Eating out

Medieval Street Food

Kebab cooks in the market in Istanbul (Surname-i Hümayun, 1582)

It is no exaggeration to state that the Middle East has always had a vibrant street food culture.

For instance, a visitor to Jerusalem in the 1480s remarked on this aspect, which he contrasted with European habits at the time:

“I went down…  into the city, to the market-place and the street of the cooks, where I saw a great abundance of things for sale, a vast multitude of people, and many kitchens ; for men do not cook in their own houses, as they do in our country, but buy their food cooked from the public cooks, who dress meat exceeding cleanly in open kitchens.” (The Book of the Wanderings of the Brother Felix Fabre, London, 1893., Vol. II-1, p. 111)

However, far less convincing — and refuted by historic evidence — is his theory that this was because “There is no woman ever seen near the fire—nay, no woman is so bold as even to enter these kitchens, for the Saracens loathe food cooked by women like poison. Wherefore throughout all the East no woman knows how to bake a cake, but men alone are cooks.” (ibid.)

The magnitude of public food production becomes clear from the importance attached to it by market inspectors, who were tasked with countering fraudulent practices.