Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

Introduction to the Plant Humanities

By Julia Fine

Recipes, as the tagline of this project suggests, feature in many facets of daily life, from food to science, magic to medicine. At the basis of many (if not most) of these recipes are plants: we’ve learned here how chiles were used to treat malaria in early modern China, that cucumber juice contributed to a 17th-century Russian hangover remedy, and why coffee was understood as a potential cure for the Plague in Turkey.

Bright watercolor drawing of various plants, most likely from Malaysia or Sumatra.
Plate from [Album of Chinese Watercolors of Asian fruits], held by Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library. The album was most likely produced by a Chinese artist located in Malaysia or Sumatra between 1798 and 1810. Image Credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Much of history focuses on decidedly human stories, where plants are relegated to the background. As historian Londa Schiebinger writes, “Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life in proportion to their importance to humans.”

We at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC have spent the past four years working to rectify this by placing plants at the center of human stories as part of our Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative. By bringing history together with botany, archaeology, art history, and other disciplines, we aim to highlight how plants have shaped the course of human history, and how humans have shaped plants in turn. The fruit of our exploration has been a digital humanities lab that puts narrative history side-by-side with primary sources, mapping tools, herbal specimens, and more in order to demonstrate the complexity of plants, as well as their importance in the current climate crisis.

Herbal specimen. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our lab now features over 15 original narratives on plants, with more coming in the near future. These plant-centered narratives are written by historians of science, art historians, paleoethnobotanists, geographers, and comparative literary scholars (among others). One narrative highlights how early modern women used herbs like dittany as a means to exert agency over their own health and fertility— a particularly critical topic given the vociferous debates about abortion occurring in the United States and elsewhere today. Another narrative on turmeric demonstrated how plants were not simply drivers of imperial expansion, but also tools through which understandings of the British Empire were spread.

Over the next month, we will be publishing excerpts from some narratives on The Recipes Project site. We will see how European conquistadors drew on Indigenous Mesoamerican recipes when transporting cacao to Europe. We will learn how peony, often imagined today as an ornamental flower, was used as a medicinal herb in both Chinese and Western medical traditions, where it was used to treat epilepsy, sciatica, and convulsions. And we will see how our modern-day fascination with cassava, frequently lauded as a “climate survivor crop,” would not be possible if not for the knowledge, expertise, and processing techniques developed by Mesoamerican and South American women, which allowed for poisonous cassava to be made edible.

Botanical drawing of a cacao vine
Botanical drawing of a cacao by Maria Sibylla Merian in her work Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium , 2019. Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Together, these stories highlight the primacy of plants in the history—and future— of human society. We hope you enjoy your trip around the world through these narratives, and stay tuned for opportunities to get involved with our initiative.

One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu: How Doable Was an Early Modern Japanese Recipe?

By Sora (Skye) Osuka

Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes), originally published in 1782, is often considered the first cookbook that only focuses on one ingredient and the beginning of the Hyakuchin-mono (百珍物, One Hundred Recipes of Delightful Tastes) series. Harada Nobuo, Eric Rath, and other historians of Japan have argued that cookbooks published during the Edo period were tools for vicarious consumption of cuisines that the reader could not physically obtain. However, when we carefully analyze the contents of cookbooks written in the Edo period (1603-1868), we are surprised that they are filled with the practical knowledge, the latest cooking techniques, ingredients, and utensils of that time. It was also during the Edo period, in which society formed the basis of Japanese cuisine that is still visible in the present day. The role of cookbooks like the Tofu Hyakuchin, not only as symbols of townspeople (chonin, 町人) culture and the culture of play (Asobi, 遊び) but also as a form of collective knowledge of the people who supported culinary culture during this time, cannot be underestimated.

This piece challenges the generalizing discourse surrounding cookbooks during the Edo period by first examining the popularity and accessibility of tofu as food from primary sources aimed for everyday people. Then it analyzes key aspects of Tofu Hyankuchin that separate this text from other cookbooks during this time, such as utensils, specific cut sizes, and measurements of ingredients to highlight the components that could be seen as “practical knowledge” rather than “vicarious consumption.”

