Lenten Food from 14th C. Cairo

Several folks on the SCA-Cooks list decided to make and eat Medieval Lenten food for about a week before Easter 2005 and i decided to join in. I was going to adapt dishes from surviving Muslim Arabic language cookbooks. While looking for recipes, however, i discovered a section of The Book of the Description of Familiar Food on what monks and Christians eat in Lent!

Kitab Wasf al-At'ima al-Mu'tada (The Book of the Description of Familiar Food) exists in two copies. One is from the late 17th or early 18th century. The other is from the 14th century and has a colophon saying it was completed in Cairo on 13 Jumada II, AH 775 / 30 November 1373 CE.

The book contains 420 recipes. 160 recipes are from an expanded version of al-Baghdadi's cookbook - which has 67 recipes more than the original. The other 260 recipes apparently come from a variety of other sources, judging by the different writing styles.

The section of the book with Lenten recipes (pp. 443-450, Medieval Arab Cookery) begins: "There follows what sick people eat, and monks, and Christians during Lent, from the book by Ibn 'Abdun. [His] Chapter 14..."

This section has 19 vegetarian recipes, plus 4 paragraphs with cooking hints and suggestions. Some of the recipes specify for which disease they are intended. The paragraph that begins the specifically Lenten recipes says "Whenever dishes are cooked with meat, similar dishes are cooked with vegetables without meat." (p. 446) This suggests that my original idea would also have been historically suitable.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
The Book of the Description of Familiar Food
Translated and with an introduction by Charles Perry
Pages 273-465
in Medieval Arab Cookery
Prospect Books
Totnes, Devon, UK: 2001

All original translations used below copyright Charles Perry


Here are some of the dishes i made during that week. I did not keep complete track of the amounts of ingredients i used in all cases. Two i entered in the March Crown Wooden Spoon (our kingdom cooking competition) - in this case, the theme was Food for Lent: the Maghmuma and the Cabbage, served with plain white rice (roz filfil). I won the competition, tying with Master Wulfric of Creigull who made marzipan "Bacon".

Recipes

Cooking Hints




Recipes


Maghmuma

Original
p. 447

As for Maghmuma
you fill a pot with a layer of onions, and a layer of carrots, and [a layer of] favas, and [a layer of] peeled eggplants cut in rounds, and in this fashion up to two-thirds of the pot. Sprinkle coriander and caraway on each layer. Throw on two parts good vinegar and one part murri (soy sauce), [enough] to cover, and boil until nearly done. Throw on a good amount of green olive oil and sesame oil, and cover with a thin flat bread and leave on the coals until it settles. This is the salty variety of it.

My Version

2 small onions, cut in half, then sliced in half-rounds
1 bunch tiny white carrots, sliced in rounds
about 16 pods fresh fava beans - removed beans from pods and peel
2 small long thin eggplants, peeled and cut in rounds
1 Tb. ground coriander seed
1-1/2 tsp. ground toasted caraway seeds
2 cups white wine vinegar
1 cup water
1-1/2 cups Japanese soy sauce, for murri
1/2 cup green olive oil
1/2 cup unroasted sesame oil
part of a Sangak, a Persian flat bread
  1. Prepare vegetables.
  2. Layer onions, then carrots, then favas, then eggplants.
  3. Sprinkle coriander and caraway on each layer.
  4. Repeat until the pot is two-thirds full. This made only two layers of each ingredient.
  5. Add enough vinegar and murri (soy sauce) to cover.
  6. Bring to a boil and cook until nearly done.
  7. Add a good amount of green olive oil and sesame oil.
  8. Cover with a thin flat bread and leave until it settles - let bread be well-moistened by sauce.
  9. Eat the bread with the vegetables.

NOTES:

  1. For reasons why i use and recommend Japanese soy sauce as a replacement for murri, see end notes.
  2. The white carrots were rather bitter. Also, there were not enough in a bunch and that little bunch was expensive. If doing this again, i'd use a larger amount of regular orange carrots or a mix of carrots and parsnips.
  3. I used less vinegar than the original stipulates because the dish would have been far too acidic (and i like sour food), i substituted one cup of water for one cup of vinegar. Even so, when i entered this dish in a cooking competition, one judge thought it was too vinegary.

    Some people studying Medieval food think that vinegar may often have been somewhere between wine and modern vinegar. This is because they have documented the use of a wooden keg for vinegar into which waste wine was thrown, so that the contents were constantly changing in acidity. I don't know if they mixed red and white - i would guess they did. While this is not a subject i have studied in depth myself, this recipe might be worth trying with 1-1/2 cups white wine vinegar and 1-1/2 cups sweet white wine to see how it tastes.



