Medieval Qatayif (قطائف)

This is an Andalusian take on what are called ‘Abbasid qaṭā’if‘, a filled crepe, by the author of the 13th-century cookery book. There are quite some similarities with today’s sweets by the same name, a Ramadan favourite in many countries.

The first thing to do is to make flour for the crepes with semolina, hot water, salt and yeast. The filling is made with sugar and almonds, perfumed with aromatic spices (cloves and spikenard) and rose water. After cooking the crepes, they are stuffed with the filling, and then sealed by dredging the edges in starch dissolved into water. The crepes are fried in almond oil and when they have turned golden. Set them aside to drain off the oil and then drench in rose syrup. Serve and enjoy!

According to the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, this kind of qaṭā’if is beneficial for those addicted to physical activity. It is very nourishing, but slows down digestion and causes stones in the urethra. But not to worry! These negative effects can be rectified by eating sweet and sour pomegranates or oxymel.  

Egyptian Pomegranate Oxymel Syrup

This oxymel (سكنجبين; sakanjabīn, sikanjabīn) syrup (شراب, sharāb) is found in a 14th-century Egyptian manual and is made by boling rose-water syrup (جلاب, jullāb) and sour pomegranate juice. Before drinking it, dilute with water and add crushed ice to turn it into a refreshing drink! And, don’t forget that it’s also a digestive, so it really is a win-win situation!

According to the physician Najīb al-Dīn al-Smamarqandī, who was active in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, oxymel is harmful to people with weak stomachs, or those suffering from nausea, colds, or nervous weakness. However, oxymel made with quince strengthens the stomach, counters loss of appetite, prevents nausea and sickness, and in convalescents helps strengthen their organs and stimulate their appetite. Oxymel made from pomegranate or apples, on the other hand, strengthens the liver and heart!

Medieval Andalusian braided doughnuts

A delicious sweet made with a dough of semolina flour, as well as eggs, and saffron. The braids are fried in olive oil until they’ve turned golden brown. When they are ready, they are taken out of the pan and drenched in honey spiced with aromatics like pepper, cinnamon, and cassia. Serve with a dusting of sugar. And why not go the extra mile by stuffing them with almonds and sugar — I did!

Andalusian judhāba (جوذابة)

Persian in origin, the judhaba was one of the emblematic dishes in medieval Arab cuisine, and usually referred to a kind of drip pudding with layers of flatfloaves interspersed with fruit being infused by the basting juices of a chicken roasting above it. Its fame spread across the Mediterranean, to al-Andalus, perhaps even by the famous aesthete Ziryab. However, wherever it went, it was given a new lease of life through a number of permutations, yet all the while retaining its original name.

The judhaba recipe recreated here is drawn from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian cookery book. It differs considerably from its Near Eastern ancestor; it is made without meat, with home-made crepe-thin flatbreads (رقاق, ruqāq) alternating with layers of almonds, sugar, various aromatic spices, and saffron. After pouring on rose water and olive oil, it’s ready for the oven. The author recommends eating it with rose syrup sweetened with sugar and fresh butter, though adds — thankfully — that one can omit the syrup. Either way, it’s amazing, especially when paired with a refreshing pomegranate oxymel (the recipe for which will come in a future post). More importantly, it is just perfect for sharing with that special person on Valentine’s Day!

Ma’muniyya (مأمونية)

This recipe is named after its alleged originator, the famous Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mūn (813–33), a patron of the arts and sciences during whose reign many of the Greek scientific works were translated into Arabic. It must have been a very popular dish as recipes can be found in 13th-century Syrian and 15th-century Egyptian cookery books. It is a kind of rice pudding, which could be made with or without meat, as it is here. The process is pretty straightforward; after pounding rice it is boiled in milk, sugar, and sheep’s tail fat (if you don’t have any to hand, just use ghee instead) to a light pudding. It is served with a garnishing of pistachios, pomegranate seeds, and rock candy.

