Dissecting Medieval Middle Eastern Cooking
Honorable Lady Sosha Lyon’s O’Rourke
Medieval Middle Eastern cooking is said to have had …”more cookbooks in Arabic from before 1400 then in the rest of the world’s languages put together…” (Perry, Forward for Zaouali). The cookbooks that have been translated for modern usage range from the 10th through the 15th century. One of the most important cookbooks to have survived is called the Kitab al-Tabikh. This historic cookbook was compiled by a scribe named Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq in the 10th century as a collection of 8th and 9th century caliphs and members of their court. (Zaouali)
The start for this cookbook and following cookbooks were based on the Persians. The Persians were great lovers of food, with poems and stories devoted to the telling of many great deeds and to the many great feasts of the court and nobles. When the Persians were conquered by Arabs in the 7th century the Caliphs decided to follow the Persian court example for recording dishes as well as organizing cooking contests among the current court favorites. (Zaouali)
In the 13th century there is an influx of Turkish influence among the cooking noted in several ways. One way that this influence is seen is by the incorporation of the word muazwwaj meaning “Counterfeit” from the Turkish language for dishes not containing meat. Islam had no abstention of meat but with the influence of other cultures that did, a word was needed to show the lack of meat. (Zaouali) Another word ‘saj’ meaning iron sheet on which a type of bread is cooked, showing the Turkish influence in even the most basic of daily foods. (Rodinson, pp. 154)
When the Mongols came to Baghdad , in 1226 to pillage and plunder this gave a serious blow to future cookbooks. Transcribers who wish to continue in Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq footsteps had only partial works and familial memory from which to compile cooking compositions for future great works. However not all was lost. Cooking was also stored in poem and story. One example is the set poems written by Mas’udi titled Meadows of Gold. This series of poems was for awhile the only example of dishes until the discovery of the Kitab Al-Tabikh. The Kitab Al-Tabikh (A Baghdad Cookery book) is one of the few cookbooks prior to the sack of Baghdad to survive, even though the modern day discovery was not until 1936. (Rodinson) This cookbook was autographed by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Karim al-Kitab al-baghdadi and found in the great library of Aya Sofya mosque at Istanbul. This cookbook is signification for the signature and the date as many cookbooks were mangled if not out right obliterated in the original plundering of 1226.
As for stories, the most famous is the book “The Arabian Nights, 1001 Tales” based on the 14th century Syrian manuscript. The more modern books based on this story misses some of the historical translation loosing some of the context necessary for true redaction purposes.
Rodinson makes the comment that “…a sociological law: the first culinary treatises are books for princely cooking created for princes; they appeared in the Chinese, Muslim, Greek and Latin cultures, and in the European civilizations of Middle Ages.” This is born out by the start of first set of cooking treatises made; however with the trickle down theory that what is seen at the top will make way to the bottom, the middle and lower classes were able to acquire cookbooks from scribes and clerics who mined the great works of the original scholarly treatises, giving almost any one the ability to not only cook but to understand what is necessary to cook well.
For as complete a kitchen bible on historic Middle Eastern cooking, as much as possible, using the Medival Arab Cookery that has been translated by M. Rodinson, A.J. Arberry and C. Perry. This book is a collection not only of recipes with different authors’ views and opinions on feasting, cooking, displaying as well as a few recipes on medicinal dishes, with history around events that would mark occasions from which dishes would be noted down for posterity. This book combines several actual cookbooks (or their fragments) as well as essays and treaties of historic Middle Eastern cooking. Some of these articles include: A Baghdad Cookery Book (Kitab al-Tabikh), Studies in Arabic Manuscripts Relating to Cookery, Romania and other Arabic Words in Italian, Ma’muniyya East and West, Venice, the Spice Trade of Eastern Influences on European Cooking, What to order in Ninth-Century Baghdad, Elements of Arab Feasting, Couscous and its Cousins, Buran: Eleven Hundred years in the History of a Dish, etc. Each translation holds as true as possible to the original however the authors do acknowledge that there may be some issues from the original languages to modern day English.
A smaller book used for redaction is a compendium of recipes called the A Baghdad Cookery : translated by C. Perry. His notes state he has gone back with a finer eye to details on recipes that are not noted in Medieval Arab Cookery. These details are slight but useful in a comparison and contrasting with an eye towards a better view on a dish’s preparation.
Another work of the Medieval Middle Eastern cookbook is “An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century. This set of recipes does not have a forward by the original author. There are divisions with in the Andalusian such as “According to Hippocrates… (Anonymous, pp. A-18) and “on What Foods Should be Taken Alone and Should Not be Mixed with Other Foods”. This section seems to be where the author gives his opinion on both the medical and how to cook well in the kitchen i.e. “The cook should have clean finger nails” and “…dishes of soapstone would be advised…”.
