Sarah Savant on Ibn Qutaybah’s (Probable) Raison D’être, His Lack of Humor, and Directions for Future Study
Sarah Bowen Savant is Associate Professor at The Aga Khan University, London, the author of The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran (2013), and most recently the translator of the first section of Ibn Qutaybah’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Arab Preeminence.”
In the first part of the interview, which ran last week, Savant discussed the particular challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah’s text.
In this second part of the interview, Savant talks with M Lynx Qualey about fresh ways to read this text and additional directions for scholarship, Ibn Qutaybah’s (lack of) humor, and the scholar’s probable raison d’être.
As you worked on this, reading in and around it, what were the areas you thought deserved additional attention and interest from scholars?
I’m particularly interested in the intertextual elements of the tradition. The third/ninth century is very early in the tradition. It’s not absolutely early—others were writing much earlier, but still quite early in the total of the span of the written tradition. If you look at a lot of the evidence that he marshals, when he cites poetry, you can find it throughout the written tradition—these same pieces. And I’m quite interested in chasing them up, and trying to see exactly how he’s putting together the book. We now have methods to do this, and this is part of my current research, working on how texts are reused, using algorithms to do that.
The other issue is the reception of both parts of this book. We know by citations that it was received in al-Andalus, and we can see also that Ibn Qutaybah’s other books, although I don’t know yet for this one, were received widely in Iran. So I’m quite curious to get a sense of Ibn Qutaybah as a total literary figure in later periods, how he was received, and what parts of his corpus was received.
Do we know how his work was received by the so-called Shuʿūbīs, his opponents?
The people he was accusing were dead.
But do we have a response to him? Potentially. Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, in al-Andalus, has a section where he has a statement that he credits to Shuʿūbīs; he then cites from our book here, and then includes what he labels as a response by the Shuʿūbīs. Whether these are in fact original literary pieces that were actually written in response to each other, or whether he has assembled something of his own, I don’t think is quite clear.
In terms of other reception, we don’t really know. To me, the elephant in the room is the Turks. You can speak, probably with some safety, about the values of Arabs in this period against the Persian bureaucracy and Persian courtiers. But you really can’t do the same with regards to Turks. And during his lifetime, as we write about in the introduction, this is really where the threat to the stability of the caliphate is coming from.
So I do think there is a bit of indirect critique in this book.
Was it translated into any other languages in its time or soon after, for instance Persian?
We don’t know, but I would guess not.
I don’t think it was as well-received as his other works. I have text reuse data now, because I have digital files of those books. We know there are commentaries, for instance, on Adab al-Kātib. But we don’t have that sort of trace of reception now for this book. We may find it when we get it digitized and compared against the other works.
And we don’t have everything that survives, we only probably have something like 10-20 percent of the literary tradition as it once existed. But at least from what we can see, it doesn’t seem to have had the same impact as his other works, or the same wide reception.
Do you have any guess as to a reason for this smaller reception?
It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say for any reception history for a book from this period. There are accidents, of course, of what passes through manuscripts, and texts were fragile. Otherwise, it wasn’t encyclopedic. It was an argument, and it was written in a specific time period.
The others of his works—and in fact works by other authors that were reused frequently—tend to be more encyclopedic. And by encyclopedia I mean, of course, things like the ʿUyūn al-Akhbār. Even, in a certain way, you can reuse and take apart materials from the Tafsīr. But it’s not the same with an argument like Arab Preeminence.
The second part of the book may have an entirely different reception history.
Why pen this shorter argument, when he’s already written a longer work on this topic?
You’re referring to the part of the book where he mentions he’s treated this elsewhere, in his ʿUyūn al-Akhbār?
There are parts of the books that overlap, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not that ʿUyūn al-Akhbār contains a longer version of the same argument. It is true that you can find parallel passages between the books, and for that reason it was very useful to us, when we were editing this text.
It’s also interesting to see what’s really important to an author, because generally if an author uses materials more than once, they’re important to them.
