14th-Century Cookbook ‘Profoundly Rich Resource for Egyptian Culinary Heritage’

For the epicure, medievalist, Egyptianophile, or collector of interesting moments from the past, Nawal Nasrallah’s new translation of the fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table (2018) is a delight. It includes a vivid introduction, bringing us back to the food culture of the time, and glossary complete with Nasrallah’s versions of the recipes, some of which can be found online:

Nasrallah, an independent scholar who also translated Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook (2007), answered a few questions about the manuscript, its author, and its audiences.

How does Kanz al-Fawāʾid compare to other thirteenth and fourteenth century cookbooks from the region? That is: If I’m a fourteenth-century foodie in the market for a cookery text, how does Kanz stand out from the competition? Do we know the ways in which the (anonymous) author-compiler would’ve benefited from putting out this cookery book, both financially and in terms of social standing?

Nawal Nasrallah. Photo credit: Shakir Mustafa.

Nawal Nasrallah: Kanz al-Fawāʾid  is unique for its variety and comprehensive coverage of contemporary Egyptian cuisine. With twenty-three chapters comprising a total of 830 recipes, it is a dizzying plethora of recipes unprecedented in the medieval Arabic corpus. True to its title, the book is a treasure trove, covering all the major food categories known at the time, including a massive collection of 142 recipes for main dishes, offering no less than ten dishes with sparrows, which were cherished in the entire region as snacking dishes valued for their aphrodisiac properties. The book offers the largest extant collection of fish recipes, 36 in all, and a unique collection of fourteen table sauces called, ṣulūṣāt (sg. ṣalṣ), as well as cold dishes including eleven recipe for ḥimmaṣ kassā, the prototype of our modern appetizer of crushed boiled chickpeas with tahini, hummus; 75 recipes of pickles, 81 recipes for sweets, and many many more. And, what’s more, it has preserved for us the only okra recipe that has survived from the entire medieval era—which might sound like an insignificant thing to discover to the uninitiated in things Middle Eastern, but okra is a favorite vegetable all over the region and its history intrigues us.

As for how the author might have benefitted from writing such a treasure, this is open to conjecture. There is the possibility that in the cases of commissioned books, the authors might have been generously compensated by their patrons; however, it does not look like the book of Kanz belonged to that category. Nonetheless, it does look like the book enjoyed good circulation, judging from the extent six or so copies that have survived. The anonymous author/compiler might have earned good money from selling his copies, but writing cookbooks was not the road to riches.

The cookbooks mentioned in the medieval biographies and chronicles all belonged to caliphs, princes, famous chefs and the like; and it appears that our author does not belong to this social strata; most probably he would have used his name were he so. Ironically, none of the celebrities’ cookbooks survived but we have the book of Kanz.

So cookbook writing, as you note, could be a glamorous pastime, although this cookbook’s anonymity probably indicates a lack of fame and fortune.

What do we know about cookbook writers like our author?

NN: I am afraid it is indeed so. Evidently a lot of cooking manuals were written in the medieval Arab world. Most of them served as practical guides, and as such the identities of their writers were of little consequence. Even the writers/compilers themselves rarely cared to assume responsibility for their books, and even when this did happen, to biographers and chroniclers they were not mention-worthy. Tenth-century Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, for instance, left us a valuable culinary resource in which he anthologized the celebrated Abbasid cuisine. He was commissioned to write it as he states in his introduction, for which he must have been generously compensated. We know nothing about him other than his name and not a single trace of a reference to him is found in any of the medieval records. Compare this with the extensive list Ibn al-Nadīm provided in his Fihrist of the ‘celebrity’ cookbook writers of the time, comprising caliphs, princes, famous physicians and the like. Ironically none of the cookbooks he mentioned survived, but portions of them did in al-Warrāq’s cookbook.

We have to keep in mind that generally cookbooks were not regarded as a high literary genre. But evidently, they were sought-after commodities, read and used by apprentices, perhaps hired cooks or professionals at cooks’ shops, who I imagine would leaf through such books in search of some new and exciting ideas, and by household cooks.

