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Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).


Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

Recipes and the Senses: An Introduction

By Hannah Newton

Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630). Wikimedia.


Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.


There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.

Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell.  One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.

A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.


One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’

To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.

Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.


Tales from the archives: Spring: when thoughts of fancy turn to itchy, watery eyes

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Spring  started a few days ago in the northern hemisphere. Here in the UK, the weather is getting warmer – and wetter – after a very cold month. The days are lengthening, and the flowers starting to bloom. All this loveliness, however, is slightly tempered by pesky hay fever, which seems to affect me earlier every year. This seems the perfect opportunity to revisit a post by our own Lisa Smith first published in May 2014 on early-modern remedies for watery eyes. Enjoy!

By Lisa Smith

A number of my Tweet-friends have recently been complaining about the severity of their hay fever this spring. @KateMorant asked:

Is there any #earlymodern advice/ recipes for hay fever? I’ll try anything short of applying leeches to eyes.

Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But… trying to figure out what people might have used to treat their symptoms in early modern England is no easy matter. The term hay fever, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was not used until 1829. What we know now as “hay fever” was first described in 1819 by Dr. John Bostock, who presented his own case for study as being “an unusual train of symptoms”: itchy, swollen and watery eyes, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Over the years, Bostock had tried bleeding, purging, blisters, diet, Peruvian bark, steel, opium, mercury, cold bathing, digitalis… and, of course, many eye remedies. None of these had apparently helped.

Keeping in mind the relatively new description of hay fever as an ailment, I decided that the best way to track down early modern hay fever remedies would be according to symptoms. Of the symptoms typically associated with hay fever, itchy eyes are the easiest to trace—and even this was no mean feat.

I started off with the Wellcome Library’s wonderful online collection of seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books. Although there are lots of remedies to treat eye problems, many of these were a bit general, such as “The Lady Iveys Eye Watter” listed in the Johnson Family’s book (1694-1725). These eye drops, which included the white of a new laid egg, spring water and alum, could be used to treat “all distempers in yr Eyes pertickuler for any thing that grows”. So, although allergy-ridden eyes could in theory be treated with this remedy, it was not the most specific choice.

Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Brumwich family (1625-1700) may have been hay fever sufferers, as there were three somewhat more useful remedies in their collection: “A watter for eyes that are red & watterey aproved”, “A resceipt for wattering eyes” and “A water for sore eyes whose lides are all swelled”. All had an “X” or a “+” beside them, indicating—along with the one “aproved” that the recipes had been tried. The “watter for eyes” was essentially a sugar water that could be sponged or dropped into the eyes, while “A resceipt” included orris [iris] root and white copris [possibly a beetle?] steeped in water. The “water for sore eyes” used red rose water and powdered aloes. Of course, there is no guarantee that these were for allergy symptoms, especially as the third recipe was included alongside remedies for blindness and sore eyes.

None of them give me any confidence.

The English Physician enlarged (1718) by Nicholas Culpeper, however, offered some potential explanations—as well as solutions—for itchy, watery eyes. A juice of celandine, field daisies and ground ivy in clarified water with dissolved sugar was a “soveraign remedy for all pains, redness, watering”, which sounds promising, but it also treated pins and webs and skins and films (p. 10). Barley, which was ruled by Saturn, could be cooling and cleansing, especially for inflammation problems (pp. 29-30). Eye drops distilled from green barley gathered at the end of May was particularly good for sufferers who had “Defluctions of Humours fallen into their Eyes”. Both remedies suggest that symptoms might be seen as defluxions (a discharge of fluid) or inflammations. Makes sense.

But another type of classification in Culpeper put itchy, swollen eyes alongside poisons and the venemous bites. This made sense; the blood in such cases was seen as poisoned and overly hot. White beets and borage and bugloss were all ruled by Jupiter, which made them cleansing and strengthening. The beets could treat internal obstructions, headaches, venemous bites, eye inflammations and—interestingly—“wheals”, something rather like a hive (pp. 36-37). Borage and bugloss roots and leaves were good for putrid and pestilential fevers and poisons, while the leaves and seeds might help cleanse the blood and excess heats. The distilled water could be used as an eye wash for red and inflamed eyes (pp. 50-51). Modern hay fever sufferers, no doubt, will also understand this parallel with poisoning, with  pollen and dust acting as daily sources of misery.

Trying to identify hay fever-like symptoms in early modern England is a difficult business, as these eye remedies reveal. And this, before we even get to the sneezing! A quick digital search through Culpeper’s on Eighteenth Century Collections Online shows that all references to sneezing were in positive terms. For example, under “Clary, or more properly Cleer-Eye”, Culpeper noted that the powder of the dry root “provoketh Sneezing and thereby Purgeth the Head and Brain of much Rheum and Corruption” (p. 90). In other words, while Culpeper offered up lots of remedies for the eye symptoms, nothing could—or should—be done about the sneezing.

Sneezing: nature’s way of purging the body? But at least no leeches were required…


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.