Spotlight on: Barberry

The barberry plant (Berberis vulgaris) — or shrub, to be more exact — was known in Arabic as anbarbārīs (أنبرباريس; also ambarbārīs, أمبرباريس), while the Persian borrowing zirishk (زرشک) denoted the fruit, which is bright red and elongated, though the terms were often used interchangeably.

In cooking, barberries, which have a rather tart bitter flavour, are found in a popular stew, called anbarbārīsiyya (أنبرباريسية), amīr bārīsiyya (أمير باريسية) or zirishkiyya (زرشكية), with recipes in Baghdadi, Syrian and Egyptian collections. It was said to be made like a sumac stew (سمّاقية, summaqiyya), and sweetened with sugar. The dish — like the fruit — was Persian in origin; indeed, modern Iranian cuisine still uses barberries, for instance, in the famous rice dish zereshk polo (زرشک پلو), or to flavour poultry. In India, the berries tend to be dried and added to desserts.

Physicians held that barberries strengthened the stomach and the liver, cut thirst, prevented vomiting, and strengthened the heart. They were used in a number of medicinal applications, such as an anti-diarrhoeal recipe, which can be found in cookery books from 15th-century Egypt (The Sultan’s Feast‘) and 13th-century Syria; after boiling the barberries, they should be strained, and thickened with sugar before adding them to chicken with a little bit of mint.

Barberries in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.)

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