Interestingly, while the author of the Kanz itself remains anonymous, we do know the name of his plagiarizer. He was Ibn Mubārak Shāh (1403–58), a well-known Cairene scholar. He copied an abridged version of the Kanz, gave it a new title, Zahr al-ḥadīqa fī-l-aṭʿima al-anīqa (The best of the delectable dishes) and claimed his responsibility as the writer of this small volume. From his own comments peppered here and there in the book, we learn that he meant this book to be used by his own household slave girls; we also learn that he himself knew a thing or two about the art of cooking; but he was not rich —he once alluded to his limited budget. We might say he was a frugal gourmet of some sort. ‘His’ cookbook must have been circulated—the extant manuscript of this book was copied after his death. Still, in his biographies not a single allusion was made to his cooking manual.

Why did you want to bring Kanz into English, and tell the story of these foods and their time?  What other sorts of readers—beyond cooks and culinary historians—do you think would find this book useful and interesting?

I’m also curious about why you acknowledge Egypt’s “slow food” movement in the dedication?

NN: The Egyptian cuisine has so far been underrepresented in the culinary map of the medieval Arabo-Islamic world. The Kanz is the only surviving cookbook from a period when Cairo was a flourishing metropolis and a cultural haven for people of diverse ethnicities and nationalities. It was indeed an interesting time to write about food.

The value of this book; however, goes beyond its significance as a culinary document. For culinary historians, it is an essential source that fills a huge gap in our knowledge regarding gastronomy and foodways during that period. It is also an indispensable source for researchers in the field of medieval material history and culture. Linguistically, the text of the Kanz is equally gratifying, particularly the colloquial aspect of it. The Kanz, with its copious and rich culinary repertoire will certainly be of interest to all lovers of Middle Eastern foods; there is a lot here to explore and try.

A lot of the culinary techniques and dishes and ingredients in the Kanz  survived, and I think it would be of immense use to the advocates of the Slow Food movement in Egypt. This movement started in Italy in 1986 as an organization that promotes local foods and traditional cooking, as an alternatives to fast food; the Egyptian branch is still young, it started from around 2010. With their emphasis on the indigenous produce and products and local traditional foods and culinary heritage, I see in the book of Kanz a profoundly rich resource for the Egyptian culinary heritage that the movement is aspiring to revive.

Some of the advice at the beginning is a bit obvious (don’t overcook your vegetables). But other advice seems potentially quite useful: “If too much salt was added to the pot, throw in a small piece of papyrus, which will completely absorb all extra salt.” Or did everyone in the fourteenth century know that one? Would the author-compiler have interviewed cooks? What do we know about how these sorts of books came together?

NN: Well, coming from the Middle East, I would not consider the advice not to overcook vegetables as obvious, as we do have the tendency to cook them to death. The advice here concerns the cold dishes of vegetables, which were served mostly cold as appetizers before the main dishes. Preserving their vibrantly green colors was desirable. In fact, in the contemporary books of ḥisba (market inspection), the cooks in the marketplaces were cautioned against undercooking the vegetables to attract customers with their color.

I doubt that everyone knew about the papyrus bit and other suggestions; these were tricks of the trade, which the author of the Kanz is sharing with his readers. It is highly unlikely that he did the field work himself, interviewing the cooks and asking questions. The impression we get is that a lot of specialized pamphlets and manuals were written by professionals, be they chefs, physicians, perfumers, beverage makers, pickle makers, etc. What the author/compiler of the Kanz did was that he helped himself to such resources and copied from them. Not as an easy task as it may sound, in the case of the book of Kanz with its extensive variety and wide scope. In fact, in long chapters like those on the main dishes or desserts, it was apparent to me that he used more than one source, as I came across similar recipes repeated at different places in the chapter because they carried a slightly different name.

