Mamluk salsa

A recreation of a 14th-century Egyptian dipping sauce, known as sals (صَلْص, pl. صُلُوص, sulus), which were very popular at the time. This one was called kāmilī (كاملي) and is made with citron leaves, parsley, lemon balm, salt and lime juice. Before serving, it should get a sprinkling of galangal, ginger, cloves and pepper. The recipe does not specify what is should be served with, but I think fish is the way to go.

The word clearly reflects a European origin, mediated by the Crusades — ultimately deriving from the Latin salsus, ‘salty’ — while the earliest recipes are found in a Syrian collection. However, the ingredients of the Arab sauce gainsay a Europea component in the composition. In Andalusi Arabic, the word salas (صَلَص) refers to watercress (usually known as حرف, hurf), with the Romance jalja (جلجة) or shalsha (شلشة) denoting the sauce.

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.

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 Pomelo Vinegar

After making Syrian pickled pomelo, the time came to make a vinegar with this rarely used fruit in the medieval Arab culinary tradition. The recipe was taken from The Exile’s Cookbook, which is the only treatise to refer to a zanbū‘ (زنبوع), which in the East was known as kubbād (kabbād). Pomelo vinegar is called for in a number of recipes, including beef and lamb stews, and in a sauce for grilled meat and fried dried tuna.

The recreation was patterned on the recipe for lime vinegar and is quite simple. The juice of the pomelos is extracted and decanted to glass jars and then salt is added. They should be left out in the sun and strained a couple of times more, after which the vinegar is ready for use. The author recommends sealing the jars with olive oil for storage.

If, like me, you’ve never had pomelo vinegar, it has a wonderfully tangy flavour. In fact, I discovered it works very well as a dip — possibly mixed with olive oil — for bread.

Spotlight on: Salt

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.

salt in Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (British Library)
selling salt in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s work, Tacuinum sanitatis (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Spotlight on: Mint

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 spicata subsp. 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.

mint (na’na’) in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)
water mint in a 9th-century copy of Dioscorides’ text (BNF)

Medieval Syrian pickled pomelo

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-ṭīb spice 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!

Spotlight on: sesame

Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a plant that is native to the Indian sub-Continent, which is where it was first cultivated. Its seeds are extremely rich in oil (over 50%) and this was its primary use in early cultures, such as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where it was known, respectively, as shamashshammu and smsmt. The earliest archeological evidence of sesame in Egypt goes back to the era of Tutankhamun, but no seeds have to date been found in Mespotamia.

Textual evidence reveals that it was used as an ingredient and seasoning, as well as in perfumes. It was not used very often in Ancient Rome and Greece, except in cakes. The Akkadian word is the origin of the Greek sésamon (σήσαμον), which is, in turn, the etymon of the Arabic simsim (سمسم). In Western (Maghrebi) Arabic dialects sesame was — and still is — known as juljulān (جلجلان), which was also incorrectly applied to coriander by some authors.

In cooking, it was used both hulled (abyaḍ, ‘white’) and unhulled (aḥmar,‘red’), and the seeds were often toasted. It appears in a paste, the famous tahini (ṭahīn simsim, rahshī), whereas its oil was used for frying and in the making of many sweets, breads, cakes and biscuits. In fact, sesame oil appears in about a quarter of recipes, and in The Sultan’s Feast it is also recommended for cleaning clay jars. In the literature, sesame oil is referred to as duhn al-simsim, duhn al-ḥall (دهن الحل), or shīraj (also shīraq), a borrowing from Persian, where shīrah denoted ‘sesame oil’, as well as ‘new wine’ and the expressed juice of any fruit except olives. Some authors refer to the oil being made with the help of wild (or Syrian) rue (حرمل, harmal). A number of recipes require the use of sesame oil in conjunction with olive oil.

Medically, it was thought to be bad for the stomach and to cause vomiting. An extract of the plant and leaves was recommended for hair, causing it to grow and removing dandruff. According to Ibn Sīnā, it was a potent emmenagogue and, when eaten with flax and cotton seeds, increases sperm and sexual potency. Al-Kindi, for his part, prescribed sesame oil to treat abscesses, toothache, cough, and even insanity!

In folklore, sesame also played an important part, already in ancient Babylonia, as a way of countering magic, and sesame presses were thought to house spirits (jinn). And, of course, children the world over are familiar with the magic formula “Sesame, open [your door]” (iftah ya simsim!) giving access to the cave in the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the 1001 Nights.

The manuscript below (13th c.) is from an Arabic translation of Diosocorides’ Materia medica and shows sesame at the bottom. The translator took some liberties with the original Greek text, though; the fact that the seeds are used ‘to make oil from it, which the people in Egypt use’ becomes ‘it agrees with bilious temperaments’, with the translator adding that sesame is digested slowly which can be remedied by eating it with purslane. The top drawing is of millet (دخن, dukhn), which was the main ingredient in a recently posted Andalusian bread.

Spotlight on: turmeric

The Arabic word for turmeric (Curcuma longa), a spice extracted from a perennial plant hailing from the Indian sub-Continent, is kurkum (كركم), which comes from an ancient Semitic root; the Assyrian kurkanū already denoted turmeric (which was used for medicinal purposes, especially for intestinal blockages), with saffron being azupirānu, the etymon of the Arabic word za’farān (زعفران). It is also related to the Sanskrit word kuṅkuma, which referred to both saffron and turmeric. In Greek and Roman times, the spice does not appear to have been used in food. The earliest use of turmeric was as a dye.

When Marco Polo encountered turmeric in China, he described it as “a vegetable which has all the properties of the true saffron, as well the smell as the colour, and yet it is not really saffron. It is held in great estimation, and being an ingredient in all their dishes, it bears, on that account, a high price.”

Many Muslim scholars considered kurkum a synonym for saffron, but it was sometimes applied to the root of the saffron plant, which is why another name for turmeric was ʿurūq ṣufr (عروق صفر), ‘yellow roots’. In addition, it could also refer to greater celandine.

Muslim physicians though it was useful against mouth ailments and haemorrhoids (al-Kindī, 9th c.), as well as poisons (al-Bīrūnī, 10th/11th c.). According to the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248), turmeric was beneficial for skin diseases, to strengthen the eyesight and even in the treatment of insanity.

In the medieval Arabic culinary tradition, kurkum appears only once, to colour sparrow meat, in a recipe from Mamluk Egypt. However, it is not unlikely that in a number of cases, turmeric was used instead of saffron.

In medieval Europe, turmeric was called ‘Indian saffron’ and was a cheap alternative to the very expensive saffron.

Today, turmeric is most associated with Indian cuisine where it is a staple spice and colouring agent, extracted from the roots of the plant. Not surprisingly, the country is also the world’s largest producer of the spice.

turmeric in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal