Egyptian pickled eggs (بيض مخلّل, bayd mukhallal)

A recipe from The Sultan’s Feast for pickling eggs. The process takes a bit of time since after boiling the eggs, they should be soaked in salty water for a couple of days, after which they are immersed in wine vinegar. Then it is time for the next stage, which involves more vinegar, added with spices and herbs, such as cassia, ginger, cumin, coriander, cloves, rue, and citron leaves. This mixture is put over a fire and when it’s boiling, the eggs are added. To add some pazazz, why not colour the eggs with saffron (yellow) or red (safflower), or both, as you can see here?

Spotlight on: Lentils

Lentils (Lens culinaris medik/Lens esculenta Moench) were already collected in the Ancient Near East as early as 12,000 BCE. The legume was cultivated in Greece before 600 BCE and was a dietary staple there, used mainly in a soup, known as phake. It was commonly seasoned with vinegar and sumac. The ancient Romans appeared to be less taken with lentils as there are far fewer references in the sources. According to Dioscorides, lentils dull the vision, are hard to digest, bad for the stomach, produce stomach and intestinal gas, and cause bad dreams.

In the Arab culinary tradition, lentils (عدس, ‘adas) are used sparingly across all regions, not least due to the fact that they were considered quite harmful by physicians. Ibn Sīnā, who said that the plant was particularly grown on the mountains of Tabaristan, claimed the best varieties are wide and white. He and other Muslim physicians, recommended that lentils should be boiled thoroughly before eating them, and, like, Dioscorides, referred to their flatulent properties (less so if they were fried) and the fact that they are difficult to digest, and induce bad dreams. Ibn Sīnā added that lentils should not be mixed with any kind of sweet because this might generate calculi in the liver. The worst dish one can eat is one that contains lentil and dried salty meat. More importantly, lentils were said to be a powerful anaphrodisiac — i.e. lust suppressant.

al-Rāzī said that when cooked with honey, or with pomegranate peel and dried roses, lentils can be useful against ulcers, whereas al-Isrā’ilī recommended a recipe of lentils cooked with starch and some salt as a remedy against intestinal tears and ulcers. Ibn Jazla, for his part, also recommended white lentils since they are quickly digested and, when cooked in vinegar, useful against ulcers. Adding lentils to sawīq (سويق), a kind of cereal drink, is useful against gout.

illustration of lentils in a 13th-century Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica

Spotlight on: Spinach

The ancestor of spinach (Spinacia oleracea) goes back to eastern Asia, the region around present-day Nepal. It was unknown in Greek and Roman Antiquity. The oldest references date back to Sasanid Persia. Spinach was one of the earliest crops to be introduced into Europe by the Arabs, and arrived in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) by the 11th century.

In Arabic, it is usually known as i/asfānākh (إسفاناخ) or isfānāj (إسفاناج), from the Persian sipānākh (سپاناخ; also sipānāj/سپاناج), but other names such as baqla dustiyya or dustī are also occasionally found. According to the Andalusian botanist al-Ishbīlī, spinach was planted in autumn and eaten in winter. It quickly became quite popular and his compatriot, the agronomist Ibn al-ʿAwwām referred to it as ‘the prince of vegetables’ (ra’īs al-buqūl). One wonders whether that would have helped to convince children at the time to eat it!

It was not infrequently used in cooking, often in stews with lamb. Medicinally, it was considered nutritious, detergent and laxative (Ibn Sina). It is useful against back pains as well as coughs. However, it is difficult to digest.

Al-Samarqandi (12th century) advised that for people with too much heat spinach should be prepared with barley kishk (sun-dried yoghurt) and almond oil, whereas those with cold temperaments should eat it with fatty meat, rice with spices.

Spinach in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.)

Medieval Tuniso-Andalusian Porridge

This simple recipe for a millet flour porridge (حسو من دقيق البنج, hasw min daqīq al-banij) comes from a 13th-century collection. It is made by dissolving millet flour in water and then cooking it in water and salt until the water reduces and the porridge has reached the required consistency.

Although wheat was considered the best for making bread, the Andalusians also used millet flour when the former was not available. However, according to the author, ‘of all the non-wheat breads, millet bread is the most prized among Andalusians and they eat a lot of it when it is millet harvesting season in their country.’

