Medieval Rice Pudding

This recreation of a medieval classic across the Muslim world is based on a recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook. The rice pudding (al-aruzz bi ’l-laban al-ḥalīb; الأرزّ بالبن الحليب) is made with strained sheep’s milk, though the author mentions that cow’s milk is also acceptable, with goat’s milk coming a distant third. The rice is cooked until done, after which it is time to mix in a bit of salt crushed in milk or water by gentle stirring. It is served in a dish with a bowl of honey in the middle. It should be eaten with ‘clean boxwood spoons.’ As the author of the cookbook hailed from Murcia, rice and honey from this region were used in the recreation.

There was a variant with mutton or, especially, chicken, which was, in fact, more common, and was usually known as muhallabiyya, which became the medieval European staple blancmanger. The present-day muhallabiyyas (a milk pudding made with rice or flour) are all made without meat, and thus similar to the recreation. The closest descendant of the medieval meat rice pudding is the Turkish tavuk göğsü.

Medieval Date-filled Ka’k


A recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a delicious ring-shaped biscuit (كعك, ka’k), which is made by boiling pounded dry dates mixed with rose water and aromatics. When the mixture has the required consistency, let it cool down and then mould it into thin rolls which are used as a filling for ka’k dough. Then it’s time for the fun part of shaping the dough into rings before baking them. The taste is very much like the modern ma’moul (معمول). A modern descendant — or perhaps a suriviing ancestor (!) — is the Algerian ka’k al-naqqash (كعك النقّاش), which translates as ‘the engraver’s biscuits’.

Medieval Egyptian Kunafa

This is the ancestor of the favourite Ramadan sweet, which, in its modern version, is made with shredded phyllo soaked in butter or ghee, with a filling of a mixture of cheese or cream and sugar, and topped with pistachios, almonds or walnuts. After it is baked, it is drenched in syrup.

The origins of this sweet are to be found in Egypt; the word comes from the Coptic kenefiten, which denoted a kind of loaf or cake. It was very popular in the Middle Ages, and there are nearly twenty-five recipes across six cookery books from Syria, Egypt, and al-Andalus, between the 13th and 15th centuries. The medieval kunāfa was essentially a thin flatbread, equated with a ruqāq, which was usually fried in oil, rolled up, cut up or kept whole as a crepe. Honey is often involved.

The present recreation is based on a 15th-century Egyptian recipe for a ‘cooked (مطبوخ, matbūkh) kunāfa’ from The Sultan’s Feast. The dough is cut up into thin strips, like noodles, which are cooked in sesame oil, sugar and honey. Once everything has been sufficiently stirred, it’s time to fold in saffron-dyed blanched almonds or pistachios, before adding musk and rose water. According to the author it can be stored in a container and stay good for a year. I must admit I have not put this to the test — anyway, I think the real question, of course, is who would be able to keep this delicacy for that long without eating it!

This particular variety of kunāfa has survived in the Algerian mchelwech (المشلوش), a speciality of the city of Constantine, and, perhaps more suprisingly, the Uzbek national dessert Chak Chak.

Andalusian honeyed jar cake

A recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a jar-shaped cake, though in the text it is called an isfanj (إسفنج), which usually denotes a doughnut. It is made by making a smooth slack dough with semolina flour. After it has risen, it is placed in an earthenware jar generously coated with olive oil. The dough should come up to the neck of the jar and in the middle a stick — the text specifies that it is should be a ‘palm frond stalk or cane reed without its knots’ — smeared with olive oil is placed. Once this is done, it is time to bake the cake. When it is ready, the stick is removed and some honey and clarified butter (samn) is poured down the hole. It is left to settle before breaking the jar and liberating the cake! But be careful that the cake comes out in one piece! One can imagine that this might have been done by the medieval cooks at the table to wow diners with their expertise! Of course, the adage at the time was ‘more is more’, and so before eating it, some more clarified butter and honey is poured down the hole in the middle of the cake, which is also given a good dusting with cinnamon. A fluffy honey delight, no mistake!!

Andalusian khabis

There are a number of khabis (خبيص) recipes in the medieval culinary tradition and often vary considerably in terms of ingredients and method from their present-day namesake, which is particularly associated with the Arabian Gulf. This khabis recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is quite close to the modern sweet, as well as to dishes from other parts of the Arabic-speaking world, such as the Algerian tamina (طمينة). It is very simple to make and requires cooking honey, water, saffron, cinnamon pepper and spikenard before adding semolina. Then, it’s simply a question of stirring until you obtin the required consistency ‘of a thick pottage’. Before serving,olive oil is added to the pot for that extra bit of lubrication! Note that the khabis should be eaten cold. An important difference between this historic version and the modern descendants is that the latter generally call for toasted semolina.

