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Cookbook of Baghdad: 10th century

posted on: Apr 27, 2022

By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer

“The mere smell of cooking can evoke a whole civilization.”

Fernand Braudel

‘Kitab al-Tabikh’

‘Book of Delights,’ ancient 10th century cookbook.

‘Kitab al Tabikh’ is an old recipe book dating back to the early Middle Ages or dark ages. It was written in the 10th century on the “Cuisine of the Caliph of Baghdad,” and is a compilation of a thousand years of Islamic cuisines. Many of the recipes date back to the 8th and 9th century. Kitab al-Tabikh, translates to the Book of Dishes, and was compiled by Ibn Sayyan al-Warraq. He believed that food was forefront of other pleasures and that without food one cannot enjoy the full pleasures that life has to offer.

The City of Baghdad

“Cultures and languages from the world over came together here, coexisting and, of necessity, blending with one another.”

The city of Baghdad at the at the time was the center of the universe. The region was known as the “Land Between the Rivers,” it was once a part of the Persian, Greek, and Roman dynasties. By the 8th century, 762 AD, Baghdad became the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate.

The city soon became prosperous and was the birth of civilization as literature, art, science, medicine, and philosophy flourished. Surprisingly, the medieval Islamic world was also known for their elegant food and drink. Since Baghdad was a major trading center, it became a cultural and culinary hub.

The richness and innovativeness of 10th century Baghdad was reflected in their cuisine, as they were in favor of celebrating their food. Muslims preferred their cuisine to be lavish and spice-induced whereas in the Christian world, food was rather simple since gluttony was considered a great sin.

Under the Bagdad Caliphate, the region was noted for its geometrically irrigated, beautiful and intricate gardens, where channels of water flowed, various trees, flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables were grown. During this time, the architecture of gardens was just as important as the architecture of buildings.

Herbs such as cilantro, basil, parsley, tarragon, and mint were gown; sweet and exotic fruit such as dates, grapes, pomegranates, and various citrus, nuts like almonds, pistachios, and vegetables such as spinach, turnip, eggplants, and carrots were all consumed.

Many spices that added to the richness of Islamic cuisine, such as as fenugreek seeds, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric, and asafetida, had came from India and Southeast Asia.

The city of Baghdad was modern for its time, watermills would ground wheat in flour, sugarcane was grown and had originated from India. New methods of cooking/ cooking techniques were created such as the distillation of rose petals and orange blossoms in creating a fragrant essence. Olives, sesame, and poppy seeds were pressed to make oil. There was lucrative production of eggs, preservation of meat, preserving of meat like sausages; the making of butter, cheese, bread and other intricate confectionaries.

Under the Abbasid Caliphate, cooking was more than just a necessity but a favorable pastime, dare I say sport as different techniques were used in cooking. Sauces was important, it added to the affluence of dishes and could either be sweet or sour. Often time essence or herbs was added to roasts and stews to ensure flavor and to make food presentable. Another fundamental element of Islamic cuisine is the cooking instrument. Bread was baked in a tannur which is a potter oven that can be below the ground or above. The tannur is now best known as “tandoori” or “tandoori oven.”

Cooking was almost like a performance, cooks dancing, embellishing roasts with sauces and aromatic herbs, sprinkling desserts with nuts, and scenting drinks with rose petals and orange blossoms. The more traders brought in new ingredients, the more cooks would invent creative new dishes or add new elements to existing ones. The possibilities were endless, pancakes with nuts and clotted cream, fresh jams, syrup soaked pastry fritters, sweet white noodles, jellies, boiled down fruit juices and syrups that was added in medicine, cuisine, and drinks.  The sweetest of life was measured in food, fruit juices or sherbet and nuts were added in drinks to be drunk in shaded gardens. 

Can you believe that all the food you enjoy now can be traced to the Islamic world?

The Influence of Islamic Cuisine

“Recipes for samosas (see below) with illustrations showing cows being milked (right) and Sultan Ghiyas al-Din seated on his throne (left), attended by servants (British Library IO Islamic 149, ff4v-5r)”

The style of cooking was dependent on trading and agricultural practices and many food was influenced by either trade or conquests. The change in geographic location from conquests led to new flavors that entered the Islamic cuisine.

