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.
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.
Andalusian lamb and pickled lime stew
This is a recreation of a sweet-and-sour 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian dish, which was associated with the countryside, as its name, al-fahsi (الفحصي), is derived from the Andalusian Arabic fahs denoting ‘field’ or ‘meadow’ but, by extension, also means ‘peasant’ and so it could also be translated as the ‘peasant’s dish’. You need a fat ram — I couldn’t find ours, so had to make do with lamb — and add suet, pepper, coriander, onions, and cinnamon. When the dish is nearly done cooking, you can add pickled limes to taste. As it happens, there were some left over from an earlier batch! Serve with a dusting of cinnamon. The author adds that it can also be made with chicken or veal, but if you ask me, I doubt it can taste any better than with lamb…
This is one of the most famous and emblematic dishes in medieval Arab cuisine. It is named after Būrān (807-884), the wife of the caliph al-Ma’mūn. Of Persian origin, she was the daughter of one of the ruler’s advisers, and was married to the caliph at the age of ten, but the wedding only took place when she reached 18. The event became legendary because of its opulence and excess; it is said to have lasted for forty days, with pearls being poured down on the couple who were sitting on a golden floor cover encrusted with precious pearls and sapphires. Balls of musk which contained the name of a gift (an estate, horse, etc.), were distributed to the multitude of guests, each of whom could subsequently lay claim to their gift. According to the historian Ibn Khaldun, one hundred and forty mule loads of wood had been brought three times a day for a whole year to the kitchen just for the wedding night, and all of it was consumed in that single night.
In Arab cookery, however, Būrān is even more famous; according to tradition, she was an accomplished cook, renowned for her fried aubergine dishes, which gained huge fame, and several recipes can be found in nearly all medieval Arab cookery books. Whether or not she actually made one for her husband during the celebrations is not known.
The recipe recreated here is a very simple — and delicious one — from The Sultan’s Feast, and requires meat, fried aubergine (in this case last week’s pickled aubergines were used), pepper, coriander seeds, mint, and onions. The meat and onion are boiled before being fried with the spices. The idea is that the meat and seasonings are the dressing for the aubergine.
Būrān’s name — and her recipe — lives on in the present day in the western Algerian burāniyya, which is known as mderbel in the East of the country (many thanks to @theconfusedarab for pointing this out). For the modern dish, take a look at @lapetitepanetiere‘s take on this. And, then, of course, there is the Spanish alboronía, a kind of ratatouille with aubergine still being the key ingredient, alongside other vegetables.
Egyptian pistachio stew (fustuqiyya)
Named after one of its principal ingredients, pistachios (فستق, fustuq), this recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is made with meat (lamb) chunks and meatballs, as well as a fair amount of spices, including aṭrāf al-ṭīb, cassia, mastic, salt, and (dried) mint. The broth is thickened with pounded pistachios and everything is left to stew. To cap things off, add lemon juice to the mix. Rose water should be sprinkled on top and rubbed along the sides of the pot for that wonderful sweet-and-sour taste — a chicken delight!
Sikbaj — the return!
Over three years ago, I posted a recreation of one of the most emblematic dishes of medieval Arab cooking, a vinegar stew known as sikbāj (سكباج), with both the dish and the name being a borrowing from Persia (sik, ‘vinegar’; bāj, ‘stew’). The recreation was based on a 10th-century Baghdadi recipe and though the result was flavoursome enough, the sourness of the vinegar was quite overpowering to the modern palate. However, everything deserves a second chance and so here’s another stab, this time using an Egyptian version of the dish from The Sultan’s Feast. It’s made with fatty lamb chunks and a range of herbs, spices and vegetables, including, agarwood, cassia, coriander, onions, leek, carrots, and aubergine, as well as, of course, the eponymous vinegar, tempered with some dibs (date molasses) or honey. The dish is served with almonds, jujubes, dates and raisins sprinkled on top. The result could not have been more different from the first iteration; rather than the tart vinegary kick, there was now a more mellow sweet-and-sour overtone. Probably the biggest difference in the two preparations was the use of the home-made medieval grape-and-fig vinegar, instead of the plain vinegar of the first sikbaj. The recipes, themselves, call for ‘vinegar’ but it is very likely that then — just as now — the cooks would have selected the vinegar of their choice for any given dish, and so, who knows, maybe in this case a fruity vinegar would have been used. At least, that’s what I’d like to think! In any case, when sikbaj is on the menu again, I know which of the two recipes I’d go for…
Stuffed aubergines (باذنجان محشي, badhinjan mahshi)
A delightful recipe from The Sultan’s Feast, an earlier version of which can already be found in a 13th-century Syrian cookery book.
It’s a decidedly modern dish and involves scooping out the cores of the aubergine and then stuffing them with meat mince that has been boiled and then seasoned with coriander, caraway, pepper, cassia, coriander and parsley. The aubergines are skewered to keep the stuffing snugly in place and fried, preferably in sheep’s tail fat, until golden. Serve after removing the skewers and sprinkle on dried coriander.
Rhubarb stew (ريباسية, ribasiyya)
As rhubarb is currently in season, what better way to celebrate this much-underused vegetable than by recreating a recipe for a rhubarb stew from The Sultan’s Feast? The instructions are rather minimal, as are the ingredients: meat, spices (what else?), onions, rhubarb juice, sweet almond conserve (murabbā) and mint. A wonderful dish with flavours that are in perfect harmony. What to eat with it? Well, that’s got to be some flatbread to soak up every last drop of the sauce.
Medieval Syrian carrot and lamb stew (dinariyya, دينارية)
This recipe from a cookbook compiled in 13th-century Aleppo, takes its name from the fact that the carrots are cut into the shape of dinar (the currency at the time) coins. It is a two-in-one dish in that it involves both chunks of meat (for the recreation lamb is used) and meatballs. The former is boiled with crushed chickpeas, whereas the latter are made with rice, some more crushed chickpeas, and spices, such as corander, pepper, cassia, caraway. After everything is fried (in fat) with some fresh coriander and garlic, broth and carrots cut into coins are added and then everything is left to cook. As a further enhancement of the visual effect, some eggs are cracked on top of the dish at the end. The result attests to the medieval chef’s proficiency at balancing flavours.