Medieval Egyptian Pomegranate Chicken

This is one of the shorter recipes from The Sultan’s Feast, and is also found a 13th-century Syrian cookery book. The dish is somewhat unusual in that it is made with pomegranate seeds. Afterwards, sugar, mint, and cinnamon are added and then a chicken is stewed in the mixture. The result is nothing short of amazing! And if you can still manage dessert after this delicacy, I can recommend the Ma’muniyya. You may well need a bit of a lie-down afterwards, but don’t let that stop you!

Medieval Egyptian coriander stew (كزبرية, kuzbariyya)

Despite the widespread use of coriander (كزبرة, kuzbara), this is one of the few coriander stews in the medieval Arab culinary tradition. This recipe from The Sultan’s Feast is made with chicken, onions, sesame oil, various spices, garlic and, of course, a large amount of fresh coriander. Interestingly enough, the author mentions that it is made like a mulūkhiyya (a popular stew made with Jew’s mallow) — was it perhaps a variant made if no Jew’s mallow was available?.

Andalusian saffron chicken (الجعفرية, al-Ja’fariyya)

A wonderful chicken dish from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise which requires salt, olive oil, vinegar, pepper, coriander, cumin, onions, almonds, chickpeas, garlic, murrī, citron (leaves), fennel, and, of course, saffron. The chicken is first cooked in a pot and then transferred to a glazed casserole dish (tajine) for roasting in the oven until golden brown. It is served with cut hard-boiled eggs and mint.

The author also gives another method of making the chicken which involves frying it in a pan, instead of oven roasting. After it has browned, it is then cooked again with many of the above ingredients, as well as meatballs. When it is done, it is covered with a layer of eggs beaten with spices — a very common finishing to dishes in medieval Andalusian cuisine.

The name of the dish is quite interesting, and is explained in another Andalusian cookery book, which claims that it refers to the amount of saffron it includes as this makes the dish look ‘ja’far‘, i.e. gold of the finest quality. It is also said that it was named after a certain Jaʿfar, who invented it.

Medieval chicken tharida (ثريدة)

This 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian recipe is made with chickens — and, if you have some available, capons –, as well as salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander, onions, and chickpeas. The dough is made with semolina, and is folded and smeared with clarified butter (ghee), just like for making musamman. The pastry is cut into pieces which are put in the top pot of a couscoussier, with the chicken being in the lower chamber. When everything is done, the chicken pieces, onion, and chickpeas are put on top of the pastry, with the edges of the serving dish being lined with boiled eggs, olives, and preserved limes. A sprinkle of cinnamon and ginger, and voilà, it’s ready to tuck in!

The author explains that this recipe is a Tunisian speciality, especially in the capital Tunis, and that it is often made at celebrations. It is very similar, of course, to the modern Moroccan dish rfissa (رفيسة), though this is usually prepared with lentils.

Tuniso-Andalusian Beef and Walnut Couscous

A rather unusual couscous, made with beef and walnuts, as a result of which it was known as al-jawziyya, ‘the walnutty one’ (from jawz, ‘walnuts’). The recipe appears in a 13th-century recipe collection by an Andalusian emigre residing in Tunis. The author recommends taking fatty beef, which enhances the flavour of the dish, though it can also be made with mutton or chicken. The only vegetable that is added is aubergine, which is first boiled in water and salt. After making the couscous, it should be rubbed with (boiled) walnut kernels, and mixed with aromatics like cinnamon, spikenard, and mastic. It is served according to established practice, with the broth being poured over the couscous, and the meat and vegetables layered on top. Add a sprinkling of cinnamon and spikenard, and it’s good to eat. It’s unlikely you’ll have tasted a couscous like this one!

Tuniso-Andalusian stuffed chicken ‘à la turque’

This 13th-century chicken dish is called al-Turkiyya, ‘the Turkish one’, for reasons that are not quite clear. In Andalusian cuisine, stuffing is an often-encountered method, and this recipe is a wonderful example. The stuffing is made with a large number of ingredients, including eggs, salt, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, coriander seeds, olives, pickled limes, saffron, almonds, and mint. The mixture is stuffed inside the chicken, which is then sewn up before cooking in a pot with water, salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander seeds, as well as some chopped onion. When the bird is done, colour it slightly with saffron, and then put it in the oven to finish the cooking, and browning on all sides. It is served with a garnish of split eggs and mint leafstalks, and a dusting of cinnamon and ginger. Beyond finger-lickin’ good!

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…

Buraniyya (بورانية)

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…