So what was really important to him?
The defense of Arabs and Arab values at a time when he perceived them to be under threat, when he perceived the caliphate perhaps to be losing focus on its origins. There’s definitely a Golden Age articulated by him, which is why I used the term “cultural conservative.”
In terms of his language, what do we know about his originality vs. his use of clichés and stock language in circulation?
In terms of language, his language belongs in its day.
He evokes negative points his opponents are meant to have made about Arabs, including, for example, that they drink camel’s blood and stomach juices. That they’re stingy. These are obviously, in his view, insults being targeted at Arabs. He clarifies by saying that every group has the poor, and they shouldn’t be mistaken for the greater part of the Arabs.
A lot of the arguments are like that—where he’s taking what someone has apparently said, something that is negative about the Arabs, and he tries to explain why they’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood what apparently were well-known sayings or poems. The person who’s citing them is distorting the sayings or poems, he suggests. They’re blind to the real meaning.
Ibn Qutaybah is dealing with, in one case, a poem where the poet described his guest as follows: “They spent the night crowded around a basket filled with choice dates,/ fingernails dug in like knives./ Next morning the date stones were piled high, where they had slept:/ poor men don’t throw the stones away.”
The point of the poem is, as he says, that some people eat the stones, and this is meant to be an indication of how poor they are. But it’s not meant to be an indication that all Arabs like to eat date stones, or that they’re cheap.
He also seems to use frequent exaggeration. For instance, that some people delight in the smells of sewage over and above aloe wood.
That’s part of a polemic as well, because he’s trying to explain that he’s dealing with a problem—you referred to it as trying to thread a needle—that, from his perspective, on the one hand Islam would seem to say that all people are equal. On the other hand, we see that manifestly people are not equal. How do we explain this as just? His point is that humanity is varied, it takes all types. Just as there are different colors of the earth, so there are different types of people. So he goes through lots of differences of people, as for instance men who are attracted to old women instead of the young, the fleshy instead of the thin.
In a way, it’s a justification for hierarchy.
And at the very end of the book, he also makes a small stand against the Arabs “whose own bigotry matches the Bigots’.”
I think in the total context of the book, it’s a small part. I don’t think it’s a major concession on his part that the Arabs have bigots.
He wasn’t himself Arab, so would he have felt the importance for making a space for himself?
The section on Khurasan is fascinating, and that was one of the passages that struck my eye very early, in that he distinguishes between Khurasan and Persia. Importantly, the idea of Iran in this period is rooted in a pre-Islamic past and is not part of his vocabulary. So for him, the operative ways of referring to territory within Iran would instead be regional, or they would include this notion of Persia, which is a substitute or an alternative to Iran but more restricted in territory. He himself had roots in Khurasan, and also the elites in the period were very much connected to Khurasan. Ibn Qutaybah’s books subsequently survive and circulate within Khurasan. So there’s an important connection between Iraq and Khurasan that he is defending. And the distance separating Khurasan from what he’s calling Persia is important.
Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, the late Umayyad and early Abbasid translator and prose writer, was from Persia. Ibn Qutaybah is from a very different region and a different orientation. Ibn Qutaybah goes to some length to make the Khurasanians the equivalent of the Ansar to the Arabs.
This is a shared opinion?
I think it firmly reflects a very widely held position among elites in his day.
When he is speaking negatively about Persia, he’s speaking about those who are championing a heritage, as he sees it, that is pre-Islamic, that’s rooted in Fars—so a different part of the Iranian territory—that has a whole different set of histories, mythologies. These, he would like to distinguish. That’s what makes this text very important, because you don’t often find that kind of clarity in our sources, where scholars are making these distinctions.
Why capitalize “Proponents of Equality” in your translation? Were they a separate faction?
There was a paper given a few years ago, suggesting they might be a separate faction from the Shuʿūbīs. I am not of that opinion. I think that it’s just another way that he’s referring to them. Both terms are actually also used in the ʿIqd synonymously.
