Pickled fennel trio

The recipes for these delicious condiments are from a 13th-century cookbook produced in Ayyubid Syria. They are as simple to make as they are tasty and involve using medium-cut fennel stems pickled with vinegar, and then sweetened with either sugar or honey. The third variation includes sour yoghurt as well as onions, mint, rue , tarragon, and olive oil. All three have a wonderfully tart taste, and are a great side to all manner of dishes, including sandwiches!

Galangal, galingale

A variety of ginger from Southeast Asia, galangal (Alpinia galanga) is known in Arabic as khawlanjān/khūlanjān (خولنجان), a borrowing from Persian. The aromatic dried root was used in cooking and medicine (in electuaries) in both Europe and the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. Galangal was recommended by physicians for its digestive properties and and prescribed for the treatment of colic, heartburn, and sciatica. It was also considered effective as an aphrodisiac and breath sweetener. According to the 13th-century Andalusian pharmacologist Ibn Khalsun, galangal should be used especially in winter, due to its strength. Today, it is mostly associated with Indonesian cuisine, where it is known as lengkuas, but is also commonly found in Thai dishes, such as the famous Tom Yam. It is sold either whole, or in powdered form.

The world’s oldest nougat recipe

Although the Arabs probably inherited nougat from the Persians, the oldest recorded recipes (six in total) are found in a 10th-century cookery book, where it is called nāṭif (ناطف). There are some recipes for this delicacy in other mediaeval Arabic cookery books, though it is conspicuous by its absence from those compiled in Egypt. In any case, making nougat was serious business, and required a number of dedicated utensils, including a round copper pot for boiling it, a wooden spatula for beating it, as well as a rolling pin and wooden board or marble slab for spreading it out. Even the design of the pot was carefully prescribed; it should have a rounded bottom and three legs to stop it from spinning around when beating and whitening the nougat on a wooden board. It is a bit tricky and labour-intensive to make, but the results are worth it! The recipe recreated here is that for a Harrani nougat, named after the city it allegedly came from (present-day Harran in Turkey). It requires about 1.7 kg of honey, as well as egg-whites, various spices and seeds (e.g. cassia, cloves, spikenard, hemp seeds), and a plethora of fruits and nuts (e.g. almonds, pistachios, dried cocounut). In addition to its cholesterol-enhancing qualities, it was also said to be hard to digest and to cause blockages. Then again, a good thing merits sacrifices! At least, that is what royalty must have thought, too, as the same book contains a nougat recipe made for the great caliph al-Ma’mun as a travel snack ( a bit like our trail mix or energy bar), with the author adding that “one can take it along wherever one goes and it lasts for as long as you like.” The delicacy spread throughout the Mediterranean but it is probably in Malta that it achieved the highest status as the emblematic festa  food; as the Maltese saying goes: Festa bla qubbajd mhix festa  (‘A feast without nougat cannot be called a feast)!

The forgotten spice: sumac (سُمّاق)

One of the emblematic spices used in Abbasid cuisine, sumac (Rhus coriaria) was already used in cooking by the ancient Greeks, who imported it from Syria. In mediaeval Arab cuisine, dried sumac berries (as well as husks), were used pounded, or macerated, and strained to make sumac juice, which was used as a marinade for meat, as a cooking liquid, souring ingredient (chicken and lamb stews), or to dye dishes red. The juice of sumac berries was also sometimes boiled down to produce a more condensed mixture, known as sumac dibs, which could be used for souring dishes. Its taste is perhaps best described as a mixture of lemon and vinegar. Scholars distinguished between two kinds of sumac, Khorasani and Syrian, the latter of which is smaller and red like lentil. In Islamic medicine, sumac was said to be useful against bleeding, tooth-ache, nausea, and the spread of ulcers. The extract can be used to colour the hair black. Physcians warned that it causes constipation, and thus dishes containing sumac were recommended for those suffering from diarrhoea. Apparently, the caliph Harun al-Rashid was very partial to the taste, particularly in savoury sumac stews (summāqiyya).

sumac as represented by al-Qazwini (d. 1283) in his ‘Wonders of Creation’ (عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات)

No 75. Basbasiyya (بَسْباسِيَّة)

ِAn exceptionally delicate fish tajine with fennel from 13th-century Andalusia. It takes its name from the Andalusian and North African Arabic word for fennel. After boiling the fish, it is immersed in fresh fennel juice, to which onion juice, pepper coriander and ginger are added. Then, it is cooked in the oven until done. It is found in both the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook and that by al-Tujībī.

Mediaeval Recipe Recreation at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha (Qatar)

Yesterday, the Majles Book club of the MIA Library gathered to recreate some of the recipes from ‘The Sultan’s Feast‘. A big thank you to the Director, Ms Susan Parker-Leavey for making it such a success! There will be another similar event very soon, so do join in if you’re in beautiful Doha!

The Nubian Lady (سِتّ النُّوبة)

As the name indicates, this is originally an Egyptian dish, for which there are several recipes. The one recreated here dates from the 13th century and involves frying a chicken in sesame oil and then drenching it in a thick sauce, which is made with almond milk, sugar, and saffron. Afterwards, garnish with jujubes and black raisins that have been macerated in rose-water and mastic. When serving, sprinkle on split pistachios and toasted almond oil. A truly amazing dish, and yes, you can have fries with that, if you like!

Green zirbaja (زِيرباجة)

The zīrbāja (or zīrbāj) was one of the most popular stews in the Abbasid cuisine, and was usually made with chicken, almonds, and saffron. Its renown was such that it is the plot in one of the stories of the Arabian Nights. This particular dish (from a tenth-century cookery book) is rather unusual in that it is coloured green by means of a sauce made of crushed parsley, rue, and pistachios. Other ingredients include spices like coriander, pepper and cassia.

Fennel (رازيانج)

The usual Arabic word for fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), rāziyānaj, is a borrowing from Persian (where it is also appears as rāzyām and rāziyāna). Its other names include shamār (another Persian borrowing) and, in the Maghrib, nāfiʿ (نافع) and basbās (بسباس). it is native to the Near East, but was already used in cooking in classical Antiquity. In mediaeval Arab cuisine it was particularly popular in Andalusian and North African cuisines, which used its seeds, stalks or leaves in a number of recipes, ranging from stews and condiments to drinks, or pickled. Medically, wild fennel was recommended in the treatment of blockages, to strengthen the eye- sight, and against nausea and heartburn. It was also considered a diuretic and emmenagogue. At the same time, it is slow to digest (its root causes constipation) and not very nutritious. Today, it is still used in pharmacology for its antioxidant, antitumor, hypoglycemic, and oestrogenic properties.

fennel in al-Qazwini’s ‘Wonders of Creation’ (13th century)

Rubbed bread (خُبْز مَعْرُوك)

ِA delicious Abbasid bread recipe from the 10th century. It takes its name from the fact that after making the dough and letting it rise, it is rubbed with olive oil. Preheat the oven (or a tannur if you happen to have one out in the back!), and bake. Don’t forget to drizzle on water and milk before putting the loaves in the oven.