For the past five years, Daniel Newman, the chair for Arabic studies at Durham University, has been delving deep into this region’s medieval culinary tastes and traditions.
The result of his research is “The Sultan’s Feast,” a cookbook that’s compiled and translated over 330 recipes from historic Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Muslim Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. Most are based on recipes Egypt’s Ibn Mubarak Shah compiled in the 15th century.
Many of the recipes are recognizable as the precursor to popular Arab dishes, while some of the culinary practices are better off lost to time.
“Some things have stayed surprisingly stable over the course of a millennium. For instance, in terms of the kitchen equipment, the tannour and furn still exist, even if they are no longer used to the same extent,” Newman told The Daily Star. “Among [dishes] that are almost identical, one may cite shish barak, kaak, tharid, kishk, or harissa.
“Others have been tweaked a bit over the centuries; the medieval sambusek (samosa) was often sweet, rather than savory, whereas knefe was made with nuts (not cheese) and by cutting up crepe-like baked thin sheets of dough,” he adds. “The muhallabiyya is a particularly interesting case. Today, it is a creamy sweet, but originally it was a rice pudding with meat, which became a staple dish in medieval Europe known as blanc-manger.”
Newman notes the biggest shift in Arab history occurred with the arrival of New World ingredients, from the 16th to the 19th century. Potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and chilies are among those introduced to the Middle East, leading to new dishes and erasing some older practices.
European cuisines were also influenced by Arab ingredients – utilizing spices like pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and saffron. Rice, spinach, eggplant and taro were also new to the west, as were citrus fruits like lemons and oranges. Arab merchants introduced Seville’s famous oranges to Medieval Andalusia.
“Equally lost in the mists of time is the origin of pomegranate, a key ingredient in Arab cooking, which translates as ‘the apple of Granada,’ home of the Alhambra,” Newman said. “It is in the area of sweets that the Arab influence continues to loom large, beginning with the introduction of [cane] sugar, which arrived in Spain around the 11th century.
“Other guilty pleasures which were developed by the Arabs before arriving in Europe, include sugar-coated almonds, the process of candying, nougat and, of course, marzipan,” he added. “It’s impossible to imagine European food without the Arab innovations. For a start, it would be a great deal less flavorsome, but I guess also somewhat less harmful to our waistlines.”
A curious difference to the modern palette is the large amount of sweet and sour flavors among ancient savory dishes. Many of the stews are steeped in rose syrup, sugar or molasses, topped with nuts and dried fruit that many today associate with desserts. Rose water was added at the end, rubbed on the insides of the serving pot.
“Chefs would make sure to insert these flavors in meat while it was still ‘alive,’ so to speak, and would feed chickens vinegar and rose water,” Newman said. “Sugar heads the list and is used in almost 100 recipes in the book, followed by honey, rose water, rose water syrup and dibs (date syrup).
“To the contemporary health-conscious reader, the preference of sugar over honey may appear odd but this is linked to the fact that the sugar was considered a luxury at the time, and most of the cookery books reflect the cuisine of the elite,” he added. “The use of sugar was also endorsed by physicians and pharmacologists, who often used it as an ingredient in medicines.”
“It was originally just a fun hands-on way of finding out more about the medieval palate,” Newman said. “Gradually, it became clear, however, that it was quite helpful in the research, and often helped elucidate cooking methods, sequence of ingredients, and so on.
“I am pleased to say that, on the whole, we have been very lucky with the results. My personal favorites include judhaba (a chicken drip pudding), thumiyya (chicken garlic stew), bazmaward (chicken wraps), and rose-petal pudding,” he added. “I think there have been only one or two less-successful dishes – one that springs to mind was a North African lamb recipe with honey and various nuts. It looked fantastic on paper, but tasted like a meat baqlava.”
When Newman started the project, seven of the eight known medieval cookery books – published between the 10th and 15th centuries – had already been edited, with only the remaining transcript needing work. Medical works were also scrutinized, for curative foods and brews.
During his research, Newman found a few surprises along the way, opening up new avenues to explore for possible future projects.
“My research into the ‘The Sultan’s Feast’ resulted in a few unexpected bonuses. The first was the identification of an additional manuscript of a cookery book, written by a certain Al-Tujibi (d. 1293), who had emigrated from al-Andalus to Tunisia,” Newman said. “The second was a far more exciting scoop, however, since it involved the discovery of a 10th cookery book, which not only increased the pool of recipes by a few hundred, but also sheds light on the development of the Arabic culinary tradition.
“Unfortunately, it is anonymous and undated, but it appears to be the only copy of the text,” he added. “I have already been working on the manuscript, which I intend to publish in the near future. At present, the editing of the Arabic text has been done, and I am putting the finishing touches on the translation.”