I capitalized it, however, because just as we say these are the “Bigots,” he’s using a parallel phrase. And again, it’s not a coherent group, it’s an epithet. He might be saying, They claim they’re proponents of equality, but they’re really not. And that’s his point, too. So there’s a bit of sarcasm.
So is there sarcasm or irony, or forms of humor that he’s using, that are difficult for the contemporary reader to parse?
There might be. I’ve really tried to find some humor in him, but I find him humorless.
I think sometimes he cites poetry that came from a context that had lots of humor, originally, in the way the poetry was used—but he’s taken it out of that context. I suspect he’s taking poetry that had a lively humor, and he’s strong-arming it into his argument. We can still get echoes of the original context sometimes, but it can be very difficult.
What do you see as Ibn Qutaybah’s raison d’être?
He was a man of the court, very familiar with the literary scene of Baghdad. He could be quite creative in thinking about poetry. He worked in the same period as the codification of different sorts of knowledge, including hadith. This is the period from which we have, eventually, some of the most authoritative works on hadith. So he’s working in an extremely important period for knowledge-creation, and he’s part of it, he’s right in the thick of it.
That being said, when he turns to the topic of identity or ethnicity, he’s a cultural conservative. He’s nostalgic. This nostalgia is wired into the Abbasids, going back to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ himself, who in his al-Adab al-Kabīr begins with a comment about the good old days. It’s not as if, in his period, it was a time for nostalgia. The Abbasids, at least as far as I read them, had nostalgia from the minute of their birth. This may be true of empires—that in the periods that were retrospectively their golden ages, they were already longing for the past. There might be something about the search for permanence that is embedded within empires, and in their literary sources.
That is one of the interesting elements of this text, that there’s this nostalgia written through it, and it’s not necessarily conversant with what’s going on in his day. As I mentioned, you have the Turks, who he doesn’t address, and his opponents are all dead.
So he’s not engaging with what’s going on around him?
It’s at an angle.
We could probably productively re-read all of Ibn Qutaybah’s works thinking about the Turks as a specific question.
—Marcia Lynx Qualey
Influential Australian broadcaster Phillip Adams conducted a fascinating interview with Charles Perry, editor-translator of Scents and Flavors this week for his long-running show on Australia’s Radio National network. The whole interview can be found here. (Charles’ segment begins around minute 27:35.)
Sarah Bowen Savant is Associate Professor at The Aga Khan University, London, the author of The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran (2013), and most recently the translator of the first section of Ibn Qutaybah’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Arab Preeminence.”
For Savant, like many others, her educational biography “very much proceeded with Ibn Qutaybah in tow.” In this first part of a two-part discussion, she talks with M Lynx Qualey about Western Orientalists’ focus on Ibn Qutaybah, why bring it into English, and who she’d like to see—beyond specialists—reading this text.
The (excellent) introduction to Excellence of the Arabs is also available online.
How did you come to translating Ibn Qutaybah’s Arab Preeminence?
As you know, there are two parts to this text, and I translated the first.
At Harvard, we read the first part, although at that time not all of it was available. It was only produced in 1998 by Walīd Maḥmūd Khāliṣ in an edition that has both parts. I was only familiar, for a very long time, with the first part, and not even all of it.
The thing that moved me to work on it was that Prof. Roy Mottahedeh had asked the question: What was the Shuʿūbiyyah controversy all about? And Ibn Qutaybah’s Arab Preeminence was the main source for discussing that problem. This was one of the questions planned for my PhD general exams, and I had a year to think about it. I read Ibn Qutaybah’s book (the Khāliṣ edition), and then I read everything around it, and I began to form opinions about the significance of it.
I decided, at that point, that I wanted to try to translate Ibn Qutaybah’s book.
And so, my educational biography very much proceeded with Ibn Qutaybah in tow. Not only mine—the first part of this book has been part of the curriculum of American and British Orientalists for at least the last 50 or 75 years.
