Medieval Arabic Culinary Literature Offers Lessons for the Present (2023)

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As a teenager, I used to read about the Mongols’ destruction of libraries. Millions of books were burned or thrown in the river during the invasion of Baghdad. This epic devastation often made me wonder about all the knowledge that was lost. In later years — thanks to my extracurricular interest in food and cooking — I especially wondered about what the people of that era ate. What was the cuisine like in the medieval metropolises such as Baghdad, Aleppo and Cairo? What dishes did the sultans of Egypt or the Abbasid caliphs in Iraq serve at their banquets?

At first, I thought the closest I would ever get to this “paradise lost” might be limited to my own imagination. But as I leafed through some of the available classic works of Arabic literature and medicine, I started to find snippets of tantalizing information. To my delight, I soon discovered that there were entire medieval Arabic cookbooks that had survived intact. They were not one, not two, but no fewer than nine.

The first such cookbook that I came across was compiled in the 14th century by an unknown Egyptian author. (I have read the books in Arabic, and all translations in this essay are mine.) This surprise happened 10 years ago, and it has since sent me on a journey of culinary discovery and delight. The book boasts many ingredients and recipes with names that sound otherworldly. Occasionally, I had stumbled upon familiar dish names referenced in classical books I had read, such as the famous “Book of Misers” by the ninth-century Iraqi litterateur al-Jahiz, who eloquently captured the zeitgeist of Abbasid Iraq with books poking fun at misers or criticizing anti-Black racism.

It took me a good chunk of time and research before I could begin to understand what was going on in these recipes. Part of the problem was the unfamiliar names of ingredients and cookware. Another was the unusual methods of preparing some of the dishes. Dunk a whole chicken in sugary syrup to braise it? Sure, I enjoy Chinese sweet-and-sour chicken, chicken and vegetables stir-fried in Thai sweet chili sauce and Moroccan savory dishes made with sweet ingredients, but this took the marriage of chicken and sugar to a whole new level.

It was worth a try, I decided. As I tasted the first morsel of sikbaj — a sweet-and-sour stew made with meat and vegetables, most prominently eggplant, spiced with coriander, cinnamon and saffron — I allowed myself to be transported back in time to when this dish was popular. The fruity and spicy aroma commingled with a dash of rose water, and the dish tasted like nothing I had ever tried before. It had a hint of a Moroccan tagine infused with dried fruits and the rich aroma of ras el-hanout spice mix. The magic of that moment can never be repeated. I had traveled back in time and savored a dish from an era long gone.

As the years went by, I grew more curious about the eating habits of medieval people. The more books I found about the subject, the more I read — and experimented. And ate.

Now, I can finally boast that I have copies of eight of the nine surviving medieval Arabic cookbooks, covering recipes from the 10th to the 15th centuries. They include dishes served to caliphs, kings, princes, high officials and various pillars of the middle class, like university lecturers and intellectuals. During this period, the vast Muslim empire waxed and waned from China to the Iberian Peninsula. Some dishes continue to exist today, almost identical to their medieval form. Others evolved but remain recognizable. Some have changed so much they are unrecognizable, thanks to ingredients that are no longer available or popular. For example, people no longer cook with the herb-of-grace, also known as rue — an ornamental plant with bluish leaves.

Aside from the excitement of knowing what people ate centuries ago, these books are priceless because they reveal the social life of the upper strata of Arab and Muslim medieval societies. Medical treatises, for example, abound, containing information about ingredients — their benefits and side effects — as well as some dishes by name, but rarely do they provide nonmedicinal recipes. Literary sources — also easy to find — shed a little more insight into the cuisine of the past, sometimes delivering the recipe in prose or as a poem, but that is the extent of it. They don’t reveal the full richness of medieval haute cuisine.

Before coming to the cookbooks, I cannot resist delving a little further into the information revealed by other sources. My favorite among the literati of the time in this regard is the 10th-century gourmet poet Kushajim, who was doubtless a man of highly refined taste. In one poem, he extols one of Baghdad’s most popular dishes of the time, jawthaba. He details the texture, color and overall appearance of this bread (or rice) pudding, which was drenched in chicken fat that drips from the bird as it roasts in a tannur oven, or tandoor: “Pale like the face of a lovesick man”; “drowned in fat, quivering”; “soft to the touch, like butter.” When paired with recipes from surviving cookbooks, we understand what the dish looked like. Anyone who has ever cooked anything knows that even minor changes can alter the taste and texture of a dish.

