bijāya region), or sheets as thin as paper. The second type is very similar in size to the historical muḥammaṣ, and thus allowed me to use up the remainder of my batch.
The recipe is also unusual in that it makes use of a bain-marie. The semolina pellets are put in a pot (a bowl works well too) with milk which is placed inside a container (the recipe mentions a copper cauldron) filled up with water halfway. The mixture is left to cook, without stirring, while the milk is topped up if it dries out. The cooking continues until the pellets are done and dissolved in the milk. Butter is also added at an appropriate point. The dish is served spread out on a platter or shallow bowl, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, as well as another dash of butter.
A similar recipe is still made today, and in Algeria is known as ‘barkūkas(h)‘, but also bears some resemblance to the sweet Tunisian couscous, masfouf (مسفوف).
It may also be the ancestor of the medieval European classic the frumenty (a corruption of the French froment, ‘wheat’), a sweet porridge made with wheat, milk, cinnamon and sugar.
A member of the antilope family sometimes known as ‘the daughter of the sand’ (بنت الرمل, bint al-raml), the gazelle — the English word is a borrowing from the Arabic ghazāl (غزال) — figures prominently in Arabic literature with numerous references to its elegance, beauty and speed. It was sometimes known as ẓabī (ظبي), though this is the usual word for antilope. The word gazelle also has romantic connotations and often denotes a beautiful woman, particularly in poetry and songs.
The gazelle was praised for the quality of its meat, which was the only game meat (لحم الصيد, lahm al-sayd) that met with the approval of physicians, who recommended it for old people and those with a cold temperament. The physician Ibn Butlan (11th c.) explained that if young people want to eat gazelle meat, they should let it rest overnight in pomegranate juice and vinegar. The young fawn (خشف, khishf) are better for young people and suit their temperaments. It would appear that even the heads were eaten at some point, as Ibn Butlan refers to the fact that the heads of sheep are more humid than those of goats, and those of goats more humid than those of gazelles. According to his fellow Baghdadi and contemporary, the pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, gazelle meat is useful against colic and hemiplegia.
The cosmographer al-Qazwini states that the gazelle is the shyest of all animals, but that it is very intelligent as it enters its lair backwards so as to ensure a quick getaway when an enemy is lurking within. It was also unusual in that it was partial to the colocynth (حنظل, hanzal), unlike other wild animals, which avoid it. And when the gazelle drinks seawater and then eats colocynth, the water that flows from its mouth becomes sweet!
There is also a religious connection, with the word ḥūrīyya (the English ‘houri’), which denotes the beautiful maidens of Paradise promised to the devout Muslim in the afterlife. It is related to a word meaning ‘whiteness’ and is especially applied to the eye of a gazelle (in contrast to the deep black of its pupils), as in the expression ḥūr al-ʿīn (حور العين) — the Qur’anic equivalent being ḥūr ʿīn — meaning “having eyes like those of gazelles and of cows,” which was often applied to women.
Despite the praise for gazelle meat, it appears relatively rarely in the medieval culinary treatises, with most of the recipes being found in the Abbasid tradition (9th-10th c.), where it is used in a bārida (باردة, ‘cold dish’), with cuts of the animal being stuffed with almonds and pistachio before being cooked in vinegar and a number of aromatic spices. It would be garnished with parsley, rue and mint before serving. Other recipes include frying the meat, or cooking it in a water-and-salt stew (ماء وملح, mā’ wa milh) with chickpea and onions, as well as mustard and verjuice.
In the Muslim West, only The Exile’s Cookbook mentions gazelle meat, in a stew which could also include several other wild animals such as deer, bovine antelope, mountain goat and even ass, with chickpeas, citron, garlic, onion and fennel being the main non-meat ingredients.
This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for ‘stuffed tubes’ (قنانيط محشوة, qanānīṭ mahshuwa) is one of the ancestors of the modern Sicilian speciality cannoli, albeit sans the cheese filling. In fact, it was quite a popular sweet across the Muslim world, since recipes can also be found in a collection from Mamluk Egypt (14th c.), where they appear as ‘Zaynab’s fingers’ (أصابع زينب, aṣābiʿ Zaynab), but they go back even further, to Abbasid times, when they were called ḥalāqīm (حلاقيم) — the plural of ḥulqūm (حلقوم, ‘wind-pipe’) — and were made with a filling of walnuts and sugar, with the ends dipped in syrup and sprinkled with dyed sugar candy.
It takes a bit of a delicate touch to make the 13th-century Andalusian version of these wonderful sweets, but the result is fantastic! After kneading flour into a dough, it is wrapped around cane reeds, with the dough cut into small tubes. While the dough is drying, it is time to make the filling which will consist of skimmed honey, pounded almonds and various aromatics. After carefully removing the dough tubes, they are fried in olive oil and then stuffed with the filling, topped off with an almond at either end. Arrange on a plate, dust with cinnamon and sugar, and then it’s time to tuck in!
This recipe from 13th-century Aleppo was apparently created by the maidservants of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt and Damascus (and nephew of the great Salah al-Din), al-Malik al-Kamil (d. 1238), and it is they who taught the author to make it. The recipe is one of very few in the medieval Arab culinary tradition to require pomelo (كبّاد, kubbād). Both the peel (which will be fried) and segments are used, together with wine vinegar, sweetened with honey or sugar. Other ingredients include toasted hazelnuts, the aṭrāf al-ṭībspice blend, and mint. The mixture should be left for a couple of days to ferment away before it is good to eat. A wonderful accompaniment to many a cold and hot dish!