A recipe from The Sultan’s Feast for pickling eggs. The process takes a bit of time since after boiling the eggs, they should be soaked in salty water for a couple of days, after which they are immersed in wine vinegar. Then it is time for the next stage, which involves more vinegar, added with spices and herbs, such as cassia, ginger, cumin, coriander, cloves, rue, and citron leaves. This mixture is put over a fire and when it’s boiling, the eggs are added. To add some pazazz, why not colour the eggs with saffron (yellow) or red (safflower), or both, as you can see here?
Spotlight on: Roses
Roses were first cultivated several thousand years ago in ancient Persia, which is also where rose distillation was first performed. The flower comes in a number of varieties, but the so-called ‘damask rose’ (Rosa damascene) is probably the best known and most-used. To the ancient Greeks, the rose was a symbol of love and beauty, and they used it in perfume, as a food flavouring (the petals), and to make rose syrup, rose jam, and even a rose wine (rosatos).
In medieval Arab cooking, roses (usually known as ward but sometimes also by their Persian name gul) were used in a variety of applications. The best roses were thought to come from Persia and the town of Nusaybin (نصيبين), currently in Turkey. The parts that were used were the petals, buds and rose hips (the fruits). The petals served to make a popular conserve with honey, known in medieval times as murabbā or julanjubīn (from the Persian gul and angubīn/’honey’. Petals are also the main ingredient for a spectacular khabis from Mamluk Egypt.
The most famous product was, of course, rose water (ماء الورد, mā’ al-ward), which involved the distillation of the petals by means of an alembic. It, in turn, formed the basis for rose-water syrup, jullāb (جلاب), a Persian borrowing meaning ‘rose (gul) water (āb)’! Rose water was used in all kinds of dishes, both savoury and sweet, and additionally was often also wiped along the sides of the cooking pot to scent it.
Finally, roses (usually rose water), were a frequent ingredient in perfumes, hand-washing powders, and the such.
Ibn Sina reported that pulverized roses help in extracting all type of warts, while the flower was also beneficial in the treatment of ulcers, and even to help extract arrow tips and thorns.
Rose water became popular in medieval Europe where it was introduced through the Crusades. Today, there are a number of throwbacks to medieval dishes, whether it be Turkish delight and baklava, or the Indian dessert gulab jamun and gulkand. The leaves and rose-hips are also still used to make syrup or teas.
Andalusian aphrodisiac tharida
This thirteenth-century recipe from a Tuniso-Andalusian collection is made with a plump poussin, olive oil, salt, cinnamon, coriander seeds, chickpeas, onion juice, egg yolks, breadcrumbs, as well as spikenard, cloves, ginger and pepper. The author suggests that sparrows can also be used instead of chicken or, to increase the effect, both can be cooked together.
The aphrodisiac effect is achieved by the presence of ingredients such as poultry, eggs, and chickpeas, all of which were considered to be sexual stimulants. For an extra boost — as well as to enhance the flavour — carrots (another known aphrodisiac) can also be added to the pot.
Spotlight on: Lentils
Lentils (Lens culinaris medik/Lens esculenta Moench) were already collected in the Ancient Near East as early as 12,000 BCE. The legume was cultivated in Greece before 600 BCE and was a dietary staple there, used mainly in a soup, known as phake. It was commonly seasoned with vinegar and sumac. The ancient Romans appeared to be less taken with lentils as there are far fewer references in the sources. According to Dioscorides, lentils dull the vision, are hard to digest, bad for the stomach, produce stomach and intestinal gas, and cause bad dreams.
In the Arab culinary tradition, lentils (عدس, ‘adas) are used sparingly across all regions, not least due to the fact that they were considered quite harmful by physicians. Ibn Sīnā, who said that the plant was particularly grown on the mountains of Tabaristan, claimed the best varieties are wide and white. He and other Muslim physicians, recommended that lentils should be boiled thoroughly before eating them, and, like, Dioscorides, referred to their flatulent properties (less so if they were fried) and the fact that they are difficult to digest, and induce bad dreams. Ibn Sīnā added that lentils should not be mixed with any kind of sweet because this might generate calculi in the liver. The worst dish one can eat is one that contains lentil and dried salty meat. More importantly, lentils were said to be a powerful anaphrodisiac — i.e. lust suppressant.
al-Rāzī said that when cooked with honey, or with pomegranate peel and dried roses, lentils can be useful against ulcers, whereas al-Isrā’ilī recommended a recipe of lentils cooked with starch and some salt as a remedy against intestinal tears and ulcers. Ibn Jazla, for his part, also recommended white lentils since they are quickly digested and, when cooked in vinegar, useful against ulcers. Adding lentils to sawīq (سويق), a kind of cereal drink, is useful against gout.
