Medieval Egyptian Kunafa

This is the ancestor of the favourite Ramadan sweet, which, in its modern version, is made with shredded phyllo soaked in butter or ghee, with a filling of a mixture of cheese or cream and sugar, and topped with pistachios, almonds or walnuts. After it is baked, it is drenched in syrup.

The origins of this sweet are to be found in Egypt; the word comes from the Coptic kenefiten, which denoted a kind of loaf or cake. It was very popular in the Middle Ages, and there are nearly twenty-five recipes across six cookery books from Syria, Egypt, and al-Andalus, between the 13th and 15th centuries. The medieval kunāfa was essentially a thin flatbread, equated with a ruqāq, which was usually fried in oil, rolled up, cut up or kept whole as a crepe. Honey is often involved.

The present recreation is based on a 15th-century Egyptian recipe for a ‘cooked (مطبوخ, matbūkh) kunāfa’ from The Sultan’s Feast. The dough is cut up into thin strips, like noodles, which are cooked in sesame oil, sugar and honey. Once everything has been sufficiently stirred, it’s time to fold in saffron-dyed blanched almonds or pistachios, before adding musk and rose water. According to the author it can be stored in a container and stay good for a year. I must admit I have not put this to the test — anyway, I think the real question, of course, is who would be able to keep this delicacy for that long without eating it!

This particular variety of kunāfa has survived in the Algerian mchelwech (المشلوش), a speciality of the city of Constantine, and, perhaps more suprisingly, the Uzbek national dessert Chak Chak.

Spotlight on: Chestnuts

The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was already well known in ancient Greece, and was called καστανία (the etymon of the Latin castanea) and ‘King’s acorns’ (διοσβάλανοι), whereas Dioscorides called them ‘Sardian acorns’ (βάλανος Σαρδιανή). They were often eaten boiled or roasted as a snack accompanying wine. Chestnut flour was sometimes used to make a bread, though this was considered of poor quality. There is only one recipe from Roman times for cooked and mashed chestnuts in a seasoned honey and vinegar sauce.

In medieval Arabic literature the chestnut was usually known as ‘shāhballūt‘ (شاه بلّوط), a Persian borrowing (itself a calque from the Greek διοσβάλανοι), alongside kastana (كستنة) and, in al-Andalus, qasṭal (قسطل). Its use in cooking was quite rare, with only one Near Eastern recipe. In the Andalusian recipe collections, chestnuts are called for in a total of four recipes. Interestingly enough, in one case, a stew with chicken meatballs, the recipe is listed as an ‘Eastern dish’. The increased use of the sweet chestnut in the Muslim West can be explained by that it was native to the area — indeed, to this day, the sweet chestnut is also known as ‘Spanish chestnut’.

Muslim physicians held that the chestnut were extremely nutritious — in fact more so than any other ‘grains’ — and that it was useful against poisons. However, it was deemed to be very slow to digest and should not be used for people, but only as pig feed.

chestnuts in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’

Tuniso-Andalusian Chestnut Stew

An unsual recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a stew with chicken meatballs and chestnuts, which are used as a sauce thickener. This is one of very few recipes requiring chestnuts, nearly all of them from the Andalusian collections, which contain two recipes each. Besides the chicken and fresh chestnuts (the author explains that one can use dried ones, too, but they have to be boiled first to soften them up), the recipe calls for coriander juice, salt, coriander seeds, pepper, onion juice and olive oil. The chestnuts are mashed and then added to the pot once the meatballs are done. Finally, a sprinkle of vinegar and — it’s an Andalusian recipe after all! — a layer of eggs to top the dish.

Mamluk anti-nausea drink

This is a recipe for a medieval Egyptian medicinal drink which was prescribed against nausea (قرف, qaraf). It is packed with vitamins due to the large number of fruits (the juice thereof) required to make it: sour orange, pomegranate, unripe grapes, and tamarind (steeped in wine vinegar before being expressed).

The method is straightforward as it is mainly a question of boiling the various juices at different stages of the process. Naturally, it needs spicing, which comes courtesy of the amazing atraf al-tib spice blend, whereas bunches of mint are used to stir the mixture. And since one can never have enough fruits, some chopped-up quince and limes (scored and the slits stuffed with black pepper and more atraf al-tib) are thrown in for good measure at the end. The result should have a syrupy consistency, and should be diluted with water before drinking. But feel free to add some crushed ice to give it that festive mocktail touch!

