Medieval Arabic cookbooks: Reviving the taste of history
A growing number of cookbooks have been translated into English, helping bring old foods to new palates.
Recipes moved through the cities of medieval Islam like the stories in One Thousand and One Nights, carried by travellers and tested, collected, copied, and adjusted for local ingredients.
Many of these recipes are the ancestors of popular contemporary dishes, such as baklava and hummus. Others have largely disappeared from use.
But medieval Arabic cookbooks have seen something of a revival – a growing number of them edited and translated into English, as part of a journey that brings old foods to new palates.
Earlier this year, a paperback edition of a 13th-century Syrian cookbook, Scents and Flavors, appeared with a foreword by Cairo-born cookbook author and scholar Claudia Roden. This and other cookbooks could be of use to scholars, but they are also fun for history buffs and amateur chefs, the recipes making for a fantastic dinner party. Some recipes have also been adapted for contemporary cooks in Nawal Nasrallah’s In My Iraqi Kitchen, Anny Gaul’s Cooking with Gaul and in a handful of medieval cooking videos by Charles Perry.
All human cultures have recipes, but recipe-writing seems to have developed in Western Asia. Recipes were written in the Akkadian language starting around 1700 BCE. We have three clay tablets, according to Nasrallah, with recipes “ranging from simple stews to the complex bird pies”.
In the Sassanid Persian courts, gentlemen kept personal recipe collections, according to Perry, who is a food historian. None of these collections has made their way down to us, but the habit of recipe-writing had moved into Baghdad court culture by the 10th century.
Caliphs commissioned the invention of new dishes, as well as poems and songs about food. Codifying recipes would have begun in huge court kitchens, chef and food scholar Rodin writes in her foreword to, Scents and Flavors. Scribes would have been instructed to write down at least a few details about each “so that it could be easily passed on and the instructions read out to illiterate cooks.”
But other Baghdadis were eager to feast as the caliphs did, and cookery soon moved beyond palace walls. There was “a sudden explosion of cookbooks in Arabic” from the 10th to 13th centuries, Perry writes. At that time, so far as we know, Arabic speakers were “the only people in the world who were writing cookbooks”, he adds.
Many of these cookbooks must have disappeared. Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s 10th-century, Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), is the earliest known title. It was translated to English in 2007 by Nawal Nasrallah. Al-Warraq was not a celebrity chef, but rather a scribe who compiled the collection for an unnamed patron, one who apparently wanted to know how the kings and caliphs ate.
By the 13th century, Arabic cookbooks had been adapted for the aspiring classes. They were built for practical use and, as Perry writes, “more or less cheaply copied”. Cookbooks, he imagines, “formed a regular part of a commercial scribe’s business”. We can imagine that, in using these recent translations, we are eating like the medieval middle classes. They, too, might have been stymied when trying to find ambergris or Damascus citron, and might have substituted plain local rose petals for the Nusaybini roses demanded by a recipe.
In 13th-century Syria, Rodin writes, we know of five major cookery volumes in circulation: copied by hard-working scribes, and perhaps loaned to neighbours or friends. Each had 600 to 700 recipes and was like a version of the, Joy of Cooking, or, How to Cook Everything: a snapshot of food culture at that moment in time.
Scents and Flavors, Perry and Rodin believe, was the most popular. The recipes shift between second-person instructions and third-person descriptions, which suggests, Perry believes, “recipes were typically read out to the cook and the book was then replaced in the household library”.
Better, probably, for avoiding page splatter.
The rules of cooking
The 14th-century Egyptian cookbook, Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table, still shows the influence of 10th-century Baghdad, but also has many local modifications. This gem, translated by Nasrallah and published in 2018, includes not only translations of recipes, but photos and adaptations.
The book was not meant to teach the basics of cooking; those skills, scholars believe, were orally transmitted. But it does offer general advice. For instance, the anonymous author of Treasure Trove tells us that a “cook should be an agreeable person”, and one, moreover, who keeps their fingernails trimmed. The author goes on to make suggestions not only about the types of cooking pots that work best (soapstone), but also what sort of firewood should be selected, and how a chef should clean their utensils and select their spices.