Andalusian quince jam

This is a variant of the 13th-century quince jelly (معجون السفرجل, ma’jūn al-safarjal); it is equally medicinal in purpose, as well as being extremely tasty! The quince are pounded and then cooked with honey until you obtain the required consistency. A similar recipe is mentioned by the 11th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, who calls it safarjal murabbā, the latter word being the usual word for ‘jam’ in Standard Arabic. This delicacy can easily be preserved, like any other jam, and I’m pleased to report that it has been tried and tested as an accompaniment to musamman!

Medieval Egyptian honeyed dates

This succulent recipe from The Sultan’s Feast requires dates to be boiled in vinegar and honey. When they are ready, they’re transferred to a jar. Colour with saffron, and add musk, rose-water and camphor for extra aromatic flavour. The author suggests leaving the dates to cool down in order to ensure their consistency. An absolutely amazing snack to satisfy those late-afternoon hunger pangs!

Medieval sandwich biscuits: Alluring maidens’ cheeks

There are a few similar recipes for this delicious sweet in 13th-century Egyptian and Syrian cookery books. Their name (خدود الأغاني, khudud al-aghani) is somewhat of a mystery in that it would translate as ‘cheeks of the songs’. However, it is likely that the word is linked to the classical Arabic ghaniya (غانية), which means a beautiful and chaste woman desired by men. Whatever the case may be, the biscuit dough is made with flour, clarified butter, and sesame oil. This will be used to make the slices of the ‘sandwich’. The biscuits are fried and then drenched in rose-water syrup. As for the filler, this is a paste made with flour, sesame oil, musk, syrup, popppy seeds, pistachios, and almonds. When that is done, just smear it on one biscuit slice and top with another. There you have it, the ultimate afternoon sweet! But you’d better invite some guests to help you out — or rather to stop you from polishing off the lot in one go. Consider yourself warned!

Almond conserve (لوز مربّى, lawz murabba)

This delightful recipe is included in the 11th-century pharmacological encypclopedia compiled by the Baghdadi scholar Ibn Jazla. It requires large fleshy almonds, which are first boiled in dibs (date syrup) before being left to rest for a couple of days. The final stage involves some more boiling in syrup, after which they are stored in a glass jar. The result is essentially candied almonds, which, in addition to being delicious, are also useful against coughs. Though it was primarily intended to be eaten by itself, the conserve also appears in a number of recipes, such as a rhubarb stew (ريباسية, ribasiyya).

Almond-filled dates in syrup

Stuffing dates was as popular in the past as it is today, and Apicius’ Roman cookery book has what is perhaps the oldest recipe in his list of ‘home-made sweets’ (dulcia domestica). Interestingly enough, his stuffing could also include ground pepper alongside the nuts, with the dates subsequently being sprinkled with salt (!) and candied in honey.

Stuffed dates were also a regular occurrence in the medieval Arab culinary tradition, and recipes can be found in cookery books from both Syria and Egypt, spanning a period of two centuries (13th-15th). For today’s scrumptious ‘honeyed dates’ (رطب معسّل, rutab mu’assal) from The Sultan’s Feast you need fresh dates, which should be left in the shade for a couple days, though one can dispense with this step if you’re buying them at the supermarket! Then, the fun part begins; remove the stones with a needle and stuff a peeled almond in each date (in the Syrian recipe, pistachios were also allowed). Next, they are boiled in a mixture of honey, vinegar, rose water, and saffron. Once the dates have absorbed all the goodness, they’re ready to come out, but before tucking in, do sprinkle some sugar on top, you’ll thank me for it later! I strongly suggest following the author’s advice to spice things up some more by adding musk and spikenard to the mixture. Though recommended for use in cold weather, this delicacy should really be enjoyed all year round. Indeed, the Syrian recipe does not endow the dish with medicinal properties but praises it for being ‘very pleasant’ (جيد مليح, jayyid malih).