The author writes: “The aim of cooking is to put together balanced amounts of the dish’s ingredients so that no one flavor overpowers the other.” Does this summarize the book’s philosophy of cooking?

NN: It does indeed. A lot of spices, aromatics, and herbs were added to the cooking dishes at several stages of the cooking. With this extensive plethora of ingredients, it was essential that the cook should practice control and aim at balance in the overall texture and flavor of the dish.

What are your favorite recipes within? How many of the 800+ have you attempted? What adaptations did you have to make? I see you used a food processor with the himmas kassa. How different was the experience of making/eating them? They look delicious.

NN: I have tried more than 40 or so of the recipes so far, and I am planning to try more in the near future. About the adaptations I had to make, it was mostly grinding the ingredients with the food processor, that’s about it; otherwise, the rest of the activities were not really different from how we do things today.

However, making them required some calculations of measurements on my part, because the recipes did not always provide them. I started by deciding on how much to use of the main ingredient in the recipes, let’s say meat, and then work the other ingredients around it. My familiarity with today’s Middle Eastern cuisine helped a lot. Many of the cooking techniques have not changed much.

From antiquities.bibalex.org.

However, what intrigued me most was a gadget used in one of the recipes, its name was mifrāk. The Kanz is the only medieval source where it was mentioned—and only once. The lexicons were of no help. From context I guessed it to be a kind of blender. Looking for a clue on the internet, I could not believe my eyes when I saw a tool with the same name being used nowadays in southern Egypt and Sudan to blend the okra dish called wīka and whip the traditional stew of mulūkhiyya (Jew’s mallow). What’s even more amazing is that a similar tool was excavated in Egypt, which belongs to the Graeco-Roman Period (now displayed at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum). It is operated by rolling the handle back and forth between the open palms of the hand.

I liked most of the dishes I tried, especially the ones with fish, and the cookies “virgins’ breasts.” One dish that I liked, but could not eat much of, was the lubābiyya (sweet chicken with toasted fresh breadcrumbs). I know from the several recipes we have in the Kanz that these dishes were supposed to be sweet; they were liberally drenched in sugar syrup. Apparently, they were an Egyptian specialty that even visitors to the region back then found unusual. Sugar was plentiful and affordable in Egypt at the time, and it was used profusely in desserts and even in savory dishes like this one.

Were you planning to put any additional recipes on your excellent blog?

NN: I certainly do hope to put more recipes on my Kanz blog, time permitting. They are a very nice way of introducing and bringing to life a beautiful heritage which is worth trying and cherishing.

What sorts of readers do you imagine bought manuscript copies of the original Kanz? Someone with a kitchen and clean water, as you say, and it seems aimed at relatively well-to-do households with many hands to prepare the dishes. But since it also mentions cheaper ingredients, should we imagine some variety in social classes? And hired cooks would have one? Aspiring hired cooks? Would it have been read by women and men?

NN: The spectrum of the book’s users would have ranged from the affluent household circles to the frugal gourmets, who had to make do with the cheaper alternatives, and certainly apprentices and the aspiring professional cooks in the lookout for the new and the unique. They were definitely read and used by women. For instance, the plagiarizer of the Kanz, who I mentioned earlier, claimed that he ‘wrote’ the book for his household slave girls.

What sort of knowledge of cooking does the book already require? I for instance don’t know how long to leave the pickled eggs. At least with pickling cucumbers, I’m told I need to soak them two days and two nights, then add the parsley and mint, and then set aside the jar another few days.

NN: The book was not meant to teach the basics of cooking. No such books were needed, as these skills were orally transmitted. That’s why, much to our frustration, so many cooking instructions were not fully explained because their readers did not need them. Instructions like ‘do as usual,’ use the ‘familiar herb and spices,’ or ‘cook until done’ are quite common in these books.

