Medieval North African Aubergine bake

I guess one could say that this recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is similar to the famous Buraniyya (بورانية), but without meat. The aubergines should be sliced thinly and then boiled in salt and water before being drenched in a marinade of vinegar, murrī, pepper, coriander, cumin, hand-rubbed oregano, and garlic. They should be squeezed to get rid of any liquid and baked in a casserole with some olive oil. A wonderful snack or main for everyone — yes, it’s even vegan!

Medieval North African Chickpeas

This recreation of a 13th-century dish of dried chickpeas from The Exile’s Cookbook is simple to make, but makes for a wonderful vegetarian snack, or side. After cleaning and soaking the chickpeas, they are cooked with onion, pepper, coriander and a little saffron. When they are done, it is time to add some murrī and vinegar and bring to a boil. Then it’s time to serve.

If you think this looks familiar, you’d be right since it may well be a distant ancestor of the modern Tunisian chickpea soup lablabi (لبلابي).

Medieval vinegar partridge eggs

Continuing the partridge theme, this is a recipe from the encyclopedia of simple medicines and foodstuffs (الجامع لمفردات الأدوية والأغذية, al-jami’ li-mufradat al-adwiya wa ‘l-aghdhiya) compiled by the famous Andalusian botanist and pharmacologist, Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248). The author recommended it as a remedy for abdominal aches and colic. The eggs are very simple to make; after boiling them, they are cooked in vinegar. The result is quite interesting inasmuch as the colouring makes the eggs look as if they are still in their shells! This is another example of how humour and food often went together in the medieval Arab culinary tradition.

the recipe in a 15th-century copy of Ibn al-Baytar’s work (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Andalusian battered aubergine bites

A wonderful 13th-century vegetarian recipe for fried battered aubergine — a much-used vegetable in Andalusian cuisine — from The Exile’s Cookbook. The dish was known as al-mughaffar (المغفّر), meaning ‘the protected one’, in reference to the batter covering the aubergine.

It requires sweet aubergines, which after being cut up, are boiled before being battered with a mixture of flour, eggs, spices like pepper, saffron and coriander, as well as a sprinkle of murrī. After the batter acquires the required thickness, it’s time to dredge the aubergine slices and fry them until golden brown. It is served with a sprinkling of murrī, but it was sometimes also accompanied by a sauce made with murrī, pepper, coriander, cumin, oregano and garlic.

Spotlight on: Artichokes

The modern globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a member of the thistle family and is a cultivated offspring of the wild cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) . The development of the artichoke is still shrouded in mystery, with both North Africa and Sicily being possible birth places. In Antiquity only cardoon was known, and the Roman natural historian Pliny claimed it was preserved in honey-vinegar with silphium and cumin. There is no evidence that the artichoke was already cultivated then.

In Modern Arabic, the artichoke is known as ardī shawkī (أرضي شوكي) or khurshuf (خرشف); only the latter was used in pre-modern times, with variant spellings kharshaf, khurshūf and ḥarshaf. However, these terms denoted all varieties of artichoke and cardoon. According to the scholar Abū Ḥanīfa al-Dinawari (d. 895), khurshuf resembled field mustard. Additionally, the artichoke/cardoon was also known as kanjar (also kangar) and ʿakkūb and, in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), qannāriya (a borrowing from the Greek κυνάρα). Some scholars, like Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), considered ḥarshaf a kind of kankar. The latter is related to the name of the gum resin of the artichoke, kankarzad (from the Persian kangar-zhad).

The artichoke (and/or the cardoon) was probably introduced into European cuisines by the Arabs, whose word for the vegetable resulted in the Italian carciofo, Spanish alcachofa and Portuguese alcachofra.

Today, the word ʿakkūb — a borrowing from Syriac — no longer refers to the artichoke or cardoon, but to another thistle plant, Gundelia (tournefortii), which has a similar taste to the artichoke and is native to the Levant, where it grows in rocky soil. It is collected from the wild in early spring, and is particularly associated today with Palestinian cuisine; it is cooked in a variety of ways, with meat, tomatoes, and onions and olive oil.

The artichoke was used only very rarely in medieval Arab cuisine; the oldest recipe goes back to the earliest Abbasid tradition, in a yoghurt dish known as jājaq (جاجق), a (vegetarian) yoghurt dish. Interestingly enough, a later Egyptian collection includes three variants of this recipe but none of them calls for artichoke. The only other recipes are found in 13th-century Andalusian cookery books, with four in The Exile’s Cookbook, one with meat and three without. One of them fries them in olive oil, very similar to the preparation of the Gundelia described above. In another recipe from the book, cardoon flowers are recommended for curdling milk to make a honeyed curd, which was eaten with fresh figs.