The porridge here is a savoury, but a sweet version probably also existed, and its closest modern descendant, the Tunisian dru‘ (درع) is a sweet sorghum porridge, made with milk and sugar. So, feel free to sweeten the Andalusian dish with some honey, and why not add some nuts, to make it a wonderful alternative to your morning oatmeal porridge. Remember to eat it hot!

Andalusian Aubergine crepes (اسفريا, isfiriya)

A very simple vegetarian dish — after cooking the aubergine, it’s grated and mixed with breadcrumbs, eggs, spices like pepper and cinnamon, as well as murri and olive oil. Once that’s been turned into a batter, it is fried into crepes. The isfiriya (also sometimes known in sources as isfāriyya or isfiriyya) is a typically Andalusian dish and is not found in cookery books from the Near East. It was usually made with meat strips and is a very old dish as it’s already attested in the 10th century.

Spotlight on: Cherries

Cherries are native to western Asia and belong to the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, apricots, and almonds. The wild ancestor of sweet (or ‘bird’) cherries is the Prunus avium, whereas the sour variety goes back to Prunus cerasus. The former was first described in about 300 BCE by the Greek writer Theophrastus.

Sour cherries were imported into Greece from Anatolia and were known in Greek as kerasia (κεράσια), the origin of words in many languages. The Greek word was said to be derived from the name of the town of Kerasousa in Asia Minor (the present-day Turkish city of Giresun).

Dioscorides noted that cherries loosened the bowels when fresh, but had a constipating effect when eaten dried. He recommended the gum of cherry trees in diluted wine brings about healthy looks, sharp-sightedness, and good appetite, as well as being a treatment for chronic cough. The Roman naturalist historian Pliny (1st century) also reports Anatolia as the cherry’s place of origin when they arrived in Rome, and that the fruit was introduced to Britain in AD 47. The Romans must have taken to cherries with great gusto since in Pliny’s day eight varieties of cherry were cultivated in Italy.

In Arabic sour cherries were known by the borrowing qarāsiyā (قراصيا, قراسيا) or, in the Muslim West as habb al-mulūk (حبّ الملوك), “king’s berries”. They were reported to grow in Syria and Egypt, and one scholar claimed that qarāsiyā was one of ninety plant species growing on Mount Lebanon from which one could make a living by gathering its fruit.

In medieval Arab cooking, they are used very rarely, in a sweet-and-sour chicken stew, of which variant recipes are found in cookery books from Syria (Aleppo) and Egypt (Cairo) dating from the 13th and 15th centuries. Medicinally, they were said to be an aphrodisiac, while Maimonides, who describes qarāsiyā as a plum, but smaller, with a sour taste, claimed that they are a light purgative. According to the physician Dāwud al-Antākī (15thc.), qarāsiyā can be used to treat depression, fainting fits, thirst, cough, loss of memory, internal wounds, and obstructions in the urinary tract.

Today, qarāsiyā refers to a kind of plum in some dialects (e.g. Syria), while in Standard Arabic, the word for cherries is now karaz (كرز).

sour cherries in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Tacuinum

Spotlight on: Asparagus

The Mediterranean basin is home to several species of wild asparagus, while the garden variety (Asparagus officinalis) was already appreciated in Roman times. Apicius recommended drying it before boiling, and included an asparagus pie in his recipe collection. The sixth-century Byzantine physician — and author of a famous culinary treatise — Anthimus recommended eating it with salt and oil. On the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons used it for medicinal purposes only; it would take until the 16th century for the vegetable to appear on English tables, albeit very rarely until the 17th century.

In medieval Arab cooking, there are only a few recipes requiring asparagus (هليون, hilyawn). It seems to have been highly prized though, and the author of what is considered the earliest Abbasid treatise includes a poem in praise of the vegetable. He recommends eating asparagus boiled and seasoned with olive oil and with murrī, which appears to have been the most usual way of serving it. The same source includes a few stews containing asparagus and, more unusually, an aphrodisiac asparagus drink. A 13th-century collection from Aleppo includes a recipe combining fried eggs and asparagus, a precursor to the modern scrambled egg dish.