There is a great deal of advice about improving the smell and taste of not-so-fresh meat; hopefully, this is something our contemporary dinner parties can avoid. The Treasure Trove suggests keeping a separate knife only for cutting onions, and rubbing it with sweet olive oil before use. If you have added too much salt – and this is something Treasure Trove sternly warns against – quickly toss in a small piece of papyrus in order to absorb the excess. If your meat is too tough, you can add sodium bicarbonate or crushed dried melon peel to the pot.
But dinner parties are not made by food alone. Hosts and attendees are expected to smell sweet, with fresh breath and clean hands.
Hand-washing powder for kings and caliphs
If you want to eat like medieval Arab royalty, then you first need to smell like medieval Arab royalty.
You must not make the mistake of arriving at your dinner party smelling of plain-ash washing powder, or worse yet of “zuhumat” – unpleasant greasy odours, the books advise.
Medieval Arab diners largely ate with their hands, so it was important to wash, preferably with a sweet-smelling soap, both before and after the meal. In Scents and Flavors, there are soap recipes that quote from books on perfumery, most of which did not survive; these are written in a more formal Arabic than its other recipes.
The washing powders begin with a base of gentle white ash, and many of the recipes are associated with particular famous hand-washers: one saffron-and-carnation-based powder promises it was used by Caliph al-Ma’mun, while a clove-and-cardamom washing powder was the favourite of al-Rashid. Or you might arrive at your dinner party scented of cinnamon and sandalwood, like ‘Ali ibn Rabban al-Tabari.
But not only the rich and famous liked to have clean hands. There are also recipes for “lesser washing powders” in Treasure Trove, where simpler ingredients such as ash, clay, and citronella are mixed with distilled camphor water. If you have been watching over the chef in a hot kitchen all day long, Scents and Flavors also offers an “incomparable antiperspirant”, made of zinc oxide, violets, and tree moss.
But if you are pressed for time and cannot find distilled camphor water, the author of Treasure Trove would also surely approve of commercial hand soap.
First, bring out the sukurdan
In her introduction to Treasure Trove, Nasrallah tells us that meals would often begin with an array of small dishes that arrived on a beautiful large tray, called “sukurdan”. The word, she writes, is thought to be a combination of the Arabic ” sukr”, or “imbibing alcoholic drinks”, and the Persian “dan”, or “vessel”.
On the sukurdan would be a variety of small appetizers that were served before the meal, lest anyone get too tipsy before the main dish arrived. Treasure Trove has the best collection of pickle recipes, including 75 different pickle-making methods. You could, of course, make the English and American standby of pickled cucumbers. But Treasure Trove also includes recipes for pickled capers, carrots, celery, Damascus citron, eggplant, fennel, garlic, gourd, lemons, onions, quince, radishes, rose petals, turnips, and fresh walnuts. Scents and Flavors adds varieties of raisin pickles, grape pickles, pickled celery and cauliflower, as well as pickled peppergrass, which, according to the collection’s anonymous author, “is very nice but does not keep long”.
Most of the pickles are soured with vinegar, yoghurt, or sour fruit juice. One in Scents and Flavors uses sourdough, which is apparently a technique still used in northern Iraq. One of the easiest-looking recipes was one for sweet and sour pickled rose petals. Indeed, Treasure Trove promises that the dish will “will look nice, and it is quite easy to make”.
To make it, you must start with the petals of white Nusaybin roses, grown in an area on the border between Syria and Turkey. But probably any fleshy white roses will do. The recipe suggests you coat them in honey and then leave them in the sun until they wilt. After they have wilted, “Fold wine vinegar and a bit of mint into them.” Finally, put them in a jar and use.
Nasrallah is a fan of sweet-and-sour pickled fennel, and has adapted a recipe on her website.
She added over email that, “One of the reasons for the popularity of pickles, or ‘mukhallalat’ as they were called, was that they were believed to arouse the appetite and facilitate the digestion of dense foods.”
