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.  

illustration of roses in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal

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.

illustration of lentils in a 13th-century Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica

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.

anise in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (Ostler Library)
anise in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica (14th c.)

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.

Spinach in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.)

Spotlight on: Carrots

The oldest textual source mentioning carrots (Daucus carota L.) goes back to the 8th century BCE in a list of plants grown in the royal gardens of Babylon. Known in Arabic as jazar (جزر < Persian gazar) or aṣṭūfūlin (أصطوفولين < Greek staphylinos), it came in three varieties: red(-purple), yellow and white. The (white) wild one (barrī) – as opposed to the (red) cultivated (bustānī) — was known as dūqū (دوقو < Greek daukos, ‘carrot’). Maimonides claimed that in certain countries shaqāqil (a variant of shaqāqul, ‘wild parsnip’) denoted the wild carrot. Both of these were very different, however, from the modern culinary carrot. .

The Arabs introduced the carrot in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 8th century, and some time later in Muslim Spain, where the 12th-century Andalusian agronomer, Ibn al-‘Awwam describes a juicy flavoursome red variety, and a coarse, less tasty yellow and green variety. He said that they were eaten dressed with oil and vinegar, or with vegetables. It was also the Arabs who probably started eating the root, rather than merely the seeds and leaves, as the Greeks did. 

In the medieval Arab culinary tradition, carrots were eaten both raw and cooked, in stews, sweets (such as a carrot khabis), preserves, and even drinks. In what is considered the oldest cookbook, a carrot drink to heat the kidneys, as well as stimulate coitus involved cooking sliced carrots in water, and then mixing the strained off water with honey, mace and nutmeg. Yummy!

Ibn Buṭlān recommended the red sweet winter-harvested variety, whereas Ibn Sīnā likened the cultivated carrot to Greek celery (karafs rūmī), stating that it “is sharply pungent and fragrant.” In the medical tradition, carrots were said to be hot in the highest degree and moist in the second. They were recommended against kidney pains, palpitations, coughs, and as a diuretic. The wild variety, in particular, was considered a powerful sexual stimulant (with enhanced effect when pickled in vinegar). Conversely, al- Kindī prescribed them as a cure for sexual addiction.

On the down side, carrots were said to be very difficult to digest and to generate bad blood, which ill effects could be counteracted by murrī, vinegar and mustard. Ibn Buṭlān recommended its use for those who have cold and moist temperaments and are middle aged. Ibn Sīnā said that the root of cultivated carrot is flatulent and bloating. Interestingly enough, the seeds could be used to remedy flatulence, while carrot jam is easily digested.

carrots in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (Ostler Library)

Spotlight on: Cherries

Cherries are native to western Asia and belong to the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, apricots, and almonds. The wild ancestor of sweet (or ‘bird’) cherries is the Prunus avium, whereas the sour variety goes back to Prunus cerasus. The former was first described in about 300 BCE by the Greek writer Theophrastus.

Sour cherries were imported into Greece from Anatolia and were known in Greek as kerasia (κεράσια), the origin of words in many languages. The Greek word was said to be derived from the name of the town of Kerasousa in Asia Minor (the present-day Turkish city of Giresun).

Dioscorides noted that cherries loosened the bowels when fresh, but had a constipating effect when eaten dried. He recommended the gum of cherry trees in diluted wine brings about healthy looks, sharp-sightedness, and good appetite, as well as being a treatment for chronic cough. The Roman naturalist historian Pliny (1st century) also reports Anatolia as the cherry’s place of origin when they arrived in Rome, and that the fruit was introduced to Britain in AD 47. The Romans must have taken to cherries with great gusto since in Pliny’s day eight varieties of cherry were cultivated in Italy.

In Arabic sour cherries were known by the borrowing qarāsiyā (قراصيا, قراسيا) or, in the Muslim West as habb al-mulūk (حبّ الملوك), “king’s berries”. They were reported to grow in Syria and Egypt, and one scholar claimed that qarāsiyā was one of ninety plant species growing on Mount Lebanon from which one could make a living by gathering its fruit.

In medieval Arab cooking, they are used very rarely, in a sweet-and-sour chicken stew, of which variant recipes are found in cookery books from Syria (Aleppo) and Egypt (Cairo) dating from the 13th and 15th centuries. Medicinally, they were said to be an aphrodisiac, while Maimonides, who describes qarāsiyā as a plum, but smaller, with a sour taste, claimed that they are a light purgative. According to the physician Dāwud al-Antākī (15thc.), qarāsiyā can be used to treat depression, fainting fits, thirst, cough, loss of memory, internal wounds, and obstructions in the urinary tract.

