Friday, February 24th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog post, Leonie Rau writes about what premodern Arab recipes reveal about the cultures and societies they originate from.

The study of premodern Arabic cookbooks has, happily, received a fair share of attention this past decade, with more and more texts made accessible to scholars and the interested public through new editions and translations, such as that of the 13th-century Syrian cookbook Scents and Flavors. Evolved from “the personal recipe collections that had been fashionable for gentlemen of the pre-Islamic Persian court to keep,” such cookbooks reflect the culinary tastes and trends of their times and predate the first extant European recipe collections by several centuries, as translator Charles Perry explains in his introduction.

These cookbooks lend themselves brilliantly to teaching the premodern Arab world, as they offer multiple angles of engagement. Were I to teach my dream course on medieval Arabic cookbooks, at least a few sessions would be spent on economic history: we’d trace the occurrence and availability of ingredients, and their transport along trading routes, using travelogues such as Accounts of China and India by Abū Zayd al-Sīrafī or Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s Travels. Paul Buell et al. have compiled a brilliant study of culinary customs along the Silk Road in Crossroads of Cuisine, while Paulina Lewicka’s Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes offers a detailed case study of culinary consumption in one specific place. Regarding single ingredients, Anya King’s Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World offers an in-depth look at one particularly treasured commodity that was widely used in medieval Arabic medical, cookery, and perfumery recipes. Relatedly, students would learn about gift exchanges between rulers, their feasts, and ideas around luxury items by reading the Book of Gifts and Rarities ascribed to 11th-century author al-Qāḍī ibn al-Zubayr, abriged by 15th-century poet al-Awḥadī, and now translated by Ghāda al-Ḥijjāwī al-Qaddūmī.”

Şöbiyet, Baklava and Kadayıf by Garrett Ziegler. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia

Besides economic aspects of culinary history, cookbooks can also help students think through the skills, methods, and objects required to prepare various dishes from the perspective of material and technical history. Here, I would assign Charles Perry’s short chapter on “The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava,” before examining various recipes for layered pastries contained in the extant Arabic cookbooks, for example a crepe bread mentioned in Scents and Flavors. A fun and accessible piece to include here would also be Daniel L. Newman’s blog post “Spotlight on: Medieval Oven Cooking.”

Combining all of these approaches, the recreation of recipes at home or in class offers students unique insights into what people did, why, and how, and allows them to experience (at least an approximation of) how a dish might have smelled, looked, and tasted and understand the time and resources that would have gone into into preparing it.

An important caveat to using premodern Arabic cookbooks as historical sources, however, is the fact that they mostly reflect the culinary preferences and practices of a very small, usually courtly elite, with little information about the eating habits of regular people. For the latter, we might look to a less obvious source for recipes: accounts of regions and peoples unfamiliar to their authors.

A prime example of such a source is A Physician on the Nile, ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī’s 13th-century eyewitness report from Egypt, written for the ʿAbbāsid caliph in Baghdad. It includes a chapter on “Unusual Egyptian foods” in which al-Baghdādī describes several Egyptian dishes apparently unfamiliar to him, a scholar and physician born, serendipitously, in ‘Sweetmeats Alley’ (Darb al-Falūdhaj) in Baghdad in 1162, according to his biography in Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah’s The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians (tr. Emilie Savage-Smith, Simon Swain, and Geert Jan van Gelder). For example, here is his description of the recipe for a pudding called naydah:

“One Egyptian specialty is naydah. It is comparable to the sweet called khabīṣ, ranges from red to black in color and is sweet-tasting, but not overly so. It is made from wheat that has been allowed to germinate and is then simmered until the starch and nutritional potency have been transferred to the water. The water is then strained off and simmered again until it begins to thicken. At this point, wheat flour is sprinkled into it, and the mixture sets and is taken off the heat. It is sold at the same price as bread, and is known as naydat al-bawsh. The water, after straining, may also be simmered on its own until it sets without the addition of flour. In this case, it is called ‘set naydah,’ and is more expensive and higher in quality.”

Similar in name though not in content, a recipe for a dish called nīdat al-khulafāʾ (translated by Perry as “the swaying dessert of the caliphs”) is given in Scents and Flavors, which was compiled in Syria around the middle of the thirteenth century, only a few decades after al-Baghdādī spent considerable time in the Levant, including at the Ayyubid court. Despite the very similar names (nīdah and naydah are simply two variant readings of نيدة), the recipe given in the Syrian cookbook bears almost no resemblance to the Egyptian one:

“Put 2kg of bread crumbs through a wheat-flour sieve. Boil 2 kg of sugar and remove the scum. Add 4 kg of honey, after mixing everything with the bread crumbs, moistening with the honey until it is used up. Stir with sesame oil, throw in pistachios, and remove and serve.”