How to Flavor Cabbage

Original
p. 445

Take walnuts, blanched almonds, toasted hazelnuts. Pound everything, then take caraway, which you toast and pound fine, and with it a little thyme and garlic seed. Then you perfume the cabbage with good oil. Then you take a little bit of vinegar, dissolve the walnuts and ingredients with it. Then you throw on a sufficiency of tahineh and let there be a little Syrian cheese with it. Add the spices to them and arrange them and then [you throw the rest of the ingredients on the bowl. Then ] throw in the first spice, enough to perfume their taste and aroma. It is not eaten until the next day.

My Version

1/3 cup walnuts
1/3 cup blanched almonds
1/3 cup toasted hazelnuts
1 tsp. toasted caraway seeds, pounded fine
1/2 tsp. garlic seed (nigella)
1 heaping tsp. fresh thyme
1/2 medium-small cabbage
3 TB. unroasted sesame oil
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
2 TB tahineh
a little Syrian cheese - omitted for Lent - used 1/2 tsp. salt
the first spice (i'm not sure what this is?)
  1. Blanch almonds: put into boiling water, bring back to a boil, turn off fire; let cool a little, pour out hot water, run in some cold water, pour out water; squeeze nuts out of skins. Discard skins.
  2. Toast hazelnuts in a pre-heated 350 degree F. oven for about 15 min. Cool slightly. Rub between hands to remove skins. Nuts don't need to be completely, perfectly free of skins.
  3. Grind walnuts, blanched almonds, and toasted hazelnuts. I left them medium-coarse, because i like the texture. I'm not sure how finely ground they would have been in 14th c. Cairo.
  4. Toast caraway seeds and grind, grind nigella. Mix both with a little thyme.
  5. Shred cabbage medium-fine.
  6. "Perfume the cabbage with good oil." This is unclear. My interpretation was to cook the cabbage in the oil until just tender.
  7. Mix together the nuts and spices in a little bit of vinegar.
  8. Stir tahineh and a little Syrian cheese into vinegar. Since i didn't use the cheese, because this was for Lent, i added about 1/2 tsp. salt.
  9. Toss the sauce together with the cabbage in a bowl.
  10. Eat it the next day.



Tharida

Original
P. 445-6

As for Thurda
Boil peeled fava beans with a little salt until they are done. Cut up the tharid (crumbled bread) and throw cumin and sumac leaves (?) on it and lemon juice, walnuts, and sour whey or yogurt, or clarified butter, or olive oil and sesame oil, and soak it with the fava bean water and serve.

My Version

1-16 ounce can of fava beans
a little salt, to taste
1 small artisanal sandwich bun
1/2 tsp. ground cumin seed, or to taste
2 tsp. powdered sumac, or to taste [from Middle Eastern market]
lemon juice from one lemon
1/2 cup broken walnut halves
3 tablespoon green olive oil
3 tablespoon unroasted sesame oil
  1. Drain fava beans, saving canning liquid.
  2. Heat beans on a medium-low fire with a little salt until they are warm.
  3. While they are heating, tear up a small bun for the tharid.
  4. To the beans, add cumin, sumac, lemon juice, walnuts, and olive oil and sesame oil. Stir well.
  5. Add torn bread.
  6. Moisten with the reserved fava bean water and stir well.
  7. Warm through.
  8. Serve warm.
NOTES:
  1. Can also be made with fresh fava beans
  2. I didn't use sour whey, yogurt, or butter because this was for Lent.



Another Barida

Original
P. 444

Boil broad beans, they being covered in water, and put them on a platter. Pour sweetened mustard on them, and vinegar, and washed raisins in equal parts. Sprinkle with pounded almonds and rue leaves cut up with celery leaves, God the Most High willing.

My Version

2 TB. soaked dried currants
fresh or canned fava beans
water to cover, if using fresh beans
2 TB. prepared stone-ground mustard
honey or sugar to taste
2 TB. wine vinegar
ground almonds
rue leaves (optional - i didn't use them)
chopped or torn celery leaves
  1. Put currants in a small bowl and just cover with warm water. Leave to soak while preparing other ingredients.
  2. Prepare fresh favas, if using. If using canned, drain them.
  3. Put beans in a serving dish.
  4. Mix together mustard, honey or sugar, vinegar, and currants.
  5. Pour over beans.
  6. Sprinkle with ground almonds and chopped leaves, and serve.

NOTES:

  1. Broad beans in the Medieval context are fava beans.
  2. I chose to use dried currants because:
    (a) being small they will be better distributed in the dish
    (b) since they are actually dried Corinth grapes, which are tiny grapes occasionally sold fresh here in California, and therefore a type of raisin, this does not "violate" the recipe.
  3. A Barida is a "cold" dish, served at room temperature.
  4. While not historically accurate, sherry vinegar would taste good in this dish.
  5. Raw rue leaves can cause contact dermititis in some people, i.e., people get a rash or even small blisters where they have touched rue leaves. Once cooked the leaves do not cause this problem. Large quantities of rue may pose a danger of miscarriage to pregnant women.



