Medieval Egyptian cottage cheese

This recipe for qanbarīs (قنبريس) is from a 15th-century cookery book and requires vinegar and milk. After boiling the vinegar, the milk is poured in and then the mixture is left overnight to coagulate. It was a particular favourite of the author, who added that some people could not enjoy their food unless there was cheese on the table. Qanbarīs was often sold dried and then dissolved when needed. According to the author of a 13th-century Syrian treatise, the best kind came from Baalbek, the city in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley best known for its magnificent Roman temple complex.

Andalusian stuffed eggs (بَيْض مَحْشُو, bayḍ maḥshū)

Eggs were a particular favourite in Muslim Spain, as attested by the many recipes that require them. This delightful 13th-century dish is an egg stuffed with … egg! After boiling the eggs, the yolks are removed and then beaten together with various spices to make a paste, which is then stuffed inside the eggs before frying them in olive oil. Sprinkle on rue, spikenard and cinnamon before serving.

Andalusian ‘counterfeit’ lentils

The importance of meat in medieaval Arab cuisine was such that vegetarian dishes were known as ‘counterfeit’ (مزوّرات, muzawwarāt) as they were intended to copy meat dishes, in an attempt to make the diner eat them! Non-meat dishes were associated with Christians (during Lent) and the sick. This 13th-century Andalusian recipe falls in the latter category and is allegedly useful against tertian and acute fevers (حُمَّى الغِبّ والحمّايات الحادّة). It is prepared by boiling and washing lentils and then cooking them with some gourd, chard, cucumber, vinegar, coriander, cumin, cassia and saffron. The resultant taste should be subtly sweet and sour, and the dish should be served cold.

No 100! Taro root (قُلْقاس , qulqās)

The origins of this plant (Colocasia esculenta/antiquorum) lie in East Asia, presumably the Indochinese Peninsula, and it is thought to be one of the oldest domesticated food plants. In the Middle East, the taro first made its appearance in Mesopotamia, sometime before or around the 10th century, and later became associated with Egypt. Its early history in Antiquity is shrouded in mystery, not least because the colocasia of the ancient Greeks initially denoted the Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), and only came to refer to the taro around the fourth century. Prior to this, taro was known as aron, which gave the Latin arum. Similar to a small hairy potato in appearance, it has a very starchy flavour. After the potato was introduced, the taro gradually fell out of favour in many places.

Only the root of the plant was eaten, almost always cooked, or fried, as in mediaeval Arab cooking. Use of the taro appears to have increased after the thirteenth century as there is only one recipe requiring it prior to that. It is also worth noting that taro is not found in the culinary treatises of the Islamic West, that is to say North Africa and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) likened it to saltwort, and said that it was salty, astringent, diuretic, and purging. According to the 11th-century Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, taro stimulates sexual desire. The 14th-century Moroccan globetrotter Ibn Baṭṭūṭa would probably have disagreed since he partook of some taro in Mali, where it was the people’s favourite food, and was ill for two months. A companion of his was less lucky and died after eating it. Today taro is commonly used in the cuisines of Asia (where the purple variety is favoured), the Caribbean (where it is referred to as eddo) and, especially, the Pacific Islands (where it is also known as poi).

Fried cauliflower

In case you have any cauliflower left from pickling, you might want to try this Syrian recipe for battered and fried cauliflower pieces. The batter is made with eggs, flour, olive oil, spices, walnuts, rue and parsley. Use sesame or olive oil to fry the cauliflower. [Wusla, No. 8.114] As you can eat the dish both hot and cold, it’s a great addition to a picnic! And why not try it as a side with a curry, instead of aloo gobi?

Fried fish-shaped gourd

A 13th-century vegetarian dish which is made by cutting gourd into the shape of a fish before frying it in a batter made of eggs and flour seasoned with cinnamon and coriander. It is served sprinkled with vinegar, murri (a fermented barley condiment which can be replaced with soya sauce) and coriander juice. Vegetarian dishes were commonly made to look like meat or fish dishes in order to entice diners. Indeed, the author introduces the recipe by stating that the dish is able to “mislead sick people who crave fish and the like.” [Andalusian, fol. 54r.]

Cold vegetable and yoghurt dish

This recipe is one of a number of cold snacks (known as بوارد, bawārid) found in what is thought to be the earliest cookery manual (10th century). These cold dishes were served prior to the main course and eaten with bread. This particular dish is highly nutritional as well as very simple to make. It requires gourd, chard, mallow and purslane added with sweet yoghurt, mixed with ground mustard and olive oil. Though not in the original recipe, it seemed a good idea to decorate with some freshly sliced cucumber! It is wonderful with some crusty bread and makes for a perfect picnic dish! [al-Warraq, 1987, p. 118]