A fourth book, with original recipes and interesting historic facts surrounding cooking and the influences by various cultures, is Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. This book has excellent references as well as a few pictures of the cookware and dishes used. Another enjoyable part is the historic relevance of food and the influence upon dishes by countries and kingdoms connecting through trade.
There are several other books used for references however these four make up the primary compendium from which much of the research is based upon.
Breakdown of a Medieval Middle Eastern Cookbook:
Unlike a modern day cookbook with chapters of dish types, the Medieval Middle Eastern cookbook is written for the person who commissioned the book and divided into sections dealing with the writer’s thoughts on how well a kitchen should be run by the cook in charge then separated out into sections not by type of meat or course but by the flavor of the dishes.
An example of this type of sectioning can be seen in the Kitab Wasf Al-At’ima Al-Mu’tada. This cookbook starts with a praise to Allah then goes into the introduction of the cookbook, the author then there divides his cookbook into 13 chapters. These chapters start with:
Ch. 1, the cook’s legacy and culture
Ch. 2. on Hawamid (sour dishes) and their varieties
Ch. 3. on Sawadhij (plain dishes).
Ch. 4. on Qualaya (fried dishes) and Nawashif (dry dishes).
Ch. 5. on Hara’is (meat porridges and Tannuriyyat (oven dishes)
Ch. 6. on Matujjanat (fried dishes, bawarid (cold dishes) and sanbusaj (samosas).
Ch. 7. on fish, fresh and salt
Ch. 8. on the making of Murri (soy sauce) Mukhalalat (vinegar pickles) and Mutayyibat (condiments)
Ch. 9. on Jawadhib (puddings baked under meat) and Akhbisa (puddings)
Ch. 10. on Halawat (sweetmeats)
Ch. 11. on Qata’if (pancakes and Khushkananaj (biscuits)
Ch. 12. on Hadimat (digestive beverages)
Ch. 13. on othe rSawadhij (in fact, on vegetarian dishes)
These chapters then go into a terse description of the dish, where the cook is expected to understand and know how to prepare any given recipe cited with out measurements and some times with out a listing of spices other then “spices”.
Measurements are rarely mentioned through much of the cookbooks though in the Katib and occasionally other books, measurements are given. The measurement breakdown is:
1 ratl = 12 uqiya = 16 ounces = 1pint or 1 pound
1 qadah = 1liter
1 rub (cup) = ¼ a qadah
1 uqiya = 1 dirham (Dirham = 3 grams)
1 dirham = 6 dinaq (Dinaq = ½ gram)
Makkuk = 1 bushal
These differences are unique to Medieval Middle Eastern cookbooks. The author starts with his personal opinions on how to set up and run a kitchen, how to keep meat from spoiling, etc., then discusses in separate chapters based on the taste of a dish not by the main meat or vegetable used.
Another cookbook, whose introduction is absent, called the Wusla Ila Al-Habib, starts as an appendix. The first chapter is of perfumes. This chapter is unlike the previous book in that each chapter has enumerated the main recipe for each type of incense with variations noted under the same enumeration i.e. 1:Anbarina, a musk-based perfume, 3 recipes, one of which does not contain ambergris. There are 14 enumerations on perfume in this chapter, with variations listed for most. The footnotes state that some perfumes were very complex for the time and that occasionally charcoal and incense were mixed together and formed into little cakes that could be used in the Maronite liturgy and to light the embers in the narghileh pipes (hookahs). (Rodinson, pp. 131).
Today’s cookbooks would not contain a section on perfumes in the same book as foods. The perfume recipes would be sold separately under a different title.
Another note of interest is that there did not seem to be a copy right to any single work or paper, though individual recipes were noted as under a host’s name or a special occasion such as the “Buran” dish. This dish was one among many served at the wedding of Caliph al-Ma’mum’s son to the daughter of the vizir, al-Hasan ibn Sahl, Khadija, nicknamed Buran after the 7th century Persian princess. The dishes named for Buran started to show in the middle of the 10th century, roughly 125 years after the wedding feast, with names such as badhinjan buran or “Buran’s eggplant”. (Rodinson, pp. 241-242).
A major difference from the medieval Middle Eastern cookbooks is that today’s author would work to please the largest audience not just for one person, while the medieval author would write to please their patron first and foremost.
The author(s) opinion on how to run a kitchen usually starts at the most basic of tenants. From reading in several of the medieval Middle Eastern translated cookbooks, foods were given, usually the most basic of directions and there was little mention of how dishes were to be served only what dishes were used i.e. pottery, stone or tinned copper. “Let him choose pots of soapstone, or, failing that, pottery, and if necessary tinned copper ware. The worst [food] is that which is cooked in a copper pot which has lost its tinning.” (Roddison, p. 302).
Soapstone is different from pottery as the stone, steatite stone and its primary components are magnetite, dolomite, chlorite, and talc, (Anonymous) will retain heat, dispersing through out the dish evenly even after being pulled from a fire or oven. This type of stone was relatively easy to work with and very durable.
