By Elizabeth Mindreau
The students of Kyri Claflin’s History of Food (ML622) class were treated to a lecture and cooking demonstration by scholar of Medieval Islamic cuisine and food writer, Nawal Nasrallah. Nawal discussed what historians consider the Golden Age of the Arab World, between the 8th and 13thcenturies. She described Baghdad as the center of the world during that period and made medieval Baghdad come alive with descriptions of a cosmopolitan city with a bounty of ingredients in its markets brought by the many caravans passing through. Baghdad was full of nouveaux-riches with a taste for fine cuisine and the means to buy it.
Nawal followed her lecture with a cooking demonstration using recipes from the 10th century Baghdadi cookbook, Kitab al-Tabeekh by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq. She translated this medieval work under the title Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens. Using these age-old recipes, Nawal transformed simple shredded chicken into an aromatic delight by adding sibagh, a dipping sauce made from ground walnuts and pomegranate juice. Additionally, soy sauce was used to replace a medieval Arab condiment made of fermented barley known as murri. The chicken and sauce were blended together and presented on a platter sprinkled with fresh pomegranate seeds.
Nawal prepared a few other dishes, like bazmaward, a pinwheel-type sandwich of cheese, nuts, mushrooms, and eggs, and badhinjan mahshi, a dish of boiled and chopped eggplant mixed with caramelized onions, ground almonds, fresh cilantro, chives, parsley, caraway seeds, cinnamon, olive oil, vinegar, and soy sauce. By the end of her demonstration, our appetites were in high gear. We filled our plates and dug in. So what does food from 10thcentury Baghdad taste like? The chicken and sibagh were bright and savory. The badhinjan mahshi was soft and succulent. The herbs in the bazmaward danced on my tongue while the finely minced ingredients of the sandwich melted in my mouth.
Recreating dishes from a medieval cookbook is an amazing way to immerse yourself into a sensory connection with the past. Of course, it can never be the same since the cooking environment, cooking technology, and taste of the raw ingredients (due environmental changes) are different. But, I believe that one can get close to the experience by physically recreating the movements that someone made so long ago to prepare the food and the final experience of tasting and eating it. It can bring us a new understanding of what life in the past may have been like in a very intimate way. It is also a thrill to taste flavor combinations that may not be available in the modern culinary arena.
Nawal’s lecture made me appreciate the rich, noble, and lengthy history of Arabic cuisine as well as of the Arabic culture in general. I am discovering that learning topics through a food-centered lens is highly effective. Because food is deeply embedded in one’s daily life, it can be an excellent vehicle for transmitting knowledge. As we ate, Nawal discussed the challenges of translating Medieval Islamic cookbooks into English. She said that so much more work needs to be done, particularly with the cookbooks of Andalus, (Medieval Islamic Spain). More scholars, particularly with foreign language skills, are needed. Time to sign up for Arabic class!
Elizabeth Mindreau is a former graphic designer and first year Gastronomy student. When not studying, Elizabeth is busy trying to feed her two young sons anything but chicken nuggets and Oreos.