Next, bring out the hummus
Hummus is one of those Thousand and One Nights-like dishes that has travelled widely in space and time. Versions appear in the 13th-century Scents and Flavors, and in, Winning the Beloved’s Heart with Delectable Dishes and Perfumes, by Aleppan historian Ibn al-‘Adeem (d. 1262), which has not yet appeared in English translation. Many hummus dishes also appear in the 14th-century Treasure Trove.
Yet after that, according to Nasrallah, there is a long period when hummus disappears from cookbooks. When it reappears in 1885, in, The Master Chef’s Culinary Memento for Housewives, by Lebanese author Khaleel Sarkees, the recipe uses ingredients we associate with contemporary hummus: chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini. And by the time “Hummus bi Tahina” appears in its first print cookbook in Iraq in 1946, the English-language, Recipes from Baghdad, it calls for tinned chickpeas, tinned lemon juice, and a tin of “crushed sesame”.
The recipes in Scents and Flavors, Winning the Beloved’s Heart, and Treasure Trove are more complex than those we make today. This does not mean that anything with a chickpea-paste base can be called hummus, as scholar-chef Anny Gaul explains over at Cooking with Gaul. But the older recipes – which incorporate ingredients like pistachios, cinnamon, and toasted caraway seeds – enrich our hummus palate.
Gaul has adapted several versions for dinner-party enjoyment. She translated one Salted Lemon Hummus into a modern recipe, while Nasrallah has posted a Mother of all Hummus recipe on her website.
Vegetable dishes ‘like the saliva of a generous lover’
Throughout the medieval cookbooks, authors slip in medical advice: about the correct temperature for water, how to fatten up a young woman, how to feed a fever, and so on. But they were not married to medical advice, especially when it contravened good taste. Eggplant, for instance, was said to be an unhealthy vegetable, generating black bile, cancer, melasma (kalaf), and blockages.
Nonetheless, there are many eggplant recipes in al-Warraq’s, Book of Dishes, in Scents and Flavors, and in Treasure Trove. In his introduction to Scents and Flavors, Perry quotes the 10th-century Iraqi poet and polymath Kushajim as saying, “The doctor makes ignorant fun of me for loving eggplant, but I will not give it up.”
Kushajim’s ode to the eggplant is quoted in Book of Dishes. Here, in Nasrallah’s translation:
“Eggplant has a taste like saliva a generous lover offers.
A pearl in a black gown, with an emerald set on it, from which a stem extends.
In taste, ‘tis like no other, whether hurriedly cooked or done well.
Yearning for this little wonder, the witty in hosts hasten to it.
Fools only have no appetite for it. As for the smart, they just love it.”
Several of the eggplant recipes from Treasure Trove were easy enough for the novice to manage. One suggests cutting the eggplant into small pieces and mixing it with small onions. After this, you should pour on sesame or olive oil and a bit of water, then let the mixture cook on low heat until the moisture evaporates. Ladle the mixture into a dish, spread with sour yoghurt mixed with a little garlic, and top with chopped parsley.
101 ways to cook lamb and chicken
The recipes in medieval Arabic cookbooks are generally structured in ways that make sense to 21st-century eaters. They are separated by ingredient (“eight eggplant recipes”) or part of the meal (“cold dishes”). Yet they are not separated by origin. Persian, Baghdadi, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, Amazigh, Georgian, and Frankish recipes all jostle one up against the next.
The longest section in Scents and Flavors is all about lamb, and the cookbook offers a variety of ways to cook it that range from methods borrowed from the Franks (or Europeans) to those taken from the Bedouin peoples, who baked lamb in an earthen pit.
If you want to eat your lamb like those strange Frankish people to the north – if, for instance, stories about the Crusaders had piqued your interest – you could try a “Frankish roast”. For that, you would want to rub a fat lamb with salt, sesame oil, and rose water, after which you would skewer it on a long section of pole. As long as you make sure there is charcoal on either side of the lamb, taking care that there is no fire directly under the beast, “it will come out very nicely and cooked all the way through.” You can baste the cooked lamb with sesame oil, rose water, and salt.
You might, on the other hand, be interested in exotic Georgian kebab, which the author of Scents and Flavors promises he once “made for my uncle al-Malik al-Ashraf, may God the Exalted shower him with mercy”. Indeed, the author promises to have tested every last recipe in the book.