Tuniso-Andalusian honey and almond nougat

An unusual sweet recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook, made with honey which is heated and stirred with a giant fennel stalk. When it cools down, egg whites are mixed in and then the mixture is heated up again until it thickens and whitens. The final ingredient is almonds or walnuts, as per one’s individual taste. It has a nougat-like consistency and is one of several Arab ancestors to various European confections.

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]

Medieval Andalusian Walnut Confection

This is a recreation of a recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook but ultimately goes back to Sasanid Persia. Its origins are revealed in its name jawzīnaq (جوزينق, with jawz meaning ‘walnut’), and the earliest mention goes back to a 6th-century Pahlavi (Middle Persian) text. In the Abbasid culinary tradition, it was usually known as jawzīnaj and denoted sheets of dough stuffed with nuts, sugar, etc.

As this is the very short-lived season for wet walnuts, this sweet was the ideal opportunity to put them to good use. Half of the walnuts are boiled and skinned, with the other half being used to extract the oil that will be used later on. The crushed walnuts are kneaded into a smooth mixture — ‘with a brain-like consistency’ –, with sugar on a surface smeared with the expressed walnut oil. Then it’s just a question of shaping the mixture, cutting it up into mouth-sized morsels, and sprinkling on sugar, pepper, cinnamon and cassia.

The author mentions a variation with boiled honey which results in a more elastic result, whereas he suggests adding all of the aromatic spices you have to hand, especially camphor since that is ‘the height of perfection.’ But that, as they say, will be for another day!

Mamluk starch pudding

This is a recreation of a recipe from The Sultan’s Feast for a wonderful sweet starch pudding, known as hayṭaliyya (هيطلية). Though the recipe is from an Egyptian collection, its name betrays Central Asian origins as it goes back to Hayṭal (هيطل), a name for the historical region of Transoxania, which was usually known as mā wara’ al-nahr (ما وراء النهر), literally ‘beyond the stream’, i.e. the area beyond the Oxus river. Additionally, the word — more particularly the plural hayāṭala — appears in the literature as a name for the Hephthalites or White Huns, tribes from the Mongolian steppe who had settled along the Oxus by the 4th century CE.

The first step is to make the starch (with crushed wheat and water), which is then cooked in milk, added with mastic and two other highly unusual ingredients — tree wormwood (shayba) and shampoo ginger (ʿirq kāfūr). Once the mixture has thickened sufficiently, it’s ready to serve with a generous drizzle of your best honey on top. The result is a very unusual pudding with a bit of a kick.

Medieval Andalusian zalābiyya

The recipe for this fritter was taken from the The Exile’s Cookbook, and differs from an earlier zalābiyya/zulābiyya (زلابية) recreation based on another cookery book in that yeast is added to make a batter of medium consistency. The process is essentially the same as that found already in the Abbasid tradition and involves dripping the batter into a pan in which olive oil has been heated up. The author suggests a thimble-sized cup with a small hole in the bottom, but I went old school and used a pierced coconut shell, which is recommended in an earlier Abbasid recipe. Failing that, a funnel does the trick as well, of course!

The fun part is that you make shapes — lattices, circles, and so on (in fact, anything you like!). Once the zalābiyya pieces are done, they’re taken out of the pan and drenched in boiled skimmed honey. Leave them to dry a bit and then serve — heaven on a plate!

Unfortunately, physicians had a less than favourable view of these delightful fritters since zalābiyya were said to be slow to digest; harmful to the liver, spleen and kidneys; to cause blockages and thirst. On the other hand, it is possible that we should thank some of those physicians, such as the 12th-century physician al-Isrā’ilī, who recommended eating zalābiyya with honey to counter some of these harmful properties.

The modern descendants of this sweet include the North African zlabia, the Egyptian and Levantine mushabbak, the Indian jalebi, or the North American funnel cake. In other places, such as Egypt, the word refers to a deep-fried doughnut, known elsewhere as ‘awwāma (عوّامة, ‘floater’), luqmat al-Qāḍī (لقمة القاضي, ‘the judge’s morsel’) or luqayma (لقيمة, ‘little morsel’), depending on the region. In Egypt and the Levant, the medieval zalābiyya has also survived, but under the name of mushabbak (‘latticed’).