Dates workshop at COP28

I attended COP28 (30th November-12th December) in Dubai (UAE) to take part in an exciting project relating to food sustainability and local heritage, in collaboration with the Barakat Trust and Al Ghadeer Emirati Crafts, a pioneering project under the aegis of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Red Crescent Authority. The aim of the association is to empower local craftswomen by providing them with a sustainable source of revenue.

At the COP28 site, I curated a date tasting workshop through a number of carefully selected recipes based on the medieval culinary sources from the 8th to the 15th centuries. The dishes included stuffed honeyed dates, a meat-and-date stew (tamriyya), a milky date pudding (khabis) and a cereal-based date drink (subiya).

Andalusian venison with chickpeas

This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is rather unusual in that it calls for the meat of “a deer, bovine antelope, ass, mountain goat or gazelle – whichever is available to you.” As I had just eaten my last gazelle and mountain goat last week, I had to make do with just venison. The meat is cooked with a variety of spices (coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, etc.), as well as onions, murri, almonds, and, of course, chickpeas. I also added home-grown fennel and oregano. Saffron is included later on for colouring and vinegar, well because it just has to be in everything! Besides the above animals, the author suggests using hare, rabbit and — wait for it — hedgehog (in fact, this is the only cookery book to mention eating this animal).

Medieval Arab Cooking at Heenat Salma

On the 5th of May, an event was held at Heenat Salma, an Eco-Farm and Camp, part of a multidisciplinary project dedicated to holistic methods in agriculture, architecture, and community development, and aimed at growing desert-friendly plants and vegetables, diversifying local food production, and contributing to a renewable, home-grown food supply in Qatar and beyond. The banquet was a held as a Chef’s Table under the banner of Sharing Identity.

A heartfelt thank you to Ivan Dubkov,  Curator of Caravane Earth Foundation and Heenat Salma Farm, the amazing chef Ajaya Teppa and their teams who turned into such a wonderful evening for all who attended. 

Medieval Egyptian Duo of Turnip Pickles

Some more delicious pickled turnip recipes from The Sultan’s Feast. For the first, turnips are diced and coloured with saffron, before adding wine vinegar sweetened with honey (you can also use sugar or date syrup), mint, rue, mustard seeds, and aṭrāf al-ṭīb.

The second recipe is a maḥshī (محشي), which in medieval Arab cuisine sometimes referred to a sauce, rather than stuffing, as it does today. This one is made with mustard seeds, raisins, wine vinegar, mint, rue, aṭrāf al-ṭīb, sesame seeds, and toasted hemp seeds.

Aleppo quince chicken

This recipe from a 13th-century Syrian cookery book is one of several quince stews. It is a tad labour intensive but, as ever, your toil will be amply rewarded by the result. The chicken is boiled and then fried in sesame oil with some onion. The quinces should be split, cored and deseeded, and then added or, as in the variation recreated here, fried first. Then both are cooked in broth, with a little fresh lemon juice, sugar, saffron, mint, the atraf al-tib spice mix, as well as some pistachios (we are in Aleppo, after all!). Let all those flavours infuse and then it’s time to tuck in. Crusty bread proved to be a good choice to accompany the dish.

Spotlight on: Cardamom

The English word actually refers to two varieties of seeds. The first is the so-called ‘common’ (also green, or lesser) cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), known in Arabic as hāl (هال) or hayl/hīl (هيل). The spice is native to India’s Malabar coast and Indonesia, and though there is evidence that it was already known to Greek authors, it was very rarely used, and only in medicines. The second variety is bigger and is known as ‘black cardamom’ (Amomum subulatum), called qāqulla (قاقلّة) in Arabic.

The terminology presents an interesting mix, with qāqulla going back to the Akkadian qāqullu, whereas hāl/hīl are borrowings from Persian derived from Sanskrit. Persia is also the origin of other names for common cardamom including the term بوا (, ‘odour’) — often rendered as buwwā, despite the final letter being silent –, such as khīr (خير بوا) and hayl bū (هيل بوا). Finally, qardamānā (قردماما) is a borrowing from Greek (kardamomon, καρδάμωμον).

In medieval cookery books from the Near East, green and black cardamom are used in food only in an Abbasid treatise from the 10th century, in a medicinal drink (mayba). In other culinary sources, cardamom appears only in perfumes or hand-washing powders. Interestingly enough, in al-Andalus and the Maghrib, cardamom is used in a few recipes, such as a chicken garlic stew (ثومية, thūmiyya), a jūdhāba (جوذابة), and even some fish dishes.

Medicinally, green cardamom was considered useful for the stomach and liver, and as an anti-emetic, whereas black cardamom was said to be a remedy for nausea and vomiting, while purifying the stomach and bowels. When drunk weekly with oxymel, it is good for epilepsy.