Prior to that, this text’s study in the West runs backs to the nineteenth century, in Germany and Hungary, with most notably Ignác Goldziher and his Muslim Studies (1889-1890). It was his treatment that made this book a central focus for any discussions not just of this controversy, the Shuʿūbiyyah controversy, but also really for any historical discussion of ethnicity and hierarchy in Islam. So that’s what first attracted me to it, because it was deemed quite important to any discussion of ethnicity and hierarchy. The term nationalism is anachronistic, but this text nonetheless also brought specifically into discussions of nationalism. It’s been brought into discussions of “Who are the Arabs,” “Who are the Persians,” and also anachronistically, “Who are the Iranians?”
It’s also been treated as extremely important in general historiography of early Islam and also the Middle East.
Why do you think this text became so important for Western Orientalists?
I think they found echoes of their own days. This point has been made many times, but they were looking for the equivalent of nations, and they thought that they could find something like nations in Arab Preeminence. So they thought Arabs were one nation, and Persians another.
Also, the poetry is quite engaging. An argument supported by poetry has some weight, including for modern scholars. So I think modern scholars were also attracted to the poetry.
Could you cite a few of your favorites, among the poems?
There were a few that really brought the period alive for me. Take for example:
I share the broth in my pot,
but you keep the pot for yourself.
Do you, all fat and soft, scoff at me, because you see
I’ve wasted away by doing right by others?
I divide my body among many,
and I am left with clear, cold water.
Ibn Qutaybah follows it by saying that the poet deprived himself and was left with water because he had given his guests the milk that he had. The poem shows the hospitality of the Arabs.
Some of them are little bits of wisdom. For example, he cites a poet who says:
Oh for a pair of sandals made of hyena hide!
A man with sore feet and no shoes will wear any kind of shoe
The point here is that while some of the Arabs are poor and do things like ride unlawful animals, eat crow-meat, or wear funny shoes, wealthy Arabs are not like this. He cites it as part of an argument that we should look at what the well-heeled Arabs do – not the poor – when we think about who the Arabs are. And the Arabs’ elites are as good – or actually, better – as any other elites, especially those of the Persians.
By modern standards, we would reckon Ibn Qutaybah an elitist, and so he also quotes lines that this one:
They’re all equal, like the teeth of a donkey:
The white-haired man is no better than the callow youth!
Do you think the Western focus on this text is justified?
Yes, I do, and I only wish we had more texts from the period that have similar titles so we could better contextualize it in its own times. There are several texts with similar titles written by authors, but they do not survive anymore.
Why bring it into English? You felt it would be of interest to scholars beyond the field?
I thought scholars beyond the field would be interested in it because of its central place within Western scholarship. I think it’s important that classics—even if created in the modern period—should be known outside of the field.
Also, in terms of its language, it’s quite a challenge to translate, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge. As a graduate student working on this book, I was perplexed, and I learned a lot by working on it.
I puzzled over parts of it for a very long time, including why Ibn Qutaybah doesn’t name opponents who are contemporaries in his own time. The main opponent who he names is Abu ʿUbaydah, who dies in 825, and that’s nowhere near his own lifetime. So what’s going on?
There’s a lot to puzzle over. So for me, I grew up as a scholar reading this, and I wanted to bring it out.
Who would you like to read this?
I would really like to reach anyone interested in questions of identity, ethnicity, and the formation of Muslim thought—this is a class I teach here at the AKU in London, and I’m assigning this text.
Also, students of Arabic. I’ve read this book with students of Arabic in Leiden as a guest lecturer, and it was really good fun. The students struggled a bit with the Arabic. It rewards, but it’s difficult, so it’s a good text for teaching.
What were the particular translation challenges?
The first translation challenge was trying to maintain a thread to his argument: to give some coherence to what Ibn Qutaybah was writing. To that end, I spent a lot of time trying to think of the voice of Ibn Qutabyah. Who is Ibn Qutaybah? How do we imagine him as a human being? What kind of person was he? I landed on the idea that he’s a cultural conservative who can be a bit humorless at times. He is something of a difficult person, from the text, and I hope the tone carries through.