Spotlight on: anise
Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is a plant that has been grown for its aromatc seeds since Greek Antiquity and originated from the Eastern Mediterranean. According to Dioscorides, Cretan anise was the best, followed by the Egyptian variety. The Greeks already used it in a medicinal decoction called anisaton, which is the ancestor to the present-day ouzo and raki. Anise seeds were also bound into a sachet which would be put in wine for flavour and its medicinal effects, as a digestive and aphrodisiac. In Roman cuisine, it was used as an aromatic, especially in sauces, and Apicius listed it among the spices a cook should have to hand.
In Arabic, anise is usualy known as anīsūn (أنيسون) but in the literature other names include rāziyānaj Rūmī (رازيانج رومي; ‘Roman fennel’), kammūn abyaḍ ḥulw (‘sweet white cumin’), and — especially in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) — al-ḥabba al-ḥulwa (الحبّة الحلوة; ‘the sweet grain’). It was not used very often in medieval Arab cooking; it is found in recipes for baked goods (ka’k, bread) and condiments such as dips and murrī.
Medically, anise was thought to be useful against flatulence and liver blockages, as well as being a diurretic and emmenagogue. Fumigating the seeds and sniffing the vapours was said to be good for headaches. It is even effective as an antidote to poisons, but, according to Ishaq Ibn Hunayn, it is harmful to the bowels.
No 250! Tuniso-Andalusian apple stew (تفّاحية, tuffahiyya)
Named after its principal ingredient (tuffāḥ, ‘apple’), this 13th-century recipe is made with fatty yearling ram (though I think it’s even better with tender lamb!), which is carved up and cooked with salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander seeds, a little cumin, and some onions. It also requires apples, of course — both sweet and sour, which are peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped. Round off with some saffron and vinegar and then serve with a sprinkling of cinnamon and ginger. If you really want to push the boat out, perfume the dish with musk, ambergris, rose water and camphor, which, so the author assures us, will strengthen the soul and gladden the heart.
Tuniso-Andalusian lamb stew with unripe green almonds
Almonds are used very frequently in medieval Arab cooking, not least as a thickener. In Muslim Spain, the area of Jerez was particularly known for its high-quality almonds. This 13th-century dish is somewhat unusual in that it requires unripe green almonds, which are cooked whole in a wonderful lamb dish with, among other things, onion, garlic, coriander, citron, fennel and (loads of) chickpeas. When the meat and almonds are almost done, it’s time to add some colour with saffron before boosting the dish with some vinegar. The dish was also made with a layer of eggs and spices at the end. Before serving, sprinkle on ginger and, as the author says, and eat and enjoy! To mix things up, the dish can be made with veal, as well.
Spotlight on: Spinach
The ancestor of spinach (Spinacia oleracea) goes back to eastern Asia, the region around present-day Nepal. It was unknown in Greek and Roman Antiquity. The oldest references date back to Sasanid Persia. Spinach was one of the earliest crops to be introduced into Europe by the Arabs, and arrived in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) by the 11th century.
In Arabic, it is usually known as i/asfānākh (إسفاناخ) or isfānāj (إسفاناج), from the Persian sipānākh (سپاناخ; also sipānāj/سپاناج), but other names such as baqla dustiyya or dustī are also occasionally found. According to the Andalusian botanist al-Ishbīlī, spinach was planted in autumn and eaten in winter. It quickly became quite popular and his compatriot, the agronomist Ibn al-ʿAwwām referred to it as ‘the prince of vegetables’ (ra’īs al-buqūl). One wonders whether that would have helped to convince children at the time to eat it!
It was not infrequently used in cooking, often in stews with lamb. Medicinally, it was considered nutritious, detergent and laxative (Ibn Sina). It is useful against back pains as well as coughs. However, it is difficult to digest.
Al-Samarqandi (12th century) advised that for people with too much heat spinach should be prepared with barley kishk (sun-dried yoghurt) and almond oil, whereas those with cold temperaments should eat it with fatty meat, rice with spices.
Medieval Qatayif (قطائف)
This is an Andalusian take on what are called ‘Abbasid qaṭā’if‘, a filled crepe, by the author of the 13th-century cookery book. There are quite some similarities with today’s sweets by the same name, a Ramadan favourite in many countries.
The first thing to do is to make flour for the crepes with semolina, hot water, salt and yeast. The filling is made with sugar and almonds, perfumed with aromatic spices (cloves and spikenard) and rose water. After cooking the crepes, they are stuffed with the filling, and then sealed by dredging the edges in starch dissolved into water. The crepes are fried in almond oil and when they have turned golden. Set them aside to drain off the oil and then drench in rose syrup. Serve and enjoy!
According to the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, this kind of qaṭā’if is beneficial for those addicted to physical activity. It is very nourishing, but slows down digestion and causes stones in the urethra. But not to worry! These negative effects can be rectified by eating sweet and sour pomegranates or oxymel.
Medieval Arab Cooking on Ajazeera
For those who missed the first four episodes…