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

Spotlight on: Barberry

The barberry plant (Berberis vulgaris) — or shrub, to be more exact — was known in Arabic as anbarbārīs (أنبرباريس; also ambarbārīs, أمبرباريس), while the Persian borrowing zirishk (زرشک) denoted the fruit, which is bright red and elongated, though the terms were often used interchangeably.

In cooking, barberries, which have a rather tart bitter flavour, are found in a popular stew, called anbarbārīsiyya (أنبرباريسية), amīr bārīsiyya (أمير باريسية) or zirishkiyya (زرشكية), with recipes in Baghdadi, Syrian and Egyptian collections. It was said to be made like a sumac stew (سمّاقية, summaqiyya), and sweetened with sugar. The dish — like the fruit — was Persian in origin; indeed, modern Iranian cuisine still uses barberries, for instance, in the famous rice dish zereshk polo (زرشک پلو), or to flavour poultry. In India, the berries tend to be dried and added to desserts.

Physicians held that barberries strengthened the stomach and the liver, cut thirst, prevented vomiting, and strengthened the heart. They were used in a number of medicinal applications, such as an anti-diarrhoeal recipe, which can be found in cookery books from 15th-century Egypt (The Sultan’s Feast‘) and 13th-century Syria; after boiling the barberries, they should be strained, and thickened with sugar before adding them to chicken with a little bit of mint.

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

Spotlight on: Chestnuts

The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was already well known in ancient Greece, and was called καστανία (the etymon of the Latin castanea) and ‘King’s acorns’ (διοσβάλανοι), whereas Dioscorides called them ‘Sardian acorns’ (βάλανος Σαρδιανή). They were often eaten boiled or roasted as a snack accompanying wine. Chestnut flour was sometimes used to make a bread, though this was considered of poor quality. There is only one recipe from Roman times for cooked and mashed chestnuts in a seasoned honey and vinegar sauce.

In medieval Arabic literature the chestnut was usually known as ‘shāhballūt‘ (شاه بلّوط), a Persian borrowing (itself a calque from the Greek διοσβάλανοι), alongside kastana (كستنة) and, in al-Andalus, qasṭal (قسطل). Its use in cooking was quite rare, with only one Near Eastern recipe. In the Andalusian recipe collections, chestnuts are called for in a total of four recipes. Interestingly enough, in one case, a stew with chicken meatballs, the recipe is listed as an ‘Eastern dish’. The increased use of the sweet chestnut in the Muslim West can be explained by that it was native to the area — indeed, to this day, the sweet chestnut is also known as ‘Spanish chestnut’.

Muslim physicians held that the chestnut were extremely nutritious — in fact more so than any other ‘grains’ — and that it was useful against poisons. However, it was deemed to be very slow to digest and should not be used for people, but only as pig feed.

chestnuts in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’

Spotlight on: Patridge

Today, this usually refers to the Perdrix perdrix, a game bird from the family Phasianida, which also includes the feasant, chicken and grouse. Its native area is to be found in East Asia. It is also known as the ‘grey partridge’ to distinguish it from varieties in the Alectoris family, most notable among them the red-legged partridge, which is particularly found in southern Europe. It was already known in Ancient Greece where it was even farmed, while the Romans thought partridge eggs were beneficial for invalids.

The meat of the partridge — known in Arabic as ḥajal (حجل) or qabaj (قبج) — was considered to have aphrodisiac qualities as well as being very nutritional, despite the fact that it is quite dense, slowly digested (though some scholars stated the opposite), and constipating. It was suggested to leave it after slaughtering so as to tenderize it, something which is still recommended today, of course, for game birds. According to the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248), partridge liver was useful against epilepsy, while its its bile was used in the treatment of eye diseases (e.g. catarract) and to improve the sight, as well as increasing intelligence and strengthening the memory! Partridge eggs cooked in vinegar were thought to be an effective medicine against stomach aches and colic. His compatriot Ibn Khalsun (13th c.) held that the male partridge is the best to eat as it strengthens the stomach, but can cause fevers to those suffering from colic, though this can be remedied by frying the bird in sweet almond oil and crusting it with egg yolks.