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While the medieval physicians and pharmacists tell us about the medicinal properties of dishes, poets describe their ecstatic encounter with the culinary experience. Historians and other prose writers provide a glimpse into the social and political settings of feasting and imbibing. The 10th-century historian al-Masudi, for example, shares a story in his masterpiece “The Meadows of Gold.” It’s about a symposium held by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustakfi, where he told his courtiers to dazzle him with poems about food. According to al-Masudi, who was a contemporary of the caliph, any food mentioned in a poem had to be summoned. One imagines the cooks’ alarm at being asked to produce a jawthaba, as it was described in Kushajim’s verse:

Sweeter than the serenity of faith landing on a troubled, trembling heart

Such tales may be hard to verify, but they show how the powerful took their leisure. Entertainment involved discourse, music and feasting. This wasn’t restricted to caliphal palaces or royal mansions. Baghdad boasted a sizable class of flaneurs and gentlemen of leisure who had wealth and time. The author of the earliest surviving food compendium, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, offers one such example. He speaks of a group of men who congregated regularly and played chess, then moved on to have a meal at someone’s home. On one occasion, a palace cook joined them on his day off. His aim? To show the host’s servant how to clean the cooking pots. Such fastidiousness was said to set the food of one palace apart from another. In “The Revival of Religious Sciences,” the 11th-century mystic and philosopher, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, mentions a certain “generous man” who presented guests with a menu of dishes he was about to serve them.

Excess was in vogue at the zenith of the Abbasid Empire, as it continued to be throughout its years of decline. The wedding of the seventh caliph of the dynasty, al-Mamun, to his wife Buran cost 50 million dirhams, according to the historian al-Tabari. (A dirham was a silver coin weighing about 0.1 ounces.) Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab philosopher of history and sociology, recalls in his book an extravagant wedding. It required 140 mules to make three trips a day for an entire year to transport wood for the stove. It then took two days and nights to burn through all the wood as the food cooked in the pots and pans above it. And still, the fire went out too soon. The cooks burned palm branches drenched in cooking oil to keep the fire going and feed the thousands of guests.

Buran herself was a food enthusiast and must have overseen the invention of many dishes. Some survive to this day in one shape or another, including mutabbal, also known as baba ghanoush, a paste of crushed, grilled eggplants mixed with tahini or yogurt. One cookbook actually lends the name Buran to a type of mutabbal, made by mixing garlic-infused yogurt with pureed eggplant, topped with meatballs, then cooked in rendered sheep fat. (I tried this once at home, minus the fat, and the taste wasn’t too far off from modern mutabbal, though it was closer to the Turkish dish known as alinazik, which is mutabbal topped with sauteed meat.) When al-Mamun asked Buran to speak as he entered her tent, she asked him to forgive his uncle Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, the famed gourmand and author of one of the earliest Arabic cookbooks, who had apparently plotted against al-Mamun. Sure enough, the caliph did pardon him, and went on to treat the sovereign to many a storied banquet.

Medieval Arabic Culinary Literature Offers Lessons for the Present (1)

This excessive fascination with food went hand in hand with its own counter trend: a burgeoning esoteric tradition that shunned the glorification of food, insisting instead that such vulgarity was animalistic gluttony expressed by commoners who didn’t know better. We eat to live, not the other way around, went the wisdom. (This dichotomy paralleled the two opposing approaches to food by Catholics and Protestants in medieval Europe, but that is another story.) Peninsular, non-Yemeni Arabs were nomadic herders or dwellers of towns and villages. They included traders, farmers and fishers. As one would expect, Bedouins’ food came from limited ingredients like milk, dates, ghee, flour and the occasional meat from camel, goat or game. Arab nomads also consumed wild plants and mushrooms and snacked on locusts and the spiny-tailed dabb lizard, which the Prophet Muhammad apparently refused to eat because he couldn’t stomach it. Sedentary Arabs, on the other hand, had access to these same ingredients in addition to locally grown produce and imported nonperishables, such as spices and nuts.

The scarcity and simplicity of the food of early Muslims and pre-Islamic Arabs served as a source of inspiration for Sufis and other mystics. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph after Muhammad, who led an austere lifestyle, shunned the few and simple culinary pleasures available to him at the time. In one anecdote, he asked a guest why he wasn’t eating. The guest said he had more tender food at home than the rough stuff offered up by the caliph. To this, Umar replied that he could have had a whole sheep served together with flatbread made with fine flour, then drenched in raisins and broth made to look like “deer blood,” but his only concern would still be preparing for the afterlife.