However, the book does recognize the need for some sort of guiding amounts, such as those of the principal ingredients in the recipe, be they the number of chickens or the amount of meat or flour used in baking, around which the cooks may figure out how much was needed for the rest of the ingredients. But when it comes to complex and unfamiliar preparations, such as making fermented sauces, drinks, perfumed powders and incense and the like, more precise measurements are given.

There are a lot of recipes for pickling. Was this common across other cookbooks from around the region? I associate pickling with Egypt, as much as I do molokheya and qulqas and gargeer.

From: The Medieval Egyptian Kitchen

NN: The chapter on pickles with its 75 recipes offers the most extensive collection of recipes I have ever encountered in the culinary documents from the entire region. It is my guess that the author/compiler used a manual specialized in pickling and he copied as many as he could. While none such manuals have survived the ravages of time, they are luckily preserved in this book. The recipes are so appetizing, I tried one myself and included it in my appendix in recognition of the importance of this category of foods in the Egyptian repertoire. Sweet and sour pickle of fresh fennel was really delicious and salt-preserved lemons (laymūn māliḥ) were very good and not as salty as they are made these days.

One of the reasons for the popularity of pickles, or mukhallalāt as they were called, was that they were believed to arouse the appetite and facilitate the digestion of dense foods.

And so we might still find a plate of torshi as a restaurant starter!

NN:  Now that you mention this, we actually encounter a delightful culinary tradition in the Kanz related to pickles and snacks, not included in any of the other cookbooks. A beautiful large tray, called sukurdān, was filled with varieties of small dishes of appetizers including pickles, and served as snacks to nibble on during social gatherings, especially those involving drinking alcoholic beverages. In fact, drinking sessions gave rise to the sukurdān ritual, even its name. The word is said to be a combination of the Arabic sukr ‘imbibing alcoholic drinks,’ and the Persian dān ‘vessel.’ In the Kanz recipes, the sukurdān is filled with pickles of carrot and quince, yogurt condiment of jājaq (prototype of today’s jājīk salad, tzatziki in Greece), lemon preserved in salt and apricot compote. From other non-culinary sources, we also learn of other appetizers added, such as cured olives and capers, and salt-cured anchovies (ṣīr) and sparrows.

What can we glean from the author’s somewhat utilitarian, casual literary style? In spending time with the manuscript, have you come to imagine anything about the author-compiler’s personality or lifestyle?

NN: Well, the book of Kanz is a massive volume with a wide range of food categories, and it is highly unlikely that the anonymous author wrote them all himself. Rather, he must have tapped into dozens of food-related books and manuals. They ranged from general cooking manuals on main dishes, desserts, to specialized pamphlets on drinks, condiments, fermented sauces, pickling, to horticultural guides, and physicians’ treatises, with recipes for the sick, and perfumers’ preparations. Obvious is the case that the writer was after the creation of a comprehensive cooking guide, practical and usable. A utilitarian casual style is to be expected in such works, with all its grammatical imperfections and frequent lack of nuances, such as using the verb ‘make’ for instance to designate a bunch of cooking activities such as ‘put,’ ‘add,’ ‘drizzle,’ and even ‘boil.’ I do not think that this would in any way detract from the linguistic value of the text; on the contrary it makes it sound realistic to me. Cooks have no time or patience for the headaches of the nuances of the language and I imagine that the first person to document such recipes would have written them as told by the cook.

The only place where the author of Kanz speaks in the first person is in his own introduction, where he summarizes the contents of the book and says that after finishing it he called it Kanz al-Fawāʾid…. Despite the general impersonal nature if the book, it is still possible to put together a thing or two regarding his personality and lifestyle.

