Reviving mediaeval cooking

David Tresilian , David Tresilian , Saturday 8 Aug 2020

Recent years have seen growing interest in mediaeval Arab cooking, as a new translation of a 13th-century Syrian recipe book reveals, writes David Tresilian

Reviving mediaeval cooking
Reviving mediaeval cooking

Writing in Al-Ahram Weekly a few weeks ago, Aziza Sami welcomed the appearance in English translation of the Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table (Kanz al-fawa’id fi tanwi’ al-mawa’id), a mediaeval Egyptian cookbook. 

But rather like London buses that always seem to come by in twos or threes no matter how long one might have been waiting, it appears that the relaunch of mediaeval Arab cooking has become something of a trend, with another compilation of recipes recently becoming available in a new English translation from New York University’s Arabic Library of classical Arabic texts in translation.

This recipe book, translated by US Arabist Charles Perry as Scents and Flavours from an Arabic manuscript entitled Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wal-Tib, is the first translation into any language. It was originally compiled in Syria, probably Aleppo, in the early 13th century, in other words during the Ayyubid sultanate that once ruled over Egypt and much of the Levant. 

It is an important record of the kind of dishes that households of the time would have feasted on, Perry says, and perhaps it also contains recipes that adventurous cooks might like to try out in their probably somewhat smaller kitchens today.

Among the recipes collected in Scents and Flavours are ones for starters, main courses, desserts and sweets, though the organisation of an Ayyubid meal was somewhat different from the pattern familiar to us today. There would have been more extensive preparations for one thing, particularly if a banquet was what the mediaeval chefs had in mind. Much activity would have focused on the production of the scents and perfumes that were essential parts of any well-organised soirée.

Then there would have been the main courses, and here the compiler of the mediaeval cookbook focuses particularly on meat dishes based on chicken and lamb. Many of the recipes are likely to be familiar even centuries later, with dishes resembling today’s shish tawook and lamb kebabs probably featuring at many Ayyubid banquets. The chefs would have been expected to develop variations on such perennial themes, and the cookbook typically presents both a recipe for a dish in its basic form along with a series of more complicated variations. 

Section five on chicken dishes offer themes and variations on roasted, fried, stuffed and other forms of chicken, for example, often using fruit, nuts or yoghurt to taste. Section six, the longest, is on lamb dishes and includes recipes for kebabs and roast meat as well as stews and broths of various kinds.

Vegetables are used to bulk up meat dishes, especially stews, and here the Ayyubid chefs show themselves to have been open to a range of regional influences. The perfumed rice that still today is a mainstay of Persian cooking – often cooked with saffron, dried fruit or almonds – thus receives much attention, as do meat dishes with chickpeas, cauliflower and leeks. 

There are also more elaborate meat and vegetable dishes, including some well-known in Egypt today, including stuffed vegetables and lamb stews with molokhiyya (Jew’s mallow).

Lastly, there are sweets and desserts, and here too the cookbook contains many almost-familiar recipes. There are recipes for cakes drenched in sugar syrup and stuffed with nuts, for example, much like today, as well as more elaborate sugar-based confections that must have taken great skill to produce in the probably rather smoky atmosphere of Ayyubid kitchens.

Among the missing elements familiar in Middle Eastern cooking today are potatoes, brought back from the New World too late to make it into mediaeval kitchens, along with tomatoes, a staple of popular dishes like Egyptian koshari, a mixture of pasta and rice drenched in spicy tomato sauce. There is also little or no fish, explained, Perry says, by the original audience for this cookbook living well inland. 

While some of the recipes in Scents and Flavours could be worth trying out today, it might be difficult to be entirely sure one had got them right. The compiler of this cookbook apparently intended it to function more as a set of broad guidelines or rules of thumb than as instructions for novice chefs. As a result, there are few if any details on amounts and cooking times, and in any case Ayyubid ovens were unlikely to have been as adjustable as modern ones. 

However, it is striking that, as Perry says, few other cultures seem to have invested so much time and effort in compiling cookbooks, today’s Western culture excepted, of course. There is only one surviving ancient Roman cookbook, and this does not seem to have been aimed at practising chefs. 

Can the relative abundance of mediaeval Arab cookery books be explained by a greater interest in good food? As Perry notes, the mediaeval Arabs had a highly developed food culture because of their inheritance of the culinary traditions of several civilisations, including those of the ancient Mediterranean, the Turkic peoples and the ancient Persian Empire. 

Writing in her foreword to Scents and Flavours, UK food writer Claudia Roden, herself born in Cairo, draws attention to some of the continuities between mediaeval and modern Arab cuisine. The codifying of recipes in the Arab middle ages “would have started in the huge court kitchens,” for example in Baghdad, “where cooking had to be recorded so that it could be easily passed on and instructions read out to illiterate cooks,” she says. The recipes included much that may be familiar to us today, including “lamb with apricots or sour cherries, stuffed eggplants with spiced minced meat, pastries stuffed with chopped almonds and rose water, or milk pudding with ground rice garnished with pistachios and pomegranate seeds.”

Roden also notes that there has been growing interest in mediaeval Arab food writing since French orientalist Maxime Rodinson blazed the trail in a pioneering conspectus published in 1949. Rodinson was among the first to take a serious interest in mediaeval Arab food culture, rightly seeing it as a necessary pendant to the surviving literary writing of the time.

Some of this literary writing at least could perhaps have originated in mediaeval dinner parties of which one can catch a glimpse in recipe books of this kind.

Scents and Flavours: A Syrian Cookbook, translated by Charles Perry, New York: New York University Press (Library of Arabic Literature), 2020, pp194.

Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wal-Tib
Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wal-Tib

Some mediaeval recipes

Scents and Flavours contains recipes for starters, main courses and desserts, arranged according to the pattern of a mediaeval Arab meal. 


Egyptian kebabs: 

Cut the meat into thin kebabs and smoke them. Once smoked, moisten with water. Put sesame oil in a brass pan and fry the meat, repeatedly spraying with rose water and salt. When done and browned, sprinkle with coriander seeds, and they are ready to eat. Serve on dishes, either as a garnish or by itself.

A variation: Cut filet and loin into thick kebabs and put them on a skewer. Rub with sesame oil, olive oil, pounded coriander seeds and garlic. Roast on the skewer over a low fire.

A delicious variation, the best there is: Cut filet into pieces, and cut tail fat into similar pieces. String on a skewer, alternating two pieces of meat with one piece of fat, and roast over a charcoal fire. Whenever the fat is about to drip, lift the end of the skewer so that the fat falls back on the meat, and rub it with rose water and sesame oil. Repeat until the meat is done. Sprinkle with coriander seeds, and it’s ready to eat.


Sanbusak [a kind of sweet]: 

Take a sheet of sanbusak dough, trim the edges, spray with rose water, and sprinkle with finely pounded sugar. Fold the corners to the centre and sprinkle with sugar, and crimp together in that way to make it the size of a large flat cake. Then take sesame oil, heat it in the pan, and lay the cake in it, corners and upper surface protruding, until it firms up in frying. Then turn over and repeat until it has browned like a sanbusak. Put it in a dish, pour on thick syrup, and sprinkle with crushed toasted pistachios. The key is careful folding. 


*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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