Even before Islam and empires, rich Arabs enjoyed heaps of meat and boasted about it. Imru al-Qays, the foremost pre-Islamic Arab bard, gives us a glimpse of this. In one story, he killed his own riding camel then served it up to a troupe of virgins who “threw themselves at its meat and silk-like fat.” In the same poem, we learn about the exploits of a hunting adventure that ended with a grill and boiled pots. But none of this could have prepared the dwellers of Arabia for the abundance soon to come.

As captivating as these vignettes are, without the recipes, most of the writing on food amounts to little more than tantalizing the senses. Only the cookbooks allow a modern chef — or an amateur food enthusiast such as me — to re-create some of the dishes, if with a healthy dose of interpretation. Even so, I doubt anyone has attempted to reproduce the giant medieval turducken, served according to one Maghrebi-Andalusian cookbook written by an anonymous author to the 13th-century Almohad Caliph Idris al-Mamun (not to be confused with the ninth-century Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun) in Ceuta. This remarkable dish consisted of an entire cow calf, tandoor-roasted and stuffed with a whole lamb, which was in turn filled with a goose, a chicken, a starling and then a sparrow, all stuffed inside one another.

In all, the surviving cookbooks contain over 3,000 recipes. Yet that doesn’t even come close to covering most of the dishes served during that era, let alone their innumerable variations. Many dishes are omitted for being too common to require instructions. Al-Warraq, for instance, mentions a type of rice bread and its oven, called a tabaq, without including a recipe for making it. A tabaq is a clay device still used in southern Iraq today to bake what is probably the same rice bread, though back then it sounds like sometimes the bread was served with flair. One 10th-century poet from Basra was known by the sobriquet al-Khubz Arozi, or “maker of rice bread.” He improvised poetry as he baked the bread. Customers flocked to his bakery to hear his romantic verse, which was as fresh as his flatbread. His near contemporary al-Jahiz, who was also from Basra, says that people ate the rice bread with fish, which continues to be the case in Iraq today.

Why did medieval Arabic writers choose to record food recipes? One of them, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Katib al-Baghdadi, the author of the second-oldest of the surviving books, says he wrote primarily for his personal reference. For others, especially royal cooks, the exercise must have offered a way for them to perpetuate their creation. But there is also something deeper. Food is an everyday event. When it’s abundant and we are preoccupied with other distractions, we tend not to think about it. When we are hungry, we realize the value of food as sustenance for life. To a hungry person, a stale piece of bread may taste better than a banquet in times of plenty. Between these two extremes, some of us come to think of food as an aesthetic. It is this, I suspect, that has driven people from ancient Mesopotamia to the medieval Arab world and beyond to preserve their recipes.

Al-Warraq authored “Kitab al-Tabikh” (“Book of Cookery”) upon the request of a patron, probably a court official. Its 615 recipes included dishes that were served to caliphs and viziers. The Iraqi food scholar Nawal Nasrallah translated the book into English under the title “Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook.” We don’t know much about al-Warraq, who was a contemporary of such literati as the poet Kushajim. But al-Warraq’s cookbook is well-organized and easy to read, which makes me suspect he was more than a “warraq” (scribe and bookseller). He probably had access to dozens of cookbooks and recipe collections, including rare ones. If he personally knew Kushajim, as he suggests in his book, he would have been exposed to closely guarded dishes. (Kushajim himself is said to have been a royal chef.) Indeed, many of al-Warraq’s recipes begin with a phrase like “from al-Mamun copy,” which is a reference to a cooking manual containing dishes made exclusively for this caliph and his entourage. In addition to its haute cuisine recipes, the book has chapters on the basics of cooking; the supposed powers and benefits of various foodstuffs; and, interestingly, food etiquette in royal courts. “The cultivated courtier should eat without satiation,” the book states. Guests must also avoid sucking on their fingers, blowing on hot food or picking their teeth where their patron can see them.

Elsewhere in al-Warraq’s tome, we find a recipe for a lauzinaj, which should probably be called a proto-baklava. This dessert is made of ground almond and walnut kneaded with sugar and rose water, among other ingredients. The resulting paste is spread over a thin, crepe-like pastry, which is rolled, cut into bite-size pieces and drenched in almond oil. In the “Maqamat,” a collection of stories by the ninth-century writer, Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani, we find a description of lauzinaj as it was sold in the streets of Baghdad: “Thinly wrapped, heavily stuffed, its fat shines like pearls and its color sparkles like stars; it melts in the mouth like gum even before biting on it.” The book also contains a recipe for nougat made with honey, almonds and egg whites — the same ingredients still used today. In all, the book boasts 12 chapters on sweets, with dozens of colorful recipes, from qatayef to zalabia and sweets akin to Turkish delight.

