Andalusian fried cheese buns

One of the most emblematic dishes from al-Andalus are the fried cheese buns, known as mujabbana (مجبّنة), for which a number of recipes can be found in the two Andalusian cookery books. This particular re-creation is based on one from The Exile’s Cookbook. And to make it even more special, it was made with cheese from the same source. A future post will be devoted to the latter, for those who want to try their hand at whipping up some medieval cheese.

This particular variety of mujabbana calls for a semolina dough and fresh cheese which has been washed with water and kneaded into a marrow-like consistency before being left to dry. After adding aniseed, mint juice and fresh coriander juice everything is kneaded together. Once the cheese mix is ready, it’s time to put a pan with olive oil on the heat and start shaping the mujabbanas. It’s a simple — but slightly delicate — process which involves taking a piece of dough and wrapping it over the cheese mixture before deep-frying each piece, making sure that it is golden on all sides. They are served with fresh butter or melted honey, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

The author also gives an alternative, which, so we are told, is how the Andalusians prefer it; the mujabbanas are served in a bowl sprinkled with cinnamon, aniseed and sugar, whereas in the middle there should be a dish with honey into which to dip the buns. A third variant is to mix egg whites into the dough as ‘this will further enhance the taste and delight.’ I can’t think of anyone who would argue with that once they’ve tried it!

The modern Spanish almojábana denotes a popular Colombian cheese bread and, in Spain, a type of cheesecake, or even a fritter made without cheese.

Medieval Egyptian crunchy roast chickpeas

What is probably the oldest reference to this snack can be found in a recipe for toasted wheat called qāwūt (قاووت) — a word related to an Arabic root meaning ‘to nourish, feed’, with qūt (قوت) and quwāt (قوات) denoting ‘food’ — in treatises from Mamluk Egypt, including The Sultan’s Feast. The recipe mentions taking the wheat to the chickpea roaster to perform the required task, thus revealing that it was already a popular streetfood even then, as it still is today in many countries.

The recipe mentions the name these crunchy roast chickpeas still have, i.e. qadāma (قضامة), which actually denotes anything that is nibbled, from a verb, qadima (قضم), ‘to nibble or bite on something dry’. Interestingly enough, one of the other meanings of the verb is ‘to have black and broken teeth’ — presumably, due to over-nibbling on snacks!

The chickpeas are soaked, boiled and then roasted over a gentle fire. For this recipe, I just added salt, but today a number of other spices are also used. In Turkey, it is known as leblebi, but, confusingly, in some Arab countries (especially Tunisia) lablabi (لبلابي) denotes a chickpea soup, a popular streetfood.

Medieval Syrian pickled pomelo

This recipe from 13th-century Aleppo was apparently created by the maidservants of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt and Damascus (and nephew of the great Salah al-Din), al-Malik al-Kamil (d. 1238), and it is they who taught the author to make it. The recipe is one of very few in the medieval Arab culinary tradition to require pomelo (كبّاد, kubbād). Both the peel (which will be fried) and segments are used, together with wine vinegar, sweetened with honey or sugar. Other ingredients include toasted hazelnuts, the aṭrāf al-ṭīb spice blend, and mint. The mixture should be left for a couple of days to ferment away before it is good to eat. A wonderful accompaniment to many a cold and hot dish!

Spotlight on: Pears

Pears (Pirus communis)– like their cousin the apple – originated in the Caucasus and northeastern Anatolia. The fruit was already cultivated in Ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE, but it only spread throughout the Mediterranean in the Roman period. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (d. 287 BCE) discussed various techniques for growing them, whereas the naturalist Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) referred to forty-one varieties being available in Rome. Dioscorides recommended pears as an antidiarrheal medicine, but said that they are harmful when eaten on an empty stomach. More mysteriously, he claimed the ash of pear tree wood was an effective remedy for those choking from mushrooms, while cooking pears with mushrooms removed the latter’s harmful properties. Pears were much more popular than apples at the time but because pears can spoil very easily, they were often preserved after drying them, or in grape syrup, and the Romans even made a pear vinegar.

In the Arabic-speaking world, pears (كمّثرى, kummathra) were grown in a number of areas, especially the Levant, but also in Egypt. Sources also refer to Chinese, Sijistani and Khorasani pears as being particularly good varieties. Pears appear only once in the medieval Arabic culinary literature, as an optional ingredient in a 13th-century Andalusian fruit pudding.

Muslim physicians agreed with Dioscorides’ assessment of pears, but also recommended them to strengthen the stomach and suppress thirst. The fruit was used in a digestive conserve, made with sweet unripe pears submerged in honey and then slightly cooked.

In the Syrian dialect, pears are known as ‘ijjāṣ‘ (إجّاص), the usual word for plum in other varieties.

pears in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal
pears in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica (University of Bologna)

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

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, and 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.