Meals for Mamelukes

David Tresilian , Tuesday 27 Feb 2024

A new translation of a mediaeval Arab cookery book is a welcome addition to a thriving field, writes David Tresilian

Exiles

 

 

People interested in Arab and Middle Eastern food today have resources available to them that could only have been dreamed about only a few decades ago.

When the veteran UK-based food writer Claudia Roden, herself born in Cairo, produced her Book of Middle Eastern Food, one of the first cookery books to provide an overview of Arab and Middle Eastern cuisine for English-speaking readers, she was almost alone in the field. But that was some 50 years ago and before Middle Eastern food had made its mark worldwide. Today, recipe books by Roden and her successors are helping cooks everywhere to prepare the food of the region at home, and there are also often excellent Lebanese, Moroccan, Turkish, and Iranian restaurants in many of the world’s major cities.

However, while such international recognition of the cuisine of the region has of course been welcome, helping people everywhere to share in the delights of Middle Eastern food, it has perhaps not yet been matched by an awareness of the region’s long culinary history. Fortunately, historians in Europe and elsewhere have also been busy filling in this lacuna through the publication of English translations of some of the major sources.

Writing in the Weekly in May 2020, Aziza Sami welcomed the publication of the Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table, an English translation by Iraqi food historian Nawal Nasrallah of Kanz al-fawa’id fi tanwi’ al-mawa’id, an anonymous cookbook produced in 14th-century Egypt. Shortly afterwards, US Arabist Charles Perry’s translation of the Kitab al-wuslah ila al-habib fi wasf al-tayyibat wa al-tib, a poetically named 13th-century cookery book compiled in Syria, became available in paperback in New York University’s Library of Arabic Literature.

While the title of the book literally means “Reaching the Beloved through Delicious Foods and Flavourings,” Perry went for the more straightforward Scents and Flavours as the title of his translation.

UK scholar Daniel Newman produced a new translation of another mediaeval Egyptian cookery book, the Zahr al-hadiqa fi al-at’ima al-aniqa by the 15th-century writer Ibn Mubarak Shah, literally meaning “Flowers in the Garden of Elegant Foods” and published as The Sultan’s Feast in 2020. He has now followed this up with a new translation of the Fadalat al-khiwan fi tayyibat al-ta’am wa al-alwan by the 13th-century Andalusian writer Ibn Razin al-Tujibi who lived out his days in exile in what is now Tunisia after having been expelled from Southern Spain.

Meaning something like “Delicacies of the Table as Regards Food and Dishes,” Newman’s translation of this book was published as The Exile’s Cookbook in 2023 by Saqi Books in London.

As Newman says in his introduction, this work, when added to those of other translators like Nasrallah and Perry, has meant that all the major mediaeval Arab cookery books are now available in modern English translations. We are thus a far cry from the situation even a few years ago when Newman published his earlier translation since at that time few of the ten major mediaeval Arab recipe collections to have come down to us had been put back into circulation.

Today, on the other hand, “before long all of the known mediaeval Arabic cookery books will be available in translation, enabling a wider audience of non-Arabic-speaking scholars and enthusiasts alike access to this amazing heritage,” Newman comments. “We have indeed come a long way since even the mid-1980s, when a mere two texts were available in an Arabic edition, only one of which had been translated into English.”

Perry and Newman also provided newly edited Arabic texts in their earlier translations and established the relevant manuscript traditions, and while Newman’s new translation does not include the Arabic text, presumably for reasons of length, like the earlier one it does include a lengthy introduction giving details of what is known, and what can be inferred from the surviving recipe books, about mediaeval Arab cooking.

There is also a Website at www.eatlikeasultan.com in which Newman discusses some of the recipes given in The Sultan’s Feast and The Exile’s Cookbook and includes photographs of his own attempts to recreate them. He recommends mediaeval wheat harisa with veal, the recipe for which is given in The Exile’s Cookbook, explaining that this is “an Andalusian twist on a classic Arab dish made with crushed wheat – the Arabic word harisa is derived from a verb meaning ‘to mash’ – which is slow-cooked and then added with fatty veal meat and suet in order to ensure a gluey consistency.”