Many believe that tofu was not consumed among ordinary people in the first half of the Edo period. In 1500, Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase (七十一番職人歌合, Matching Songs of Seventy-one Craftsmen) was published. Tofu seller (豆腐売り) is mentioned as the 37th job . In the accompanying illustration, a lady in a black kimono and white headband sits cross-legged on a low platform on a street selling large and small pieces of cut tofu. The author of the painting is believed to be Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). A total of 71 sections and 142 craftsman figures are displayed. In addition to the traditional craftsmen involved in the construction of temples and shrines, more low-ranking people such as female craftsmen, saleswoman, entertainers, and prostitutes who are not directly involved in material or agricultural production, are also included. Through the Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase, it can be assumed that tofu seller was one of the recognized occupations and tofu was available in the later Muromachi Period (1336-1573).

Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase [七十一番職人歌合], Tofu seller [豆腐売り] is mentioned at the 37th job, along with Somen (wheat noodle) Seller [御そうめん売り]. Published in 1500. (https://kotenseki.nijl.ac.jp/biblio/100098001/viewer/1)

In the Kansei period (1789-1801) or the early 1800s, ranking tables (banzuke) became popular in Edo. Tofu cooking is mentioned in the Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke (日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Daily Frugal Cooking Method Competitive Ranking Table) which is in the same format as a sumo tournament flier. According to the table, there are two sides: Vegetable and Fish. The highest rank is Ozeki (大関). Under the Vegetable side, the Happai Tofu (八杯豆腐, Eight Cups Tofu) is ranked to Ozeki. Yaki Tofu (焼豆腐, Grilled Tofu) is ranked in the fourth rank of Sekiwake (関脇). Kinome Dengaku (木芽田楽, Baked Tofu with Sansho Tree-Sprout Miso Coating) is ranked in the fifth rank of Maegashira (前頭) in the spring section. Tofu related cuisines appeared a total of 15 times on the table.

Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Published by Yoshida-ya Shoukichi Shuppan. Early 1880. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Besides popular culture mentions of tofu, we can also see the prevalence of soy itself through Edo period edicts. Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Keian Ofuregaki (慶安御触書, Keian Edict) in 1649 for the control of farmers. The edict consists of 32 articles, which warn of luxury life by peasants, such as alcohol, tobacco, and rice. The edict also demands people to devote themselves to agriculture. In the fourth edict, soybean planting is mentioned in the form of so-called aze-mame (畔豆, ridge beans), in which soybeans are planted in the ridges of rice paddy fields. It states that peasants must plant soybeans and azuki beans between their rice fields and farms. It is interesting to note the contemporary understanding of legumes’ ability to reincorporate nitrogen back into the soil. Although the people of Edo knew no such knowledge, legume planting may have helped farmers overall crop yield and efficient use of land. As the 4th edict decreed:

“Focus on cultivation, and planting to rice fields and vegetable fields, and at the same time, focus on production and prevent weeds from growing. If you take care of weeds and always cultivate the land with a hoe, you can get good crops and a lot of harvest. Then, plant soybeans and azuki beans on the bank in the fields to increase the crop as much as possible” (Keian Ofuregaki).

In the 11th edict, it stated that after experiencing famine, peasants must eat soybean leaves, which was also mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari [料理物語, Tale of Cooking], perhaps the most prominent early cookbook in Edo Japan. From the context of the 11th edict, the peasants had rice in the autumn, but in the later months, they had millet. The Tale of Cooking is written to support the peasant’s menu:

“The peasants are not thinking well, and they have no idea about the future. In the autumn, they feed rice to their wives and children without thinking about the harvested rice. Always in January, February, and March, they take care of rice and eat millet, wheat, Awa millet, Hie millet, vegetables, radishes, and make more millets, and do not eat a lot of rice. Immediately after experiencing a famine, do not waste time throwing away soybean leaves, azuki leaves, cowpea leaves, deciduous leaves of potatoes, etc.” (Tales of Cooking).

Around 1695, tofu was sold by vendors sitting by the road. We do not know for sure when tofu was first sold by walking street vendors, but after a big fire in Edo in 1698, sellers of dengaku (skewered grilled tofu with a sweet miso topping) started to appear.

