Dates workshop at COP28

I attended COP28 (30th November-12th December) in Dubai (UAE) to take part in an exciting project relating to food sustainability and local heritage, in collaboration with the Barakat Trust and Al Ghadeer Emirati Crafts, a pioneering project under the aegis of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Red Crescent Authority. The aim of the association is to empower local craftswomen by providing them with a sustainable source of revenue.

At the COP28 site, I curated a date tasting workshop through a number of carefully selected recipes based on the medieval culinary sources from the 8th to the 15th centuries. The dishes included stuffed honeyed dates, a meat-and-date stew (tamriyya), a milky date pudding (khabis) and a cereal-based date drink (subiya).

Dried tuna with aubergine

A unique recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook, which is also the only medieval Arabic cookery book to include recipes with tuna, in this case dried tuna. The fish is cut up and lightly fried before being cooked with pre-boiled aubergines, onion, olive oil, pepper, coriander and cumin. If one does not wish to use onion, then, so the author informs us, you can add peeled garlic, murrī and vinegar. Either way, the dish is cooked over fire and then finished off in the oven to allow it to brown. After it’s cooled down, it’s ready to eat!
However, a word of warning from the author: as fish are harmful to certain temperaments, one should drink some spice honey syrup afterwards — the recipe for that one will follow soon.

Medieval wheat harisa with veal

This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook is an Andalusian twist on a classic Arab dish, which goes back to pre-Islamic times. It is made with crushed wheat — the Arabic word harīsa (هريسة) is derived from a verb meaning ‘to mash’ –, which is slow-cooked and then added with fatty veal meat and suet in order to ensure a gluey consistency. But that’s only the half of it — the author recommends keeping some of the harīsa mixture to one side and frying it into patties, which are then added on top as a garnish, together with egg yolks and — if you have any — sparrows (!). A sprinkling of cinnamon, and then it’s time to serve! If you don’t have veal, feel free to use mutton or chicken, while the wheat can be subsituted for rice. Descendants of this dish are still around today, most notably the harees (هريس) of the Gulf and the Armenian harisseh.

Spotlight on: Sugar

Believed to have originated in New Guinea in around 8000 BC, thence moving to India where it was domesticated before spreading to Iran in the 7th century. Though the ancient Greeks knew of sugar, it is uncertain whether it was the crystallized variety. There is no evidence of its use in cooking in Antiquity and Apicius’ manual does not contain any recipes requiring sugar. From Iran, sugar cane spread westward along the Mediterranean, reaching Egypt in the 8th century and al-Andalus by the 11th century.

Its origins are revealed in the terminology, with the Arabic word for sugar, sukkar (سكّر) being a borrowing from the Persian shakar (shakkar), itself a corruption of the Sanskrit sakkarā which referred to the juice from the sugar cane (قصب السكر, qasab al-sukkar) as well as hard sugar.

It was an expensive ingredient, which also enjoyed the imprimatur of physicians associated with the hospital of Jundishapur in Iran, several of whom would ply their trade at the Abbasid courts. However, the Andalusian physician Ibn Zuhr, for his part, wrote a treatise in which he expressed a preference of honey over sugar, claiming that doctors only started using sugar in all of their preparations in an attempt to pander to the rarefied interests of their patrons.

This explains why in the mediaeval Arab culinary treatises which reflect the cuisine of elite, sugar appears as the most-used sweetener in all kinds of dishes, though not infrequently in conjunction with honey, rose water and/or and rose-water syrup. The best variety of sugar was the white translucent ṭabarzad (طبرزد) which was made with milk. Other varieties included fānīd (فانيد) — made by adding sweet almond oil of finely-ground white flour to the decoction process) — and Sulaymānī (سليماني) sugar, which was produced from ‘red sugar” (sukkar aḥmar), which was broken into pieces and cooked to remove any impurities.

When making sugar, the boiled juice, called “maḥlab” (محلب, ‘milk’), was poured into cone- shaped earthenware moulds (أبلج/ublūj, pl. أباليج/abālīj), which are wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, resulting in conical sugar loaves. Sugar was sold at market with the required quantity grated, or chopped off with a dedicated axe. Culinary recipes often refer to sugar being crushed and sifted.

Medicinally, sugar was said to be laxative, purgative and is useful against excess yellow bile in the stomach. It clears blockages. Old sugar expels phlegm from the stomach, while ṭabarzad prevents vomiting.

The Arabs introduced sugar to Europe and illustration below shows the making of sugar in the late 16th-century; sugar cane is cut and heated before being cooled and cut into shapes. Sugar cane remained the source of sugar until the development of the sugar beet in the 18th century.

