These are two variations of preserved lemon from a 15th-century cookery book. The first requires taking salt-cured lemons and stuffing them with ginger, mint, and rue, before cramming them in a container. Saffron and honey are added later. The second type is a bit more tricky as the lemons should be layered on a platter and pressed down with stones, and left for three days. In both cases, the container is sealed with olive oil.
The Arabic word for this spice (Nigella sativa) is a borrowing from Persian. The aromatic seeds, also known as ḥabba sawdā’ (حَبَّة سَوْداء, ‘black grain’), were often sprinkled on top of bread loaves before baking, but are also found occasionally in some spice mixes and savoury meat dishes. In Persian, it could denote sesame, coriander or pepper. Medically, nigella was thought to be carminative, purifying, and useful against warts, freckles, ulcers, and even spider bites! However, physicians warned that the excessive use of the spice is fatal. According to the 11th-century polymath al-Bīrūnī, droplets of nigella oil serve to treat paralysis and tetanus. For those wishing to grow their own, nigella is a very hardy plant and even thrives in the inhospitable climate of Northeastern England.
It denotes the root of several fragrant perennial plants of the Valerian family, which are native to India’s Hymalayan region. Bitter in flavour and musky in odour, spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) was already known in Biblical times, and is mentioned in the Old Testament (Song of Solomon). It was mainly used in the form of a highly perfumed — and costly — ointment, such as the one used by Mary Magdalen to anoint the feet of Jesus. Its use in cooking is attested in Roman cuisine (in the 1st-century collection attributed to Apicius, there are two recipes requiring the spice – one for a sauce accompanying cold meat, and another for glazed venison) and Byzantine cuisine. In the Muslim world, it was one of the basic aromatic spices, and synonymous with nārdīn (< Gr. nárdos) in Arabic botanical and pharmacological works. It was used in in perfumes, breath sweeteners and the like, as well as in dishes and beverages. Islamic scholars identified a number of varieties, the most famous among them was Indian spikenard (سنبل هندي, sunbul hindī), also known as aromatic (سنبل الطيب, sunbul al-ṭīb) or sparrows’ spikenard (سنبل العصافير, sunbul al-‘aṣāfīr), which was considered the best and most potent. The medicinal uses of spikenard were already known in Antiquity; for instance, both Dioscorides and Pliny recommended it for eye diseases. In Arabic medical and pharmacological literature, it was advised for the liver and stomach, colds, skin conditions, haemorrhoids, uteral tumours, to sweeten the breath, and as a diuretic, abortifacient, and sexual stimulant. In India, its root is still used to prepare a hair perfume.
The recipes for these delicious condiments are from a 13th-century cookbook produced in Ayyubid Syria. They are as simple to make as they are tasty and involve using medium-cut fennel stems pickled with vinegar, and then sweetened with either sugar or honey. The third variation includes sour yoghurt as well as onions, mint, rue , tarragon, and olive oil. All three have a wonderfully tart taste, and are a great side to all manner of dishes, including sandwiches!
A variety of ginger from Southeast Asia, galangal (Alpinia galanga) is known in Arabic as khawlanjān/khūlanjān (خولنجان), a borrowing from Persian. The aromatic dried root was used in cooking and medicine (in electuaries) in both Europe and the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. Galangal was recommended by physicians for its digestive properties and prescribed for the treatment of colic, heartburn, and sciatica. It was also considered effective as an aphrodisiac and breath sweetener. According to the 13th-century Andalusian pharmacologist Ibn Khalsun, galangal should be used especially in winter, due to its strength. Today, it is mostly associated with Indonesian cuisine, where it is known as lengkuas, but is also commonly found in Thai dishes, such as the famous Tom Yam. It is sold whole (fresh and dried), or in powdered form.