I am most excited about al-Warraq’s recipe for sumaqiya, a stew made of meat, chard, chickpeas and sumac water thickened with flour and tahini. If my hometown of Gaza had an official national dish, it would be sumaqiya. Aleppo also has a version of it, with meat, eggplant, sumac water, tomato paste and dry mint, resulting in a soupy broth texture, in contrast to the thick, pudding-like Gaza variant. The odds are that both variations evolved from the same dish, which called for cooking the meat and greens in sumac water, slightly thickened with ground walnuts. A few centuries later, in al-Baghdadi’s cookbook, we find the recipe calling for chard, eggplants and carrots. In a 14th-century Egyptian cookbook, “Kanz al-Fawaid,” the dish moves a step closer to the modern Gaza version. The stew is thickened by an unspecified additive like starch or flour. There are many similar examples in al-Warraq’s book and the others of dishes found not just in the Arab world but across the globe.

The second-oldest of the surviving books is another “Kitab al-Tabikh.” It dates to Baghdad, around three decades before its sacking by the Mongols in 1258. The city was the world’s largest metropolis at that time. We don’t know much about its author, al-Baghdadi, but his “al-Katib” moniker indicates he was a government clerk or secretary. The pioneering Iraqi manuscript editor Dawud al-Chalabi published the book in Mosul in 1934, making it the first of the classical Arabic cookbooks to reach modern readers. The British Orientalist Arthur John Arberry translated it in 1939 under the title “A Baghdad Cookery Book.” The original book would later exert a magnificent influence on Ottoman cuisine. In contrast to al-Warraq, al-Baghdadi’s work doesn’t attempt to list recipes made for caliphs and viziers. It’s clear nonetheless that the author was affluent. From his book (containing 160 recipes) we ascertain that he either cooked the recipes himself or had a servant do the work under his watchful gaze.

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Its first recipe is the sikbaj stew of sweet-and-sour meat and vegetables. This dish, enjoyed hot or cold, was typically made with beef, lamb or fish. Once cold, its sauce turned into jelly. It apparently gave birth to the French aspic and a host of other meals, including fish and chips. The more modern variants of sikbaj are fish-based, such as the Spanish and Portuguese escabeche, the Jamaican escovitch and a North African version using sardines cooked with tomato. Some would include in this list the world-famous ceviche, which appears to be derived from sikbaj.

Moving westward, we find “Al-Wusla ila al-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wal-Teeb.” The culinary historian Charles Perry translated this as “Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook.” The 13th-century work is attributed to various authors, among them Aleppo’s historian Ibn al-Adeem, though certain passages suggest the author was likely an Ayyubid prince. In a brief introduction, he states that he only included recipes he had tried “over and again.” The book starts with a chapter on perfumes and other olfactory products, followed by one on drinks, then distilled rose waters. Like today, food and drink went together as corporeal delights, not too different from sensual or even sexual pleasures.

The book cites ingredients not mentioned in previous works, like tahini, taro, molokhia and jute leaves. (The latter are still cooked today into soupy stew.) It also contains the oldest hummus recipe in the world. It’s an invaluable recipe of chickpeas, tahini and lemon. Perhaps more importantly, the recipe might settle the heated debate surrounding the origin of this popular meze. Everyone in the eastern Mediterranean basin claims this dish as their own, despite evidence to the contrary. Based on this book, I must admit that Syria emerges as the likely contender. Syria is the cradle of hummus, at least until more evidence comes to light. Some would argue that hummus is as old as the Bible because it includes a word that sounds like hummus, but in fact means vinegar: “And at mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, that you may eat of the bread and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar’” (Ruth 2:14). In the original Hebrew text, vinegar is chometz or hometz, which cognates with the similarly sounding Arabic word for sour, hamedh. Israeli experts actually concede that hummus is “an Arab food” and that “the best and most authentic hummus is made by Arabs,” as one article in the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

Another novelty that we find in “Al-Wusla” comes in the form of a couple of recipes introduced to Syria by the Crusaders. This complicates the dynamic of cultural and social interactions between invaders and locals, especially in the Levant. The Arab knight and poet Usama ibn Munaqidh, a contemporary of Saladin, spoke in his autobiography about the Crusaders he fought throughout his career yet still managed to befriend. Indeed, these recipes imply that (the invading) Crusaders exchanged recipes with locals, tensions be damned. One such Frankish recipe is a type of quiche. It involves a base made of flour and ghee, filled with a mixture of beaten eggs, cheese, flour and a host of spices and herbs. In the other recipe, a whole lamb is speared lengthways and roasted with embers on either side of it.