Medicinally, artichokes (or cardoons) were said to stimulate sexual desire and serve as a diuretic and laxative. When used externally in a compress, the vegetable is allegedly useful against alopecia, while washing one’s hair with its water removes lice! expels phlegm

hurshuf in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (كتاب الأدوية المفردة)
hurshuf in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (عجائب المخلوقات)

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!

Spotlight on: Melon

The exact place of origin of the common melon (Cucumis melo) is unidentified to date but it is widely accepted that it somewhere in the area between the Mediterranean and northern India. The variety eaten in Antiquity was the cucumber-shaped chate melon (Cucumis melo var. Chate), rather than the sweet fruit of today.

The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is an unrelated species that is native of (west) Africa, as is its sister species, the colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis) — most commonly known as ḥanẓal (حنظل) in Arabic –, which was never eaten, due to its bitterness. The oldest attested use of the watermelon in the Mediterranean may go back to Egypt in the second millennium BCE. Indeed, the Arabic word for it, biṭṭīkh (بطّيخ), is a descendant of the ancient Egyptian bddw-k’, which became pi-betuke (pi-betikhe) in Coptic, though it has been suggested that this actually denoted the aubergine, and was only later transferred to the watermelon. The depictions of the fruit have also been called into doubt and are said to show the colocynth, rather than the watermelon. The wild ancestor of the watermelon was very different from today’s varieties, particularly in that it was more bitter than sweet.

A more plausible hypothesis of the development of the watermelon is that it travelled eastward and after cultivation in India returned west, courtesy of the Arab merchants, who also introduced the fruit to Europe. Support for this hypothesis may be found in the fact that medieval Arabic scholars often distinguished between a number of watermelon varieties, all of which hail from the east: Falasṭīnī (Palestinian), Shāmī (Syrian), Hindī (Indian) and Sindī (from the Sind, i.e. north-west India).

In Arabic, dullāʿ (دلاع) and biṭṭīkh were not uncommonly used interchangeably for both the common melon and the watermelon; the former word is of Berber origin and explains why this is the still the most common word for watermelon in North African vernaculars. The term shammām (شمّام) is applied only to the sweet (cantaloupe) melon.

In the medieval Arabic culinary tradition, melons are used relatively rarely. There are some savoury recipes for snake melon (‘ajjūr, عجّور) used in savoury recipes in Syrian and Egyptian collections, whereas the latter also contain a chate melon confection. In the early Abbasid tradition, the watermelon appears in some judhāba and fālūdhaj recipes. Additionally, the rind was used in hand-washing powders, whereas the dried ground peel was said to make food cook quickly.

Medicinally, opinions on the benefits of watermelon varied somewhat. According to some, the watermelon was slow to be digested and generates thick blood. Others held that all kinds of melon are beneficial for coughs, kidneys, and ulcers in the lungs and bladder. Al-Qazwini recommended soaking watermelon seeds in honey and milk to ensure its fruit will be very sweet.

The watermelon enjoyed much favour in religion as well, as shown by the following hadith (saying of the Prophet): “Enjoy the watermelon and its fruit, for its juice is a mercy, and its sweetness is like the sweetness of faith. Whoever takes a morsel of watermelon, Allah writes for him seventy thousand good deeds and erases from him seventy thousand misdeeds.”

description of melons in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’
Sweet melons in the Tacuinum Sanitatis (1490, Vienna), the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-Sihha

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.

Spotlight on: Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) is one of the oldest cooking ingredients and was already used in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; in fact, the Arabic word thūm (ثوم) goes back to the Akkadian šūmū (from the Sumerian sum). The plant was grown along the northern Mediterranean very early on and the Ancient Greeks were probably the first to preserve garlic by smoking it. According to Dioscorides, it clears bronchi and is a remedy for chronic coughs when eaten raw, baked, or boiled. While the Greeks appreciated the flavour garlic imparted to food, they were less impressed by the odour of garlic on the breath.

It is one of the vegetables mentioned in the Qur’an, alongside cucumber, lentils and onions. It came in two varieties: wild (برّي, barrī) and cultivated (بستاني, bustānī), and became a staple in Arab cooking; according to the author of The Sultan’s Feast, ‘garlic draws forth the aromas of oils in broths, seeds and vegetables, and enhances their flavour.’ Garlic was often cooked with vinegar and oil and garlic to make a sauce. It was also used frequently in fish dishes. There’s even an Egyptian recipe for sour yoghurt and garlic, which results in something most people today would recognize as tzatziki. Garlic was a particular favourite in medieval Andalusian cookery, and often cooked in vinegar.

Medicinally, it was recommended as a diuretic, to remedy flatulence and various dermatological conditions, while chewing its leaves cures eye inflammation. According to the 12th-century physician Ibn Butlan, garlic is partiuclarly good for older people and in winter time. Howver, he warned that it should not be overcooked because then it loses its effectiveness, especially when it is prepared with vinegar and eaten with milk or fish.

garlic in a 13th-century copy of the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-Sihha