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Gems from the Arab Medieval Kitchen: al-Summaqiya

posted on: May 7, 2024

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

From the 7th to the 13th centuries, the Islamic world stretched from China to the middle of France.  The throbbing heart of this vast area was the Arab world. From it emerged a Golden Age of the culinary arts and this inspired a gourmet cuisine accompanied by a widespread body of literature, some of which has come down to our times.  

Some of the dishes travelled from the Middle East to North Africa then to Andalusia and from there spread through Europe and later to the New World.   

In Scheherazade’s Feasts we present more than a hundred of these recipes that were once enjoyed by a sophisticated and cosmopolitan medieval Arab society.  

This is a sample of a recipe from medieval Arab Andalusia that we have redacted in order that it be relished today as it was in the days of Scheherazade.

al-Summaqiya – Made of Sumac

   Serves 4–6

Redacted from the medieval culinary text of:  al-Tujibi, Fadala al-Khiwan fi Tayyibat al-Ta’am wa al-Alwan

Sumac, derived from the Arabic summaq, may be the last of the great condiments still to be widely taken up in the West.  Middle Eastern cooks have employed it for thousands of years in numerous dishes as a replacement for lemon juice or vinegar. This sour seasoning is as indispensable to modern Middle Eastern cuisine as it was to the kitchens of the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians, and medieval Arabs. Its berries are gathered a little before maturity, dried in the sun, and crushed to remove the seed. The dried fruit pulp is then pulverized to make the brick-red sumac seasoning.

3 pounds chicken, cleaned, skinned, and jointed, or 3 pounds. skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into medium-sized pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 tablespoons sumac

Place the chicken, salt, olive oil, black pepper, ground coriander, and onion in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and remove any scum. Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, place the sumac in a clean piece of cloth.  Tie up the cloth to form a little and place it in the saucepan.  Cook over medium-low heat for a further 30 minutes or until the chicken is well cooked, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water if necessary. Remove the sumac bag from the saucepan, transfer the saucepan contents to a serving bowl, and serve over plain rice. 

Taken from Scheherazade’s Feasts:  Foods of the Medieval Arab World.  Co-authors Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum and Leila Salloum Elias (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

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