There are other tempting photographs on the site of modern recreations, done in Newman’s kitchen, of an “Abbasid chicken pie known as maghmuma, i.e. ‘concealed’, in that the content is covered by a top sheet of dough,” the recipe for which comes from The Sultan’s Feast, and Andalusian battered aubergines – “a wonderful 13th-century vegetarian recipe” from The Exile’s Cookbook.

“The dish was known as al-mughaffar, meaning ‘the protected one,’ in reference to the batter covering the aubergines,” Newman comments.

 

Mediaeval cuisine: Readers approaching these books for the first time may have various questions in mind, among them who they were written for, what they can tell us about the meals eaten by the mediaeval Arabs, and to what extent they provide viable recipes that can be tried out in kitchens today.

In answer to the first of these, Newman believes that they were above all working cookery books that were meant to be used in mediaeval kitchens. They were thus less like some of the cookery books available today, the idea of which can seem simply to present glossy images of food, and more like some of those used by earlier generations the aim of which was to provide a repertoire of dishes and techniques for working cooks.

The recipes in The Exile’s Cookbook, like those in the other mediaeval Arab cookery books, are written in a standard format that will be familiar to contemporary chefs, starting with a list of ingredients and then describing preparation, cooking, and finally presentation of the dish. The fact that the recipes are vague about how many diners they are intended for and very often also the quantities of the ingredients is evidence that they were intended to be used by experienced chefs, Newman says, for whom they would have served as rules of thumb rather than detailed instructions.

An experienced chef will know how to interpret a quantity such as a “pinch” or a “handful” for best results and will adjust the relative quantities of different ingredients according to the number of diners. He or she will not need to be told what a “suitable amount” of a particular ingredient is – and in any case may want to vary it, substitute something else, or omit it altogether for reasons of taste. The situation was also complicated, Newman says, by the fact that mediaeval Arab kitchens did not employ a standard system of weights and measures.

It was not only the relative amounts of the ingredients that could be assumed, but also in most cases the details of the preparation. Many recipes call for boiling, frying, or baking, but none of them say how long these operations should be carried out for or at what temperatures. They never say how the dishes are to be presented or even at what point in a meal.

As Newman notes in his introduction, the mediaeval Arabs did not follow the ordering of food items that has since become the norm in many parts of the world, and nor did they necessarily eat three meals a day. Moreover, the habit of modern cookery books of giving precise instructions on timing and temperatures probably reflects the greater precision of modern equipment rather than the needs of practiced cooks. Those working in mediaeval Arab kitchens would not have needed such guidance, particularly since they would have been using non-standardised equipment, he says.

He thinks that while these books can tell us little about the diets of the mass of the mediaeval Arab population, they can tell us much about the eating habits of the elite, not only about what went on in caliphal or princely kitchens but also further down the social scale. Rather like the situation today when people might be tempted to flick through food magazines or read about five-star restaurants while making do with ready-meals themselves, the readers of mediaeval Arab cookery books may well have been aspirational eaters, eager to try out scaled-down versions of what was being eaten by their social betters and perhaps even following food fashions in a way familiar today.

On the other hand, even supposing that the mass of the population did not eat much meat, subsisting on a largely vegetable-based diet as they do today, there is nothing in the largely meat-based recipes in these cookery books that takes them out of the realm of ordinary eating and towards whatever it is that cordon bleu chefs do today, the point of which is precisely to emphasise the social gulf that exists between the dishes they produce and what is available at home.

Reading through al-Tujibi’s recipes for what are essentially meat casseroles or stews, one does not get the impression that there would have been much difference between the techniques used to produce these dishes whether they were prepared in a humble cottage or in palace kitchens. Probably the main distinguishing factor would have been the variety and quality of the ingredients used, and here the recipes do seem to assume the availability of often long lists of ingredients without reference to their price.

Those wishing to make jamali, for example, a kind of beef stew, will need, in addition to cuts of beef, “coriander, cumin, white chickpeas, blanched almonds, citron leaves, fennel, and garlic cloves,” along with pepper, ginger, cinnamon, vinegar, and eggs. Spice markets would have been familiar fixtures of every mediaeval Arab city, as they are today, and Newman counts some 29 different spices being used in al-Tujibi’s recipes. One can imagine some cooks skimping on some of this recipe’s more elaborate demands, such as when it recommends yet more “saffron and aromatic spices.”