We also see the rise of a base for stews, which involves sauteed blanched meat with rendered sheep fat and freshly pounded cilantro with garlic. In older books, the meat was usually sauteed in a process called “taareeq” but without adding garlic and cilantro. In Mesopotamian recipes, some dating to the 1700s BCE, we find a mix of pestled garlic and leeks added to dishes at the final stages of cooking. (In modern Gazan cuisine, the same thing is done but with a mix of crushed dill seeds and chilies.)

Two other books from 13th-century Andalusia offer further insight. The first is “Fudhalat al-Khiwan fi Tayyibat al-Taam wal-Alwan,” which Nasrallah has translated as “Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib.” The author of this 475-recipe book, Ibn Razin al-Tujibi (1227-1293), was a jurist and government secretary. Yet this “most learned” scholar, as he is described, must also have been an expert cook. Just as in “Al-Wusla,” al-Tujibi says he included dishes he “liked or invented.” Opinionated and prone to making snarky observations, he dismisses the cuisine of the eastern part of the Arab world as something “quite unbearable,” though he acknowledges his own Andalusian bias. Andalusia is an “advanced” region in the culinary arts, he explains, despite the fact that it’s younger than the east. This wasn’t the first time I came across Andalusian chauvinism against the Mashriq. (The Arab world was traditionally broken into the Mashriq, or the Middle East, and the Maghreb, North Africa and, by extension, al-Andalus.) Ibn Hazm, the Muslim Andalusian jurist, philosopher and litterateur, wrote a letter to show how al-Andalus beats major Mashriq cities like Baghdad in many fields of scholarship. By contrast, the work of his unnamed compatriot — translated by Charles Perry as “The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads,” known also by the title “The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook” — takes a more relativistic view, acknowledging that the food prized in any given country is liable to be disparaged in another. “If one dispraises a certain food, he should not like that all others dislike it too, for the natures of people, their strengths, humoral constitutions, habits, and desires differ,” he says.

Al-Tujibi’s work contains a recipe for the most elaborate of jawthabas. Unlike the Baghdad method of dripping chicken or lamb fat on the pudding, here the chicken is cooked in rosewater and spices, then laid atop layers of thin flatbread, nuts, oil and more spices. The chicken is wrapped with more layers, then covered with a dough-sealed lid. We see here yet another classic example of food evolution (and devolution, for that matter). The Moroccan bastila and the Spanish capirotada bread pudding are two possible descendants of jawthaba. So is roz muammar, a dish of small-grain rice baked with milk and cream and still enjoyed in Egypt today. It’s possible that jawthaba started out as a form of sweet “tharid,” the broth-soaked pieces of bread that formed a staple meal for the pre-Islamic Arabs. But it’s still consumed in most of the Arab world in some variation or another. Al-Baghdadi provides a jawthaba recipe of bread soaked in water or milk with a base and garnish of sugar and ground almonds. In “Al-Wusla,” which was written several decades after al-Baghdadi’s work, the author suggests using a saffron-infused rice jawthaba to collect the fat from tannur-baked rib meat. He adds that the rice is more delicious than the meat, which shows that jawthaba had become a rice-based pudding in Syria by the 13th century.

“The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook,” which boasts 512 recipes, derives from a larger manuscript that contains many works. In its introduction, the author suggests serving courses one after the other, rather than all at once. He adds that this “healthy” habit had been the practice in Andalusian and Maghreb palaces for generations. Baghdadis of the time were fastidious about the order of their dishes, which they also considered to be a healthy habit. For example, they served the so-called bawarid, or cold dishes, before hot food. It might have been the ninth-century Iraqi emigre Ziryab, a musician and arbiter of taste on everything from fashion to etiquette, who introduced the sequential courses custom to Andalusia.

In Egypt, the 14th-century “Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table” (as Nasrallah translates the Arabic “Kanz al-Fawaid fi Tanwi al-Mawaid”) features more than 830 recipes, making it the most extensive of the books. Part of its introduction echoes al-Baghdadi’s work verbatim, as do many of its recipes, but with some modifications. True to its period, known in Arabic literary history as the age of encyclopedias, the work combines content from multiple sources. True also to its locale, the book includes a dish called the Nubian Lady: a chicken boiled, fried and then braised in a mixture of almond milk and sugar, seasoned with saffron and pistachios.