One of the emblematic spices used in Abbasid cuisine, sumac (Rhus coriaria) was already used in cooking by the ancient Greeks, who imported it from Syria. In mediaeval Arab cuisine, dried sumac berries (as well as husks), were used pounded, or macerated, and strained to make sumac juice, which was used as a marinade for meat, as a cooking liquid, souring ingredient (chicken and lamb stews), or to dye dishes red. The juice of sumac berries was also sometimes boiled down to produce a more condensed mixture, known as sumac dibs, which could be used for souring dishes. Its taste is perhaps best described as a mixture of lemon and vinegar. Scholars distinguished between two kinds of sumac, Khorasani and Syrian, the latter of which is smaller and red like lentil. In Islamic medicine, sumac was said to be useful against bleeding, tooth-ache, nausea, and the spread of ulcers. The extract can be used to colour the hair black. Physcians warned that it causes constipation, and thus dishes containing sumac were recommended for those suffering from diarrhoea. Apparently, the caliph Harun al-Rashid was very partial to the taste, particularly in savoury sumac stews (summāqiyya).
The usual Arabic word for fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), rāziyānaj, is a borrowing from Persian (where it is also appears as rāzyām and rāziyāna). Its other names include shamar (another Persian borrowing) and, in the Maghrib, nāfiʿ (نافع) and basbās (بسباس). it is native to the Near East, but was already used in cooking in classical Antiquity. In mediaeval Arab cuisine it was particularly popular in Andalusian and North African cuisines, which used its seeds, stalks or leaves in a number of recipes, ranging from stews and condiments to drinks, or pickled. Medically, wild fennel was recommended in the treatment of blockages, to strengthen the eye- sight, and against nausea and heartburn. It was also considered a diuretic and emmenagogue. At the same time, it is slow to digest (its root causes constipation) and not very nutritious. Today, it is still used in pharmacology for its antioxidant, antitumor, hypoglycemic, and oestrogenic properties.
This most precious of spices is known in Arabic as za’farān (زعفران), which is the origin of our English word.
In cooking it was used as an aromatic and, more frequently, to colour dishes, in which case it tended to be added at the end of the cooking process. It is also found in incense recipes and perfumes. The 13th-century anonyous Andalusian treatise recommends using saffron in pickled dishes and those with poultry that include vinegar and murrī.
It was also commonly referred to as kurkum, which actually denotes turmeric (Curcuma longa, a plant from the ginger family). The confusion between the two may also explain why kurkum does not appear in the cookery books. Then as now, there were complaints about unscrupulous market vendors adulterating saffron with turmeric, which, itself, was also often corrupted by mixing in ground pomegranate skins! According to some scholars, kurkum was the root of saffron. Medicinally, it was thought to strengthen the stomach, heart, liver, and complexion. However, physicians warned that it could also cause headaches, and the fact that it is poisonous — even lethal — at large doses. According to the pharmacologist al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), saffron enhances digestion, but cuts appetite and is harmful to the brain. It was also said to be an anaesthetic and diuretic. Because of its aphrodisiacal properties, the Prophet is said to have forbidden the wearing of clothes dyed with saffron for pilgrims who were in a state of ritual purity, and thus debarred from sexual activity.
Known in Arabic as sadhab (سذاب), rue (Ruta graveolens), a small evergreen with a bitter taste, comes in both a wild and cultivated variety. It was already one of the most-used herbs in Roman cooking (it is required in over a quarter of the first-century compilation attributed to Apicius), even though it was considered an anaphrodisiac, and harmful to pregnant women.
In mediaeval Arab cuisine, it was used both fresh and dried in a wide variety of dishes (fish, meat, condiments), and was often added to assist digestion and reduce bloating. One 10th-century author recommended adding rue to a burnt dish since it removes the burnt taste. It also served to mask the smell of garlic and onion. Medicinally, it was prescribed in remedies against alopecia, paralysis, sciatica, and to strengthen the eyesight. When used in a preparation with pomegranate peel, it treats ear- ache and tinnitus. It was also considered an antidote for all poisons. On the downside, it dries out semen, reduces sexual desire, causes constipation, and harms the eyesight! Interestingly enough, in mediaeval Europe, rue became known as a deterrent against witches. In any case, you won’t rue the day that you started using this wonderful herb.
Mediaeval Arab culinary literature reveals a predilection for various types of vegetable pickles, such as this delicate 13th-century Syrian recipe, which requires cauliflower, wine vinegar, date molasses (dibs), the atraf al-tib spice blend, rue and mint. Not only is it easy to store but it also gets better over time! [Wusla, No. 8.51]