“Soapstone is easily worked when first mined but hardens on contact with air. It was preferred for cooking stews because, unlike iron or copper utensils, it did not discolour or change the flavor of the food. Stone cookware is still used in Yemen, where a qidr is a rather shallow utensil with walls perhaps three inches high. A new stone utensil must be seasoned like a new iron pan by heating it with oil until it blackens. Soapstone pots are quite durable on the fire, but do not stand up well to physical shocks, so foods which must be beaten, such as harisa, were not cooked in stone.” (Rodinson, p. 286)
Tinning a copper pot, copper being another example of a great cooking type of metal as it evenly distributes heat of any sort, is a tin lining that prevents the copper from reacting to the foods or liquids and giving a very metallic off taste to a dish.
There is a section in the Medieval Arab Cookery that describes in detail on why trimmed nails on a cook is essential, which woods to use, how the cook should know how much wood to use, which salts are best and why soapstone or pottery dishes are preferred over metal as the taste is superlative and not copper flavored.
Meat was not always available, but always desired for cooking. In a quote attributed to Mohamed “The lordiest food of the people of this world and of paradise is meat’. (Rodinson, pp. 228) Vegetable dishes were written down for those who either could not afford meat or chose (rarely) to eat no meat. Vegetarianism was not only encouraged but those who did not eat meat were “suspected of the impious presumption of ‘forbidding that which god himself has permitted’ (tahrim ma hallala Allah). (Rodinson, pp. 228)
Meat is a stable in much of medieval Arabic cooking. There is such a variety of meat used “…horses, camels, oxen, asses, deer and above all, sheep.” (Roddinson, Arberry, Perry, pg. 230) that there is little other then pork not listed some where in the translated books used by the medieval Arabic cook. “[Prophet], say, ‘in all that has been revealed to me, I find nothing forbidden for people to eat, except for carrion, flowing blood, pigs meat-it is loathsome…”. (Zaouali, pp. 29)
Several of the authors give directions on how to cook i.e. boil till all water is gone, roast with oil, or reserve a pan of fresh water under a roast to retain some of the water with drippings as a sauce (Rodinson, p. 303-304).
There are few foods prohibited by Islamic law. Summerized from the Qur’an”…say, ‘in all that has been revealed to me, I find nothing forbidden for people to eat, except for carrion, flowing blood, pig’s meat – it is loathsome – or a sinful offering over which any mane other then God’s has been invoked.” (Zaouali, pp. 29)
Even some dishes that modern palates would consider a dessert; contain meat or the juice of meat for flavoring. Vegetables dishes are listed and some times suggested as “for going well with” however “Vegetarian dishes were not part of Muslim Cuisine, but they were popularized by Nesstorian Christian doctors, and they were considered suitable for invalids.” (Rodinson, p. 283) Directions are given in finger lengths for vegetables and which spices should be ground as well as the careful drying of herbs.
Spices were expensive but used lavishly for court dishes. The products came from China, Sunda Islands, India and West Africa. The spices include but not limited to pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, betel, musk, nutmeg. Since there were issues with travel and spoilage many of these spices were eventually grown in the Persian controlled lands, later Arabic controlled lands as a means to establish a continued and less expensive means to high quality spices. (Rodinson)
Spices were listed though usually with out measurements and some times without names. A couple of examples would be “Pound a little garlic and throw it in, and perfume it much with hot spices”. (Rodinson, pp. 361) With this quote from the recipes Mulukhiyya, the cook is to know if the spices are referring to spicy as in the style of pepper hot or spices that have been roasted in a pan and added straight from the pan into the dish, hot. Another recipes gives the cook a choice of spices to add depending on person choice, again with out measurements. “Mix in seasonings chosen from among pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cubeb spikenard, mace, galingale, aloe wood (aquilaria aqallocha), saffron, and musk.” (Zaouali, pp. 134)
Spices were also bought and sold in atraf al-tib or fragrant bundles. These were pre-mixed spices, by vendors and merchants, much like we have today. There was also a category for a spicy pre-mix called abzar harra or hot seeds. Both of these bundles were mentioned profusely in the Wusla cookbook. (Rodinson, pp. 155)
Fruit ran the gamete from apples to rose hips, including bananas. Fruit was used fresh, cooked and preserved in a multitude of dishes. While many cultures had straight fruit dishes many of the medieval Middle Eastern fruit dishes included drippings from meat whether red or fowl fat much like a modern Yorkshire pudding. (Rodinson)
Note: Bananas are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia then traversing through Arabia, crossing the Red Sea and brought to Ethiopia where large cultivations took over many parts of Africa. There is a theory that the banana was transplanted to South America “…social contacts in very ancient times occurring across the Pacific and the Central American isthmus for propagations…by such natural means as dispersal by birds seems impossible…” (Toussaint, pp. 680) Bananas are an integral part of several dishes in the medieval Middle Eastern repertoire of a well rounded cook. The notion that this fruit is a New World food is no longer valid due to verified research on the plant’s origins and usage noted through historic texts.
