Forthcoming Thirteenth-century Best-seller, ‘Scents and Flavors: a Syrian Cookbook’

ArabLit’s list of 15 notable Arabic books forthcoming in translation in 2017 — and Ma’n Abu Taleb’s All The Battles forthcoming in September from Hoopoe Fiction should’ve made 16 — was a list entirely of twentieth and twenty-first century work in translation:

scentsHowever, there are also classical works forthcoming that will be of interest to a general audience, including English-only paperbacks of Abu Zayd al-Sirafi’s Accounts of China and India, translated by popular travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s classic Mission to the Volga, translated by James Montgomery. Saqi Books is also re-issuing Classical Poems by Arab Women A Bilingual Anthology, ed. Abdullah al-Udhari.

Among the most interesting is Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, set to be published by the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL).

The thirteenth century was a Golden Age for Arabic cookery writing, and Scents and Flavors was a medieval top-seller. It was edited and translated by Charles Perry, a culinary historian who has translated a number of pre-modern texts, including A Baghdad Cookery Book: The Book of Dishes.

Yet this anonymous medieval cookbook isn’t just a reference for scholars. At a conference last year, LAL Executive Editor Shawkat Toorawa promised that “the translator has cooked every single item in the book.” Also, non-specialist chefs were going through the recipes to “make sure they are actually usable by someone who wants to just cook a recipe.”

According to LAL:

This popular 13th-century Syrian cookbook is an ode to what its anonymous author calls the “greater part of the pleasure of this life,” namely the consumption of food and drink, as well as the fragrances that garnish the meals and the diners who enjoy them. Collecting 635 meticulous recipes, Scents and Flavors invites us to savor an inventive cuisine that elevates simple ingredients by combining the sundry aromas of herbs, spices, fruits, and flower essences.

Organized like a meal, it opens with appetizers and juices and proceeds through main courses, side dishes, and desserts, including such confections as candies based on the higher densities of sugar syrup—an innovation unique to the medieval Arab world. Apricot beverages, stuffed eggplant, pistachio chicken, coriander stew, melon crepes, and almond pudding are seasoned with nutmeg, rose, cloves, saffron, and the occasional rare ingredient like ambergris to delight and surprise the banqueter. Bookended by chapters on preparatory perfumes, incenses, medicinal oils, antiperspirant powders, and after-meal hand soaps, this comprehensive culinary journey is a feast for all the senses.

With the exception of four extant Babylonian and Roman specimens, cookbooks did not appear on the world literary scene until Arabic speakers began compiling their recipe collections in the tenth century, peaking in popularity in the thirteenth century. Scents and Flavors quickly became a bestseller during this golden age of cookbooks, and remains today a delectable read for epicures and cultural historians alike.

It’s scheduled for publication in May of this year. You can pre-order or request an examination or desk copy now.