Today, qarāsiyā refers to a kind of plum in some dialects (e.g. Syria), while in Standard Arabic, the word for cherries is now karaz (كرز).

sour cherries in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Tacuinum

Spotlight on: Asparagus

The Mediterranean basin is home to several species of wild asparagus, while the garden variety (Asparagus officinalis) was already appreciated in Roman times. Apicius recommended drying it before boiling, and included an asparagus pie in his recipe collection. The sixth-century Byzantine physician — and author of a famous culinary treatise — Anthimus recommended eating it with salt and oil. On the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons used it for medicinal purposes only; it would take until the 16th century for the vegetable to appear on English tables, albeit very rarely until the 17th century.

In medieval Arab cooking, there are only a few recipes requiring asparagus (هليون, hilyawn). It seems to have been highly prized though, and the author of what is considered the earliest Abbasid treatise includes a poem in praise of the vegetable. He recommends eating asparagus boiled and seasoned with olive oil and with murrī, which appears to have been the most usual way of serving it. The same source includes a few stews containing asparagus and, more unusually, an aphrodisiac asparagus drink. A 13th-century collection from Aleppo includes a recipe combining fried eggs and asparagus, a precursor to the modern scrambled egg dish.

The asparagus is conspicuous by its absence from the Egyptian repertoire, but was quite popular in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), where it was eaten with olive oil and vinegar, or as an ingredient in meat stews. The asparagus would also be served with hard-boiled eggs, or wrapped with meat. The vegetable was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula in the ninth century by the most famous exile from the East, the singer and aesthete Ziryab. In Andalusian and North African Arabic it was known as asfarāj (أسفراج), a word derived from its Latin name, asparagus.

In the medical literature, asparagus was identified as a powerful aphrodisiac, as well as being a diuretic (as it had been in Greek sources), and useful against bowel blockages, sciatica, and colitis. When it is cooked with syrup, it is good for bites, but a decoction of asparagus is lethal to dogs!

Asparagus in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (Ostler Library, Toronto)

Spotlight on: jujube (عنّاب, unnab)

Also known as the Chinese date, the jujube (Ziziphus jujuba, Z. vulgaris) which is green and bitter when it is unripe, but as it matures, it changes colour and shrinks, eventually looking like a small sweet date. The jujube tree is native to central Asia, and the fruit was already collected there for food as early as 6000 BCE. The tree later spread to the Mediterranean, where it was cultivated by the 1st century BCE. It was introduced to the Romans from Northern Africa. It is related to the lotus (Ziziphus lotus) associated with the story of the ‘Lotus Eaters’ (lotophagi) in Homer’s Odyssey.

Another species in the same genus is the so-called Christ’s thorn jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi) since it was thought that Jesus’ crown of thorns was made from the tree. Known in Arabic as sidr (سدر) or nabaq (نبق), this variety is native to parts of Africa and Western Asia and was already known to the Ancient Egyptians, who used its fruits and leaves for medical purposes. It is also mentioned in the Qur’an where it refers to the ‘lote tree’, most notably the sidrat al-muntahā (سدرة المنتهى, ‘the lote tree of the furthest boundary’), which marks one extreme of the heavenly abode. It also grows in the Arabian Gulf, particularly in Oman and Qatar, where it survives in the harsh conditions because of its hardiness and ability to draw water deep underground,

The jujube was used in Persian as well as in medieval Arab cooking, often in conjunction with almonds and raisins. Jujubes from Gorgan (Iran) were said to be the best, but it was also reported to be grown in Greater Syria. The fruit is mostly associated with Egyptian cuisine, where it was called for in a variety of dishes, such as the ‘Nubian Lady‘ or the local twist on the Abbasid classic ‘sikbaj‘. It was also eaten fresh or dried, whereas the wood of the tree was used in carpentry.

Medically, jujubes were said to be astringent and beneficial for the blood and lungs. When the juice is cooked, it is useful against hotness in the stomach, and coarseness in the chest. However, it engenders phlegm and slows down digestion. According to the physician Ibn Butlan (11th c.) jujube also cause constipation and have very little nutritional value, but are useful as an emmenagogue. However, he generally advised against eating the fruit, particularly for older people.

the harvesting of jujube in a 14th-century Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (14th c. British Library)

Spotlight on: cumin (كمّون, kammun)

The plant (Cuminum cyminum) is native to Central Asia and is attested as early as the second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, where it was already used in cooking. Cumin is also found in a number of (fish) recipes in Apicius’ Roman cookery book.

Arab scholars mentioned several varieties of cumin (for example, Persian, Syrian, Kirmani, Nabataean), whereas the term was also used as a generic to denote other plants: kammūn rūmī/armanī (‘Byzantine/Armenian cumin’, i.e. caraway), kammūn ḥulw (‘sweet cumin’, i.e. aniseed). The variety known as black cumin is referred to in Arabic as ḥabba sawdā’.

In cooking, it was a highly popular aromatic, across all treatises, with the seeds being used whole or ground. The author of a 13th-century anonymous Andalusian treatise recommends cumin for vinegar dishes, in broth of fried poultry and meat, while its deflatuent and digestive effect makes it suitable for all dishes that contain vinegar or murrī.

Medicinally, it was considered hot and dry, and the seeds of the plant (whether wild or cultivated) were used as a digestive, emmenagogue, aphrodisiac and a cure for urinary, intestinal as well as eye diseases.

garden cumin in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)

wild cumin in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)

Spotlight on: Pepper

One of the oldest and most utilised spices in history, pepper (Piper nigrum) was originally grown on the Malabar coast (southwest India). It starts as berries of a perennial climbing vine which are harvested as soon as they ripen and have turned red. The peppercorns are then left out to dry out in the sun, after which they turn black. For white pepper, the berries are left on the vine longer and are then soaked so that the white seed can be extracted more easily before drying it. The white variety is less fragrant and aromatic.

In Greek Antiquity, where pepper is first attested in around 400BCE, only two kinds were known, black and ‘long pepper’ (Piper longum). The latter is another species of the pepper family, and tends to refer to the variety grown in the Himalayas and southern India. There is also a species grown in Malaysia, and known as ‘Javanese’ long pepper (Piper retrofractum). It is, in fact, long pepper that was most used in the Mediterranean basin, and it is its Sanskrit name, pipali, which is the origin of the Greek peperi, and thus the English ‘pepper.’

In Roman times, the spice really came into its own and the naturalist Pliny (1st c. CE) refers to black, white and long pepper, adding that the last cost twice as much as the second, which, in turn, was more expensive than the black. In Apicius’ cookery book (4th c.), pepper is the single-most important spice, and is used in nearly 90% of dishes.

In the Arabic-speaking world, the same three varieties of pepper (fulful‘, filfil)) were known and used: black (aswad), white (abyaḍ), and long pepper (dār fulful < Persian). It was also sometimes referred to as ḥabb Hindī (‘Indian seeds’) and bābārī (a Greek borrowing). The Arabic fulful goes back to the above Sanskrit word, via Persian.

According to the oldest Arabic geographical manual, pepper was sourced from Kīlah, which has been identified as Kra, in the Malay Peninsula. In his ‘Wonders of Creation‘ (see illustration below), al-Qazwini explains that pepper comes from a tall tree that grows in India in the region called Malabar (Malibar, مليبار), close to the water; it bears fruit in summer and winter, and its grains are blown in the water by the wind, after which they shrink. The Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (13th c.) lists a number of other members of the pepper family (seven in total), including fulful al-Ṣaqāliba (‘Slav pepper’) and fulful al-mā’ (‘water pepper’).

In cooking, black pepper was one of the most used spices and is called for — usually ground — in many savoury dishes, condiments, etc. A 15th-century Egyptian author said that it has a powerful effect and enhances the smell of the food, and thus one does not need a large quantity of it. Furthermore, pepper was apparently also used in dishes containing cassia and galangal in order to reduce the flavour of the these spices. In Islamic medicine, black pepper was used extensively, including as a digestive, appetizer, diuretic, and aphrodisiac.

White pepper was used very sparingly in medieval Arab cuisine, and according to a 12th-author, it was only used for medicinal purposes. Long pepper, too, appears relatively rarely; it is found in a number of recipes in a 10th-century Abbasid treatise and just twice in a 13th-century Syrian collection book, but is absent from other cookery manuals. However, long pepper was not infrequently used in medicinal compounds.

In medieval European cuisines, long pepper was used extensively but fell out of favour by the end of the 17th century and has remained conspicuous by its absence from the European culinary repertoire. Today, long pepper tends to be associated with Asian cuisines.

Pepper in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (British Library)
Illustration of the harvesting of pepper in Salman Tusi’s ‘Book of Wonders’ (Bibliothèque nationale de France)