The asparagus is conspicuous by its absence from the Egyptian repertoire, but was quite popular in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), where it was eaten with olive oil and vinegar, or as an ingredient in meat stews. The asparagus would also be served with hard-boiled eggs, or wrapped with meat. The vegetable was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula in the ninth century by the most famous exile from the East, the singer and aesthete Ziryab. In Andalusian and North African Arabic it was known as asfarāj (أسفراج), a word derived from its Latin name, asparagus.

In the medical literature, asparagus was identified as a powerful aphrodisiac, as well as being a diuretic (as it had been in Greek sources), and useful against bowel blockages, sciatica, and colitis. When it is cooked with syrup, it is good for bites, but a decoction of asparagus is lethal to dogs!

Asparagus in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (Ostler Library, Toronto)

Tuniso-Andalusian honeyed curd with figs

A thirteenth-century recipe for a delicious dairy dish, which starts with curdling milk with cardoon flowers; if these are not available, one can easily use thistle, instead, as in the recreation. When the curdling is nearly done, it is time to add honey dissolved in milk. Though it is very tasty eaten plain, the author suggests pairing it with fresh figs, which proves to be solid advice, as ever.

Spotlight on: Aubergine (باذنجان, badhinjan)

The ancestor of the modern aubergine (Solanum melongena) is a wild variety (Solanum incanum) from Africa, but became domesticated around the first century BCE in Asia (probably first in India and then China) before spreading towards the Mediterranean in the seventh century, reaching Spain by the 9th century. It was unknown in Greek or Roman Antiquity. The Arabs were introduced to it by the Persians, though it cannot be excluded that the aubergine reached Arabia directly from India in pre-Islamic times. The Arabic word is a Persian borrowing of Sanskrit origin (vangana), but it was known by a number of other names as well, such as the mysterious ‘snake warts’ (ثآليل الحيات, ta’ālīl al-hayyāt ) in the Maghrib.

In what is considered the earliest Arabic cookery book (10th c.), only nine (out of over 600) dishes call for aubergine, but its popularity clearly grew as time went on since only a few centuries later another Abbasid treatise used it in about ten per cent of the dishes. It was used primarily in stews, fried or stuffed. It was recommended to boil it in salt before cooking to eliminate the bitterness and expel its black juice. Its popularity grew even more in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Christian West, the aubergine came to be considered a ‘Jewish’ vegetable and was thus excluded from the diet of the devout Christian.

Despite its widespread consumption, physicians endowed it with many harmful properties, including causing black bile, obstructions, tumours, haemorrhoids, headaches, and even leprosy. It was thought to be noxious — even lethal — when eaten raw, though Ibn Buṭlān (11th c.) particularly warned against grilling it. According to the 10th-century Iraqi agronomer Ibn Waḥshiyya, aubergine should be eaten fried in oils and fats, with fatty meat. Its negative effects can be counteracted by cooking it with vinegar (though this causes constipation) and caraway. The Andalusian physician Ibn Khalṣūn (13thc.) , for his part, recommended the small white variety, eaten with fatty poultry or lamb.

illustration of the aubergine in the Kitāb al-adwiya al-mufrada (‘The Book of Simple Medicines’) by the Andalusian botanist al-Ghāfiqī (d. 1165). [Ostler Library, McGill University]
aubergine (Melongiana) in a Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Tuniso-Andalusian pickled aubergine

A wonderful 13th-century recipe for pickling aubergine (تصيير الباذنجان, tasyīr al-bādhinjān). You naturally start off with a batch of fresh luscious aubergine, which are peeled, cleaned, etc., and cut into pieces; you can do them lengthwise or in slices, as it was done for the recreation. The pieces are first boiled in water and salt, and then put in jars — the author suggests pitch-coated or glazed earthenware jars (but a glass storage jar also works fine!) — with some vinegar and water. As usual don’t forget to seal properly, and to top up with water at need. The author also suggests a variant which involves splitting up the batch and adding parsley in one, and fresh mint in the other, to enhance the fragrance. A wonderful idea that you won’t regret! The author gives us another wonderful tip ; why not use these pickled aubergine slices in a būrāniyya?