But he also was a man of incredible breadth of knowledge, and if you look at all the other works that he has penned, he was knowledgeable about the Qur’an, about hadith, about literature. He was very knowledgeable about Persian materials. He had some affinity for Iranian history. So he’s not a simple man, and he was quite fascinating to translate. So that was one challenge—working out what he was saying and who he was.
The other challenge was who he was writing against, and trying to figure that out: What was the voice of the opponent? Because the opponent isn’t quoted, really.
So how did you imagine the voice of the opponent? If his opponents aren’t of his time, is there any possibility that he’s boxing shadows?
This takes us back to the discussion of who were these “Shuʿūbīs” that he mentions. It’s a term that comes out of the Qur’an, and again I spent quite a long time thinking about these people. I don’t think—contrary to most scholarship on the phenomenon—that he’s actually dealing with a social movement, a coherent group of people as such. I believe that he’s using the term Shuʿūbī to refer to people he considers bigots. It’s an act of name-calling.
I support that in my other work by looking at definitions of the term Shuʿūbī. They’re always very similar and repeated, and basically boil down to calling Shuʿūbīs bigots against Arabs. And it’s quite interesting because this term carries through into the modern period, and when you look at people who are defending Arabs, they accuse people who would express any negative opinions about Arabs as Shuʿūbīs.
But you never find, either in the classical period or the modern period, anyone saying, “I’m a Shuʿūbī.” It’s not a self-definition.
Why did you decide on the translation of Shuʿūbīs as “bigots”? Why not, for instance, “Arabophobe”?
Because it conveys the sentiment of how he perceives his opponents. I think he found them to be bigoted. And a term like “Arabophobe” would be a bit too literary or a bit too academic, and I think he’s blunt. It’s a blunt term.
The second part of this interview will appear next Wednesday, June 21.
–Marcia Lynx Qualey
Food and Wine magazine has a great write-up on Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook on their website, taking a close look at the ingredients and recipes that are still eaten today (such as the sweet known as Zaynab’s Fingers) as well as those that have disappeared from modern Middle Eastern cooking (such as banana lamb stew, which is compared to sweet curries in Indian and East African cuisines.)
As the writer, Hannah Walhout, points out, “it’s easy to discern the lineage that connects many of the recipes with the robust cuisine of the Levant today.”
The piece can be found here.
A great article on Charles Perry’s edition-translation of Scents and Flavors in the German-run website Qantara.de, written by none other than Marcia Lynx Qualey, proprietor of Arabic Literature (in English) and indefatigable interviewer of LAL editor-translators on this very blog. She draws out a lot of interesting points here, particularly about the high cost of the ingredient ambergris today, why the recipe for akhmimiyyah is similar to a long-lasting Christmas fruitcake, and how “a relatively incompetent twenty-first century cook” can try these recipes at home.
The article can be found here.
For those who missed Charles Perry’s cooking demos at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair last week, we’re including here two vegetable recipes he prepared for audience members—both of them taken from Scents and Flavors, but with modern cooking instructions for making these at home. I can confirm that both are delicious!
Recipe: Carrots with Herbs and Fried Onion
This festive recipe calls for a bit of rue, an herb with a plum-like aroma and a proverbially bitter flavor, which medieval cooks often added as an accent. It can easily be omitted. The browned onions add a sweet note to play off the vinegar dressing.
- 1 pound carrots
- 1 onion
- ½ cup minced parsley
- ¼ cup minced mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh rue
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground clove
- 1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1/3 cup vinegar
- 1 teaspoon honey
Cut the carrots into disks and boil them just until done. Drain and put in a mixing bowl.
Slice the onion, separate into rings and fry until brown, stirring constantly, about 20 minutes.