Oils ranged from olive oil to sesame oil with clarified butter and tail fat being used in equal amounts. Tail fat is just that. Fat from the tail of a specific type of sheep in which a ball of fat is stored. This tail fat was used in the same way that lard was used in other areas. Recipes would state which is preferred, either clarified butter or tail fat depending on the flavor desired. Many recipes would leave the choice of oil to the cook though sesame oil seems to be the more preferred oil when there is a listed preference.
Murri has two types of recipes for this flavorful sauce. The instructions given are to inoculate loaves of raw barely dough with molds such as Aspergillus and/or penicillium, by wrapping the dough in fig leaves then covering the for several weeks to rot. After the loaves of barley dough had rotted “enough” flour, salt and water were added to the rotting mixture and left for roughly 40 days in the middle of high summer. The references to aged murri is vague on if longer then 40 days or if 40 days is the correct amount of time for aged or regular murri. During the second stage of fermenting, the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria from air and water take over from the mold. It is said that the aroma given is much like that of soy sauce. (Rodinson, pg. 281-281)
Another type of Murri is described “By marinating small dried fish (sir) in salt, aromatic herb, must and wines…” (Zouali, pp. 54) This type of marinade is best “…served cold having been dried for a suitable time…assists the passage of undigested foods and arrests secretions of the phlegmatic humor… (Zouali, pp. 54) There is a recipe written by Ibn Razin. Several other noted authors have written their own version of a favored type of murri either of barley or fish.
Note: This fish sauce is different from the Roman fish sauce, guram. Guram was made with actual fish, fish bones and spices and left to ferment for weeks at a time in clay urns on a hot summer roof top. (Herklotz, pg. 13)
The two types of murri are not always distinguished between in recipes. When the recipes were translated in modern vernacular, many times murri was written as soy sauce since it seems to be the more common sauce substitute then fish sauce. It is up to the cook using intuition and experimentation to decide for themselves on which is preferable when a recipe calls for murri or soy sauce. Did the original cook, over 900 years ago really mean the fermented barely sauce or the fermented fish sauce? This can lead to extraordinary feats of culinary experimentation in the kitchen.
Cooking was usual over a fire or coals, some times in an oven some times an open fire pits, using pottery, soapstone or tinned pots. Meats were hung over a fire, or coals, with a pan/pot underneath to collect the drippings or a pudding or dessert were placed under cooking meat dishes to collect the fat drippings as part of the sweet dish. Boiling is written in many recipes as a way to tenderize meat prior to roasting in ovens. (Rodinson, pp. 281)
Ovens ranged from brick ovens (similar to the European style bread ovens to clay oven (tannur) which was more common in the east. (Rodinson, pp. 481) Dishes were placed into ovens or onto banked coals to continue cooking until “done” or had “quieted”. The term “quieted” is thought to mean no longer boiling or cooled enough to serve directly from the pot to bowls or take the pot after wiping down the soot from coals or fire ash, to the table for serving.
Due to both extremes in heat and cold as well as extended periods of heat, food had to be preserved other then using cold or “root cellars/sheds” as found in colder climates. There is no mention of the trial and errors that went into the discovery of how foods were preserve however there are many preserving techniques for a variety of foods. Such foods include meats, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and milk, all staples in the Middle Eastern diet. The preserving techniques ranged from using heat, salt, sugar, honey and water.
Meat preservation was described as “Drying of meat in the Greek Style (Rum). (Rodinson, pp. 145) This probably meant any type of red meat and possibly fowls, though no explanation is given of how the Greeks went about drying their meat. Smoking of meat is mentioned in the Al-Baghadadi for longevity.
The most recorded type of meat listed for preservation is that of fish in salt.
In al-Baghdadi’s original text, most of the fish recipes are for dried fish such as tirrikh, which was salted fish, sir, which appears only in condiments was probably smaller fish dried with out salt (recipes using it add salt, and sir is used in ground form – it may some times have been sold that way-because with out salting; fish must be dried so thoroughly to prevent soilage that they must be pulverized to be usable in the kitchen). Tirrikh is of Greek origini (from Tarikhos, ‘dried up’ ) : sir seems to be the Coptic tjir, ‘salted fish’, which may in turn be an Egyptian borrowing from a Canaanite language (cf. Hebrew tzur, brine)…(Rodinson, pp281)
One way to use dried meat including that of dried and salted fish, other then that of modern day jerky, would be rinse the excess salt off then rehydrate the meat in either water or wine till deemed usable in which ever recipe was to be prepared.
Eggs preserved by pickling goes back a very long way in history. Preserving eggs probably came about the same time that fowl were domesticated and the local chicken farmer found himself with too many eggs and probably about the time the farmer found himself with a vat of wine turned to vinegar (though this all supposition!)
