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

Medieval Andalusian Tuna and Pomelo Vinegar Dish

This extraordinary recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is one of the few in the Arab culinary tradition that requires tuna — dried tuna, no less. But is doesn’t stop there; what makes it even more special is that it offers an opportuntiy to use the freshly made batch of that gorgeous pomelo vinegar.

The dish is called mushamma’ (مشمّع), which literally means ‘waxed’ (from sham’/شمع, ‘wax’), but in Andalusian Arabic was also used to refer to dried meat or fish. It couldn’t be simpler to make; the tuna is cut into strips and then fried in olive oil. When it is done, garlic is fried in the same oil before the tuna is returned to the pan to soak up the flavours of the garlic. Once that is done, it is time to serve with a sprinkling of the pomelo vinegar (though according to the recipe you can also use lime or sour grape vinegar). According to the recipe, one can also make a sauce with the vinegar and garlic and then drench the tuna with it, which is exactly what I did! A very unusual recipe and a must-try, if you ask me! The combination yields a very umami taste that is unlike anything I’ve ever had.

Andalusian venison with chickpeas

This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is rather unusual in that it calls for the meat of “a deer, bovine antelope, ass, mountain goat or gazelle – whichever is available to you.” As I had just eaten my last gazelle and mountain goat last week, I had to make do with just venison. The meat is cooked with a variety of spices (coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, etc.), as well as onions, murri, almonds, and, of course, chickpeas. I also added home-grown fennel and oregano. Saffron is included later on for colouring and vinegar, well because it just has to be in everything! Besides the above animals, the author suggests using hare, rabbit and — wait for it — hedgehog (in fact, this is the only cookery book to mention eating this animal).

Spotlight on: Cucumber

The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes gourds and melons, and its cultivation history goes back at least 4,000 years. It probably originated on the Indian sub-Continent, but was already known to the ancient Mesoptamians and Greeks.

The route taken by the cucumber from its Indian homeland to the Mediterranean is revealed in the common Arabic words for it — khiyār (خيار) and qiththā (قثاء). The former is a Persian loanword, whereas the latter goes back to the Assyrian qiššū (which may, in fact, be related to the older Sumerian úkuš). The word qiththā ((or quththā’) appears in the Qur’ān (2:61) and also referred to the snake-cucumber, aka snake melon (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus), which was sometimes known as faqqūs in the literature. Both terms are also thought to denote the chate melon (Cucumis melo var. chate). Unripe snake lemons, called ‘ajjur (related to ʿajr, ‘green, unripe’) appear in a number of Syrian and Egyptian cookery books, as an ingredient in stews, or topped or stuffed with meat and vegetables. Cucumbers are also called for in cold dishes (بوارد, bawārid), pickled, or used as a garnish. Sometimes, the juice extracted from cucumber pulp is also mentioned. In any event, cucumbers were more used in the Near East and were a rarity in Andalusian and North African cuisines.

In the medical tradition, the cucumber’s cold and moist properties caused it to be prescribed for a hot liver, as a diuretic and antipyretic, but it was said to cause stomach aches. It was also used to sweeten the breath. The best qiththā’ were said to be from Nisabur.

illustration of cucumbers in Tacuinum Sanitatis.
some 13th-century Syrian pickled cucumber recipes

Andalusian Pomelo Vinegar

After making Syrian pickled pomelo, the time came to make a vinegar with this rarely used fruit in the medieval Arab culinary tradition. The recipe was taken from The Exile’s Cookbook, which is the only treatise to refer to a zanbū‘ (زنبوع), which in the East was known as kubbād (kabbād). Pomelo vinegar is called for in a number of recipes, including beef and lamb stews, and in a sauce for grilled meat and fried dried tuna.

The recreation was patterned on the recipe for lime vinegar and is quite simple. The juice of the pomelos is extracted and decanted to glass jars and then salt is added. They should be left out in the sun and strained a couple of times more, after which the vinegar is ready for use. The author recommends sealing the jars with olive oil for storage.

If, like me, you’ve never had pomelo vinegar, it has a wonderfully tangy flavour. In fact, I discovered it works very well as a dip — possibly mixed with olive oil — for bread.