Mix the carrots with the parsley, mint, rue, coriander, cinnamon, clove and pepper. Stir the vinegar and honey together and toss the carrots with it. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the browned onion.
Recipe: Cowpeas Dressed with Walnut and Caraway
This can be considered an exotic cousin of hummus, made with cowpeas (also known as black-eyed peas) rather than chickpeas. Walnut and caraway compliment the unique sweet vegetable-like aroma of cowpeas remarkably well.
- 1 pound cowpeas (black-eyed peas)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups walnuts
- 3 tablespoons oil
- 2 tablespoon caraway seed
- 4 tablespoons ground coriander
Pick over the cowpeas to remove any extraneous matter. Cover with boiling water and cook for 2 minutes, then remove from heat, cover and let sit for one hour. Strain off the liquid. Add 6 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and boil until done, 1 to 1-½ hours. Reserve the cooking liquid.
Puree the walnuts until you can see a layer of walnut oil appear at the bottom of the food processor. Put the oil into a frying pan, add the walnut paste and cook over medium heat until the raw walnut smell goes away, about 4 minutes. And the caraway and coriander seeds and stir the paste with the cowpeas. Add a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid to give a smoother texture. Taste and add more salt if desired.
As we’ve posted previously, this week Charles Perry has been presenting some recipes from his new edition-translation of Scents and Flavors at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. In the meantime, we’ve put together a second cooking video, in which Charles demonstrates how to make what he calls “an early draft for baklava” called “Eat-and-Give-Thanks” in the book. Video and recipe below!
Kul wa-Shkur (also called Qarni Yaruq)
This pastry has an Arabic name meaning “eat and give thanks.” A pastry by the same name is still made in Syria, but these days it’s a sort of baklava made by folding filo pastry over a filling. It also has a medieval Turkish name meaning “split-belly,” because in the Middle Eastern context you would expect a pastry like this to have a nut filling. Instead, the pastries are fried empty and then at serving time topped with syrup and pistachios, making a sort of early draft for baklava.
This pastry is not as delicate as filo dough, but it might be worth reviving. Not only is it much easier to make than filo, it has a charming texture of its own, crisp and at the same time a little crumbly.
The medieval recipe uses sesame oil for frying. This can be hard to find, so any neutral oil can be substituted. (Note: Chinese sesame oil is toasted and only suitable as a flavoring, not a frying medium.)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon water
- ½ teaspoon lemon juice
- about 1/2 teaspoon rose water
- 6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) butter, well softened
- 1 cup flour
- 4-5 tablespoons water
- Oil for frying
- 2/3 cup pistachios, minced
Combine the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small pan and heat, stirring occasionally, until it boils and turns clear. Set aside to cool. When cool, flavor to taste with rose water.
To make the pastry, work 1 ounce (1/4 stick) of the butter into the flour. Add enough water to make a firm paste, as if you were making pasta, and knead hard for 10 minutes. Cover and set aside for 1/2 hour.
Cut the lump of paste in half and cover one of the halves with plastic film or a kitchen towel. Lightly dust the other with flour and put it through your pasta maker. When you reach the next to finest setting, cut the sheet of paste in half, leave one half on a plate or any handy surface and put the other half through the finest setting.
Transfer this thin sheet of paste to a work surface. Cut it in half to make two pieces about 8 inches long. (The reason for this step is that it’s hard to fold longer lengths of paste when it’s this thin.) Square off the ends.
Melt the remaining butter in a pan and generously brush the top of one of the two lengths of paste with butter, all the way to the edges. Carefully fold it over to make a folded sheet about 8 inches long and two inches wide. Cut into approximate squares and transfer them to a very lightly floured work surface. You should have anywhere from 4 to 6 squares, which will look like sad, empty ravioli.
Repeat with the other piece of paste that remains on your work surface. Then repeat this process with the sheet of paste that set aside earlier, the one that has not yet been put through the finest setting. Finally go through this whole process again with the lump that you covered when you started using the pasta maker.