In 1634, the Tale of Cooking was published. This was during the early part of Edo and is often considered the first Japanese cookbook written mostly in plain, syllabic Japanese. Although the author is unknown, the epilogue states that “This one volume of this cooking book does not require knife skills. This is for ordinary people and there are no cooking rules. This teaching is from our ancestors. Since I wrote the story of people to date, it is called the tale of cooking.” As for tofu related recipes, there are only two mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari in section 12 on boiled foods: Ise Tofu (伊勢豆腐) and Ryori Tofu (料理豆腐):

“Ise tofu: First grate yam. Cut the sea bream and grate it. Add one-third of grated yam. Add the egg white into tofu and grate it. Grate them well together. Spread a cloth on a cedar box and wrap it. Put it in hot water, press it, and then cut it. Spread cloth on the cedar box. Put it into boiled water, hold, and cut. Serve with arrowroot and soy sauce. It is also very good to sprinkle with chicken miso or wasabi miso. Also, it is good to serve only the tofu. I sincerely report the above recipe” (Tales of Cooking, 183).

If we take a closer look at the recipes, we see that there is little to no information about measurements, sizes, or utensils that are required to actually prepare these dishes.

A distinct feature of the Tofu Hyakuchin that shows that the book was not strictly for the purpose of play are the detailed cut sizes, measurements, and cooking utensils, potentially allowing readers to follow and recreate the dish. For instructions of cutting Tofu in the 72nd recipe, it instructs readers to “remove the coarse cloth texture from the surface of a whole tofu and cut off the four corners of the tofu, then cut the newly formed corners to make an octagon. Cut that into five or six smaller pieces. Season using sake, salt, and soy sauce” (Tofu Hyakuchin, 28). Another example is in the 96th recipe, readers are asked to “cut tofu in 2.4cm x 2.4cm x1.2-1.5cm cubes. On one skewer, place three pieces. Follow recipe number two (Kiji-yaki dengaku), grill until golden brown. Once it is grilled, remove them from the skewer. Place them in a Raku-ware teapot with a lid. Pour on hot pepper-vinegar-miso and sprinkle poppy seeds on top” (35).

Other detailed measurements are also explained in the 56th recipe, for example, “mix grilled tofu and Fukusa miso in a 7:3 ratio. Pound the mixture with a kitchen knife until it is one solid piece. Make into desired size, and lightly fry them. Season to desired choice”(24).  In the 81st recipe, furthermore, “use silken tofu. Boil six parts water to one-part sake. Once it is boiling add one-part soy sauce and let it reach a boil again. Place tofu into the mixture. The length of simmering is the same as number 92 of Yu-yakko. Remove the tofu right before it starts to float. Serve with grated daikon radish” (31). The recipes in Tofu Hyakuchin are in simple, syllabic writing and basic characters, with detailed measurements, and are easy for the reader to understand the method of cooking. In addition, it is easy to visualize the dish just by reading the instructions.


Introducing New Cooking Utensils

In one Tofu Hyakuchin recipe, it shows a new innovation: a charcoal stove specifically for making Kinome-Dengaku in the first tofu recipe. To proliferate varieties of cooking, it is essential to develop and invent new cooking tools. In the book, a new baking charcoal stove is introduced made of ceramic, which allowed for portability and better heat transfer than previous grills, as well as accessibility to a wider audience than traditional metal or steel grills. “Recently,” the book notes, “a new product was released for grilling miso dengaku (skewered tofu with miso sauce). About 60 cm in length; The width is about 8 cm; About 6 cm deep. This is made of pottery and has a hole in the bottom. There are many 1.8 cm holes (12).

Newly invented charcoal brazier for dengaku. In Tofu Hyakuchin [豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes]. National Diet Library. (https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/2536494)

There are also many cooking utensils made of metal introduced in the Tofu Haykuchin. We can assume that hardware stores were popular in the Edo period and selling metal products allowed more access for people to cook food at a higher temperature. For example, in the 40th recipe, a wire mesh (金の籠, Kane no amikago) is introduced:

“Simmer light-soy sauce with sake and salt. In a separate pan, bring a large amount of oil to a boil. Cut tofu into flat cubes and place them on a wire mesh. Fry the tofu by shaking it 2-3 times inside the oil. Once fried, immediately place the fried tofu in the pot of simmering soy sauce”(21). 

The 54th recipe also uses a sieve made of metal: “To make the mashed potato, boil mountain yam very well. Remove excess water and sift through a metal sieve (銅飾, Kanasuhinou)” (24). Moreover, in the 57th recipe, a metal spoon (金匕, Kanesaji) is used to “simmer whole tofu in a pot with no liquid over small heat. Remove the liquid that comes out of the tofu with a metal ladle”(25). 

