Medieval culinary Journey to Andalus

Andalus, the land that has many intricate stories about coexistence, identity and politics. It is also one of the richest lands where food culture flourished, a subject I feel particularly passionate about. Medieval collections of recipes followed the social and economic progress of the land and when we talk about food in Andalus, we need to go back both in time and in geographic locations to trace the development of cooking methods, ingredients and culinary delights present in Andalus.

We travel back in time as far as to the time of Galen, whose book on The properties of Food was translated into Arabic in a simplified format called the Book on Foods. At the time food writings were centred around health properties of food for medicinal purposes. This tradition continued in the writings of Abu Bakr Al Razi (865-925), a Muslim who wrote “The Book of Benefits of Food and remedies against its harmful effect”. A Jewish scholar, Abu Yaqub Usah ibn Sulayman al Israili also wrote a Book on Foods, both worked in Arabic.

Culinary literature developed into an art in Baghdad for the beginning of the 9th century and only one work remained intact, Ibn Sayyar Al Warraq’s The Book of Dishes”. Before the 10th century books written on the subject were not preserved but we can find five books on food from the 13th century. (these five books are often thought of being written by women since they seem to have no author).

However, there were numerous recipes, collections and parts written in chronicles, encyclopaedia and annuals. One of these recipes writers were Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn al Madhi, the half-brother of Haroon al Rashid, used to make lists of cooking dishes. The Abbasids who ruled in Baghdad were keenly interested in cooking, amongst them Al Ma’mun, Al Wathiq and Mu’tamid caliphs themselves were keen cooks and spent a lot of time in the kitchen.

Many cookbooks were thrown into the river Tigris by the Mongols but by then, luckily the recipes and cooking methods already made their way to Andalus through the trade routes and various diplomatic missions. Ghazal, for example, brought a type of fig into the royal palace of Cordoba. See more on Ghazal here: Ghazal, the most handsome diplomat

There was one difference between Baghdad and Andalus. The recording of recipes in Baghdad were a cultural enrichment to the lifestyle whereas in Andalus they wanted to save the heritage and document how they lived for future generations. The Arabs and Muslims loved recording their recipes and were at the forefront of writing up collections. Christendom did not have any recipes appearing before the 1200, a little way after they encountered the Muslims.

In relation to food, we must also mention Arabic scientific knowledge that entered Europe through Spain, Sicily and Salerno’s medical school and subsequently moulded the way cooking developed. The medical books served as a model for the first cookbooks and were modelled by a physician in Baghdad, Ibn Butlan and later Ishaq Ibn Sulayman.

The medical descriptions that came from Baghdad were also incredibly important in the way cooking methods developed in Andalus. The cleanliness of the pot was of utmost importance, but so was the quality of the water and ingredients. Meat was supposed to be washed with clear, cold water, so that blood does not escape from it. If so, the scum was to be taken off from the top of water it was floating on. Ibn Zuhr (d 1162) wrote that unwholesome residue of the meat was liable to cause fevers. He also said that food cooked in iron pots strengthens the limbs, improves and stimulates sexual desires.

In Andalus, a practising jurist, Abd Al Malik b Habib (d 853) I Cordoba travelled to Egypt and Mecca for three years and gathered materials for a medical compendium in which he dealt with the idea of illness and the preservation of health. He brought his writings back and medical professions and laymen started to be connected through food and cooking.

Ziryab is quintessential in the cooking life of Andalus as he brought all those methods, flavours and items to Cordoba when he was welcomed by Abr Ar Rahman II at his court. He brought small low tables, tablecloth of fine leather, glass cups, three course meal and many refining elements. He is believed to have brought cinnamon to Cordoba in linen pouches. He must have travelled with many cookbooks as he would have struggled to remember all those delicious plates they used to cook at the court of Haroon Al Rashid. One dish bears his name, Baqliyyah li Ziryab- a stew of lamb and cabbage, covered with topping of meat, bread crumbs, almond and egg. See more on Ziryab here: The King of Style in Andalus

From Andalus only two cookbooks survived. A region, Murcia had one of the two surviving cookery cooks. Ibn Razin Al Tujiibi, wrote the Book of the excellent Tables Composed of the Best Foods and the Best Dishes” in the first half of the 13th century. When this book was collated, Murcia was a Castilian protectorate, and lost its independent thinking. As a result, they have fallen behind in the field of culinary creation according to Ibn Razin.