In the culinary tradition, partridge appears very sparingly, particularly in the Near East, where it is called for in only one Abbasid recipe (alongside lark, which was equally rare), in a chapter of dishes ‘that nourish those with sick bodies’. The dish is a stew (maraq) with onion, galangal, sumac, raisins and pomegranate, with the result being similar to a pottage. In another case, partridge is mentioned as an ingredient in a zirbāja (زيرباجة) for women wishing to lose weight.

The situation was very different in Muslim Spain and North Africa and The Exile’s Cookbook contains no fewer than five dishes with partridge, prepared in a variety of ways, in a stew, on a spit and, in one case, coated with egg whites mixed with a little flour and breadcrumbs.

Partridges in Ibn Bakhtishu’s Book on The Benefits of Animals (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 13th c,)

Spotlight on: Sugar

Believed to have originated in New Guinea in around 8000 BC, thence moving to India where it was domesticated before spreading to Iran in the 7th century. Though the ancient Greeks knew of sugar, it is uncertain whether it was the crystallized variety. There is no evidence of its use in cooking in Antiquity and Apicius’ manual does not contain any recipes requiring sugar. From Iran, sugar cane spread westward along the Mediterranean, reaching Egypt in the 8th century and al-Andalus by the 11th century.

Its origins are revealed in the terminology, with the Arabic word for sugar, sukkar (سكّر) being a borrowing from the Persian shakar (shakkar), itself a corruption of the Sanskrit sakkarā which referred to the juice from the sugar cane (قصب السكر, qasab al-sukkar) as well as hard sugar.

It was an expensive ingredient, which also enjoyed the imprimatur of physicians associated with the hospital of Jundishapur in Iran, several of whom would ply their trade at the Abbasid courts. However, the Andalusian physician Ibn Zuhr, for his part, wrote a treatise in which he expressed a preference of honey over sugar, claiming that doctors only started using sugar in all of their preparations in an attempt to pander to the rarefied interests of their patrons.

This explains why in the mediaeval Arab culinary treatises which reflect the cuisine of elite, sugar appears as the most-used sweetener in all kinds of dishes, though not infrequently in conjunction with honey, rose water and/or and rose-water syrup. The best variety of sugar was the white translucent ṭabarzad (طبرزد) which was made with milk. Other varieties included fānīd (فانيد) — made by adding sweet almond oil of finely-ground white flour to the decoction process) — and Sulaymānī (سليماني) sugar, which was produced from ‘red sugar” (sukkar aḥmar), which was broken into pieces and cooked to remove any impurities.

When making sugar, the boiled juice, called “maḥlab” (محلب, ‘milk’), was poured into cone- shaped earthenware moulds (أبلج/ublūj, pl. أباليج/abālīj), which are wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, resulting in conical sugar loaves. Sugar was sold at market with the required quantity grated, or chopped off with a dedicated axe. Culinary recipes often refer to sugar being crushed and sifted.

Medicinally, sugar was said to be laxative, purgative and is useful against excess yellow bile in the stomach. It clears blockages. Old sugar expels phlegm from the stomach, while ṭabarzad prevents vomiting.

The Arabs introduced sugar to Europe and illustration below shows the making of sugar in the late 16th-century; sugar cane is cut and heated before being cooled and cut into shapes. Sugar cane remained the source of sugar until the development of the sugar beet in the 18th century.

Jan Collaert I, Nova Reperta, ca 1600 [The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1949]

Spotlight on: Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) is one of the oldest cooking ingredients and was already used in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; in fact, the Arabic word thūm (ثوم) goes back to the Akkadian šūmū (from the Sumerian sum). The plant was grown along the northern Mediterranean very early on and the Ancient Greeks were probably the first to preserve garlic by smoking it. According to Dioscorides, it clears bronchi and is a remedy for chronic coughs when eaten raw, baked, or boiled. While the Greeks appreciated the flavour garlic imparted to food, they were less impressed by the odour of garlic on the breath.