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)

Medieval aphrodisiac pigeon

This is a wonderful recipe from ‘The Sultan’s Sex Potions‘, a book on aphrodisiacs, originally titled Kitāb albāb al-Bāhiyya wa ‘l-tarākīb al-sultāniyya (كتاب ألباب الباهية والتراكيب السلطانية, ‘The Book of Choice Sexual Stimulants and the Sultan’s Mixtures’) and authored by the famous astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274), whose work on planetary theory inspired Copernicus.

The recipe is a variation on one made with sparrows. The pigeon meat is chopped into pea-sized pieces and then cooked through in chickpea water. Before serving, it is sprinkled with ginger, long pepper and cinnamon. It is eaten with unleavened bread, which is also made using chickpea water, ‘in the manner of the sages’, as the author informs us. A great dish for Valentine’s Day!

Spotlight on: Patridge

Today, this usually refers to the Perdrix perdrix, a game bird from the family Phasianida, which also includes the feasant, chicken and grouse. Its native area is to be found in East Asia. It is also known as the ‘grey partridge’ to distinguish it from varieties in the Alectoris family, most notable among them the red-legged partridge, which is particularly found in southern Europe. It was already known in Ancient Greece where it was even farmed, while the Romans thought partridge eggs were beneficial for invalids.

The meat of the partridge — known in Arabic as ḥajal (حجل) or qabaj (قبج) — was considered to have aphrodisiac qualities as well as being very nutritional, despite the fact that it is quite dense, slowly digested (though some scholars stated the opposite), and constipating. It was suggested to leave it after slaughtering so as to tenderize it, something which is still recommended today, of course, for game birds. According to the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248), partridge liver was useful against epilepsy, while its its bile was used in the treatment of eye diseases (e.g. catarract) and to improve the sight, as well as increasing intelligence and strengthening the memory! Partridge eggs cooked in vinegar were thought to be an effective medicine against stomach aches and colic. His compatriot Ibn Khalsun (13th c.) held that the male partridge is the best to eat as it strengthens the stomach, but can cause fevers to those suffering from colic, though this can be remedied by frying the bird in sweet almond oil and crusting it with egg yolks.

In the culinary tradition, partridge appears very sparingly, particularly in the Near East, where it is called for in only one Abbasid recipe (alongside lark, which was equally rare), in a chapter of dishes ‘that nourish those with sick bodies’. The dish is a stew (maraq) with onion, galangal, sumac, raisins and pomegranate, with the result being similar to a pottage. In another case, partridge is mentioned as an ingredient in a zirbāja (زيرباجة) for women wishing to lose weight.

The situation was very different in Muslim Spain and North Africa and The Exile’s Cookbook contains no fewer than five dishes with partridge, prepared in a variety of ways, in a stew, on a spit and, in one case, coated with egg whites mixed with a little flour and breadcrumbs.

Partridges in Ibn Bakhtishu’s Book on The Benefits of Animals (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 13th c,)

Medieval Syrian Stuffed Chicken

We are still in the sour (Seville) orange season and what better way to use them than in this recreation of a wonderful recipe from a 13th-century text compiled in Aleppo for a stuffed chicken with sour oranges, parsley, pistachios, pepper, coriander, caraway, mint, rue, salt and sugar. The recipe comes in a number of variations and can also be made with lemon juice or verjuice (sour grape juice). Though our modern sweet orange was not around in that period, it is an obvious — and tasty — substitute in case you don’t have any sour oranges to hand. But there’s more… You should leave a bit of the stuffing aside and then mix it with some chicken broth and lemon juice into a tangy dip for that tender roasted chicken!

Andalusian honeyed jar cake

A recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a jar-shaped cake, though in the text it is called an isfanj (إسفنج), which usually denotes a doughnut. It is made by making a smooth slack dough with semolina flour. After it has risen, it is placed in an earthenware jar generously coated with olive oil. The dough should come up to the neck of the jar and in the middle a stick — the text specifies that it is should be a ‘palm frond stalk or cane reed without its knots’ — smeared with olive oil is placed. Once this is done, it is time to bake the cake. When it is ready, the stick is removed and some honey and clarified butter (samn) is poured down the hole. It is left to settle before breaking the jar and liberating the cake! But be careful that the cake comes out in one piece! One can imagine that this might have been done by the medieval cooks at the table to wow diners with their expertise! Of course, the adage at the time was ‘more is more’, and so before eating it, some more clarified butter and honey is poured down the hole in the middle of the cake, which is also given a good dusting with cinnamon. A fluffy honey delight, no mistake!!