The other book that survived is this 13th century Cookbook

13th century cookbook

When we talk about medieval cooking, there are some myths we must reveal as untrue. Spices were not used to hide the smell of rotten meat, as some like to think. The idea of rotten meat seems unreal as Andalus was a prosperous, growing land that needed no financial support from anyone. Wealth and prosperity only grew, even after Cordoba fell in 1031.

There were no precise measurements and the cooking developed depending on the personality of the cook, who experimented according to the needs and taste of the rulers. I love these recipes because as a chef, you were asked to develop a relationship with your spices, so you could make the most outstanding dishes that would make you well-known. You had to know all your spices, their potency and how a slight change can alter the end result, so mastery, flexibility and experimentation were quintessential qualities of a chef.

The Qur’an gives us no information on any cooking methods, therefore giving us a permission to experiment with ways of cooking methods limitlessly.

Spanish language is full of words that were introduced by the way the Andalus nation lived and ate, prepared or preserved their food. – “arroz” (rice), “aceite” (oil), “algodón” (cotton) “aceituna” (olive), “albaricoque” (apricot), “azafrán” (saffron), “almendra” (almond) are just some of the many words that made their way into the dictionary of the local Spaniards. According to some linguists, there are more than 400 words that made their debut in the Castilian language.

Andalus was a key in bringing alcohol (both for medicinal purposes and leisurely drinking) the idea of oil frying, and pounding things into a paste, such as almonds. The Muslims were fascinated with mystery and wonder, which came together when they discovered pounding. In fact, the soup known as ajo blanco would be the ancestor of gazpacho.

Milk and pounding was one of the methods they used to disguise or transform food. The mystery of food was a fascination for Andalusian scientists as well as cooks as they found themselves thriving in transforming known food items into exotic new mixtures that makes the land so vibrant!

Andalus was well known for its sophistication for its condiments, vinegars, syrups and aromatic essences were well used and rooted. Exotic scented sauces and condiments were used in the Andalus kitchen, including murri, similar to soy sauce, kaamakh (a sort of cheese spread), or bunn (a thick past from which soy sauce is pressed).

This mixing and experimenting reached beyond condiments, they ate meat sauces with cherries, apricots and quince. They made banana cakes, balls of minced meat mixed with rice and chickpeas, fish in raisin and vinegar sauce. When they cooked without meat, they did so by medical advice and gave to the sick but also made suitable for the poorer families. These dishes were called muzawwar- false or counterfeit.

As Andalus flourished, the food reflected their growing sophistication. Artichokes, carob, sugar, aubergines, grapefruits, carrots, coriander became well-known ingredients in the royal palace and slowly made their way to the tables of everyday people.

We can read about rice and its use in China in a nameless manuscript from 851. The traveller, who remains unknown, describes rice being eaten with a sauce (Kushan) which is poured over the rice. He also describes how rice is used to make vinegar, sweets and other condiments.

Sugar came at the late 11th century after the opening of Toledo, Palermo (in Sicily)- suqar in Arabic became azucar in Spanish. There were various usages of sugar, from medicinal pastes to drugs -like food, quince paste, halva that was made with starch and nuts, even marzipan (which we know from Italian manuscripts). They also made fondants, candied citrus peels, crystalized flower petals and herb leaves.

Andalusian developed a passion for tharid- crumbled bread in meat broth, one of the Prophet’s favourite meals, by the perfection of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

Shabbath tharid, that originated from the time of the prophet, became a feast dish of the Jews, Christians and Persians as well mainly after an extended period of fasting. The dish is made of meat cooked in fat and broth topped with semolina flour bread with dry cheese added to it.

Food is always a true reflection of a nation, a way of living and way of thinking and this could not be more true for Andalus. The richness of the kitchens speaks of a richness in thinking, preparing and enjoying food to its fullest.

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