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’).

Andalusian fried cheese buns

One of the most emblematic dishes from al-Andalus are the fried cheese buns, known as mujabbana (مجبّنة), for which a number of recipes can be found in the two Andalusian cookery books. This particular re-creation is based on one from The Exile’s Cookbook. And to make it even more special, it was made with cheese from the same source. A future post will be devoted to the latter, for those who want to try their hand at whipping up some medieval cheese.

This particular variety of mujabbana calls for a semolina dough and fresh cheese which has been washed with water and kneaded into a marrow-like consistency before being left to dry. After adding aniseed, mint juice and fresh coriander juice everything is kneaded together. Once the cheese mix is ready, it’s time to put a pan with olive oil on the heat and start shaping the mujabbanas. It’s a simple — but slightly delicate — process which involves taking a piece of dough and wrapping it over the cheese mixture before deep-frying each piece, making sure that it is golden on all sides. They are served with fresh butter or melted honey, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

The author also gives an alternative, which, so we are told, is how the Andalusians prefer it; the mujabbanas are served in a bowl sprinkled with cinnamon, aniseed and sugar, whereas in the middle there should be a dish with honey into which to dip the buns. A third variant is to mix egg whites into the dough as ‘this will further enhance the taste and delight.’ I can’t think of anyone who would argue with that once they’ve tried it!

The modern Spanish almojábana denotes a popular Colombian cheese bread and, in Spain, a type of cheesecake, or even a fritter made without cheese.

Andalusian cannoli

This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for ‘stuffed tubes’ (قنانيط محشوة, qanānīṭ mahshuwa) is one of the ancestors of the modern Sicilian speciality cannoli, albeit sans the cheese filling. In fact, it was quite a popular sweet across the Muslim world, since recipes can also be found in a collection from Mamluk Egypt (14th c.), where they appear as ‘Zaynab’s fingers’ (أصابع زينب, aṣābiʿ Zaynab), but they go back even further, to Abbasid times, when they were called ḥalāqīm (حلاقيم) — the plural of ḥulqūm (حلقوم, ‘wind-pipe’) — and were made with a filling of walnuts and sugar, with the ends dipped in syrup and sprinkled with dyed sugar candy.

It takes a bit of a delicate touch to make the 13th-century Andalusian version of these wonderful sweets, but the result is fantastic! After kneading flour into a dough, it is wrapped around cane reeds, with the dough cut into small tubes. While the dough is drying, it is time to make the filling which will consist of skimmed honey, pounded almonds and various aromatics. After carefully removing the dough tubes, they are fried in olive oil and then stuffed with the filling, topped off with an almond at either end. Arrange on a plate, dust with cinnamon and sugar, and then it’s time to tuck in!

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’