Jan Collaert I, Nova Reperta, ca 1600 [The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1949]

Medieval Chicken Pie

This is a recreation of an Abbasid pie known as maghmuma (مغمومة), i.e. ‘concealed’, in that the content is covered by a top sheet of dough. As it was cooked in a tannūr (clay oven), it is also a tannūriyya. The principle is simple — and decidedly modern — one; after lining the bottom of a pan with dough, the chicken pieces are placed on top, after which a variety of spices (including coriander, spikenard, cloves and pepper) and wine vinegar and murrī are added, though for this recreation the variant with raisins and pomegranate seeds was used, alongside eggs and olive oil. Then, it is time to put the roof on the pie! The recipe states that it should be lowered into the tannūr, but your standard kitchen oven works just as well. A true delight.

Andalusian battered aubergine bites

A wonderful 13th-century vegetarian recipe for fried battered aubergine — a much-used vegetable in Andalusian cuisine — from The Exile’s Cookbook. The dish was known as al-mughaffar (المغفّر), meaning ‘the protected one’, in reference to the batter covering the aubergine.

It requires sweet aubergines, which after being cut up, are boiled before being battered with a mixture of flour, eggs, spices like pepper, saffron and coriander, as well as a sprinkle of murrī. After the batter acquires the required thickness, it’s time to dredge the aubergine slices and fry them until golden brown. It is served with a sprinkling of murrī, but it was sometimes also accompanied by a sauce made with murrī, pepper, coriander, cumin, oregano and garlic.

Spotlight on: Artichokes

The modern globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a member of the thistle family and is a cultivated offspring of the wild cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) . The development of the artichoke is still shrouded in mystery, with both North Africa and Sicily being possible birth places. In Antiquity only cardoon was known, and the Roman natural historian Pliny claimed it was preserved in honey-vinegar with silphium and cumin. There is no evidence that the artichoke was already cultivated then.

In Modern Arabic, the artichoke is known as ardī shawkī (أرضي شوكي) or khurshuf (خرشف); only the latter was used in pre-modern times, with variant spellings kharshaf, khurshūf and ḥarshaf. However, these terms denoted all varieties of artichoke and cardoon. According to the scholar Abū Ḥanīfa al-Dinawari (d. 895), khurshuf resembled field mustard. Additionally, the artichoke/cardoon was also known as kanjar (also kangar) and ʿakkūb and, in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), qannāriya (a borrowing from the Greek κυνάρα). Some scholars, like Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), considered ḥarshaf a kind of kankar. The latter is related to the name of the gum resin of the artichoke, kankarzad (from the Persian kangar-zhad).

The artichoke (and/or the cardoon) was probably introduced into European cuisines by the Arabs, whose word for the vegetable resulted in the Italian carciofo, Spanish alcachofa and Portuguese alcachofra.

Today, the word ʿakkūb — a borrowing from Syriac — no longer refers to the artichoke or cardoon, but to another thistle plant, Gundelia (tournefortii), which has a similar taste to the artichoke and is native to the Levant, where it grows in rocky soil. It is collected from the wild in early spring, and is particularly associated today with Palestinian cuisine; it is cooked in a variety of ways, with meat, tomatoes, and onions and olive oil.

The artichoke was used only very rarely in medieval Arab cuisine; the oldest recipe goes back to the earliest Abbasid tradition, in a yoghurt dish known as jājaq (جاجق), a (vegetarian) yoghurt dish. Interestingly enough, a later Egyptian collection includes three variants of this recipe but none of them calls for artichoke. The only other recipes are found in 13th-century Andalusian cookery books, with four in The Exile’s Cookbook, one with meat and three without. One of them fries them in olive oil, very similar to the preparation of the Gundelia described above. In another recipe from the book, cardoon flowers are recommended for curdling milk to make a honeyed curd, which was eaten with fresh figs.

Medicinally, artichokes (or cardoons) were said to stimulate sexual desire and serve as a diuretic and laxative. When used externally in a compress, the vegetable is allegedly useful against alopecia, while washing one’s hair with its water removes lice! expels phlegm

hurshuf in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (كتاب الأدوية المفردة)
hurshuf in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (عجائب المخلوقات)

Medieval Fried Shrimp

This is a unique dish from 13th-century al-Andalus and North Africa from The Exile’s Cookbook for shrimp — known as qamarun (قمرون), a borowing from the Latin cammarus. Though there are a few recipes requiring shrimp in Abbasid cuisine, this is the only one in the medieval Arab culinary tradition that calls for whole shrimp. And not just any shrimp — the author specifies that it was made with shrimp from the rivers of the Seville region which are also found in the river of Bijāya, in present-day Algeria.