While “Treasure Trove” contains vegetarian recipes, it is mostly a carnivore’s feast. Affluent traders and craftsmen could afford meat and imported spices, but people with limited means, including peasants and unskilled laborers, had little access to animal protein and would have subsisted on a largely vegetarian diet. “Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded,” a 17th-century parody of literary exegesis that also satirizes rural life in Egypt, mentions predominantly grain- and legume-based dishes as the staples of Egypt’s impoverished farmers. The most famous of these was bisara, a stewed puree of dried fava beans, which is still found in different parts of the Arab world.

Lecturers at al-Mustansiriya University, established in Baghdad in 1227, were paid both in cash and in kind, including with a meat allowance, which would have enabled them to enjoy such meals as sikbaj. Exactly how many others among the urban populations of metropolises like Baghdad or Cairo had access to similar luxuries is, alas, unknown.

Also, most people couldn’t afford to run a kitchen complete with an oven. People relied on the food vendors and restaurants that peppered the streets of Baghdad and Cairo, offering both mundane and haute cuisine. The hilarious Egyptian butcher-turned-poet, Abu al-Hussein al-Jazzar, penned the following ode to the sweet kunafa that he found on sale in a Cairo food market:

May God shower the abodes of kunafa with syrup, plentiful,

And may He make its sugary drippings steady and bountiful.

Cursed are the sour days of pickles,

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Uselessly they pass, yet still life trickles.

In Egypt, there is also “Zahr al-Hadiqa fil-Atima al-Aniqa,” translated by Daniel L. Newman in 2020 under the title “The Sultan’s Feast: A Fifteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook.” Nasrallah tells me that this book is an abridged version of the aforementioned “Treasure Trove.” The author of this 330-recipe work is Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Mubarak Shah (1403-1458), an Egyptian scholar of the Quran, hadith and Arabic literature, who also compiled an encyclopedic 14-volume anthology of the arts of his day. Like the other authors, it’s evident this scholar and possible owner of feudal estates was a connoisseur. His book contains a mix of old and new recipes, including one for sikbaj, which is almost identical to al-Baghdadi’s. Another recipe, also adapted from al-Baghdadi, introduces tahini to grilled fish, a combination still popular today. (This was one of my favorites as a child, made by my mother with sardine fillets.) In his recipe for molokhia, we don’t find the fried garlic and coriander of today, which some restaurants make a theatrical point of pouring while it sizzles onto the dish. Instead, the garlic and coriander are pestled along with other spices and allowed to simmer for a few minutes with the finely chopped molokhia leaves. In another, more complex molokhia recipe, the author suggests adding rendered sheep fat or sesame oil as a garnish.

Medieval Arabic Culinary Literature Offers Lessons for the Present (2)

The last of the books, known as “Kitab al-Tibakha” (“The Book of Cooking”), by the Syrian jurist Ibn al-Mubarrad (1437-1503), comprises 44 recipes, including six for pasta. It starts with the classic itriya: fresh pasta, made with unleavened dough, cut into finger-length strips. (In Andalusia, as we learn from al-Tujibi, itriya was a type of dry vermicelli.) A sweet version of this might have given birth to the Portuguese aletria angel hair pudding. Another pasta, shairiyya, is cooked like soup or rice. Today, the word shairiyya refers to vermicelli-like noodles cooked with rice, or as a dessert with sugar, nuts and cinnamon. It’s similar to aletria but with a drier texture.

The author then lists rishta, a Persian word for pasta still used for dishes from the Levant to Algeria. In Ibn al-Mubarrad’s recipe, it appears to have been dried, as the author says it can be fried and added to rice, much as is done today with the shairiyya thin noodles. There is also shish barak, a type of ravioli stuffed with meat, also widely consumed to this day and almost certainly an import from Central Asian Turkic peoples. Another fresh pasta by the name of salma, which I have never come upon, takes the shape of a penny like the Italian orecchiette. Once boiled, it is served covered in yogurt and fried meat and garnished with garlic and mint. The last one is tetmaj: rolled and cut fresh dough, cooked the same way as salma.

“Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada” (“Book of Recipes of Familiar Foods”) is the ninth book. It has more than 400 recipes, including the entirety of al-Baghdadi’s corpus, and was translated into Turkish in the late 15th century. With more recipes added to it, the collection became the first known Turkish cookbook. Al-Baghdadi’s work and its expanded edition influenced Ottoman cuisine, which cross-pollinated with the local cuisines of the vast Ottoman territories. In fact, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror commissioned one of the surviving copies of al-Baghdadi’s work. It’s no surprise, then, that we see a dish like alinazik, the eggplant puree topped with sauteed meat, still widely consumed in Turkey.

