Monday, January 25, 2010

Dining with Sheharazade: Medieval Middle Eastern Cuisine

Did you know that there are more cooking books in Arabic before 1400 than in all other languages combined?  I didn't, but I cannot say that I am surprised given how finicky Middle Easterners are about the food they eat. This and many other tantalizing tidbits appear in Medieval Cooking in the Islamic World by the Tunisian author Lilia Zaouali. It is a short, fascinating whirlwind tour of our culinary heritage.

The oldest Arabic cookbook titled Kitab al-Tabikh, dates from the 10th century and was penned by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and included recipes from the 8th and 9th century Caliphs and members of their court. The influences and complexities of Medieval Islamic cuisine grew predictably as the geographic reach of the Islamic world expanded.  Expanding Northward from the Arabian peninsula, Arab cooking was infused with Persian influences as well as those of the Aramaic speaking Christians of Syria and Iraq.  Moving Westward, Arabs brought Near Eastern recipes to North Africa and Andalusia but also adopted Berber and Iberian influences.  With the Arrival of the Ottomans, the cuisine of the Eastern and Western Islamic world grew apart with the Near Eastern cuisine becoming heavily influenced by Turkish culinary traditions.  Paradoxically, however, some of the more ancient common recipes, lost in the East are preserved in the Maghreb.

The history of the development of a particular cuisine also provides a window into the societal and political workings of the era. There seems to have been a distinct preoccupation with the health aspects of particular foods with many physicians of the era, Muslim Jewish and Christian writing about the benefits and harmful effects of certain foods. Eggplant, for example, with its bitter taste was considered unhealthy and did not become part of the cuisine until someone figured out that salting the eggplants before cooking took the bitterness out. The importance of hygeine in cooking also emphasized as way to ward off fevers. Cooking pots had to be scrubbed clean and cooks were advised not to cut their vegetables on board used to cut uncooked meat.  Surprisingly, some of the cookbooks even included recipes for making wine and beer.  At different periods in the medieval Islamic world alcohol consumption was tolerated though overindulgence was considered unacceptable.  I remember, as a child, asking my father about references to Khamr  in old Arabic texts or poems I read; he would invariably and disengenuously tell me that it really referred to grape juice. 

The book also includes 174 recipes divided into medieval recipes and modern recipes, the latter being mostly Maghrebi dishes, that can be traced back to medieval ones. Most sound delicious and have combinations of sweet and savory that is no longer common in today's Middle Eastern cuisine -except, perhaps in Maghrebi cooking. Also, there was widespread use of fermented sauces, akin to soy sauce or Asian fish sauces, in medieval recipes that, to my knowledge, are no longer used. Despite the differences, there remains some commonalities: the heavy use of nuts, pomegranate, lemon and the frequent use of cinammon and other spices. Some recipes like Beef with rosebuds sound intriguing while others, like the one detailed here, sound ominous:
Fish Drowned in Grape Juice:
Take a large fish. Put in black grape juice in a vessel deep enough for it to be completely immersed. It will thrash about and swallow the juice until its body is filled with it.  When the level of the juice goes down and the belly and gills are saturated with it, remove the fish, clean it and cook it on the grill...

Sounds cruel, but I guess it is not any worse than throwing a live lobster into scalding water.

Perhaps the most suprising thing is how few medieval recipes survive.  Though some of the names sound very familiar, the medieval recipes are often totally different than their modern namesakes.  It should come as a surprise, the food we eat is influenced by the times we live in.  Recipes for the same dishes evolve over time with changes in tastes and introduction of new ingredients -like the tomato- not available in medieval times. Witness, for example, the demise of the use of samneh (clarified butter) in favor of vegetable oil. Samneh was considered so important that a scandal over tainted samneh once toppled a government in Syria. Moreover, even at any given time recipes for the same dish vary tremendously from family to family and from town to town, each thinking their recipe is the ultimate, immutable version for that particular dish.