Baid Mukhallal (Pickled Eggs)
Take boiled eggs and peel and sprinkle with a little ground salt and Chinese cinnamon and dry coriander. Then arrange them in a glass jar and pour wine vinegar on them, and put it up.
(Rodinson, pp. 397)
This recipe is unusual that it dictates a glass jar for the eggs opposed to just a sealed clay jug or jar. This leads to the conclusion that the importance of being able to see if the eggs were still edible with in the vinegar and spice bath, with out any obvious growth of fungus and mold, to holding the oblong shape with out a sloughing off of the outer white portion.
Modern day food safety states that eggs are only good for one week after boiling though this recipe does not state about what time eggs should be considered to old to be considered safe. This leads to the thought that food safety was one of those “known and no need to write” items passed down verbally.
Fruits were preserved by drying i.e. plums and apricots as well as dates. The fruits were laid out and either covered with a light cloth or with out until thoroughly dried. These fruits were then stored until needed in containers such as clay jars to prevent spoilage and waste due to vermin.
One example of a salt/water or salt/oil technique would be:
Laymun Marakibi (Salted Lemons)
Pickled lemons are done in the manner thus; Slice lemons. Sprinkle with salt. Drain of juice. Place in water or oil. (Andalusian)
Oil preserving for lemons was a more expensive way to preserve the fruit; however this style did have the benefit of lasting a little longer and giving a lemon flavored oil for cooking or perfuming. Preserved lemons can be used in period dishes such as hummus and Laimuniyya (meat dish) or any dish that requires lemons and salt.
Drying was not the only way to keep fruit available for months out side of a harvest season. Pickling of fruit could be the use of salt and water or salt and oil or the use of honey vinegar and water.
Qarasiya Mukhallala (Pickled Plums)
Put them in a pickling jar and put water on them, and a little vinegar and a like amount of honey. (Rodinson, pp. 397)
These plums can also be used in a dish called Khaukiyya (Meat with plums). The recipe calls for plums as well as vinegar and honey yet it does not specify fresh plums leading to the potential that pickled plums were an expectable substitute with the potential that this dish was made around pickled plums.
Vegetables and herbs could be preserved like fruit by being sliced and left to dry under the sun. Onions and carrots are some of the more common examples. Vegetables could also be preserved by pickling much in the same way as fruit.
Khiyar Mukhallal (Pickled Smooth Cucumbers)
Pound cucumbers and take as much of their water as needed, and add the same amount of wine vinegar. Then throw salt in it and put it in a greased vessel, and throw the cucumbers in it, and mint, rue and tarragon, with out reckoning these ingredients, and leave it ten days and use. Excellent aroma.
(Rodinson, pp. 397)
These are wonderful on there own. No recipe as of yet has been redacted to include cucumbers as an ingredient off hand. This leads to the speculation that much like pickles in modern times these were a finger food to be eaten with a meal or as a snack.
Preservation was more then just vinegar and salt. Vegetables were also preserved using honey and sugar in jams. The following recipe is for a squash. Magda is the period type of squash/gourd used. (Toussaint)
Once a vegetable is made into a jam, the item is no longer used as part of another.
Take some sweet green gourds and remove the rind, scraping until the white layer disappears. For every pound of squash take nine uqiya of sugar and half a pound of honey. Put (the pieces of) sugar in a casserole (dast), pour over it half of the honey and rose water, put over a low fire. Stir with a wooden stick. Little by little, as it dries up, add (honey and rose water) until it becomes a jam. Sprinkle over it two uqiya of pistachios with pounded sugar, scented with musk. At the end add rose water before taking off the fire. (Zaouali, pp. 135.)
There is no pectin used for this just long slow cooking with sugar and honey for the stabilizer and solidifying agent. There is no translation on where jams fall in the course of a day or in the lineup of a meal. This leads to the possible conclusion that this was a switch hit type of sweet that could have been used as a quick meal, slathered on flat bread with possible left over meat or even a sweet treat to be taken at the end of a meal, dipped on to bread or even straight off of fingers, though bread would be the usual means for dipping.
Cheese was preserved using rennet and/or salt. There is no specific type of milk mentioned other then fresh and/or sweet milk leading to the conclusion that goat, sheep or cattle milk would be used to make cheese and yogurts. There were different types of cheese and yogurts depending on firmness, saltiness, or by region i.e. Sicilian, Syrian or Persian.
Rennet is a natural complex of enzymes found in the stomach lining of a young mammalian animal still drinking mother’s milk. Historically a young kid or calf was slaughtered in the spring (traditional birthing time) and the stomach lining cut into squares with the hair still attached (Zaouali) and stirred into milk. This would then curdle the milk forming curds and whey. The whey being the liquid portion would be drained off and the curds packed into molds or rounds and covered with either cloth and or wax for later use.