Culinary scholars could spend decades examining these rich volumes of medieval Arab cuisines. While these traditions evolved in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Maghreb and Andalusia, they were influenced by other civilizations, including Persian and European. Yet what’s often forgotten is that these medieval kingdoms kept alive traditions from more ancient civilizations that once thrived in the region before the Persians, Greeks and Romans came to be. Indeed, as the region’s ancient empires continue to influence language today, they also influence the food. Nasrallah (to whom I’m indebted for reviewing and commenting on an earlier version of this essay) identifies cooking traditions found today in Iraq that started in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, pointing out that the Mesopotamian cuisine influenced ancient Persian cooking.

Another great influence on today’s cuisine are the kitchens of palaces and stately mansions of the past, which fostered innovative cooking techniques. Buran and Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi are two examples of powerful culinary patrons who kept their kitchens teeming with activity to please the palates of some of the most powerful families on earth. Al-Warraq’s book contains many of their innovations and elaborations, while the author of “Al-Wusla” shows us how keen he was to learn from palace cooks. Al-Tujibi even says he “invented” some of the dishes in his book, which might have been an elaboration on existing dishes and techniques rather than creation ex nihilo.

The lesson learned from these books is that many of the dishes we savor today throughout the Arab world are steeped in the region’s history. The vermicelli known as shairiyya and other types of pasta make a good case in point. But these books are also a testament to the great wealth of classical works, both published and unpublished, which beg us to explore and enjoy. I, for one, took great pleasure in re-creating (and consuming) some of the old recipes. What’s more, these books are living proof of Ibn Khaldun’s idea that empires move from humble beginnings to lavishness and excess before they decline.

I mentioned, earlier in this essay, the simplicity of food belonging to peninsular Arabs during the early decades of Islam. The Umayyads, for example, who established the first Muslim dynasty after the early Rashidun era, were no match for the extravagance and sophistication of the Abbasids who came after them. The latter’s Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Mamun became famous for their sumptuous tables, complete with the scents of saffron, oud, musk and roses. The dishes came in all colors and designs — meat carved like sparrows and candies shaped like animals. There were cookies baked in the form of breasts. Indeed, while the second caliph Umar may have traded luxuries of the palate for promises of the afterlife, later caliphs aimed to re-create Eden here on Earth.

A selection of recipes translated from some of the above cookbooks:

Shairiyya barley-shaped fresh pasta, from “Kanz al-Fawaid”

“You need flour, meat, sheep tail fat, mastic and cinnamon. You boil the meat and tail fat and mastic. (Strain the stock and keep on the side.) Saute the meat, then pour stock over it. Smother the fat and render it, placing an onion with it (keep the rendered fat on the side). Make a hard dough and shape like pieces of barley. Once done, add to the broth and meat and boil till cooked. Finally, add the rendered fat. You will know the dough is cooked when it floats.”

“False brain” walnut paste and egg whites jelly, from al-Warraq’s “Kitab al-Tabikh”

“Take 40 walnuts, freshly plucked or just dried. Crack and peel the kernels so they are white in color. Pound the kernels finely and pour into them the white of an egg, but it wouldn’t hurt if you add the yolk, too. Stuff the paste into a glass cup and place the cup in a pot filled with water. Now, place the pot over a fire until the water boils, which will jellify the ingredients in the cup into a delicious brainy texture. Serve and eat.”

Buran eggplant mutabbal with meat, from al-Baghdadi’s “Kitab al-Tabikh”

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(Similar to modern Turkish alinazik.)

“It’s made by taking eggplants that you blanch in water with a little salt. The eggplants are then taken out and dried for a little while. In sesame oil, the eggplants are fried, then peeled and placed on a plate or in a large cup and made into a mash by beating them with a spoon. Persian yogurt is mixed with [minced] garlic and mixed well with the eggplants. Then red meat is taken and pounded softly and made into balls. Tender sheep tail fat is rendered, and the meatballs are added to the oil and cooked until done. Cover the meatballs with water and boil until the water evaporates and the fat returns. Then place [the meatballs and fat] on top of the mashed eggplant. Garnish with powdered cumin and Chinese cinnamon [cassia].”

Smoked Palmyra olives with crushed walnuts, from “Al-Wusla”

“Take [black] Palmyra olives; deseed and place on a sieve and smoke with oud wood and walnut shells. Once smoked well, toss into the olives coriander, chopped parsley, good olive oil, roasted and crushed walnut kernels and pieces of preserved lemon. Store in a clean, smoked jar.”

