Chicken Covered With Walnuts and Saffron

I went to the home of Duke Cariadoc and Mistress Elizabeth Dendermond for one of their recipe testing days. I choose the following recipe. It came out scrumptious.

Duke Cariadoc, who thinks saffron is a scribal error, said the saffron wasn't too strong. And when Sir Colin McLear came in to reclaim his son, who was playing with the son of my hosts, he tasted it and proclaimed it delicious, and he didn't know i had made it.

Original Recipe

13th century Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook
p. A-43 (in Duke Cariadoc's cookbook collection)
or in the webbed version of the cookbook

Cut chicken in two, put in the pot, throw in onion pounded with cilantro, salt, spices, a spoon of vinegar and half a spoon of murri; fry until it smells good; then cover with water and cook till almost done: make meatballs from the chicken breast, and throw in the pot; dot with egg yolks and cover with the whites and pounded walnuts and saffron; ladle out and sprinkle with pepper and cinnamon and serve, God willing.

Working Out a Modern Recipe

If you already know how to take a Medieval recipe and turn it into a modern one, skip this analysis and go directly to my modern-style recipe...

I can often cook directly from Medieval recipes. I don't really need to work them out. BUT
(1) if i want someone else to be able to duplicate my version - say, for a feast,
(2) i want to do it again the way i did it before because i liked it,
i need to work out a modern version, specifying quantities of ingredients and the steps of the process.

Step Zero

The first thing to do is have the recipe in a language you can easily understand. In the example i'm using here, i could not read the original Arabic, so i relied on the translation by Charles Perry, a noted food writer who can read Arabic - and quite a few other languages.

Sometimes the recipe is in Middle English (such as Form of Curye or the recipes publishes as Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks). The spelling is inconsistent and there are words we no longer use. I would suggest that you first read the recipe out loud. Yes. Really. Out loud. You'll be amazed at how much more you will understand.

For unfamiliar words, check The Glossary of Medieval Culinary Terms on Cindy Renfrow's website,

Step One

The first thing i do to analyze a recipe is separate out the ingredients and list them in the order actually used, including quantities where noted. Some recipes list the ingredients out of order, as the cook thought of them. Most European recipes don't list quantities until the 16th century, but recipes from the Islamic world sometimes do list of them fairly early.

Here's the recipe again, this time with the ingredients highlighted:
Cut chicken in two, put in the pot, throw in onion pounded with cilantro, salt, spices, a spoon of vinegar and half a spoon of murri; fry until it smells good; then cover with water and cook till almost done: make meatballs from the chicken breast, and throw in the pot; dot with egg yolks and cover with the [egg] whites and pounded walnuts and saffron; ladle out and sprinkle with pepper and cinnamon and serve, God willing.

Listing only the ingredients called for, i got:

chicken, cut in half
onion, pounded
cilantro, pounded
spices [which spices not specified]
a spoon of vinegar
half spoon of murri
water to cover
meatballs from chicken breast [meatball ingredients not specified]
egg yolks
egg whites
pounded walnuts
cinnamon [not clear if cassia or Ceylon cinnamon]

Step Two

The next thing i do is break the recipe into process segments, putting them in order if necessary, as, again, sometimes a process that needs to be done early is added into a recipe near the end as an afterthought.

Singling out the directions from the original above, i got:

Cut chicken in two.
Put in the pot.
Throw in onion pounded with cilantro, salt, spices, a spoon of vinegar and half a spoon of murri.
[Note: this means that the onion and seasonings have to be prepared first]
Fry until it smells good.
Then cover with water and cook till almost done.
Make meatballs from the chicken breast [Note: is breast meat removed before or after cooking?]
Throw meatballs in the pot; dot with egg yolks
and cover with the whites and pounded walnuts and saffron
[Note: i assume a little bit more cooking at this point]
ladle out and sprinkle with pepper and cinnamon and serve, God willing.

Step Three

As you see, i noticed a few spots where the directions or ingredients were lacking information.

For the "spices", i looked at other chicken recipes in the cookbook, choosing those spices that were commonly used.

For the how to make the meatballs, i looked at other meatball recipes in the cookbook to get an idea what ingredients to use. These were quite variable, so i had to make some "executive" decisions - such as whether or not to use eggs or bread crumbs - i chose to use neither and the meatballs were tender and held together just fine.

As for which cinnamon to use, the common cassia (which is sold in the supermarket as "cinnamon"), or the more physically delicate and more complexly flavored true or Ceylon cinnamon, well, i prefer Ceylon cinnamon. That's what many modern Moroccans use, but if you can't find any (and i recommend you try, it really makes a difference), you can use the so-called "cinnamon" from the supermarket which is actually cassia.

Step Four

And finally you need to figure out how much of each ingredient to use. Alas, i can't really tell you how to do this.

Since 1967 i've been cooking ethnic recipes that use many combinations of spices and seasonings - notably modern Moroccan, Syrian/Lebanese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, and Mexican). And i've taught both Southeast Asian and Indonesian cooking classes. So some things i just have a feel for from experience, such as approximate quantities of spices to use.

If you are uncertain, i suggest you look at some modern Moroccan, Indian, Thai, and Indonesian recipes to see how they balance their spices in relation to quantities of meats and vegetables.

