Spotlight on: Cassia (دار صيني, dar sini)

This aromatic (Cinnamomum cassia) is also known as Chinese cinnamon, in reference to its place of origin. The bark of the tree was already used in Antiquity in medicines and perfumes, though rarely in food. Ancient scholars believed it came from Arabia. Its preciousness was enhanced by its inaccessibility, which early on became legendary. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, recounts that cassia grows in a shallow lake guarded by bat-like creatures which attack the eyes of those cutting the plant. The Arabic term is derived from the Persian dār chīnī (دار چينى, ‘Chinese wood’) and was sometimes used interchangeably with salīkha (سليخة), but could also refer to ‘true’ (or Ceylon) cinnamon (قِرْة, qirfa). It is, in fact, not certain at all whether the present-day distinction between the two existed at the time. Some scholars only distinguished between dār ṣīnī and a qirfat dār ṣīnī, the latter being less powerful, and imported from China. In Arab cooking, it was one of the most widely used spices, and appears much more frequently than qirfa. Although often ground, recipes sometimes call for sticks (i.e. bark strips). A number of varieties (black, white, greenish, were known. Medicinally, it was used, among other things, to improve dim vision, as a cough remedy, diuretic, and even antidote against scorpion poison. Cassia differs from Ceylon cinnamon in its more reddish colour, rougher texture and stronger, more bitter taste.

al-Ghafiqi, Osler MSS, fol. 112b.

Spotlight on: Sour orange (nāranj, نارَنْج)

Also known as bitter or Seville oranges (Citrus aurantium), the fruit is believed to be native to China and was unknown in the classical world. The Arabic name is derived from the Persian nārang (نارنگ), which is, itself, a Sanskrit borrowing (nārañga). The fruit was introduced to Europe (in al-Andalus) by the Arabs, whereas sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis) do not appear until the end of the Middle Ages. In mediaeval Arab cooking, the sour orange tended to be used in stews. The 13th-century Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār reports that the orange had very green leaves and white blossoms, while the flesh of the fruit is as sour as citron. It was also used to produce an oil which dispels winds and strengthens the joints. The peel strengthens the heart. When the orange juice is drunk with hot water, it is good for gripes, and useful against stings of scorpions and many reptiles. However, the pulp on an empty stomach weakens the liver. His fellow Andalusian Ibn Khalṣūn (14th c.) added that the best variety was large and sweet, and that it should be eaten with sugar. Confusingly, the 12th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla equated nāranj with coconut (jawz hindī).

Sour oranges according to al-Qazwini
al-‘Umarī (14th c.), Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, BNF 2771, fol. 212r.

Spotlight on: Nigella (شونيز, shuniz)

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.

Spotlight on: Spikenard (sunbul, سُنْبُل)

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.

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

Spotlight on: Galangal, galingale

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.

Spotlight on: sumac (سُمّاق), the forgotten spice

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).

sumac as represented by al-Qazwini (d. 1283) in his ‘Wonders of Creation’ (عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات)
sumac in a 14th-century manuscript (BNF, arabe2771, fol. 179f.) of a text attributed to the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248)

Spotlight on: Fennel (رازيانج)

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.

fennel in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (13th century)

Spotlight on: Saffron, the Queen of Spices

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.

Ostler Library MS7508, fol. 153b.