Fidawish barley-shaped pasta, from al-Tujibi’s “Fudhalat al-Khiwan”

(A version of this dish still exists in North Africa. The word “fidawish” gave birth to the Spanish “fideo,” Portuguese “fideu,” and a host of other words.)

“A third of a pound of semolina is kneaded very well with water and salt and rested in a covered container. Then, little by little, using fingers, shape the dough like pieces of barley with the two ends being thinner than the middle. The pieces are placed in a dish as they are made and then placed in the sun to dry. More dough is made as needed. When necessary for cooking, the best mutton meat is used, medium pieces from the shoulders, ribs, legs and other parts. The meat is placed in a pot with a lot of water, salt, oil, pepper, coriander and a chopped onion. It’s placed on a fire. Once the meat is cooked, it’s kept aside on a large plate. The broth is then strained, the pot is cleaned, and then the broth is poured back into the pot. If the broth is enough, use it to cook the fidawish pasta, otherwise add water. Once the broth boils, add the fidawish bits carefully and leave on medium heat until cooked. In the meantime, keep hot water in a small pot atop the big one and pour it into the fidawish if it becomes dry. Once the fidawish is cooked, add butter or ghee while the pasta is still on the fire and keep stirring with a ladle so the fidawish is not ruined. In the meantime, the meat is sauteed with butter or ghee. Once the fidawish is cooked, it’s poured onto a large plate with the meat placed on top and sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger powder.”

Stir-fried mutton “often made for al-Rashid,” from al-Warraq’s “Kitab al-Tabikh”

(This recipe calls for the now-extinct murri condiment, which the medieval Arabic food expert Charles Perry, who made it, says tastes like soy sauce.)

“Meat [mutton or lamb] is diced into small pieces and placed in a pot. Oil and [chopped] onion, cilantro, rue and leek are added. Everything is stirred until [the meat] is colored. Then [powdered] coriander, caraway and pepper are added together with some murri and a little vinegar, as well as Chinese cinnamon and galangal [also presumably powdered]. Once done, drizzle with a bit of honey and garnish with fresh cilantro.”

Kaak, or bagel, from “Al-Wusla”

(Possibly the oldest bagel recipe.)

“This is a nice type of soft [kaak] called mofakkhar. It melts in the mouth. The dough is kneaded with seeds as we mentioned [above in a previous recipe, where a pound of flour is mixed with a quarter of a pound of oil and then milk and yeast are added together with sesame, black seeds, aniseed and coriander]. It’s left to rise very well. Then it’s made into kaak rings as we mentioned [above where the rings are sprinkled with the same seeds]. Then a large pot is filled with water, which is then boiled well. Place the kaak ring on a rolling pin and dip into the water and then place on a tray. Do the same with the rest and bake in the oven. It comes out very tasty and it’s one of a kind.”

Hummus kassa (mashed chickpeas), from “Al-Wusla”

(The lexical definition of the archaic word “kassa” is to pound something very hard — to mash it. The recipe name includes the word “green” because of the use of parsley and other greens. Similarly, the contemporary Beiruti hummus calls for mixing parsley with chickpea paste. Despite its myriad ingredients, hummus kassa features most of the ingredients still used in today’s hummus, including chickpeas, tahini, lemon, olive oil, parsley and whole chickpeas for garnishing. The detail about the consistency of the dish is unmistakably that of hummus.)

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“Cooked chickpeas are taken and mashed with a spoon. Some of the chickpeas are left aside, intact. Tahini is mixed with wine vinegar very well and poured into [the mashed chickpeas]. Pounded walnuts are toasted and then mixed with fresh lemon juice and a little vinegar and added to the mashed chickpeas. Rue [herb-of-grace] is pounded well. Parsley and mint, plenty of them, are chopped and added so that they give the chickpeas a nice color. Then, good olive oil is added together with atraf al-tib [spice mix], coriander, caraway, Chinese cinnamon, black pepper and ginger [all powdered] and all mixed well. Pickled small lemons are finely chopped and added, if available. Make sure lemon water exceeds vinegar. The mix is placed on a plate, and pistachios are sprinkled on top of it. Those who want to include pistachios with the paste can do that. Lots of olive oil is then added and the dish is garnished with chopped parsley and cinnamon and a rosebud. Its consistency should be such that it leaves [the plate] and sticks to the bread as it’s eaten. Some of the whole chickpeas are sprinkled on top. It’s a fine [dish].”

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