The Worked-Out Recipe

After looking at the above, breaking down some of the processes further, making some executive decisions, experimenting with flavors, and trying to note every detail of the procedure, i got the following recipe. To tell the truth i didn't weigh or measure all the ingredients i used, although Cariadoc and Elizabeth had asked we do so, but i know this is pretty much what i really used. I cooked it once and it was really delicious (in my opinion), so i think it doesn't need more experimenting (well, i could play around with the meatballs, but i am quite satisfied with them as they are).

Wow! Such a short original and such a long modern version!

Anahita's version

1 whole Chicken, about 4 lbs
2 medium-large Onions
about 1/4 of a large bunch of Cilantro (Coriander leaves) - no need to remove stems
about 1 teaspoon Salt
1 heaping teaspoon ground Coriander Seed
1 scant teaspoon ground Cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground Ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons red or white Wine Vinegar
3/4 tablespoon Murri (= 2-1/4 tsp)
- - - or 1/2 tablespoon (= 1-1/2 tsp) Japanese Soy Sauce (see note below)
6 Eggs, separated
1 cup ground Walnuts
scant 1/8 teaspoon Saffron

Chicken Meatballs:
Breast meat from the chicken
1 tablespoon Murri or 2 teaspoons Japanese Soy Sauce (see note below)
1 tablespoon Sesame Oil (untoasted)
- - - or Olive Oil if you can't get Sesame
1/4 teaspoon ground Cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground Cinnamon

A little ground Pepper
A little ground Cinnamon


Prepare chicken

  1. Cut chicken in half
  2. Remove breast meat and set aside in refrigerator.
    [NOTE: I assumed that the meatballs were made of raw chicken, even though it was not clear in this recipe whether or not the meat was cooked. Most other recipes for meatballs in the cookbook used uncooked meat.]

Begin cooking

  1. Peel onion, cut in chunks, put in food processor, grind to a fine puree.
  2. Add cilantro, grind until well blended.
  3. Put in a bowl, stir in salt and all the spices.
    [NOTE: I chose these spices based on my experience cooking other chicken recipes from this cookbook and my analysis of the spices used in this cookbook.]
  4. Then stir in vinegar and murri.
    [NOTE: I chose wine vinegar because wine vinegar was what the Andalusians made. I assume red, but it could been white...]
    [NOTE: I was at Cariadoc and Elizabeth's house and they have Cariadoc's "Byzantine Murri". But Charles Perry wrote that he made murri from scratch, out of aged/fermented barley and that it tasted like soy sauce, so i now believe Japanese soy sauce to be a suitable substitute for murri. (Japanese tends to be lighter in flavor and consistency that Chinese, although there are many varieties of Chinese soy sauce)]
  5. Put puree in a heavy pan, put chicken halves on top, bring up to a simmer.
  6. Cook for about 20 minutes until onion puree thickens.
  7. Add water to half cover (about 3 cups).
    [NOTE: I assume the pot they were using was narrower than the one i was using. Fully covering the chicken with water would have been, in my opinion, way too much water - which was the problem Cariadoc and Elizabeth had the one time they cooked this recipe - it came out too watery]
  8. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and partly cover pot.
  9. Cook an additional 45 minutes.

as soon as pan of chicken is covered...
Make the Meat Balls

  1. Cut breast meat in large chunks
  2. Put meat in the food processor, and grind fine.
    [NOTE: I did the meat in the food processor because pounded meat would have a finer texture than ground meat]
  3. Put pureed meat in a bowl, and mix with murri, sesame oil (or olive oil), cumin, coriander, cinnamon.
    [NOTE: I based the meatballs on various other meatball recipes in same cookbook.]

Continue cooking

  1. Periodically turn chicken in pot, to keep it covered with liquid, stirring sauce so it doesn't burn.
  2. Occasionally wiggle joints. When they feel loose, test chicken meat for doneness by piercing a meaty, fleshy spot with a small sharp knife. It's done when the juice from piercing the chicken is clear - not strongly pink.

  3. At this point, form the chicken breast puree into meat balls using less than a tablespoon of meat for each one.
  4. Carefully place meatballs in pot around the chicken. I did this one or two at a time, as i made them.
  5. Cook about 10-15 minutes until done, gently stirring occasionally.

  6. While the meatballs are cooking with the chicken, separate the eggs, putting the whites into a bowl.
  7. Keeping the yolks whole, i left each yolk in its half shell, and left the half shells in their egg carton until i needed them.

  8. Combine whites in a medium sized bowl.
  9. Grind saffron to powder with a pestle in a small mortar (little white ceramic ones work well)
  10. Mix saffron into egg whites.
  11. I rinsed the mortar with a tiny amount of water to get out all the saffron and added it to egg whites
  12. Add ground walnuts to the egg whites.
  13. Beat egg white-walnut mix until well blended.

  14. Slip the egg yolks one at a time into the pot around the chicken - do this gently so as not to break the yolks.
  15. Cover pot slightly and let cook about 5 minutes.

  16. Remove lid and pour walnut mix over the top of the chicken and yolks.
  17. Put the lid on the pot and let cook for another 5 minutes.

  18. Remove pot from fire.
  19. Do NOT transfer to a serving dish, so as not to disturb all the various layers. Serve right in the cooking pot with a little cinnamon and pepper sprinkled on top.

Bread was eaten more often than rice, although rice was grown in the Iberian Peninsula in Arab-controled areas. If you can find Moroccan bread, try that. If not, a dense artisanal bread (a boule) would be good. Or eat it with rice, or even couscous, if you prefer.

Back to The Dining Niche

Back to The Dar Anahita Directory

Comments? Questions?