The recipe book also mentions a specially shaped long wooden box (つきだし, tsukidashi) in the 100th tofu recipe, which has about the same cross section as that of a block of tofu, with a handle on one end, a screen over the opposite exit end, and a wooden pusher, which is used to push a block of tofu into the box and through the screen, thereby creating tofu noodles.

“To cut the tofu, use the tube used to make tokoroten [gelatin jelly strips]. Use silk string to make grids on the end of the tube. Point the tube directly into lukewarm water. Push the tofu through the tube to make a noodle-like shape. Let the tofu submerge in water as you push it through. Even when serving 100 people, it is important to cut the tofu immediately before serving”(37-38). 

Examining the contents of the Tofu Hyakuchin, this cookbook was not just a hobby of a cultured person, but all recipes are easy to make, delicious, and still seen today. It introduced detailed cut size and specific measurements of ingredients. It also introduced cooking methods such as frying, steaming, and boiling that could be easily done with the new invention of high-heat cooking utensils. From the other popular culture materials and Tokugawa edicts regarding the development of soybean production, we can see the possible accessibility of tofu. This paper is not to discredit previous scholars on this subject, whom I greatly respect, but to complicate our understanding and analysis of Edo period cookbooks.


Notes

1 For the full text of Keian Ofuregaki, see: (http://sybrma.sakura.ne.jp/329keiannoohuregaki.html).

2 Recently, the Kenan Ofuregaki is considered forged document issued by the Edo Shogunate in 1649. It is believed that first issued in the territory of the Kofu domain in Kai Province in 1697, with the addition of a tradition that it is a curtain law of the Keian era. See, Yamamoto Eiji. Kenan no Furegagi wa dasaretaka (慶安の触書はだされたか). Tokyo: Yamakawa-shuppan, 2002.

 

‘Dwale’: A Medieval Sleeping Drug in a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

Elizabeth K. Hunter

As part of my research into early modern sleep disorders, I have been examining the wide variety of sleep remedies available in England at the time.  Browsing through the manuscript receipt collections at the Wellcome Library in London, I came across one with this unsettling title:

To make a drinke to cause a man to sleepe till hee bee ript

Take 3 spoonfull of the gall of a barrow swine and for a woman of a gelt swine and 3 spoonefull of hemlocke the iuyce and 3 spoonefull of henbane and 3 spoonefull of the wilde nep [bryony] and 3 spoonefull of lettice and 3 spoonefull of popy and 3 spoonefull of eysell [vinegar] and medle them all together and boyle them a little and cloe them in a glasse well stoped and put therein 3 spoonefull to a pottle [half a gallon] of good wine and medle it well together till it bee used and lett him that shalbe cut sitt against a good fire and make him to drinke thereof untill hee bee asleepe and then mayst thou surely carve him and when thou sure hast donne thy cure and wouldest haue him to awake take vinegar and salt and wash his temples therewith and his wound and hee shall awake imeadiately. [Wellcome MS 373, fo. 99r-v]

Figure 1. A patient about to undergo a surgical operation, early 1700s. A man approaches with a cup containing a fortifying or anaesthetic drink. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Rather different from the milk thistle possets and linen-wrapped compresses of rose water and poppy seeds I was used to, this was clearly not a remedy for sleeplessness, but a powerful drug intended to ‘knock’ a patient out who was about to undergo surgery.  It was written down by a woman called Jane Jackson in a book of recipes for physic and surgery she compiled in 1642.

Although the name of the drug does not appear anywhere in the source, upon further investigation I discovered that this is dwale, a recipe that had been in circulation in England since the twelfth century.  The Middle English word dwale (pronounced dwahluh), is derived from Old Norse dwol, dvalar, dvali meaning ‘sleep’ or trance’.  Well known in the medieval period, it is mentioned in famous works of literature, such as The Canterbury Tales and the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman.

Dwale was still known about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as can be seen from publications from the time.  Thomas Lupton included it in his book of secrets A Thousand Notable Things (1579) – ‘This I had also out of an olde wrytten booke’, he wrote.[1]  More suggestive of use in actual practice is Thomas Bonham’s inclusion of it in his collection of recipes for surgeons, published in 1630, where the ingredients are in Latin.[2]  It is likely that Jane Jackson copied it down from a similar publication.