After frying the shrimp, they are drizzled with murrī, and sprinkled with oregano, salt, pepper and cinnamon before serving. The spice mixture is very unusual but it works a treat! And, what’s more, apparently the dish also has a medicinal use in that it is prescribed for breaking up calculi.

Medieval Andalusian Walnut Confection

This is a recreation of a recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook but ultimately goes back to Sasanid Persia. Its origins are revealed in its name jawzīnaq (جوزينق, with jawz meaning ‘walnut’), and the earliest mention goes back to a 6th-century Pahlavi (Middle Persian) text. In the Abbasid culinary tradition, it was usually known as jawzīnaj and denoted sheets of dough stuffed with nuts, sugar, etc.

As this is the very short-lived season for wet walnuts, this sweet was the ideal opportunity to put them to good use. Half of the walnuts are boiled and skinned, with the other half being used to extract the oil that will be used later on. The crushed walnuts are kneaded into a smooth mixture — ‘with a brain-like consistency’ –, with sugar on a surface smeared with the expressed walnut oil. Then it’s just a question of shaping the mixture, cutting it up into mouth-sized morsels, and sprinkling on sugar, pepper, cinnamon and cassia.

The author mentions a variation with boiled honey which results in a more elastic result, whereas he suggests adding all of the aromatic spices you have to hand, especially camphor since that is ‘the height of perfection.’ But that, as they say, will be for another day!

Spotlight on: Melon

The exact place of origin of the common melon (Cucumis melo) is unidentified to date but it is widely accepted that it somewhere in the area between the Mediterranean and northern India. The variety eaten in Antiquity was the cucumber-shaped chate melon (Cucumis melo var. Chate), rather than the sweet fruit of today.

The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is an unrelated species that is native of (west) Africa, as is its sister species, the colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis) — most commonly known as ḥanẓal (حنظل) in Arabic –, which was never eaten, due to its bitterness. The oldest attested use of the watermelon in the Mediterranean may go back to Egypt in the second millennium BCE. Indeed, the Arabic word for it, biṭṭīkh (بطّيخ), is a descendant of the ancient Egyptian bddw-k’, which became pi-betuke (pi-betikhe) in Coptic, though it has been suggested that this actually denoted the aubergine, and was only later transferred to the watermelon. The depictions of the fruit have also been called into doubt and are said to show the colocynth, rather than the watermelon. The wild ancestor of the watermelon was very different from today’s varieties, particularly in that it was more bitter than sweet.

A more plausible hypothesis of the development of the watermelon is that it travelled eastward and after cultivation in India returned west, courtesy of the Arab merchants, who also introduced the fruit to Europe. Support for this hypothesis may be found in the fact that medieval Arabic scholars often distinguished between a number of watermelon varieties, all of which hail from the east: Falasṭīnī (Palestinian), Shāmī (Syrian), Hindī (Indian) and Sindī (from the Sind, i.e. north-west India).

In Arabic, dullāʿ (دلاع) and biṭṭīkh were not uncommonly used interchangeably for both the common melon and the watermelon; the former word is of Berber origin and explains why this is the still the most common word for watermelon in North African vernaculars. The term shammām (شمّام) is applied only to the sweet (cantaloupe) melon.

In the medieval Arabic culinary tradition, melons are used relatively rarely. There are some savoury recipes for snake melon (‘ajjūr, عجّور) used in savoury recipes in Syrian and Egyptian collections, whereas the latter also contain a chate melon confection. In the early Abbasid tradition, the watermelon appears in some judhāba and fālūdhaj recipes. Additionally, the rind was used in hand-washing powders, whereas the dried ground peel was said to make food cook quickly.

Medicinally, opinions on the benefits of watermelon varied somewhat. According to some, the watermelon was slow to be digested and generates thick blood. Others held that all kinds of melon are beneficial for coughs, kidneys, and ulcers in the lungs and bladder. Al-Qazwini recommended soaking watermelon seeds in honey and milk to ensure its fruit will be very sweet.

The watermelon enjoyed much favour in religion as well, as shown by the following hadith (saying of the Prophet): “Enjoy the watermelon and its fruit, for its juice is a mercy, and its sweetness is like the sweetness of faith. Whoever takes a morsel of watermelon, Allah writes for him seventy thousand good deeds and erases from him seventy thousand misdeeds.”

description of melons in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’
Sweet melons in the Tacuinum Sanitatis (1490, Vienna), the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-Sihha