Medieval Andalusian zalābiyya

The recipe for this fritter was taken from the The Exile’s Cookbook, and differs from an earlier zalābiyya/zulābiyya (زلابية) recreation based on another cookery book in that yeast is added to make a batter of medium consistency. The process is essentially the same as that found already in the Abbasid tradition and involves dripping the batter into a pan in which olive oil has been heated up. The author suggests a thimble-sized cup with a small hole in the bottom, but I went old school and used a pierced coconut shell, which is recommended in an earlier Abbasid recipe. Failing that, a funnel does the trick as well, of course!

The fun part is that you make shapes — lattices, circles, and so on (in fact, anything you like!). Once the zalābiyya pieces are done, they’re taken out of the pan and drenched in boiled skimmed honey. Leave them to dry a bit and then serve — heaven on a plate!

Unfortunately, physicians had a less than favourable view of these delightful fritters since zalābiyya were said to be slow to digest; harmful to the liver, spleen and kidneys; to cause blockages and thirst. On the other hand, it is possible that we should thank some of those physicians, such as the 12th-century physician al-Isrā’ilī, who recommended eating zalābiyya with honey to counter some of these harmful properties.

The modern descendants of this sweet include the North African zlabia, the Egyptian and Levantine mushabbak, the Indian jalebi, or the North American funnel cake. In other places, such as Egypt, the word refers to a deep-fried doughnut, known elsewhere as ‘awwāma (عوّامة, ‘floater’), luqmat al-Qāḍī (لقمة القاضي, ‘the judge’s morsel’) or luqayma (لقيمة, ‘little morsel’), depending on the region. In Egypt and the Levant, the medieval zalābiyya has also survived, but under the name of mushabbak (‘latticed’).

Spotlight on: Salt

Both sea and rock salt were known in Antiquity. It was already quarried in Ancient Egypt and the Romans started producing salt on a very large scale. It was especially important for preserving food but salt was also used in cooking; in Greek times already it was sprinkled on meat roasts and fish, whereas there are references to various kinds of seasoned salts, added with, for instance, thyme or cumin. However, the most common salting agent was garum. According to the botanist Dioscorides, the best salt was white, free of stones and dirt, dense and smooth. He particularly recommended salt quarried in Libya, Cyprus and Sicily, and that from marshlands.

Pre-Islamic Arabs already used salt to season their food, but it also played an important role in some of their rites, as in an oath-swearing underpinning alliances. Though primarily referring to table salt (sodium chloride), the Arabic word milḥ (ملح) can also denote other salt-like substances, such as natron. The literature distinguishes between sea salt (ملح بحري, milḥ baḥrī ) and rock salt (ملح برّي, milḥ barrī , i.e. ‘soil salt’). Salt was quarried in various areas (e.g. Persia) or acquired from salt marshes. A premium type or rock salt was known as milḥ darānī, or andarānī, which was considered the purest, i.e. devoid of any dust or rock.

Salt is one of the most used spices and condiments in mediaeval Arab cuisine, both as a seasoning and to preserve various kinds of foods, as well as in pickling. Besides the salting of meat and fish, the sources also include recipes for salted fruit, especially lemons. Some authors recommended adding salt at the end since it can slow down the cooking time of other ingredients. The modern pair of salt and pepper co-occur in half of the recipes requiring salt (especially with fish), and is often also used in dishes including almonds or cassia. Meat was washed with hot water and salt before cooking it. Similarly, aubergine was soaked in salt and water to remove the bitterness. One of the popular dishes in the early Abbasid tradition were mā’ wa milḥ (‘water and salt’) stews, which involved meat being cooked in a broth of water and salt.

The 12th-century physician al-Isrā’ilī recommended using salt to balance food (e.g. fish), when food has no flavour (e.g. gourd); to dry out excessively moist food; and to remove greasiness and bad odours (e.g. fatty and greasy meats); and to reduce sourness.

As a condiment, salt was often mixed and toasted with other spices (e.g. coriander, sesame, nigella, hemp seeds, poppy seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, asafoetida leaves and anise) into milḥ muṭayyab (ملح مطيّب, ‘seasoned salt’). It could also be dyed, for instance, with sumac or saffron, or even indigo.

Salt was put to some unusual use in agriculture; for instance, it was said that to extend the life of a pear tree, it should be covered with salt, which would prevent the fruit from rotting.