Figure 2. Illustration of four poisonous plants – (clockwise from top left) hemlock, henbane, autumn crocus and wild lettuce. All except crocus were ingredients in English sleep medicine. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

What is striking about dwale is the potentially deadly mixture of poisonous plants with gall and wine.  It is based on ingredients associated with sleep since ancient times – henbane, wild lettuce and the white opium poppy.[3]  The anaesthetist Anthony J. Carter has hypothesised that, at one point, it may also have contained another ‘sleepy’ herb, mandrake.  At some point Bryony, a plant native to England that bears some resemblance to mandrake, has been substituted.[4]

 

While wild lettuce and white poppy were sometimes included in bed-time drinks and possets, henbane and mandrake were considered highly dangerous, and it is very rare to find a sleep recipe that recommends using them in anything other than topical medicine.  Jackson’s version of the recipe also contains the poison hemlock, and Linda Voigts and Robert Hudson found a number of fifteenth-century recipes for dwale that included the even more lethal plant morel (deadly nightshade).[5]  All these plants were considered useful in sleep medicine because they were believed to cool the humours, reducing the temperature in the brain.  Used excessively, however, they could be too effective, causing the body to fall into a lethargy from which the patient would never recover.

The inclusion of dwale in seventeenth-century sources demonstrates the continuity between medieval and early modern sleep medicine, and provides further evidence of the use of poisons in surgical anaesthetics around the world.  We will never know whether Jane Jackson ever attempted to use it to help a patient undergoing surgery, but her interest in copying it down is an indication of the ambitious nature of domestic medicine in relation to surgery (as has been written about by Seth LeJacq).  It is also further evidence of the importance of knowledge of handling poisons in early modern medicine, as discussed on this blog (here and here).  This was particularly important in sleep medicine, in which the ‘coldness’ of the traditional ingredients could be fatal.

FURTHER READING

If you would like to read more about the use of poisons in early modern sleep medicine, see my article “To Cause Sleepe Safe and Shure”  published in Social History of Medicine.

Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Midnight Vapours: Sleep Disorders in Early Modern England, 1550-1700” [Grant No. 109069/Z/15/Z]



[1] Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things, of Sundry Sortes (London, 1579), p. 79.

[2] Thomas Bonham, A Chyrugians Closet (London, 1630), pp. 244-245.

[3] Ioanna A. Ramoutsaki, Helen Askitopoulou, Eleni Konsolaki, ‘Pain Relief and Sedation in Roman and Byzantine Texts: Mandragoras Officinarum, Hyoscyamos Niger and Atropa Belladona,’ International Congress Series: The History of Anesthesia, 1242 (2002), 43-50.

[4] Anthony J. Carter, ‘Dwale: An Anaesthetic from Old England,’ British Medical Journal, 319 (1999), 1623-1626, at p. 1624.

[5] Linda E. Voigts and Robert P. Hudson, ‘A Drynke Ϸat Men Callen Dwale to Make a Man to Slepe Whyle Men Keerven Hem: A Surgical Anesthetic from Late Medieval England,’ in Sheila Campbell and David Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), pp. 34-56.

Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula

Katarzyna Gromek

Winter in medieval al-Andalus varied from the rainy, foggy, and cool season in Córdoba to snowy freezing weather in regions at higher elevations. The winter dampness seemingly aggravated stomach ailments in the general population and caused excessive weakness among some of the elderly inhabitants.

Image 1. View of Old Town and the Mezquita de Cordoba, Córdoba Spain. Image credit – Julia Kostecka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The famous physician from eleventh century Córdoba, Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī al-Ansari, also known as Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis, included several recipes for fragrant remedies to treat winter ailments in his work on medicine, Kitāb al-Taṣrīf. The three recipes described below are included in volume nineteen, part one, which is dedicated to perfumery. There was little difference between fragrance and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products.[1]

First, let us have a look at lakhlakhah, a moist compound paste used for rubbing on the body after bathing.[2] Abulcasis mentioned that this recipe was first recommended by Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue) for the treatment of patients suffering from a stomachache or from excessive cold in winter.

The ingredients, cloves, Ceylon cinnamon, nut grass, mastic resin, wormwood, Indian spikenard, agarwood, costus, sweet flag, and green cardamom, are crushed, ground to powder and sifted. Next, enough boiling water is poured over the aromatics to form a paste which is left to steep overnight. Then powdered saffron threads and lily ben (moringa) oil are mixed into the paste. The paste is worked into a flattened ball shape and fumigated with high-quality agarwood for several hours.

To scent the lakhlakhah paste, I set up an experimental apparatus for fumigation of compound fragrance ingredients, consisting of a pottery bowl, a pierced cast iron tray, a large ceramic pot that holds the aromatics for censing, and a source of heat. Apartment living requires some creative approach for the use of open fire, and the tea light candles with lead-free wicks are the best substitute for use of charcoal or hot ashes.

Image 2. Fumigation setup for the lakhlakhah paste.

I re-kneaded the paste every time I added fresh agarwood for fumigation. After twenty-four hours of censing, I formed smaller spheres from the paste, and continued fumigation for another twenty-four hours. [See: Video 1. Fumigation with agarwood]

 

This lakhlakhah is very soft and easy to rub on wet skin. I cannot vouch for its therapeutic properties, but the scent is definitively pleasant, very spicy and musky.

Image 3. Small lakhlakhah spheres after the fumigation process is finished.

Another concoction I attempted to recreate is muthallatheh, which reminds me of modern vapor rub.[3] First, I ground some saffron threads and soaked them overnight in musky rosewater which I distilled beforehand. The muskiness of the rosewater comes from the addition of crushed ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), a plant-derived replacement for deer musk grains. Ground Borneo camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica was also added to the saffron soak. The next day, I crushed and ground costus, agarwood, and dark white sandalwood (sandalwood comes in several varieties of colors and odors depending on the tree types). These rare aromatics formed the base for muthallatheh. I mixed the prepared aromatics with the saffron and camphor infused rosewater and worked it into a paste which was spread in a thin layer on a ceramic plate. I dried it under the cover of loosely woven linen.

Image 4. Mixing the base aromatics with the rosewater infused with saffron and camphor, and the drying process.

Once dried, I ground the base again, mixed it with hot cooked honey (cooking honey removes water which prevents spoilage) and worked it into a thick paste. I shaped small spheres which were rolled in a mixture of ground saffron and camphor.

Image 5. Rolling the muthallatheh spheres in powdered saffron threads and Borneo camphor.

These fragrant spheres were used as a medicated incense preparation or smeared directly on the chest to aid breathing in case of congestion. They have a very pungent but pleasant odor, and it is easy to understand why they were used as a treatment for colds.

The third preparation is dharīrah, a scented powder that can be used as incense, sprinkled on the clothes and body, or kept in a sachet. This recipe is known as the recipe of Al-Jafarieh ( a place or personal name). Dharīrah was known to strengthen the body organs like the brain and heart.

I started by powdering, sieving, and mixing dried rose petals, agarwood, cloves, dark white sandalwood, Indian spikenard, nutmeg, and Borneo camphor. I sewed a bag from silk fabric (tightly woven Japanese silk works well for fine powders) and transferred the powder to it.

Image 6. Making the dharīrah powder bag.

The dharīrah needs to mature, and this is done by fumigation. The aromatic for censing in the summer was camphor, and in the winter it was deer musk grains. I splurged on this recipe and used a mixture of ambrette seeds and true deer musk grains (which are harvested from farmed male deer without killing the animals). Since the musk is quite sensitive to heat, it was placed on top of a little bowl placed upside down.

Image 7. Fumigation of the bag containing powdered aromatics.

I gently mixed the bag’s contents every three hours, for a total of twenty-four hours of fumigation. [See: Video 2. Fumigation of the dharīrah powder]

The odor is so intense that even if this silk bag is stored inside a closed plastic bag, it doesn’t prevent the scent from escaping. This scent brings me great joy, so most likely this was the beneficial property of dharīrah.

These fragrances were made as part of my ongoing project in experimental archaeology of fragrances, and as such, they have no known therapeutic properties. All effects as experienced by me and a group of my volunteer testers were subjective.


Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.

Her passion is experimental archaeology of beauty products. She is interested in how beauty products were made and used across time and cultures.  She recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.


[1] Hamerneh, Sami K. “The first known independent treatise on cosmetology in Spain.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39(4) (1965):309-325.

[2] King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden Boston: Brill, 2017, 272-283.

[3] Khatib, Chadi. “Aromatherapy rules as mentioned in the ancient Arabic manuscripts (Albucasis as example).”  Journal of Pharmaceutical Toxicology 1(1) (2018):1.