For culinary enthusiasts as well as for those fascinated by Egypt’s heritage, the very first English-language translation of a mediaeval Egyptian cookbook entitled Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table.A Fourteenth Century Egyptian Cookbook will come as a thrilling revelation.
The original Arabic manuscript of this cookbook of 832 recipes is entitled Kanz Al-Fawaaid Tanwei Al-Mawaaid, and it was penned by an anonymous author during Egypt’s Mameluke era.
With its versatile and comprehensive array of recipes, it contains the full range of the Egyptian culinary heritage as it stood at the time.
Many of the dishes mentioned remain part of Egypt’s modern kitchen, such as an ibrahimiya meat dish in which mastic is used.
The book remained unknown to the general public until the Arabic manuscript was edited and published in 1993 by Manuela Marín and David Waines.
In November 2017, the English language translation was issued by Brill, its title being a literal rendering of the Arabic.
The translation, accompanied by an extensive introduction, was undertaken by Iraqi scholar Nawal Nasrallah, who is also a food blogger and an avid cook.
Nasrallah taught English at the universities of Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq before moving to the United States in 1990. She was often asked by her American friends about Iraqi recipes, and the lack of resources on the topic in the US led her to write on and research Arabic culinary culture.
“Kanz Al-Fawaaid was written at a time when Egypt was an important centre in the Arab- Islamic world,” Nasrallah told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“It was in fact the last Egyptian cookbook we know of before the advent of the Ottoman Empire” in Egypt in 1516. “After that all attention was directed to the Istanbuli kitchen that then evolved, favouring simpler blends of spices. The Ottomans also started to look to Europe for inspiration.”
However, before then the Kanz Al-Fawaaid presents the modern reader with a culinary itinerary that is arresting in its versatility and comprehensiveness.
It includes meat and vegetable dishes, sweets and savouries, and fermented foods and drinks. Detailed instructions are given on how to make distilled drinks, compotes, sauces, incense, perfumed oils, medicinal and herb preparations, and hand-washing compounds.
Most notably, the book includes the oldest known recipe for hummus, offering 11 variations on the dish.
It also includes the oldest known existing recipe for okra, a staple of the Egyptian kitchen. Nasrallah also gives her take on recipes that she has personally tried from the book.
“The subya (a traditional Egyptian beverage) was quite refreshing, the laymun malih (salt-cured lemons) appetising and reasonably salty, the hummus kassa, or mashed cooked chickpeas with tahini, was a revelation to me, as I found in it the prototype of today’s hummus,” she says.
“There are fish dishes, one with tahini sauce and the other with sumac. There is fuliya (fava bean stew with meatballs and eggs sunny side up), and the scrumptious almond cookies nuhud al-adhara (or virgins’ breasts).”
Nasrallah’s translation includes 22 modernised versions of some of the book’s original recipes. “For culinary historians,” she says, “the book is an essential source, filling a huge gap in our knowledge regarding gastronomy and foodways during the period. It is also an indispensable source for researchers in the field of mediaeval material history and culture.”
It certainly holds fascinating insights for all lovers of cooking and culinary culture. These include guidelines for the use of materials in cooking utensils, favouring soapstone (biram) and earthenware (fakhar) and only when required pots of tinned copper.
Such recommendations may resonate with our modern-day awareness regarding the benefits of cooking in earth-derived utensils.
Nasrallah aptly dedicates her English translation of the book to Sarah Al-Sayed and Bassem Khalifa, two pioneers of the Slow Food Movement in Egypt, “for their commendable efforts to promote Egyptian food heritage through their organizational and documentary projects.”
Her translation presents us with a veritable treasure trove of delights, and it is an intellectual no less than a culinary achievement that is impressive in its scope as well as its depth.
“Books like Kanz are treasures from the past that we need to discover and enjoy as our elders did,” Nasrallah says. “We talk about the importance of discovering one’s heritage as a way to self-discovery. Here is a delicious and fun way to do so.”
Here are two recipes from the Kanz Al-Fawaaid specially recommended by Nasrallah:
A green condiment of mashed chickpeas, this is the precursor of today’s condiment of hummus bi-ṭahina that is made in a much simpler way today.
One cup boiled chickpeas
Two tablespoons of tahini, stirred with water and wine vinegar, two tablespoons of each
Quarter of a cup of finely ground walnuts, stirred with two tablespoons of lemon juice, and one teaspoon of wine vinegar
Half a cup of chopped parsley
Quarter of a cup of chopped mint
Three tablespoons of olive oil
Quarter of a teaspoon each of caraway, coriander, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon, all crushed
Half a teaspoon of salt
A quarter of a lemon preserved in salt (laymun malih), cut into small pieces
For garnish: olive oil, chopped pistachios, chopped parsley, cinnamon, and rose petals
Put all the ingredients, except the salted lemon, in a food processor, and pulse the mix until it looks smooth. It should look green.
Add more of the herbs if needed. The consistency of the mix should be thick enough to pick up with a piece of bread.
Add a bit more lemon juice if needed. Fold in the chopped salted lemon.
To serve as a dish, spread the condiment on a plate, drizzle a generous amount of olive oil over it, garnish it with chopped parsley, and give it a light sprinkle of cinnamon and crushed rose petals if you like.
Fried fish in tahini sauce. This is a flavourful fish dish that offers a delicious way to use tahini, other than in the familiar hummus condiment.
Half a pound of firm white fish, such as cod, cut into two pieces
For the fish, rub together two tablespoons of wine vinegar, one crushed garlic clove, one teaspoon of crushed coriander, and half a teaspoon of salt
Flour for dusting the fish pieces
Oil for frying the fish (half-inch deep)
For the tahini sauce
One medium onion, finely chopped
One tablespoon of oil
Quarter of a teaspoon each of black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, rose petals, allground
Quarter of a teaspoon of salt, or as needed
Quarter of a cup of tahini, wine vinegar, and water
Quarter of a teaspoon of saffron or turmeric
Combine the ingredients and smear the pieces of fish with them. Put the fish in a colander set above a bowl and set it aside for about an hour.
When ready to fry, dust the fish pieces with flour and fry them in the hot oil.
Brown them on both sides and keep them in a colander to get rid of any extra fat. Fry the onion in one tablespoon of oil until nicely browned. In a small bowl, combine the spices and salt.
In another bowl, whip together the tahini, vinegar, water, and saffron or turmeric.
Add the contents of both bowls to the fried onion and bring the mixture to a boil while stirring. Place the fried fish pieces on a platter and pour the prepared tahini sauce over them and serve.
Nawal Nasrallah (trans), Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook, Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp.724
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Treasures of mediaeval cooking