Spotlight on: Rabbits

The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is a member of the Leporidae (Latin, lepus, ‘hare’) family, which includes various species of hare, and is native to the Western Mediterranean, more specifically Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula. The animal was unknown as food in ancient Greece, and the Romans were the first to import the animals (from Spain) for food, using ferrets to catch them, in the 2nd century BCE. Rabbits and hares were bred and fattened in special warrens, known as leporarium, and the poet Martial (1st century BCE) considered hare the best game meat.

It is unclear when rabbits travelled eastward along the southern Mediterranean, and when they did, their meat was not highly praised since no recipes can be found in any of the Near Eastern medieval Arabic cookery books. In terms of terminology, the Arabic arnab (أرنب) to this day is the word for both hare and rabbit (especially in the Near East), though only the latter is used for food in the present-day Arab world, most famously in the Egyptian mulukhiyya (though this is also made with chicken or beef). Andalusian Arabic had separate words for rabbit, i.e. qunilya (قنلية) or qunayna (قنينة), both going back to the Latin cuniculus, which would also result in the English ‘coney’, as well as Kaninchen (German), konijn (Dutch), and kanin (Danish, Swedish). The linguistic confusion continues to this day in Morocco, where arnab can mean ‘hare’ or ‘rabbit’, but qniya only denotes rabbits. Like in ancient Rome, rabbits were bred for food in al-Andalus. Interestingly enough, though the hare appears in the name of certain dishes called arnabī, none of these require it and were, instead, made with beef, dried tuna, or aubergine!

It is only in their homeland that rabbits and hares were used in cooking, with a number of recipes for both in the anonymous Andalusian cookbook and that compiled in Tunisia by the Andalusian emigré al-Tujībī, both from the 13th century. The animals are usually roasted but also stuffed, in one instance with a rich mixture including some more rabbit meat!

In the medical and pharmacological literature, only arnab is mentioned, though as stated, it probably referred to both hares and rabbits. The 13th-century Andalusian physician Ibn Khalsun recommended young female rabbit, cooked with vinager, murrī, garlic, olive oil, onions and spices. Other scholars also praised hare meat; when eaten with vinegar, it is useful against epilepsy and when roasted, it was considered good for bowel ulcers, as well as being a diuretic. The blood of hares was prescribed in a poultice to remove freckles, pimples and blisters.

rabbits in a 13th-century manuscript of a work by the physician Ibn Bakhtishu’ (“the rabbit is afraid of all animals and is nocturnal…”)

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