This cheese recipe is considered a Persian cheese as it makes a soft cheese or a firm yogurt depending definition.
Shiraz – Cheese
Use milk that is just drawn, still warm, incorporating the rennet as it is, with its skin, and whipping the milk while it is warm so that it coagulates. Then pour it into molds made from willow…sprinkle salt (over it) and set it aside. If you wish to eat it right away, it is not necessary to salt it, in which case it is called simple cheese. (Zaouali, pp. 139)
This type of cheese is called for in soups and meat dishes as “in the Persian tradition”. (Rodinson) In this recipe, both rennet and salt are called for with the fresh milk. If only yogurt were to be had then salt would be used to firm up the texture. To form yogurt from milk, the bacteria of a yogurt forming culture would be introduced into milk at warm temperatures, usually from a previous batch of yogurt. The yogurt would then be salted and poured into a sieve that has been lined with several layers of muslin. This allowed the whey to drain while retaining the curd.
Another way to preserve cheese is by aging in a jar with oil and salt.
Dry Cheese aged in a jar
Take some cheese made in the second half of the month of March or in the month of April; salt it and put it on a wooden board in a well-ventilated place, high above the ground. You must frequently dry it with a woolen cloth, and coat it with oil and salt until you think that it has absorbed enough salt and that it is thoroughly dry. This should be done during the month of May. Take now a jar that previously contained oil, clean it simply by wiping it with a cloth, with out washing it with boiling water, and fill it with pieces of cheese, that have been moistened with oil, placing them next to one another with out leaving any space. When the jar is full, close it and seal the cover with clay so that no air can get in. After fifteen days, open (it) to stir the cheese, then close and reseal. You will repeat this procedure ten days later, and repeat it again until the cheese hassoftened and holes filled with oil appear inside. Eat it with flavored bread and sweet grapes throughout the fall…(Zaouali, pp. 139)
This recipe uses a clay jar, and not a glass jar, so viewing the contents is not a primary importance just the lack of air which would inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria though at this time the information of air and bacteria was not a scientific known just a cause and effect.
Containers for preserved foods to be stored for long periods of time were mostly closed lid jars that kept air contact to an absolute minimum. These were usually made of pottery though glass was also an option. In the case of the aged cheese, the jar was sealed with clay; this is done only when stated in a recipe and not the norm. Metal containers were both expensive and more useable for cooking, not so much for storing.
The opening, to the storage container, would be the size of a hand 4-7 inches in diameter, allowing easy access for placing into the container or withdrawing from the container. The body would usually be of a round, pot belly, nature and a flat pedestal bottom for resting stability. The exception to this would be olive oil jars that had rounded or pointed ends instead of sturdy flat bottoms. These jars types of jars were made to hang on the wall. Lids for containers could be clay or cork, some times glass for glass containers, depending on the maker. (Zaouali)
Breads, Couscous and Rice:
Bread was as varied as there were spices. Some bread was made plain, either leavened or unleavened. Bread came with many names such as Khushkananaj (biscuits), also known as Persian khushk, dry; nan, bread, (Rodinson, pp. 425) There is also qursa made with fat called small round flat oaf, used to make bread crumbs. Murakkaba makes a fine thin flat bread (leaving is optional). (Andalusian, pp. A-62-63). Another type of flat bread was, Persian round flat bread gerdeh. (Rodinson, pp. 382) Shape seems to be optional depending on what or how an item was to be cooked unless specified. Some bread was rolled flat so were probably dependent upon the size and shape of the stone or metal sheet cooked upon. These breads could be left plain, spiced sweet or savory, and some times stuffed with meat. Bread did not come in one flavor or one style. There were many to choose from.
Couscous was originally formed by from freshly ground whole grain that is sprinkled with salted water in a bowl then sieved several times forming small balls of dough. The grains of dough are then steamed, though they can be boiled, for a fluffy type starch. (Rodinson, pp. 235)
Couscous has been noted as being better suited with the use of ground whole grain to forming small granular balls then using bolted flour. This gives way to one theory that making couscous was a way to preserve grain. Another theory is that couscous spread in the medieval Middle Eastern cooking was that it was both economic and aesthetic, being made from any grain that has been freshly ground and water. (Rodinson, pp. 236)
Rice was a fairly common side addition to a meal like bread and couscous or as a part of a dish. Zaouali states that rice “…should be mufalfal; that is, it’s grains should be well separated when they are done…” (pp. 125) Rice was also used ground, as filler when course ground or a thickener when finely ground. Rice flour was also used as flour in selective types of cookie or dough for bread and noodles. Rice was also made into a type of porridge (Rodinson, pp. 196) Rice was found in as many savory dishes as sweet being versatile in use.
