The stories of caliphs and kings portray palaces brimming with celebratory music, and feasts, almost mythical in their indulgence and decadence. So what exactly was consumed at these feasts, in the golden age of Arab history? Did their feasts resemble our meals? Have we kept any of their recipes?
In the study of history today, the scholarship on culinary history and its etiquette in medieval societies has inspired renewed interest, shedding new light on the social and cultural histories of bygone eras, we only knew from the records of wars, kings, and what survived of its literature. Indeed, the customs surrounding food and its types tell us plenty about a certain age, particularly its values, attitudes and social practices.
The earliest known, and the most important culinary document to have come down to us is a manuscript from tenth century Baghdad, entitled “The Book of Cooked Dishes (Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh)”. The book was compiled and written by Abu Muḥammad al-Muzaffar b. Nasr b. Sayār al-Warrāq, who lived in Baghdad and served as a supervisor in the kitchens of the Abbasid caliphate. The book has been beautifully edited and translated by Nawal Nassrallah, and published under the title: “Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook” (2007), to whom the quotes, examples, and analysis consulted in this article should be credited.
Is the food we eat nowadays fit for the caliphs?
A book of delectables dating back to the tenth-century opulence of the Abbasid caliphate
It is a compendium in which al-Warrāq incorporates 615 recipes taken from more than twenty cookbooks by or for caliphs, princes, dignitaries, physicians, prominent political and literary figures, and professionals.
Harūn al-Rashīd, and his son al-Ma’mūn, had become enamored with cuisine, to the extent that their favorite dishes were named after them—the “Hārūniyyāt” and “Ma’mūniyyāt”—as well as after the wife of al-Ma’mūn, Būrān. Indeed, there are dishes known as the “būrāniyyāt”, such as the fried eggplant dishes she invented. Perhaps equally known are recipes associated with the caliphs, their viziers, and army commanders who loved and craved them, such as the “dhājibrija” dish, which was prepared for the Caliph Mu‘taṣim, son of Harūn al-Rashīd, or the grilled chicken dish, “al-bārida”, which was the favorite of the renowned Vizier Abu Ja‘far al-Barmakī.
We do not know much about the author of this book, al-Warrāq, yet the book tells us much of his experience and passion for food and its history, having gathered in it the recipes for hundreds of dishes: braised and cold dishes, olives, pickles, puddings, fritters, drinks, beer, wines, and conserves.
There were even recipes specifically tailored to fit the dietary needs of fasting Christians, and specific recipes for the sick. He provided advice on the types of foods according to their seasonality, and their afforded benefits of healthy sleeping habits and a robust sex life.
Some of these recipes survived into contemporary times; for example we still make the same old sanbūsa, kabāb, kibba , kishk, laqāniq (sausage), and maqlūba.
The book has a number of vegetarian dishes, called muzawwarāt (simulated dishes); and of the desserts muhallabiyyāt, klycha (cookies), zalābiya and qatāyif, which have maintained the same name in the Levant to this day. Also included are and appetizers that accompanied drinks—or “al-Naql” (literally “the transition,” because the drinkers alternated between nibbling on them and sipping their drink) the equivalent of today’s mezzes. Among these were salted nuts, raisins, and fruits such as pomegranates and apples.
As for drinks, Al-Warraq specifically referred to non-alcoholic beer, sweet wines, and other sweet drinks, which were believed to aid digestion after eating, rather than having been consumed with the food.
The book follows the prevalent understanding of health at the time, which followed the trends of the Galenic humoral theories, and the four elements of which the universe was believed to have been composed: water, earth, fire, and air. These elements were believed to be present in all natural materials in specific combinations. The theory was applied to cooking recipes, and each meal was said to have a specific effect on its consumer’s psychological state.
The book dedicates an entire section to table decorum, and the correct utensils used in cooking, making, and baking specific foods, as well as advice to get rid of the smells of foods after they were cooked. The section also includes instructions on cleaning teeth after a meal, and the health benefits of each type of food, as well as their overall effect on health. Al-Warrāq moreover upheld stringent standards for cleanliness.
Yet, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book is that dedicated to poetry, adages, and anecdotes, which is filled with stories of long nights and discussions in the palaces of the kings. One such story is that of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who was drawn by an appetizing smell while relaxing on the shores of the Euphrates. This tantalizing smell came from a meal that was being prepared by the chef of a ship, and so the caliph requested that it be brought to him, and it was a soup known as “Al-Sakbajah”. The caliph was said to have so enjoyed the soup that he returned the bowls in which it was prepared filled to the brim with gold coins.
All the pleasures of life, it was said during al-Warrāq’s time, came down to good food and sex, and all the delight of the world can be savored in a delectable meal and enjoyable conversation. The richness and diversity of the ingredients used in the recipes included in the book testify to a time in which Baghdad was the capital of an empire, and a vista for passing trade routes from all corners of the earth, such that it was called the “Mother of the World” and the “Navel of Nations”. Moreover, the artistry with which the recipes were prepared showcases the luxury of the courtly life in Baghdad, beautifully captured in a line of poetry:
Baghdad, a joyful land for the affluent,
For the destitute, an abode of anguish and sorrow
Below is a relatively simple recipe from the book for qaranfuliyya (cooked with cloves):
- Choose tenderloins and any other tender cuts of lamb. Cut the meat into very thin slices, put them in a clean green-glazed bowl, and keep them submerged in brine from the time of morning prayers until the forenoon.
- Discard the bran and wash the meat until it looks white. Put it in a clean pot and add a stick of cassia, a piece of galangal, and 1 ūqiyya (2 tablespoons) zayt maghsūl (washed olive oil)
- Cook the pot on low-heat fire
- When the pot boils twice, add a handful of soaked and bruised chickpeas. Add as well 20 dirhams (¼ cup) onion juice, 3 dirhams (9 grams) salt, a whole sprig of rue, and 20 dirhams (¼ cup) distilled water of cloves
- When the meat is done, moisten it with a cup of aromatic sweet wine
Source: Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook. English Translation with Introduction and Glossary by Nawal Nasrallah. Leiden: BRILL, (Islamic History and Civilization) (Hardcover), 2007.