Where the Egyptian naydah uses germinated wheat and wheat flour and is described as “not overly” sweet, the Syrian recipe calls for wheat in a much more processed form, i.e., bread crumbs, and a whopping total of 6 kg of sweeteners. The addition of sesame oil and pistachios (as well as the epithet ‘caliphal’) once again suggests that cookbooks such as Scents and Flavors reflect an elite cuisine more than anything else, while A Physician on the Nile offers a glimpse of what some ordinary Egyptians might have eaten.

“Pistachios” by Safa Daneshvar. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

In his account, al-Baghdādī labels the use of pistachios as another point of regional difference, explaining that “in place of almonds, the Egyptians often use pistachios in their main dishes and sweets.” He goes on to describe a porridge “called ‘pistachio harīsah,’” apparently assuming his reader to be unfamiliar with this dish. This assumption may very well be justified: none of the recipes for harīsah included in the oldest extant Arabic cookbook, Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s 10th-century Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh (translated as Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen by Nawal Nasrallah) from Baghdad, call for pistachios, and only two of them specify the use of chicken, unlike the recipe for pistachio harīsah included in A Physician on the Nile:

“The ingredients are: flesh of boiled chickens, shredded, one part; rose water, two parts; pistachios, peeled and pounded, an eighth or a ninth of the sum of the other ingredients. The method of cooking is as follows: the shredded chicken is coated with sesame oil then placed in the pan so as to get a scent of the fire; the rose water is then poured on, and the mixture stirred until it thickens; the pistachios are added and stirred in so that the ingredients blend; finally, it is removed from the fire.”

The dish seems to have proliferated from the beginning of the 13th century onwards, appearing in cookbooks including A Baghdad Cookery Book, The Description of Familiar Foods, and the Egyptian Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table. Scents and Flavors contains two recipes for pistachio harīsah (harīsat al-fustuq), both of them much more elaborate than what al-Baghdādī describes, though process and result appear similar. Both of them call for large amounts of syrup and honey, as well as for chard leaves to give the dish its apparently desirable green color. The great quantities given in the Syrian variants of the recipe can again be taken to indicate a court setting where large gatherings were a regular occurrence.

While there is no evidence that al-Baghdādī’s report played any decisive role in bringing the pistachio harīsah, this patently Egyptian dish, to the Levant, it does allow us to trace the movement of a dish from one regional context to a neighboring one, as well as the transformation of naydah/nīdah from a peasant dish sold “at the same price as bread” to a sumptuous dessert fit for the tables of Syrian nobility.

In fact, harisah (also spelled hareesah, harees, or harisa) is still popular today, many centuries later. It now takes the form of a wheat porridge containing meat and is eaten in the Gulf and some Levantine states, Armenia, and parts of East Africa and the Indian subcontinent. (Readers may know that harīsah also means something entirely different in most Arabic-speaking countries today: it designates a syrup-soaked semolina cake that is also called basbūsah or nammūrah and is widespread in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa. In addition, in North Africa and specifically Tunisia, harīsah refers to a spicy paste made from and used as both a condiment and an ingredient in various dishes. This incarnation of harīsah is, however, much younger than the other two, as chili peppers were only introduced to North Africa from the Americas, likely not before the 16th century. All three dishes ultimately take their names from the same Arabic verb, harasa, meaning to grind, pound, or mash.)

The appearance of similar recipes in different textual sources can help us make sense of how, when, and in what direction such culinary knowledge was transmitted. Predilections for certain ingredients, such as the pistachios mentioned by al-Baghdādī, can be a point of departure for investigating possible socioeconomic reasons behind these preferences: were pistachios, for example, simply more readily available and therefore cheaper and more widely used in Egypt than they were in Iraq? Was it a question of prestige?

Above all, culinary recipes, whatever their manifestations and wherever they appear, represent a bridge to human experiences of the past. No matter how old they are, they are still almost universally intelligible to gastronomical historians and food aficionados alike and bring us one step closer to past people—people who enjoyed a good pistachio pudding when they got the chance.

Leonie Rau is a research assistant at the Chair of Islamic History and Culture at the University of Tuebingen, Germany. She is currently preparing her dissertation proposal on medieval Arabic recipe collections and is particularly interested in household recipes relating to cookery, perfumery, dyeing, and medicine. She also writes and edits for ArabLit & ArabLitQuarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.