While these recipes suggest meat dishes that would easily meet 21st-century expectations, there are also stranger ones. Nasrallah said over email that, “One dish that I liked, but could not eat much of, was the “lubabiyya” (sweet chicken with toasted fresh breadcrumbs).”
This particular dish is not only strange to our palates, Nasrallah said, but also to those who visited Egypt: “I know from the several recipes we have in the Kanz (Treasure Trove) that these dishes were supposed to be sweet; they were liberally drenched in sugar syrup. Apparently, they were an Egyptian speciality that even visitors to the region back then found unusual.”
Sugar was plentiful and affordable in Egypt at the time, and apparently, it was not considered as much of a health hazard as eggplant.
For your vegetarian friend, the Christians, and the sick
Medieval cookbooks were not just for meat-eaters. They also had sections on “fake” meatless dishes. These were for Christians to eat during lent, or else were prescribed by physicians, Nasrallah writes in Treasure Trove, because “they were deemed lighter and easier to digest”.
The chapter title for “fake meatless dishes”, she writes, is identical to the one in al-Warraq’s cookbook from four centuries prior. Meanwhile, the opening segment seems to be copied from the 14th-century cookbook, Kitab Wasf, or “Book of the Description of Familiar Food”. This, in turn, was copied from a book by the Christian physician of Baghdad, Ibn ‘Abdun.
Nasrallah suggests that this section “must have been a widely circulated pamphlet and a valued source of meatless recipes for the sick and fasting Christians”, but it will work just as well for your dinner party’s vegetarian guests.
For those interested in modern adaptations, some can be found over at the Dar Anahita website.
Sweets and after-dinner drinks
One of the wonderful aspects of medieval Arabic cookbooks are the titles of the individual recipes. There are three recipes for a dessert called “ma’muniyyah”. One is subtitled “The first recipe”, while the next is “The second recipe, better than the first”, and the third is “The third recipe, which is better than the second”.
Some of the baking is difficult to master, but Nasrallah has adapted many of the recipes with contemporary measurements. Some are at the end of her translation of Treasures while she has many more on her website.
“Virgin’s breasts” cookies seem to have been particularly popular in medieval times, Nasrallah writes, and they feature in a number of cookbooks. Her adaptation calls for a cup of all-purpose flour; a cup of finely ground almonds or almond flour; ¾ cup sugar; 1 teaspoon baking powder; ½ a teaspoon ground cardamom; a pinch of salt; ½ cup oil; 3 tablespoons of rosewater; and 20 raisins. They should be cooked at 190.5C (375F) for around 13 minutes; take care not to overbake.
Chilled drinks were also served near the end of a meal, to aid digestion. According to al-Warraq, pomegranates have healing powers, so a pomegranate drink should leave guests feeling refreshed and healthy. In Nasrallah’s translation of al-Warraq: “Choose ripe sweet-and-sour pomegranate with red seeds. Extract and strain the juice and put it in a clean soapstone pot. Boil it on slow fire until it is reduced to a third of its original amount then strain it and store it in glass jars.” She has also posted an adapted recipe on her website.
Post-meal tooth-cleaning and the road to cookbook riches
Medieval cookery books were not only a guide to food preparation, but also to health and etiquette.
“It is good manners to use toothpicks,” Treasure Trove informs us. “One needs to clean the teeth and remove the tiny pieces of meat between them. If meat stays in the mouth it rots, especially the solid particles.”
People of all social strata were encouraged to avoid such a situation. The common folk could make “khilal ma’muni”, or toothpicks from esparto grass stems, while middle-class people could use Egyptian willow twigs for picking their teeth.
Nasrallah guessed that the anonymous author/compiler of a cookbook like Treasure Trove was not a member of the upper classes. They “might have earned good money from selling his copies”, she said over email, but, “writing cookbooks was not the road to riches”.
There were certainly celebrity foodies of the era, and medieval biographies mention cookbooks that belonged to caliphs, princes, and famous chefs.
“Ironically,” Nasrallah says, “none of the celebrities’ cookbooks survived.”