Medieval Arabic Cookbooks.

Jonathan Morse sent me Marcia Lynx Qualey’s Aljazeera roundup of newly translated medieval Arabic cookbooks; cookery, of course, is not an LH concern as such, but there’s some interesting stuff here:

In her introduction to Treasure Trove, [Nawal] Nasrallah tells us that meals would often begin with an array of small dishes that arrived on a beautiful large tray, called “sukurdan”. The word, she writes, is thought to be a combination of the Arabic ” sukr”, or “imbibing alcoholic drinks”, and the Persian “dan”, or “vessel”. […]

Nasrallah is a fan of sweet-and-sour pickled fennel, and has adapted a recipe on her website. She added over email that, “One of the reasons for the popularity of pickles, or ‘mukhallalat’ as they were called, was that they were believed to arouse the appetite and facilitate the digestion of dense foods.”

Hummus is one of those Thousand and One Nights-like dishes that has travelled widely in space and time. Versions appear in the 13th-century Scents and Flavors, and in, Winning the Beloved’s Heart with Delectable Dishes and Perfumes, by Aleppan historian Ibn al-‘Adeem (d. 1262), which has not yet appeared in English translation. Many hummus dishes also appear in the 14th-century Treasure Trove.

Yet after that, according to Nasrallah, there is a long period when hummus disappears from cookbooks. When it reappears in 1885, in, The Master Chef’s Culinary Memento for Housewives, by Lebanese author Khaleel Sarkees, the recipe uses ingredients we associate with contemporary hummus: chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini. And by the time “Hummus bi Tahina” appears in its first print cookbook in Iraq in 1946, the English-language, Recipes from Baghdad, it calls for tinned chickpeas, tinned lemon juice, and a tin of “crushed sesame”. […]

One of the wonderful aspects of medieval Arabic cookbooks are the titles of the individual recipes. There are three recipes for a dessert called “ma’muniyyah”. One is subtitled “The first recipe”, while the next is “The second recipe, better than the first”, and the third is “The third recipe, which is better than the second”. […]

“It is good manners to use toothpicks,” Treasure Trove informs us. “One needs to clean the teeth and remove the tiny pieces of meat between them. If meat stays in the mouth it rots, especially the solid particles.” People of all social strata were encouraged to avoid such a situation. The common folk could make “khilal ma’muni”, or toothpicks from esparto grass stems, while middle-class people could use Egyptian willow twigs for picking their teeth.

Thanks, Jonathan!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Winning the Beloved’s Heart with Delectable Dishes and Perfumes surely deserves a place high on Amazon’s best-seller list, well above all that He’s Just Not That into You stuff.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    If a guy can make delectable dishes, that may be a good reason to hire him as a cook, but not to marry him. Many women used to make the similar mistake of marrying guys who bought them mink coats and solid gold toilets.

    The dangers in this disposition have been mitigated by the device of prenuptial contracts, but it’s still a good idea to bide your time, looking at everything these guys do and not closing your eyes at the bad parts (alcoholism, throwing their stinky socks into corners, unsound views on PIE etc).

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    unsound views on PIE etc

    Dealbreaker, no question.

  4. ə de vivre says

    It caused a minor scandal in their respective families when my mother and father got married. She was a Catholic, he was a laryngealist

  5. Those were difficult times for laryngealists; thankfully, they’re largely accepted now.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    True. Still, I don’t think I could ever really love a Renfrewite.

  7. David Eddyshaw: I’ll have you know that Pyysalo is happily married.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve no objection at all to other people loving Renfrewites. How else are there going to be little Renfrewites in the future?

    It’s just not for me, that’s all. It would only lead to tearful scenes over the cornflakes.

  9. Speaking of toothpicks and middle Eastern-ish places, I still marvel at the fact that it took me (as a Turkish learner) probably 10 years to notice that the Turkish word for toothpick, kurdan, is a straight copy of the French word.

    (Actually, it’s spelled kürdan, which, upon seeing it, gives an obvious clue of not being of Turkish origin. Whereas in my mistaken form of ‘kurdan’ it looks like the most ancient of old Turkic words…)

  10. Pyysalo the Apostate rejects Trinitarian Laryngealists are heretics.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed. There can be only One.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Funnily enough, he recognizes four laryngeals (*ah, *ha, *aɦ, *ɦa) and calls them one.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    These are great Mysteries.

    “For there is one laryngeal *ah, another laryngeal *ha, another laryngeal *aɦ, and another laryngeal *ɦa.
    Yet they are not four laryngeals, but One Laryngeal.”

  14. *is Enlightened*

  15. ə de vivre says


  16. David Marjanović says

    Thread won.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    he recognizes four laryngeals (*ah, *ha, *aɦ, *ɦa)

    What’s the point of making these “laryngeal” representations visually almost indistinguishable – h versus ɦ ? Because the sounds are supposed to be almost indistinguishable ? Although their being only postulated makes distinguishability moot ? Is more being mooted than meets the postulant eye ?

  18. They only seem indistinguishable to you because you’re not used to distinguishing them. Plenty of letters are just as similar.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    The eyes have it.

  20. David Marjanović says

    The symbol ɦ was not specially invented, it’s the IPA symbol for this sound.

  21. By the 13th century, Arabic cookbooks had been adapted for the aspiring classes… They, too, might have been stymied when trying to find ambergris or Damascus citron, and might have substituted plain local rose petals for the Nusaybini roses demanded by a recipe.

    I had no idea that Nusaybin, ancient Νίσιβις, now in Turkey, had once been famous for its roses and rose water. However, I can imagine that there were once extensive plantations of rose gardens. Nusaybin is located where the river called Ava Spî “White Water” in Kurdish (Turkish Beyazsu) emerges from its tree-shaded course in the mountains of the Tur Abdin region, ancient stronghold of Syriac culture, and spills out onto the Mesopotamian plain to begin its journey to the Khabur and the Euphrates. Many of the families I knew in Nusaybin had beautiful flower gardens and fruit trees around their houses—and many of these houses have been destroyed in the armed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish resistance that also began to spill out of the mountains and into the cities in 2015. Wild roses of various species are plentiful in the foothills of the Tur Abdin where I used to walk. In spring, the breeze off the hillsides was fragrant with the wild rose called nesrîn in Kurdish (Persian نسرین nasrīn). I imagine that the famous roses of Nusaybin were cultivated varieties of Rosa damascena, however. As far as I can tell, commercial production of rose water, rose petals for culinary use… all of that is just a memory now in Nusaybin.

    The roses of Nusaybin were proverbially white. Here is the account of Nusaybin in the Travels of Ibn Battuta, with quotations from Abu Nuwas and other poets and a French translation.

  22. I looked up the name Nasrin and discovered there’s an Irish-Egyptian singer named Naisrín Elsafty, daughter of Treasa Ní Cheannabháin and Saber Elsafty. I love this multiculti world!

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    The symbol ɦ was not specially invented

    It’s used in Nawdm for the plain ol’ glottal stop. Presumably someone thought it looked cooler than ʔ.

  24. David Marjanović says

    the Tur Abdin region, ancient stronghold of Syriac culture

    And modern stronghold of an Aramaic language, at least before what seem to be most of the speakers moved to Stockholm.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    There’s always somebody who wants to rock the boat, whether by hook ɦ or crook ʔ.

    “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”. I think the sheep have a different tale to tell. They never know which to expect.

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