Sugar, Saffron, Spices — The Arab Influence on Spanish Cuisine, a Brief Meditation

Spanish food enjoys some quite heady popularity right now.

Trendy magazines and the international food punditry (for example,  Matt Preston in Australia) say “Si” to Spanish cuisine and predict a continuing surge of enthusiasm for the food of the land of Don Quixote. Just about every grocery store, mundane as well as high-end, displays wedges of Manchego cheese placed temptingly near wrinkly chorizo sausages. And in case you can’t find it locally, an online store, La Tienda, sells everything you need to bring out your inner Spaniard.

Pundits to the contrary,  I am just not convinced that Spanish food will suddenly be embraced by a world that swears by pasta and pizza.

So what gives? What might be the reasons for this smoldering affair with Spanish cuisine? After all, both countries are peninsulas, surrounded by miles of seacoast and shredded by mountainous terrain crisscrossed by sporadic rivers.

And in both regions, Arabs brought their culture, their architecture, and their cuisine.

Flowers of Andalucia

Or maybe there’s another, possibly facetious, reason:*  Perhaps no one from Madison Avenue ever fell in love under a pergola in Extremadura — and let me tell you why.

When I think of Spain, it’s Extremadura, not the fertile Al-Andalus,  that comes to mind.

With my first glimpse of that vast barrenness of the parched western reaches of Spain, I fully understood why months on a leaking ship eating hardtack appealed more to men like Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro than farming the water-starved ground of Extremadura. Especially with the mythical (and eventually real) pots of gold and silver looming tantalizingly at the end of the torturous voyages across the Atlantic, the murderous treks over foreboding mountain passes.

Trujillo, birthplace of the Pizarro brothers

In contrast to Extremadura, the Spain of Al-Andalus wove a tapestry of life with flower-draped balconies and sugar-sweetened dishes, enough to tweak the romantic streak in anyone. Over seven hundred years of Arab presence profoundly affected Spanish culture, and subsequently that of the New World colonies conquered and settled by Spain after the final defeat of the Arabs in Granada in 1492.

Green Andalucia

Unlike many of the cookery-related books (herbals) in Europe of the time, contemporary Arabic cookery books tended to include more recipes for actual food. Three major elements indicate the influence of Arabic cuisine: sugar, saffron, and spices.

So let’s begin by looking very briefly at a cookbook written in Arabic: Fuḍālat al-khiwān fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭaʻām wa-al-alwān, by Ibn Razin al-Tugibi, a tome of 450 recipes written between 1238 and 1266.** See scanned pages in Arabic HERE.

For some recipes from Fudalat Al-Khiwan, this link leads to a Spanish translation of recipes found in de la Granja Santamaria’s dissertation (see citation below). A French translation has been criticized for using words for vegetables and fruits that couldn’t possibly have been available at the time the author originally compiled the book. Nevertheless, the translation enlarges access to a work that most food scholars in the West cannot read in the original language.

Translated by Charles Perry from the original Arabic, another cookbook from the thirteenth century — An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century — offers a more accessible look at the cuisine of Al-Andalus.

Recipe for an Extraordinary Sausage

Take a fat large intestine and turn it inside out, then get eggs known to fill it, and break them into a large dish and add to them a bit of crushed onion, cloves, pepper, oil, peeled almonds, both pounded and not pounded, and sugar according to how much the diner likes sweetness. Mix all this and pour it into the intestine with a funnel [reading qum‘ for fakha‘]. Tie up the two ends with a thread and lower it into a slow tannur and leave it until it is done and browned, and take it out. And you might fry it in a frying pan with fresh oil.

In a thought-provoking article,  “The Arab Influence in Western Cooking,” Toby Peterson analyzed the cookbooks of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, trolling for signals of the handprints of Arab cooks. His tables summarizing what he found might be of great use and inspiration to others interested in the process.