Noodles are not associated with medieval Middle Eastern cooking though they existed in period. The best place to find original references for noodles is in the tenth century Arabic compilation Kitab al-Tabikh. In this cookbook the noodles are made from a stiff dough and rolled out thin with a rolling pin then cut into strips with a knife. From this description the Persian noodle evolves into itriya, which were small soup noodles made by twisting bits of kneaded dough into shape rather then rolling. Another type of noodle was called the lakhshidan – to slide, thought to be named so due to the slipperiness of the actual noodle. (Rodinson, pp. 163). A fine threaded noodle was called called Rishta noted by Ibn Sina. (Zaouali, pp. 115). This type of thin noodle was used in a dish called qata’if, a very fine dessert. (Rodinson, pp. 222) There was the Sha’iriyy, called fresh short pasta or dry short pasta. Tiltin was cut into small squares of pasta, used as any other pasta but not stuffed like ravioli. Muhammas or hasu were called bullets though originally described as being shaped like peppercorn, which would be more accurate for the original translation as this type of pasta is noted as having been made by the Andalusian’s in the 12th century. (Zaouali, pp. 116)
In the Andalusian there is a recipe for fidaush. These noodles are made into
“…three different shapes, one like wheat grains, the round likes coriander seeds that is called bijaya (bougie) and it’s region humais (little garbanzos) and one that is made in thin sheets, as thin as paper and which is food for owmen; they cook it with gourd, spices and fat; it is one of the quadif. Fidaush is cooled like irriyya.” – cooked in broth with butter and oil. (Andalusian, A-56)
The noodles were cooked either fresh or dried in several dishes. The preferred starch of meals seemed to be not noodles, which were very labor intensive but that of bread, couscous or rice. Though these took longer to cook these items were not as time consuming in the original making
Dishes were not plain for the upper class. Many required multiple steps first with boiling of scallops of meat, baking of the meat after being tenderized, then the addition of meatballs with/or with out vegetables either fried, boiled or baked themselves, then the actual vegetables, and spices. Other dishes that were cooked for a feast that were show as the center piece of a presentation. Examples would include the stuffing of a chicken skin with either chicken meat or another meat, stuffed with rice meat chickpeas, and onions. There is the fish that is presented whole that has been fried, baked and broiled as one. There is the Omelet in the shape of a bottle, the omelet having been cooked in a glass bottle then the glass is removed while the omelet retains the shape of the glass container. There is also the display called mock brains for which copper tubing and liver are required. These were edible, but unusual, displays costing much for the host’s reputation. (Rodinson, pp. 160-162)
Most of the dishes, listed in the cookbooks used for references, qualify that a dish is to be served from the pot or pan from which it was cooked after being wiped down from the ash of the fire or has settled (cooled); however there is a main dish called tharid that was considered Mohammed’s favorite dish. (Zaouali, pp. 28). The prophet went so far as to say that tharid “was the best dish of all.” (Zaouali, pp. 68) This dish was made usually with meat, bread, vegetables, herbs, couscous, yogurt and a variety of spices arranged in a pyramid. This dish could be made with slices of meat and meatballs or of only vegetables all with bread or breadcrumbs to sop up the broth. (Rodinson, Zaouali) This was the main dish from which the modern day idea that all medieval Middle Eastern dishes were served together.
Zaouali writes on the course of dishes were presented together hot and cold, main courses, starters, sauces, murri and kamash with vinegar and flavored salt served in small bowls for easy dipping or passing to another dinner. The ‘Abbasids did dinners in a different style in which fruits, dates being much preferred, were the main starter. The dishes then progressed to the cold salted, then hot (though due to the lack of utensils warm was the usual serving temperatures with lamb, veal, poultry, fish and so on.
With dinner and the lack of utensils, hands were washed during the ‘Abbasid era “…were to be carefully washed before and after the meal with special soaps and powders…At the end of a meal, it was customary to clean the teeth with a toothpick, and lozenges made from musk, sandalwood, amber, spikenard, cloves, aloe wood, roses, cinnamon, and the like were sucked in order to guard against bad breath.” (Zaouali, pp. 57)
Silk Road Effects on Cooking:
With the trade routes from China to the Middle East going back and forth, trade of foods and ideas were intermingled. There is trade along the route talking of Chinese cinnamon, and eggplant called badhinjan from India (Rodinson, pg.22). For soy sauce, records, there is indication that the roots of soy sauce were made in China as early as 12th century BC. (Yamasa Corp.), and was introduced at the time of the eggplant between the 9th and 11th century AD. There are two types of recipes listed in Medieval Middle Eastern cookbooks. One that is from rotting barley that is some what like in flavor to soy sauce and the other that when one of the recipes calls for soy sauce they actually do mean soy sauce as both sauces are made with grains and not the fish of the Roman guarm fish sauce; however as this item was not inexpensive due to the trade routes and traveling hazards this additive may have been only for those homes with deep pockets while lesser tables had to do with the ubiquitous fish sauce. .