Exotic goods such as spices and herbs were brought in by ship and camel to the Muslim world from parts of Africa, Europe, India, and southeast Asia. Likewise, the Vikings had carried goods such as honey from the Muslim world to their northern forest. Thus, the muslim world has influenced the cuisine of other parts of the world, from the Mongols to the Vikings.

“One of many dishes that evoke the historic reach of Islamic cuisine is tharid, or bread moistened with broth,left (shown here in a modern variant with potatoes). By tradition a dish favored by the Prophet Muhammad, it became part of the first Islamic high cuisine in Baghdad, and also in Muslim Iberia (al-Andalus), where Christians replaced the broth with syrup and carried the dish they called capirotada to the New World, where it remains popular today in Mexico, right.”

Many dishes from the Islamic world have even influenced modern cuisine. A classic and popular Islamic recipe was tharid, bread moistened meat and broth. Tharid was the traditional dish of the region and was especially favored by the Islamic Prophet Muhammed (Peace and Blessings Be Upon him).

This recipe had traveled from the time of the Prophet in the Arabian Peninsula, to the high tables of Baghdad, and eventually the Muslim Iberia, where it had reached the Christians in Al-Andalus. The Christians have adopted tharid into their own cuisine but have replaced the broth with syrup. The dish now earned the name ‘capirotada’ and in modern day is now a popular and traditional dish in Mexico, and is now called bread pudding. 

Not only has Islamic cuisine inspired other cuisines but also the opposite, other cuisines have inspired, added to the richness of Islamic cuisine. Mongol rulers have adopted Muslim cuisine at the time of the Mongol invasion between 1217, up until 1300. 

There was a proliferation of Islamic essence in the Mongol cuisine, many of Mongol’s aspiring dishes had Islamic spices. Overtime, the mongol cuisine had spread to parts of the Muslim world, noodles and dumplings was adopted into the cuisines of Russia, Iran and Central Asia.

Baghdad Sacked by the Mongols: Hülegü’s army conducting a siege on Baghdad walls. Illustration circa 1430.

Islamic cuisine also had an influence on the cuisine of Spain and Italy, having slightly debauched the Christian diet in the 11th century. Despite high ministers calling the Islamic cuisine unholy, many of Spain’s dishes were influenced, dishes such as capirotada which is a meat and broth dish. Couscous was made popular in Sicily and Spain. Marinating fish or meat in vinegar or in orange was another culinary custom the Christian have adopted from the Muslim world. One of the most popular is the bunelos or beignets, deep fried pieces of dough drowned in honey or sprinkled with sugar. These savory, floury bits are eaten on special occasions, usually to be enjoyed on Catholic festive days.

By 1453, the Ottoman capture of Constantinople from the Byzantine Christians led to the “Islamization” of Eastern Europe. Islamic elements were introduced to Europe through the Balkan and Hungary region, foods like rice pilau, langos (pita bread), strudel (phyllo), honeyed drinks and stuffed vegetables became common in Central Europe.  

By the mid-16th century, French physician and astrologer Nostradamus had come to the realization that popular confectionaries like sherbet, candy, and syrup have Arabic roots. Islamic style confectionaries have inspired modern candy at the time. In Portugal, the Islamic fruit paste evolved into the quince paste and eventually into citrus preserves, marmalades, and jams. At length, the popularity of these confectionary sweets would stretch far enough to become fashionable in the court of Queen Elizabeth.

The 16th century, also brought the Ottoman invention of the coffee house where the upper class would talk politics and play chess. This would come to spread throughout the world and it is now a vital part of modern culture.

Islamic cuisine would eventually inspire Japanese cuisine as well. Remarkably, the influence of Islamic cookery would lead to the creation of modern day sushi tempura. A recipe for fried fish found in the 17th century Japanese manuscript, titled, “Southern Barbarian’s Cookbook,” would eventually evolve to become tempura.

There was a culinary diplomacy that was created in the conquered lands. Islam had spread to parts of the world, and influenced not only the culture but the cuisine of these newly conquered lands. Conquered lands, new trades routes and agricultural practices allowed a sharing of culinary ideas, adding to the diversity of the Muslim cuisine and vice versa.

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