Salt was a vector of social and religious connotations as well To the ancient Greeks already sharing salt signified the sharing of a meal but, by extension, hospitality and the establishment of friendship ties. In Arabic, the saying ‘there is bread and salt between us’ (بيننا خبز وملح) still has this meaning.

Various sayings of the Prophet (hadith) commend the use of salt: it is required to make food flavoursome (لا يَصْلُحُ الطعام إلا بالمِلح), and is one of the four divine blessings sent down from the heavens, together with iron, fire and water (أَنزَلَ أربعَ بَرَكاتٍ من السماء إلى الأرض: الحديد والنار والماء والملح). The Prophet is even said to have advised making salt the basis of food because it cures seventy-two illnesses, among them, leprosy, and aches in the tooth, throat and belly.

In Islamic medicine, salt was considered hot and dry in the second degree, with bitter, astringent and dissolvent properties, whereas darānī salt expels wind. Al-Isrā’ilī said salt was effective against malignant ulcers, while Ibn Sīnā recommended it as an antidote for scorpion bites; and to counter the ill effects of opium.

salt in Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (British Library)
selling salt in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s work, Tacuinum sanitatis (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

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.

Andalusian veal and plum stew

This delicate stew from The Exile’s Cookbook is made with plums — probably damson — known in Andalusian Arabic by the very poetic name of ʿayn al-baqar (عين البقر, ‘cows’ eyes’), and this is how they appear in the dish as well! The recipe is similar to another stew, known as Murūziyya (مروزية), which in contemporary Moroccan cuisine denotes a honeyed lamb tajine sometimes including plums. Interestingly enough, the author recounts that these plums were imported from ‘the land of the Christians – may Allah destroy it!’

The recipe calls for prime veal cuts, which are cooked in olive oil, pepper, coriander, cumin, onion and ‘good-quality’ murrī. In the next stage, the damson plums — soaked in some vinegar — are added, and finally some saffron for colouring. The author suggests a variation without onions, but with almonds, chickpeas and cloves of garlic.

The accompaniment to this dish? Well, that just has to be couscous of course!

Spotlight on: Mint

The history of the herb is a long one and the ancient Egyptians already used it as a digestive and anti-flatulent. Ancient Greek scholars like Dioscorides believed that mint could prevent women from becoming pregnant, while its juice was thought to staunch blood, arouse sexual desire, and stop hiccups, vomiting and cholera. However, there is little evidence of the use of mint in Greek food and dining.

In Arabic, the word for ‘mint’ is na’na’ (نعناع, نعنع), though, like in Antiquity, it did not have the modern meaning of peppermint (Mentha × piperita) since this is a a cross between watermint and spearmint (Mentha spicata subsp. spicata) and was only described in the late 17th century. Other words for mint varieties included ḥabaq bustānī (حبق بستاني) and fūdhanj (فوذنج), also spelled fūtanj (فوتنج). The latter word is a Middle Persian borrowing, though it probably goes back to a Sanskrit word for several fragrant plants and usually referred to varieties of mint growing next to rivers (Mentha aquatica; fūtanj nahrī/فوتنج نهري), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium; fūtanj barrī/ فوتنج برِّي) , as well as wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare; fūtanj jabalī/فوتنج جبلي ). Besides spearmint, na’na’ often probably referred to whorled mint (Mentha × verticillata), as well as other subspecies.

Mint is one of the most frequently used herbs in medieval Arab cuisine, and was often also added at the end, for decoration and as a flavour enhancer. It was used fresh and dried, as well juiced; in savoury dishes, it is called for in about a quarter of dishes in Andalusian, Iraqi and Syrian treatises, and in a third of Egyptian ones.

Muslim phsyicians claimed mint strengthens and heats the stomach, and suppresses hiccups. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) recommended it to increase sexual desire, whereas a few bunches of mint, together with pomegranate seeds are useful against cholera and vomiting. Ibn Jazla (11th c.) suggested mint juice to staunch blood, and a mint compress for thickening breast milk. According to al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), water mint makes food appetizing, calms nausea, relieves vomiting and diarrhea, and kills worms.

mint (na’na’) in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (British Library)
water mint in a 9th-century copy of Dioscorides’ text (BNF)