Today, green and black cardamom are mostly associated with Indian cuisine in both savoury and sweet dishes, as well as drinks (e.g. tea). The green variety is considered the best, and is also much more expensive. In the Middle East, green cardamom is an ingredient in in sweet dishes and, especially, as a coffee flavouring.

cardamom in the Book of Theriacs (Bibliothèque nationale de France)


Wisps of incense (بخور, bakhūr)

This recipe for bakhūr Barmakiyya from a 14th-century Egyptian cookery book is named after the Barmakids, a powerful family of Persian origin, several of whose members held high offices — including that of vizier — to a number of Abbasid caliphs in the 8th and 9th centuries. The most renowned member of the family is no doubt Ja’far, who was the favourite companion of Harun al-Rashid, and both occur as protagonists in several stories from the 1001 Nights, often involving them roaming around Baghdad at night. With such great favour came untold wealth and power, but the Barmakid rule came to a brutal end when, for reasons that are still a mystery, Harun suddenly turned on them, had Ja’far executed, and their property confiscated. However, their fame and generosity lived on through many stories in Arabic literature.

In the Arabian Nights, the Barmakids are also involved in a wonderful story where food — or rather the absence thereof — is the plot. A beggar is invited to share a meal at one of the Barmakid houses but finds that all the food is invisible, while his mischievous host (whose name is never mentioned) pretends to be eating and praises the quality of the dishes. The beggar plays along until, at the end of the meal, he rises and hits his host on the neck. When asked why he did this, the beggar apologizes profusely, blaming his behaviour on the effect of the (invisible) wine he was given! The host is so enchanted by this astute reaction that he orders a real banquet be served to the beggar. Much later, the beggar meets with a particularly gruesome way but that, as they say, is another story… The invisible banquet is the origin of the English expression ‘a Barmecide feast’, which refers to pretended or imaginary wealth, generosity or hosptality.

Returning to more fragrant matters, today’s recreation is of an incense which, according to the author of the cookbook, is particularly suited for those in the toilet! It is made with a number of aromatics, such as costus, myrtle leaves, labdanum resin, sour orange and lemon peels, saffron, and honey. So, cook, dry, light up, and let yourself be carried away on the wisps of Mamluk Cairo!

Andalusian grape and fig vinegar

This recipe from a 13th-century Andalusian author requires some time to make — several weeks to be precise –, but then again it’s hardly a secret that all good things in life take time! Grapes and figs (both dried and fresh) are put in a large jar with water and then nature takes its course as the fruit is left to ferment. Make sure to stir the jar regularly and you end up with the most amazing vinegar – delicate, tangy and a touch of sweetness that makes it perfect for a dressing, or just drizzled on some toasted bread!

Medieval Arab kitchen hacks

It should not come as a surprise that a cuisine as technically complex as that of the medieval Arab world required a wide array of skills and tools. We’ll return to the latter in another post, but for now, let’s take a look at some of the advice offered in the cookery books about good culinary practice. There seems to have been a commonly agreed set of rules very early on as a number of cookery books start with a chapter on ‘useful things the cook should know’, which reveal quite a few overlaps across the centuries. Some things will sound very familiar, as they are still applied in modern kitchens, whilst others are perhaps more arcane.

In terms of ingredients, the principal advice was the fresher the better, particularly spices, and one should only pound the quantity that will be used so as not to weaken the potency of the spice. Nor should spices be crushed in a mortar that contains traces of other spices. Incidentally, the material of the mortar also matters; for meat, it should be made out of stone, but for spices, copper.

If you want food to cook quickly, add melon grounds; if it is chickpeas you’re making, throw a few mustard seeds into the pot. When it comes to the sequence of adding ingredients, salt should be added at the end, especially if you’re cooking grains, since it slows down their cooking time. The quantity of spices is linked to the type of dishes; al-Baghdādī (13th c.) suggests using large quantities in fried (dry) dishes, but only a limited amount in sour stews.

Cleanliness and the removal of bad odours are often mentioned, and authors frequently specify using a new pot. Al-Warrāq (10th c.), recommended washing pots both before and after coating the insides with clay. The Sultan’s Feast, for its part, tells us to wash cooking vessels with hot clay, saltwort, and dried roses, after which they should be wiped down with rubbed dried sour orange or citron leaves. Porcelain bowls should be fumigated with mastic and agarwood before putting food in them. And if you overcook the food and it starts smelling, one or two walnuts in the pot apparently does the trick as they absorb the bad odour. They can be used in the same way, to remove any bad smells from a cooking pot.

“Preparation for a Feast” (Folio from a Divan of the Persian poet Jami), Metropolitan Museum of Art