Put about 1/4 inch of oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat until one of the pieces of paste will start sizzling immediately when put in. Reduce the heat to medium high and fry in batches, watching them carefully, and turn over when lightly browned and blistered on one side; the sign is that the edges will visibly start to brown. (Note: If you haven’t brushed the raw pastry with butter all the way to the edges before frying, the pastry may puff up — fun to watch, but to be avoided, because it won’t brown adequately.)
To serve, arrange the qarni yaruqs on plates, drench with sugar syrup and sprinkle with the minced pistachios.
This year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs from April 26 to May 2. If you’re in Abu Dhabi, please visit our stand (#11F43) and take a look at our growing list of books, which we’ll be selling throughout the Fair. We’d love to see you!
He’ll be preparing 13th-century recipes from the book on Wednesday, April 26, at 4PM, and on Thursday, April 27, at 8PM. Head over to the Show Kitchen area of the Fair (just follow your nose) and you may get a chance to sample some medieval Middle Eastern cuisine yourself!
Hope to see you there!
Meatballs with Whole Garlic Cloves and Pomegranate Chicken! Recipes from Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook
Last week, we presented on this blog the first recipe from Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, for Jurjāniyyah (Chicken in Mustard-Yogurt Sauce.) The book will be published on May 2, and you can pre-order your copy here.
Today, we are launching our first cooking video for the book, in which the book’s editor-translator, culinary historian Charles Perry, demonstrates two delicious recipes updated for the modern kitchen. Fortunately, food processors and standard measures make things much easier for anyone who wants to replicate these at home!
The two recipes are “The Dish of Garlic” (tabikh thum) and “The Dish of Pomegranate Juice (tabikh habb rumman). It’s fascinating to see the similarities and contrasts with modern Middle Eastern cooking. The chicken dish, for example, shares much in common with khoresht fesenjan from contemporary Persian cuisine, while the meatball recipe offers a 13th-century garlicky twist on kofta.
The recipes are below. Enjoy!
Meatballs with Whole Garlic Cloves
Ṭabīkh al-Thūm (“the Dish of Garlic”)
This highly flavored dish has a curious similarity to the French dish of chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. (It has an even closer similarity to another dish in Scents and Flavors, basaliyyah, “the onion dish,” which is made the same way but with tiny onions instead of garlic cloves.) In medieval Syria, the meat would have been ground lamb, but it works quite well with beef.
The recipe says, “Make sure to use a generous quantity of coriander leaves. The fat has an especially good flavor.”
2 pounds ground meat
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon clove
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup minced cilantro
1 head garlic
water or broth
Knead the meat with the minced garlic, coriander, cinnamon, clove, salt and 4 tablespoons of the cilantro in order to distribute the flavorings as evenly as possible. Form into about 24 walnut-sized meatballs. Put ¼ inch of oil in a large frying pan and fry the meatballs over high heat in several batches until well browned on all sides.
Meanwhile, separate the head of garlic into cloves and remove their peels. (A way to make this easier is to split the peel by hitting a clove with a mortar, a knife handle or the edge of a plate. Note that this will tend to make the resulting dish more garlicky.) You can discard very skinny cloves, which are more trouble to peel than they’re worth.
Remove the meatballs to a mixing bowl as they are cooked. When they are all done, pour off most of the cooking oil, return the meatballs to the pan and add the garlic cloves along with the rest of the cilantro and enough water or broth to come halfway up the meatballs. Bring to the boil and continue to boil until the liquid has entirely evaporated and the meatballs just start to sizzle in the oil, about 30 minutes. The pan juices should have thickened but not dried up.
To speed the process, you can remove the meatballs and garlic after 15 minutes and boil the remaining liquid down rapidly, then return them to the pan and stir around in the oil and thickened pan juices to flavor them.
Chicken in Almond-Pomegranate Sauce
Ṭabīkh Ḥabb Rummān (“the Dish of Pomegranate Juice”)
Many medieval dishes combined meat with fruit. One of the most popular was chicken in a luscious sauce of pomegranate juice, ground almonds, sugar and a spice, usually cinnamon. Some versions added pieces of apple or quince and all garnished the result with fresh mint.