A variety of texts have been translated from the fathers of Arab medicine in which food was mentioned. These texts rules on “dietetics, in turn inherited from Greek medical Authors.” (Perry, p. 111). One such text called Kitab al-aghdhiya, Book of Foods, was written some time in early 900 AD by Ishaq b. Sulayman al-Isra’ili, a Jewish doctor who lived in Cairo. His book on foods for heath and eating remained in circulation till the 17th century. (Rodinson, pp. 110)
Wine, while denied by the Islam faith still had a place in both the kitchen (as vinegar) and at the table:
“as late as AD 1100 (nearly 500 years after the introduction of Islam) ‘wine vinegar’ was still in use in many dishes in the kitchens of the Caliphate of Baghdad, the very epicenter of Islam from the eighth to the twelfth centuries.” (Shaida, pg. 4)
There are a great many poems from which wine and the virtues or downfalls of are described.
The following 16th century poem:
To drink good wine down and be happy – That’s my way;
Ignoring faith and blasphemy – that’s how I pray.
I asked the world to name her price, I’d marry her;
She said, “Your happy heart is what you’ll have to pay.”
(Khayyam/Davis) (Batmanglij, p. 54)
There are written words, pottery and paintings to support that while wine was forbidden it was not forgotten nor left behind with the Islamic faith. Wine production was allowed to continue though forbidden to those of Islamic faith and being relegated to Jews and Christians. Wine at this time was heavily taxed. (Batmanglij, pp. 39-40) However with many other conquering nations, the Arab caliphs grew to appreciate the Persian way of doing things including an appreciation of wine. An Arabic couplet inscribed on an some Iranian wine ewers states “It behooves you to drink cooked wine for it is Licit provided it does not affect reason and understanding.” (Batmanglij, pp. 40)
Several recipes for wine include “Grape wine” and “Honey wine with Raisons” as well as “Honey wine with out Raisons”. The spicing for these include saffron, spikenard, mace and musk (Raisons depending upon which recipe is used). (Zaouali, pp. 140-141).
Cooked wine and vinegars of wine were essential ingredients to many Persian dishes and soon adopted for both cooking and medicinal usage for Arabic dishes as well.
Coffee began to replace wine during the mid-15th century, with the fruit of the coffee plant originating from Ethiopia. “We say…the Yemen alone…because the appearance of coffee in the land of Ibn Sa’d al-Din and the country of the Abyssinians and of the Jabart, and other places of the land of the ‘Ajam, but the time of its first use is unknown, nor do we know the reason.” (Hattox, pp. 13) While coffee did become an every day drink, originally coffee was thought to be a bad as wine due to where the consumption of coffee took place (former wine houses), activities around the drinking (sexual situations and political activities), as well as just being innovative for the time, Bid’a. (Hattox, pp. 6). Coffee is not listed in any recipes for cooking but does have a place in the history it’s uniqueness and continued use.
Other drinks, prepared in medieval times that were less controversial, include The Great Drin of Roots, The little Drink of Roots, and a multitude of Syrups i.e. Sryup of mint: Way of Making it. (Andalusian, 72-75). The Andalusian book has the widest range of drinks listed with their recipes out of all the research materials on hand.
This is a compilation from several works, interpreted by personal experimentation in the kitchen. This is by no means a complete list of details and variations found in the rich culinary history of medieval Middle Eastern cooking. There are many intriguing bits of history, stories of dishes and drinks with the origins of why or how one item became desired or common place.
Medieval Middle Eastern cookbooks and the art of cooking is an ongoing learning experience. There are very few “one ways”. For every recipe written in one book there is probably a variation listed either in the same cookbook or in another cookbook that is contemporary to the original or even builds upon the original a 100 years down the road in another cookbook. Spices and ingredients during one reign or region may fall out of favor by the next commissioning or dislike by an author. History shows that recipes change from regions, from translation, from year to year. Cooks were not afraid to experiment on dishes going from simple to complex back to simple again depending on whom the dish was for and what ingredients could be had.
A Taste of Ancient Rome; by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Translated by Anna Herklotz
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Corbin, J., (1999). Arabic Recipes & History for Medieval Feasts.
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Hattox, R.., (1985). Coffee and CoffeeHouses. The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East. University of Washington Press.
Krochmal, C., Plum Good. Retrieved online September 6, 1006 from http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/fruit_garden/91810
Perry, C., (2005). A Baghdad Cookery Book. Prospect Books: November 2005.
Rodinson, M., Arberry, A., Perry, C., (2001). Medieval Arab Cookery. Prospect Books. Cromwell Press
Shaida, M., (2002). The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. New York.
Staub, J., (2005). 75 Exciting Vegetables. Gibbs Smith, Publisher Salkt Lake City.
Toussaint-Samat, M., (1992). History of Food. Barnes & Nobles.
Yamasa Corporation; http://www.yamasausa.com/Yamasa_soy.htm
Zaouali, L., (2004)., Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. University of California Press.