On the other hand, a mediaeval chef wanting to make mu’allak, basically a lamb casserole (oddly containing cheese), would have needed little more than salt and olive oil, in addition to a “whole suckling lamb,” of course. This recipe seems to be a reinterpretation of a vernacular dish, however, as al-Tujibi adds that “this type of food” – plain and ungarnished – “is mostly made by itinerant shepherds.”

 

Try them at home: On the question of the extent to which these books can provide recipes that can be tried out in kitchens today, Newman’s own experiments have shown that some at least can be successfully followed by modern cooks with generally satisfactory results.

As one would expect, there are also important continuities between the recipes presented in the mediaeval cookery books and those that circulate today, not least because today’s Arab cuisines are the inheritors of the culinary traditions described in the mediaeval volumes.

Reading through al-Tujibi’s recipes, it comes as no surprise to light upon recipes for couscous and various types of bread and sweets that are not so very different, or are not different at all, to what are made today. He includes recipes for ka’k biscuits, still a popular choice today, notably in Ramadan, along with kunafa and qata’if, though there are some differences in preparation. There are also recipes for a marzipan biscuit called Qahiriyya (the Cairene), testimony to the migration of food items across the mediaeval world as well as their association with particular regions.

It is interesting to learn that the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun, son of the famous Haroun al-Rashid, was himself the author of an important cookery book containing recipes for sweets called Ma’muniyya after their creator and that his wife Buran also “gained culinary fame through her signature fried aubergine dishes” called Buraniyya.  

As is also the case today, al-Tujibi’s book reflects divisions still found in the Arab world – with coucous being far more prevalent in the Arab Maghreb, for example, than it is in the east of the Arab world, and rice being eaten far more in the east than it is in the Maghreb. Fish was more popular in the Arab Maghreb at the time al-Tujibi wrote, judging by the large number of recipes included in his book compared to their absence in that by Ibn Mubarak Shah, and while cow’s milk was not unknown, it seems that sheep’s or goat’s milk was more popular.

Eggs were eaten in large quantities, chicken seems to have been by far the most popular form of meat, followed by mutton, and only in third place beef. There are several recipes involving rabbits, along with geese, partridges, pigeons, and hare. Among vegetables, aubergines (eggplant) are popular – possibly because they provide mass – along with quantities of onions, turnips, artichokes, lentils, beans, and gourds. The mediaeval Arabs, at least in the Maghreb, were generously supplied with fruit, including apples, pears, oranges, lemons, apricots, figs, grapes, peaches, pomegranates, and quinces.

Different kinds of vinegar were a staple of mediaeval Arab cuisine both in the Arab Maghreb and in the east of the Arab world, and Newman says that over a third of al-Tujibi’s savoury dishes use vinegar in some form, either as an ingredient or a marinade. He counts some 16 different kinds, commenting (in his introduction to the collection of recipes by Ibn Mubarak Shah) that “the modern palate no longer appreciates the sourness that marks some of the dishes,” a result of liberally dousing everything in vinegar or using unusual combinations of spices.

As is the case with all mediaeval cuisines, the staples that arrived in Europe and the Middle East after the discovery of the Americas – part of the famous “Columbian Exchange” – do not figure in the mediaeval Arab cookery books. Thus, there are no potatoes and no tomatoes, ruling out contemporary Egyptian staples like koushari, which has a tomato sauce.

Other staples do figure, however, including foul – made here with broad beans and called fustuqiyya – molokhiyya – there are recipes with chicken and lamb in the Ibn Mubarak Shah collection – and fattah, called tharid by al-Tujibi and made with bread and meat but not rice.

Ibn Razin al-Tujibi, The Exile’s Cookbook, trans. Daniel Newman, London: Saqi, 2023, pp417; Ibn Mubarak Shah, The Sultan’s Feast, trans. Daniel Newman, London: Saqi, 2020, pp149 + Arabic text.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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