Medieval Arabic recipes and the history of hummus

By Anny Gaul

Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, cookbooks flourished throughout the Arabic-speaking world, from Baghdad to Murcia. Fortunately for scholars, in recent decades both critical Arabic editions and English translations of these cookbooks have appeared with increasing frequency. Coming from a region frequently cast as a site of unchanging convention, or as a place where traditional and modern necessarily clash, these recipes offer a way to track change over time in subtler ways.

The most recent addition to the genre is Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of the fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-fawā’id fī tanwīʿ al-mawā’id (“Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table”), some of whose recipes I explore in this post (Nawal Nasrallah, trans., Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill, 2018). Nasrallah’s edition includes extensive introductory material and glossaries that situate the work within the broader corpus of Arabic cookery books – making it highly accessible to scholars who work on other languages or regions.

This image is included in the print cookbook edition I reference; the cookbooks themselves are not illustrated so typically editors find comparable images from other works, like this one, to illustrate feast scenes, stove technology, etc. “Preparing Medicine from Honey”, from a Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation of De Materia Medica of Dioscorides. Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Kanz al-fawa’id offers the reader a detailed picture of what elite Egyptian cuisine looked like prior to the culinary transformations ushered in by the Columbian Exchange, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and European colonial rule.

Variety of cinnamon sold in a spice shop in Amman, Jordan, referred to by the same name (dar sini) as the fourteenth century recipes discussed here. © Anny Gaul

Among historians of food in the Middle East, Kanz al-fawa’id and other medieval cookbooks are often discussed in terms of how much the region’s cooking has changed since they were written – and with good reason. Charles Perry has suggested that Middle Eastern cuisine as we know it is 500 years old, pointing out that many of today’s staple ingredients, like tomatoes and potatoes, and common techniques, like stuffing vegetables, are absent from medieval Arabic recipe collections, having been introduced to the region centuries later. And medieval cooks’ liberal use of cinnamon, caraway, and coriander is a far cry from the typical Middle Eastern palate today.

But not all contemporary Middle Eastern foods are without precedent in these medieval works. These collections also include recipes whose flavorings and makeup have shifted over time even as their essential techniques or structures have remained the same. An excellent example is the assortment of tahini- and chickpea-based dishes that we can read as forerunners of today’s hummus (Arabic for “chickpeas”).

At its most basic, contemporary hummus is a dip made from chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice. Kanz al-fawa’id includes several recipes that hint at various iterations of this combination. Perhaps most obvious are recipes from a chapter of “cold dishes” that combine chickpeas and tahini with an array of flavorings, including aṭrāf ṭīb, a blend of a dozen spices:

Preserved lemon and fresh herbs. © Anny Gaul

Mash the [boiled] chickpeas and pass them through a sieve. Take toasted walnuts, pound them until the oil is released, and add tahini [and the mashed chickpeas]. Add enough olive oil, aṭrāf ṭīb, toasted and finely pounded seeds of coriander and caraway, rue, mint, and enough wine vinegar. Beat these ingredients together by hand until they mix well.

Next add lemon preserved in salt (laymūn māliḥ) after you cut it into very small pieces. Also add [pounded] pistachios (p. 378).

Salt-pickled lemons, which are still popular in Egypt and Morocco, likely came in handy when fresh lemons were unavailable. Although Kanz al-fawa’id largely reflects elite tastes, Nasrallah points out that in fourteenth-century Egypt, most city dwellers had no home kitchen and largely ate prepared foods purchased from market stalls and ambulant vendors – including those who specialized in cold meatless dishes like this one (pp. 40-44).

Recipes from other sections of the book offer a glimpse into how

Tahini sauce in progress: hazelnuts, coriander, caraway, cinnamon, ginger, and rosebuds. © Anny Gaul

these tart, tahini-based dips were meant to be consumed (p. 315). One recipe from a chapter on condiments includes no chickpeas, but features tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice, and a flavor profile similar to the chickpea concoction described above: it includes hazelnuts, mint, coriander, caraway, cinnamon, ginger, and rosebuds. The author warns the cook that liquids should be added “just enough so that you can still scoop it up with a piece of bread.” My attempt to recreate this recipe is pictured here: while certain aspects of its flavors resemble today’s hummus, its rich colors and textures are a reminder that changing tastes were a matter not only of ingredients, but appearance and consistency, too. Yet another recipe for a citrus-lanced tahini dip explains that it should be served “between courses” and eaten with bread (p. 206).

Tahini sauce, final result. © Anny Gaul

Fourteenth-century recipes suggest that contemporary hummus evolved from a much broader genre of acidic, tahini- and/or chickpea-based foods. In some ways they changed drastically over time, as spices were downplayed and streamlined. But hummus can also be read as part of a longstanding historical tradition: a lens through which to understand when tastes changed, and to begin asking why and how it happened.

Examples of Arab influence on medieval European recipes abound, from the introduction of durum wheat to imported medicinal ingredients to the aesthetics of medieval cooking sauces. Conversely, shifts in spice use in the Middle East followed early modern Ottoman and European trends. Who knows how many more unexplored connections lie in the wealth of medieval Arabic recipes – more accessible today than ever.

Selected bibliography of translated medieval Arabic recipe books:

Ibn al-Karīm, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan, and Charles Perry. A Baghdad Cookery Book: The Book of Dishes (Kitāb Al-Ṭabīkh). Petits Propos Culinaires 79. London: Prospect, 2005.

Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, al-Muẓaffar ibn Naṣr. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār Al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Translated by Nawal Nasrallah. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Nasrallah, Nawal, trans. Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill, 2018.

Perry, Charles, trans. Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Zaouali, Lilia. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

 


One thought on “Medieval Arabic recipes and the history of hummus”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *