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

Spotlight on: honey (عسل, ‘asal)

The product of the honey-bee (Apis mellifera), honey has played a very important part in both Arab cooking and Muslim culture and was the main sweetener in the medieval culinary tradition until the advent of sugar cane. At the tables of the elites it came under threat from sugar since the latter was more expensive and thus more prestigious. Honey was gathered from the wild, as well as through bee-keeping, which was already practised in Ancient Egypt, by the third millennium BCE.

In ancient Mesopotamia, honey (known as dishpu in Akkadian) was used in a variety of ways, as a sweetener (for instance in bread), in perfumes, and for medicinal purposes; for instance honey mixed with oil and beer as an emetic, or mixed with other medicines and ghee for use as ear and eye drops. It was also used in the anoinment of priests and consecration of buildings

Muslim physicians, like Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), believed honey starts as a vapour that becomes a viscid dew in flowers, plants and trees, and is gathered by bees, who feed on it and store it. The best kind of honey was thought to be naturally sweet, fragrant, slightly pungent, and red in colour. The honey gathered in spring is better than that in summer and, especially, winter, which is of poor quality. Honey was endowed with a number of medicinal — especially antiseptic — properties. Applied externally, it stops putrefaction of the flesh, cleanses ulcers, heals wounds, and improves hearing. When mixed with musk it forms an effective eye-lotion for curing cataract and other eye infections. As a food, it was considered very nutritious, while strengthening the stomach, increasing appetite, and curing dim vision.

The most-prized honeys were those from the honey mimosa (Acacia mellifera) and wild lavender (Lavandula vera) flowers, while Armenia, Morocco, Persia and Egypt were popular honey-producing regions. The pure white honey from Isfahan was a particular favourite at the court of the Abbasid caliphs, and during Harun al-Rashid’s reign, the city would sent 20,000 pounds of honey and 20,000 pounds of wax as part of the tax levy to the ruler.

Honey also enjoyed a religious endorsement in that its benefits – and those of bees, of course – are already mentioned in the Qur’ān (one of its suras is called al-Nahl/النحل, ‘The Bees’) and also figure prominently in hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Indeed, it is said that ‘The believer is like a bee which eats that is pure and wholesome and lays that which is pure and wholesome. When it lands on something, it doesn’t break or ruin it.’ (إِنَّ مَثَلَ المؤمِنِ كَمَثَلِ النَّحْلَةِ أَكَلَتْ طَيِّبَاً و وَضَعَتْ طَيِّبَاً و وَقَعَتْ فَلَمْ تَكْسِرْ و لَمْ تُفْسِدْ).

The first illustration below is part of an Arabic translation (dated 1224) of Dioscorides’ (d. ca 90 CE) pharmacological work, De materia medica. It shows a physician stirring a pot containing a mixture of honey and water, called melikraton (μελίκρατον) in Greek and maliqratun (مالقراطن) in Arabic, and serving some of it to a patient in a gold goblet. The scene is probably set in a hospital, with the section at the top showing pharmacists preparing medicines. The text is part of a passage about the mixture (the Arabic word used is sharāb, i.e. ‘syrup’) when it is old, in which case it is beneficial for those who have lost their appetite or are weakened. The Arabic text is somewhat corrupted since it refers to mixing one part of honey with honey, rather than with stale rain water, as it does in the original Greek. The mixture is boiled down to a third, and then stored. Next, we learn that some people use the term abūmālī (the Greek apomeli) for the mixture made by washing honeycomb with water. However, it must be unadulterated and, while some people boil this down, too, it is unsuitable for the sick because it contains too much beebread.

The second illustration is from the section on bees (and hornets) in a 13th-century manuscript of a book on the characteristics of animals (Kitāb na’t al-hayawān), composed by a member of the Ibn Bukhtīshū’ family, a Nestorian Christian medical dynasty, whose members served as private physicians to many Abbasid caliphs between the 8th and 11th centuries.

Physician mixing honey (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
illustration of bees by Ibn Bukhtishu’

Spotlight on: Pears

Pears (Pirus communis)– like their cousin the apple – originated in the Caucasus and northeastern Anatolia. The fruit was already cultivated in Ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE, but it only spread throughout the Mediterranean in the Roman period. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (d. 287 BCE) discussed various techniques for growing them, whereas the naturalist Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) referred to forty-one varieties being available in Rome. Dioscorides recommended pears as an antidiarrheal medicine, but said that they are harmful when eaten on an empty stomach. More mysteriously, he claimed the ash of pear tree wood was an effective remedy for those choking from mushrooms, while cooking pears with mushrooms removed the latter’s harmful properties. Pears were much more popular than apples at the time but because pears can spoil very easily, they were often preserved after drying them, or in grape syrup, and the Romans even made a pear vinegar.

In the Arabic-speaking world, pears (كمّثرى, kummathra) were grown in a number of areas, especially the Levant, but also in Egypt. Sources also refer to Chinese, Sijistani and Khorasani pears as being particularly good varieties. Pears appear only once in the medieval Arabic culinary literature, as an optional ingredient in a 13th-century Andalusian fruit pudding.

Muslim physicians agreed with Dioscorides’ assessment of pears, but also recommended them to strengthen the stomach and suppress thirst. The fruit was used in a digestive conserve, made with sweet unripe pears submerged in honey and then slightly cooked.

In the Syrian dialect, pears are known as ‘ijjāṣ‘ (إجّاص), the usual word for plum in other varieties.

pears in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal
pears in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica (University of Bologna)

Spotlight on: Violets

Violets Viola odorata), known in Arabic as banafsaj (بنفسج) were used for their medicinal properties in medieval Islamic medicine and were thought to be useful against a wide variety of ailments, including coughs, tumours (when used in a poultice), headaches (when cooked with barley flour), scorpion bites, palpitation, varicose vein, fevers, mumps, toothaches, and haemorrhoids. Some sources refer to the best variety coming from Arjan, in Iran.

The petals of violets were used to make a drink, preserve, syrup, oil, or jam. Violet conserve (مربّى, murabbā) was said to be good for coughs and a coarse throat, though it was also enjoyed by those in good health! Violet oil (دهن, duhn) was used as a soporific or to loosen the joints, especially when made with gourd seeds or sweet almonds.

An Egyptian Mamluk cookery book includes a violet air freshener, known appropriately as ‘banafsajiyya’, made rose water infused with musk and civet. Interestingly enough, the twelfth-century physician Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi commented on the fact that Egyptian violets had an exceptionally sweet scent, but the people in Egypt did not know how to produce oil from it in the proper way, or to preserve it.   

in Medieval Europe, violets were partiuclarly popular for their scent and attractive bright colour, and the leaves and flowers were eaten in salads, as well as in conserves and syrups. Medicinally, they were thought to be cooling and cleansing, and that smelling violets had a calming effect on the nerves. The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) gave a recipe for violet oil for curing vision.   

.illustration of violets in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal
illustration of violets in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-Sihha

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, and 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