The mingling of the Arabic and Spanish culinary cultures first enticed me when I bit into one of Doña Olga’s empanadas in Fram, Paraguay. How closely they resembled the meat-filled briwats/briouats of Morocco, something I discovered much later!

And for good reason. The legacy of cookbooks like Fuḍālat al-khiwān and the anonymous Andalucian book followed the conquistadores, the priests, the nuns, the nobles, and the dandies on those terrifying voyages into the unknown world of the Americas.

EMPANADAS: To make empanadas, follow this link with step-by-step photos.

Minced Meat Pastries (from Fettouma Benkirane, Secrets of Moroccan Cookery. Paris: Taillandier, 1985, p.73. These are rolled into cigar shapes, but can just as easily be formed into triangles.)

For 100 pastries:

12 eggs
2 lbs. pastilla flaky pastry sheets [use phyllo]

Mince or finely liquidise:

3 lbs beef [use ground beef if desired]
2 medium sized onions
1 sprig coriander
1 sprig parsley

Then mix into this mince:

1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
½ tsp saffron
1 tsp salt
¼ glass oil [really need more than this!]

Cook over a low heat, stirring continually with a spatula (the meat should separate well) until all the juice is absorbed. Add the beaten eggs and continue to stir for a few minutes more. Spread a sheet of pastille pastry, folded in two, on a flat surface and place a roll of minced meat on the rounded edge. Roll the sheet up to the end, pressing lightly on the meat which will spread along it. Stick together with egg yolk. With scissors, cut the roll across diagonally into pieces about 2 inches long.

Fry the pastries for a few minutes in hot oil then serve piled up on a serving dish. These golden pastries are eaten dipped in icing sugar.

See a step-by-step post about how to make Briwats HERE.

*Sicily. That’s fodder for a future post, isn’t it?
**Translated into French by Mohamed Mezzine and Laila Benkirane as
Les délices de la table et les meilleurs genres de mets, Publications Association Fès Saïss, 1997.

For more about the Arabic influence on Spanish cookery, see:

Benchekroun, Muhammad B. A. La Cuisine andalou-marocaine au XIIIe siècle. 1984. (A version of Fuḍālat al-khiwān fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭaʻām wa-al-alwān.)

Bolens, Lucie. “La cuisine d’Al-Andalus, les saveurs du partage.” La Pensée de Midi. 3(3): 52 -56, 2000.

de la Granja Santamaria, Fernanado. “La cucina arabigo-andaluza segun un manuscrito inedito.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1960.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra and Marín, Manuela. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. New York: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Laudan, Rachel. “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connections.” Saudi Aramco World. May/June 2004, p. 32 – 39.

Peterson, Toby. “The Arab Influence on Western Cooking.” Journal of Medieval History 6: 317 – 340, 1980.

Rodinson, Maxime. “ Studies in Arabic Manuscripts Relating to Cookery.” In; Rodinson, Maxime, Arberry, A. J., and Perry, Charles. Medieval Arab Cookery. Prospect Books, 2006, p. 91 – 164.

Rogozen-Soltar, Mikaela.Al-Andalus in Andalusia: negotiating Moorish history and regional identity in Southern Spain.” Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2007.

Traducción española de un manuscrito anonimo del siglo XIII sobre la cocina Hispano-Magribi. Madrid: Huici Miranda, 1966. Translated by Charles Perry from original Arabic HERE.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

One thought on “Sugar, Saffron, Spices — The Arab Influence on Spanish Cuisine, a Brief Meditation

  1. Thanks for that. I’m pleased to see the Arabic influences noted. What I love about Spanish food – and architecture – is that it is so easy to see the layers of history: the Romans (olives and vines), the Arabs (sugar, rice, saffron, spices, eggplant, almonds, oranges), and the discovery of the Americas (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, chocolate).
    For me, the defining ingredients of the Arab presence in Spain are also eggplant, almonds and oranges. Those three are also the defining ingredients of Judeo-Spanish cooking, and were part of Jewish cooking in Sicily (also under the control of the Arabs).


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