Pomegranate is a seasonal fruit (and it does not keep as well as its leathery skin might lead you to expect), so in medieval recipes the juice is usually reconstituted from dried pomegranate seeds. Today we have a much more convenient year-round option, pomegranate molasses, known as dibs rumman in Arabic, rob-e anar in Farsi, nar pekmezi in Turkish, and narsharab in Armenian. It is readily available in Middle Eastern markets.
Note: Middle Eastern pomegranates are tart, rather than mostly sweet like the variety of pomegranate usual in the West. If you use fresh pomegranate juice (2 cups), reduce the amount of sugar accordingly. In any case, do not use grenadine syrup, which is much too sweet.
2 cups almonds
1 cup water
1 cup pomegranate molasses
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 chicken, 3 ½-4 pounds, raw or cooked, cut into serving pieces
1 cup chopped mint
Process the almonds until they start to clump up, 4-5 minutes. Add the cup of water and process to a puree. Scrape into a saucepan, add the pomegranate molasses, sugar and cinnamon and bring to the boil, stirring constantly.
Add chicken and cook, if raw, or heat up, if already cooked. At serving time, garnish with mint.
On May 2, we will be publishing Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, edited and translated by culinary historian Charles Perry. The text, Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-habib, was a collection of 635 recipes compiled by an anonymous author in 13th-century Syria. Judging by the number of extant manuscript copies, it was a popular cookbook.
The text is a fascinating window into Middle Eastern cuisine seven centuries ago—particularly in how its reflect the importance of fragrance to garnish both food and diners (there are separate sections on how to make perfumed soaps and breath-sweeteners.) At the same time, it includes herbs and flavorings that we don’t normally associate with modern Levantine cuisine.
To give readers a taste of what’s to come, below we’re presenting a recipe from the book, for Jurjāniyyah, or Chicken in Mustard-Yogurt Sauce, which Charles Perry has reworked for contemporary kitchens. Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to the book’s publication, we will be putting more of these recipes here on the blog, so please stay tuned! You can pre-order the book here.
We’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried these recipes out at home.
Bon appétit! Bi-l-hanāʾ wa-l-shifāʾ!
Chicken in Mustard-Yogurt Sauce
The sauce gives a pungent impression like horseradish, but with the special fragrance of yogurt and the enrichment of pistachios. The name of the dish, Jurjāniyyah, implies that it comes from Gorgan, a region in Iran.
Note: Dairy milk yogurt needs to be stabilized before boiling or it will curdle. (Goat’s milk yogurt does not have this problem because of its high butterfat content.) Middle Eastern cooks warn that when you’re boiling yogurt you should stir consistently in one direction to reduce the risk of curdling.
1 quart unsweetened yogurt, preferably without additives such as gelatin or carrageenan
1 egg white, whisked with a fork
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons sugar
3½-4 tablespoons ground mustard
1 chicken, 3½-4 pounds, cut into serving pieces and fried
1 cup peeled pistachios
In season: 2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
Force the yogurt through a wire strainer into a saucepan. To stabilize it, stir in the egg white and dissolved cornstarch, stirring consistently in one direction. Set over high heat and continue to stir in the same direction until bubbles start to appear at the edges, then reduce the heat to medium-high and stir until the mixture starts to boil, as shown by a heaving foamy consistency, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the sugar and 3½ tablespoons mustard, pressing the mustard against the side of the pan with your spoon to make sure it dissolves evenly. After two or three minutes, taste the sauce to see whether you like the degree of pungency and add the remaining half tablespoon mustard if desired. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the chicken pieces sit in the sauce for five minutes to warm up.
Arrange the chicken pieces on serving dishes and ladle yogurt sauce on them. Divide the pistachios (and pomegranate seeds, if available) among the portions and sprinkle on top.