To begin with, I think it was unlikely that he was commissioned by a patron, as used to be done. Things had changed by the time he wrote his book in the fourteenth century during the Mamluk era. Men of letters of mainstream Egyptian society did not expect to receive the favors and patronages their peers enjoyed in the previous ages. Instead, they had to earn their living by working in the markets, and their names at the time were typically tagged by such epithets as al-Jazzār (butcher), al-ʿAṭṭār (dealer in perfumes, drugs, and spices), and so on. Our anonymous author was most probably a gourmet cook himself but not necessarily a professional cook. He might have had a profession like those people to support his family, and wrote about cooking, his passion. I imagine him to be a jolly fellow who delighted in good life, his means might probably have been constricted, but he would not have let this stand in the way of eating well. To readers who could not afford some of the luxurious items called for in the recipes, he offers cheaper alternatives: if bee honey is too expensive to use in a variety of dessert, no problem, use the cheaper sugar cane molasses instead.

Furthermore, he strikes me as a person with a generous soul, quite eager to share what he had compiled with his readers and encourages them to go ahead and try what he is offering. This dish is delicious (ṭayyib) he would say, or utterly delicious (ghāyat al-ṭība), or splendid (ʿajīb). He teaches the aspiring cooks how to perform magic with fruits by writing on them. Surprise your master, the recipe goes, with a plate of lusciously ripe fruits with verses inscribed in green and you will be in his good graces. I can feel his own excitement and playful delight when in a recipe for storing fresh mulberries and using them when out of season he says: offer them in trays to your guests in December and blow their minds away; or in a recipe, which teaches how to play a trick with a perfumed preparation, he says: Fill your mouth with plain water, and when you spritz it at friends around you, it will come out rosewater.

There is a wonderful section in your introduction on shopping and eating out, and I felt a jealous nostalgia for the market al-Maqrizi describes, which was destroyed by a fire in 1354—the one with marble-built shops on either side of the street selling jars of foamy beer. What do these recipes say about the Egypt of their time? Certainly that the enjoyment of food was more central to daily life, but also it seems to indicate a multi-ethnic Egypt.

NN: I feel the same way every time I read al-Maqrīzī’s passage describing this particular street. Unforgettable.

To understand the multi-ethnic characteristics of the Egyptian food at the time we have to remember that Egypt with its capital city of Cairo was at the time considered the ‘mother of all nations’ (umm al-bilād), replacing Baghdad the ‘navel of the earth’ (surrat al-arḍ) of several centuries ago as a flourishing metropolis. Its Arab Muslim and Coptic population was augmented as it became a cultural magnet and a haven for the surrounding regions and peoples of multiple nationalities and ethnicities, including Turks, Kurds, Moroccans, Sudanese, Persians, and Iraqis, particularly after the attacks of the Mongols in western Asia, and many more.

Such a colorful multiplicity inevitably enriched the local culinary repertoire of the region. This was, for instance, how we come to see traditional Moroccan recipes for marwaziyya and kuskusū in our Egyptian cookbook. At several places in the book, we come across instructions which point to catering to different ethnic preferences regarding flavor and taste. In a recipe for a table sauce called ṣalṣ, for instance, the instruction is to add garlic if making it for a Turk; and not to add it if it is for a local person (baladī). In another sauce recipe, the suggestion is to sweeten it with sugar for the common people (ʿawām), and to use garlic if making it for Turks. A Kurdish recipe is given for a whole lamb roast. There are also several recipes for Persian pickles and flour-based puddings, Byzantine pickles and a side dish, an elaborate Andalusian stew of sparrows cooked in a glass pot, fried sparrows from Baghdad and Mosul, Levantine dairy condiments, and more. All these varieties of dishes do certainly suggest a colorful and varied culinary atmosphere, where people enjoyed each other’s foods and had the appetite for the novel and unusual.

Oh, and lastly, from the recipe for jujube pudding (“It helps women gain weight quickly, which is something they care a lot about” apparently women at the time liked to gain weight quickly?

NN: They did indeed. Having their bodies noticeably padded (but not too much) with meat and fat was a desirable thing especially in the marriage market, and cookbooks took care of such needs and offered recipes to accommodate to them. They did not cater only to the appetites of the gourmets.

Editor’s note: To follow Nasrallah’s work, see @iraqicuisine and egyptianmedievalcookbook.wordpress.com.