It is one of the vegetables mentioned in the Qur’an, alongside cucumber, lentils and onions. It came in two varieties: wild (برّي, barrī) and cultivated (بستاني, bustānī), and became a staple in Arab cooking; according to the author of The Sultan’s Feast, ‘garlic draws forth the aromas of oils in broths, seeds and vegetables, and enhances their flavour.’ Garlic was often cooked with vinegar and oil and garlic to make a sauce. It was also used frequently in fish dishes. There’s even an Egyptian recipe for sour yoghurt and garlic, which results in something most people today would recognize as tzatziki. Garlic was a particular favourite in medieval Andalusian cookery, and often cooked in vinegar.

Medicinally, it was recommended as a diuretic, to remedy flatulence and various dermatological conditions, while chewing its leaves cures eye inflammation. According to the 12th-century physician Ibn Butlan, garlic is partiuclarly good for older people and in winter time. Howver, he warned that it should not be overcooked because then it loses its effectiveness, especially when it is prepared with vinegar and eaten with milk or fish.

garlic in a 13th-century copy of the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-Sihha

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)

Spotlight on: the Gazelle

A member of the antilope family sometimes known as ‘the daughter of the sand’ (بنت الرمل, bint al-raml), the gazelle — the English word is a borrowing from the Arabic ghazāl (غزال) — figures prominently in Arabic literature with numerous references to its elegance, beauty and speed. It was sometimes known as ẓabī (ظبي), though this is the usual word for antilope. The word gazelle also has romantic connotations and often denotes a beautiful woman, particularly in poetry and songs.

The gazelle was praised for the quality of its meat, which was the only game meat (لحم الصيد, lahm al-sayd) that met with the approval of physicians, who recommended it for old people and those with a cold temperament. The physician Ibn Butlan (11th c.) explained that if young people want to eat gazelle meat, they should let it rest overnight in pomegranate juice and vinegar. The young fawn (خشف, khishf) are better for young people and suit their temperaments. It would appear that even the heads were eaten at some point, as Ibn Butlan refers to the fact that the heads of sheep are more humid than those of goats, and those of goats more humid than those of gazelles. According to his fellow Baghdadi and contemporary, the pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, gazelle meat is useful against colic and hemiplegia.

The cosmographer al-Qazwini states that the gazelle is the shyest of all animals, but that it is very intelligent as it enters its lair backwards so as to ensure a quick getaway when an enemy is lurking within. It was also unusual in that it was partial to the colocynth (حنظل, hanzal), unlike other wild animals, which avoid it. And when the gazelle drinks seawater and then eats colocynth, the water that flows from its mouth becomes sweet!

There is also a religious connection, with the word ḥūrīyya (the English ‘houri’), which denotes the beautiful maidens of Paradise promised to the devout Muslim in the afterlife. It is related to a word meaning ‘whiteness’ and is especially applied to the eye of a gazelle (in contrast to the deep black of its pupils), as in the expression ḥūr al-ʿīn (حور العين) — the Qur’anic equivalent being ḥūr ʿīn — meaning “having eyes like those of gazelles and of cows,” which was often applied to women.

Despite the praise for gazelle meat, it appears relatively rarely in the medieval culinary treatises, with most of the recipes being found in the Abbasid tradition (9th-10th c.), where it is used in a bārida (باردة, ‘cold dish’), with cuts of the animal being stuffed with almonds and pistachio before being cooked in vinegar and a number of aromatic spices. It would be garnished with parsley, rue and mint before serving. Other recipes include frying the meat, or cooking it in a water-and-salt stew (ماء وملح, mā’ wa milh) with chickpea and onions, as well as mustard and verjuice.

In the Muslim West, only The Exile’s Cookbook mentions gazelle meat, in a stew which could also include several other wild animals such as deer, bovine antelope, mountain goat and even ass, with chickpeas, citron, garlic, onion and fennel being the main non-meat ingredients.

illustration of the gazelle by Ibn Bukhtishu’
the gazelle in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’

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.