Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq: The Tenth-Century’s Answer to Jamie Oliver?

annals-of-the-caliphs-kitchensSit at dinner tables as long as you can, and converse to your hearts’ desire,
for these are the bonus times of your lives.
(Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens, p. x)

Talk about a window into the past and a mirror to the present!

A thousand years plus some separate us from the author and recipes of Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s tenth-century Kitāb al-Tabīkh. In the words of the translator, Nawal Nasrallah,* al-Warrāq’s purpose “was to ‘anthologize’ the celebrated Abbasid cuisine.” But not only that. Like many later cookbook writers, say of the nineteenth century, al-Warrāq wanted to make the recipes accessible to cooks in “ordinary” kitchens.

So says al-Warrāq  through a parable featuring a sultan’s experienced cook, some male chess-players, and a young beginning cook.

A group of men played chess and ate at whatever house it was that the game took place. One day, the sultan’s chef asked the cook, really just a boy, at one particular house how he cooked sikbāj (beef stew soured with vinegar). But before the boy started cooking the dish, the chef asked him to show him the pot he used, so the boy showed him. The chef insisted that the boy wash the pot before starting to cook.

After repeated washings, each time the chef would sniff at the pot and demand that the boy clean it once again. Finally, and no doubt the boy began to wonder why on earth this guy was being so mean and demanding (though that is not part of the story), the chef told him to clean the Meccan soapstone pot with parsley and then it would be ready for cooking sikbāj.

When the finished dish came out, the boy cook proudly holding the fragrant, steaming stew under the noses of the men, they almost swooned at the wonderful smell, so different from what they normally ate. The sultan’s chef asked an important question:  “Do you think that dishes cooked in the sultan’s kitchen are any different from the familiar ones? The ingredients used there are none other than vinegar, greens, meat, eggplant, gourd, saffron, and the like. Indeed, meticulous cleanliness of the ingredients and the pot is all that it takes.”

Photo credit: Giovanni Orlando

Photo credit: Giovanni Orlando

Thus begins the first chapter, on the importance of cleanliness in the kitchen, with a pronounced condemnation of flies and their behavior.

And this at a time when just about nobody in Western Europe took a bath unless it was after their death!

In Chapter 4, al-Warrāq claims that there are eight tastes of foods: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter (so far just like modern taste categories), but then he throws in greasy, insipid, unpalatable, and rancid! In Chapter 7, al-Warrāq delves slightly more deeply into the effects of the “humoral powers of food” as they relate to taste. “Bitter food (murr) has a heating effect that greatly dehydrates, and causes the blood to burn and spoil quite fast. It also increases yellow bile.”

al-Warrāq thus lays open the medieval medicinal universe, a worldview that transferred to Europe and governed medicinal practice for centuries. With a series of chapters on the humoral powers of various kinds of meat, cooking methods, eggs, fish, grains, and so on, it all seems so familiar somehow.

But one of the most fascinating chapters concerns the ancient processes of fermenting various foods, primarily grain, pickles, olives, and small fish.

One recipe concerns the making of a milk condiment, kāmākh.

Making white kāmākh:
Take milk (laban) and make it into kāmākh** the way you like, but do not add any fresh greens or herbs. When it matures and develops a tongue-biting sour taste, put it in a new white jar, and for each 10 ratls (10 pints/20 cups) of it, add 1 ratl (1 pound) huwwārā (fine bran-free flour). Beat mixture with a stick and and out the jar in a cool shaded place. For the following 50 days, daily add ½ ratl (1 cup) or less of milk (halīb). Meanwhile, keep washing the jar from the outside [to keep pores open] until it develops the desired thickness.

Transfer the kāmākh into a green glazed jar and add chopped rue, peel of fresh green citron, and nigella seeds if wished. You may leave it plain.

And that’s just up to the first 140 pages of this treasure trove of knowledge.  Patterns of thought today, cooking, medicinal beliefs, recipe migration — all these appear to be rooted in the Arab culture reflected on these pages. A veritable journey of discovery, an insight into a world that ultimately propelled Christopher Columbus’s voyages into the New World and the tremendous changes that occurred because of those peregrinations.

Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens makes FoodTV cookbooks look like little kids’ coloring books or a paint-by-numbers painting… Jamie Oliver, no way.

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*Nawal Nasrallah wrote Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine (2003). Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. English Translation with Introduction and Glossary, by Nawal Nasrallah (Brill, Leiden, 2007)

**In a thirteenth-century al-Baghdadi cookbook, there’s a recipe for making this, there called kāmākh rījāl: Place yogurt, milk, and salt in a gourd scooped free of its pulp. Leave the gourd in the hot sun for five months; add milk to prevent the mixture from drying, stirring daily.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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  1. Pingback: Spanish Cooks and The Essence of Their Art « Gherkins & Tomatoes

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