Cooking Hints


Preparing Fresh Fava Beans

  1. Remove beans from pods, discarding pods.
  2. Bring enough water to cover beans and a little salt to a boil in a saucepan.
  3. Boil until beans are tender, about 10-15 minutes.
  4. Drain beans. Save cooking water.
  5. Cool beans until cool enough to handle.
  6. Peel beans - skins are a bit tough. Discard skins.

Toasting Caraway Seeds

  1. Put caraway seeds into a dry (clean and unoiled) frying pan. A cast-iron skillet is good.
  2. Turn fire to medium.
  3. Stir seeds constantly just until color darkens and seeds become fragrant.
  4. If seeds start popping, they are done or perhaps a bit too done.
  5. Allow to cool before grinding or adding to dish.

Unroasted Sesame Oil

NEVER NEVER use the dark roasted sesame oil found in the Asian food aisle of the supermarket in Middle Eastern food.
The appropriate oil is from unroasted sesame seeds and is a medium-light yellow in color.
The best is the kind found in "natural food" or "health food" store. The brand i use is Spectrum, but if there are other brands, give them a try.

I have purchased a couple different brands of sesame oil from Middle Eastern and halal markets and i have found them bitter and not as fresh tasting as the Spectrum sesame oil. Oil extraction technology has changed enormously since the Middle Ages and the method used will have an effect on the flavor of the oil.


Murri Notes

I used soy sauce for two reasons:

  1. First, noted food scholar and LA Times columnist, Charles Perry actually made murri from scratch, beginning with moist barley "loaves", and in the end said it tasted rather like soy sauce. He documented this in his column in the LA Times in 1998.
  2. Second, in going through two 13th century cookbooks, The Book of Dishes by al-Baghdadi and the anonymous Andalusian Cookbook, a number of recipes specifically said not to use fake murri. The recipe that Duke Cariadoc has made, Byzantine murri, is fake murri. While i have used Byzantine murri in some recipes, i decided to try soy sauce this time.

I found all the information below at:
http://www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD-CONDIMENTS/murri-msg.html

--- HERE BEGIN QUOTES FROM THE FLORILEGIUM ---

I.

Charles Perry's columns documenting his process of making murri from scratch were published in the LA Times as:
----- What Rot! - January 14, 1998 (89 words)
----- Still Rotting... - February 18, 1998 (169 words)
----- O. K., It's Rotted, Is It Safe? - April 1, 1998 (228 words)
----- Rot of Ages: A medieval rotted sauce lives again - April 1, 1998 (1411 words)

II.

Date: Wed, 25 Mar 1998 13:01:14 -0800
From: david friedman
Subject: SC - Murri: Late Breaking News

I just spoke on the phone to Charles Perry, who translated _Manuscrito Anonimo_ and Ibn al Mubarad and knows more about medieval Islamic cooking than anyone else I know. He has made murri and will describe the process in an article in this weekend's L.A. Times (he's a food editor there).

He says it is similar, both in taste and chemical composition, to soy sauce! Of course, it does not contain any soy beans--but apparently the cheaper grades of soy sauce, although they have some soy beans, are based in part on grains, as is murri. He no longer believes that it is sufficiently carcinogenic to be a problem--a conjecture he once offered to explain its disappearance.

<SNIP>

III.

Date: Sun, 5 Apr 1998 08:59:54 -1000
From: Paul Buell
To: "MEDIEV-L at raven.cc.ukans.edu"
Subject: Arabic Rotten Condiments

Food historian Gene Anderson was good enough to sent this news to me and I thought it might be of interest to the list. Perry, the acknowledged expert in Medieval Arabic and Turkic foods, is food critic for the Los Angeles Times. This is not the first rotted condiment he has re-created. He did bunn several years ago, and some others. I don't know if Anderson's party guests survived.

<SNIP>

- --Charles Perry re-created murri, the rotted barley paste condiment of medieval Arabia. He followed the most likely recipe but tried out 2 others (which proved abortive). Barley meal, made into wet lumps, covered with fig leaves, left in warm place for 4 months (there are some other manipulations). The LATimes staff gave names to each lump--"Whiskers," "Spot," etc.--according to the moldiness. Anyway, the 4 months were up March 28, and they tried it out. The murri is to be mushed up in water. So they did:

"...and it tasted like...

Soy sauce."

Turns out that murri is basically a koji, and the resulting sauce is essentially just ordinary soy sauce. So he wrote it up in the LA T[imes] Food Section, and gave a recipe for a dish with it--you can, of course, use soy sauce if you don't want to let barley rot for 4 months in your kitchen. I'm gonna try it for a party tomorrow.

Gene Anderson

--- HERE END THE QUOTES FROM THE FLORILEGIUM ---




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Begun 07 May 2005, finished 20 December 2005, updated 19 December 2006