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’

Medieval Andalusian honey delight (معسّل, mu’assal)

A wonderful recipe for a sweet from The Exile’s Cookbook. It is made with honey (for the re-creation, a very delicate organic sidr one was used), which is heated up and then strained before being cooked again with starch, almonds and saffron. The tricky thing is to prevent it from crystallizing. Once it’s sufficiently thickened, a little olive is soaked in, and then it’s ready to serve. Don’t forget to sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon, for that extra deliciousness! The result is something like a halva and can be eaten hot or cold. The author suggests serving it at the end of the meal, but really it’s just too good not to eat it any other time, whenever you need to satisfy your sweet tooth.   

Violet conserve (بنفسج مربّى, banafsaj murabbā)

A recipe from an 11th-century pharmacological encyclopedia compiled by the Baghdadi scholar Ibn Jazla. It is very easy to make and involves drying petals from good-quality fragrant violet flowers in the sun and then adding sugar syrup.

Medicinally, the conserve was said to be good for the chest and useful against coughs and roughness in the throat.

Violet conserve recipe in a copy of Ibn Jazla’s text in the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland

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!