Dar Anahita Presents

The Fragrant 13th Century Spice Box of al-Baghdadi

Curious, i decided to count all the spices, herbs, and other seasonings and flavorings used in the Kitab al-Tabikh written by al-Bahdadi and dating from the 13th century. I used the edition printed in Medieval Arab Cookery, translated into English by A.J. Arberry, with additional notes and updates by Charles Perry. This took some time, and i have a lacuna here and there. Nonetheless, here are the basics, as they currently stand.

I counted the seasonings in all the recipes in chapters 1 through 7. There were 112 recipes. I also counted the 37 recipes in chapters 8 (khabis), 9 (halwa), and 10 (qata'if and khusknânaj), but these are all sweets and thus heavy on saffron, rosewater, sugar, almonds, other nuts, and dates, so i didn't include them in the totals. Interestingly, cinnamon does NOT show up in the sweets, unlike modern American culture. Instead the sweets are flavored with rosewater, saffron, various nuts, and to a far lesser extent camphor, musk, and nard.

Almost half the spices are locally grown: coriander, cumin, sumac, nigella, mustard, caraway, anise, fennel are indigenous to the Eastern Mediterranean. The herbs and allia (plants in the onion family, which includes garlic) are all local. There is limited production of mastic, which is the resin from a tree related to the pistachio. This particular species grows only in a very limited geographical region. Most, if not all, commercially sold today comes from the island of Chios in the Eastern Mediterranean. I don't know if saffron was locally grown - it came to Mesopotamia from Persia, so even if imported, it wouldn't be a long trip, unlike cinnamon and peppercorns, which came from or through India.

I was surprised that cloves and cardamom were so rarely used. At this time cloves grew only on one island in the Indonesian archipelago, which could explain its rarity. But various forms of cardamom grow in South and Southeast Asia, so it would seem that they wouldn't be harder to get than cinnamon.

What I Counted
Sweetening AgentsSouring Agents
Nuts & SeedsOther

I also counted the spices in the 13th century Anonymous Maghribi and Andalusi Cookbook. It has a number of differences from the Baghdadi spicebox, as it includes basil and lavender flowers, and the proportions of spices differs.

Number of
Percent of
total recipes
Comments Botanical Name
Coriander seeds9187% Coriandrum sativum L.
Cinnamon8778%There are two kinds.
See Note Below
(1.) True or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
(2.) cassia or Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia)
sometimes replaced with Cinnamomum burmannii (Indonesian cinnamon) or Cinnamomum loureirii (Vietnamese cinnamon)
Cumin seeds6861% Cuminum cyminum
Gum Mastic5045% Pistacia lentiscus var. chia
Pepper corns4641%black or white not specified, i assume blackPiper nigrum
Saffron3430% Crocus sativus
Ginger2321% Zingiber officinale
Sumac1110% (9.8%)Rhus coriaria
"the usual seasonings"1110%Based on the analysis here, i would assume them to be coriander, cinnamon, cumin, and pepper.
atraf al-tib87%a complex spice blend for which there is a recipe, but without proportions, alas. This is the ingredient *mistranslated* by Arberry as "blattes de Byzance" which means "Byzantine cockroaches" or "perfumed nails" which could be "shell operculum" in the Cookbook written by al-Baghdadi. See Note Below for actual recipe.
Nigella44% (3.6%)Nigella sativa
Mustard44% (3.6%)

1. White Mustard: Sinapis alba / Brassica hirta (the seeds are actually yellow to light brown)
White mustard originated in the Mediterranean region, but various cultivars are grown in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

2. Black Mustard: Brassica nigra
Black mustard is endemic in the Southern Mediterranean region, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years.

3. Brown mustard:
a. Romanian Brown Mustard or Sarepta mustard (Brassica juncea) from Eastern Europe
b. Indian Brown Mustard (Brassica integrifolia or Brassica juncea, a fertile hybrid from Brassica nigra and Brassica campestris) from India and Central Asia

Which mustard would al-Baghdadi have used?

Andrew Dalby in Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices speaks only of White Mustard. According to him, it was known in Greece 4000 years ago and was taken to India and China, where it was planted, even though there were indigenous mustards in those regions.

According to Gernot Katzer's web site, of the three species, black, Romanian brown, and Indian brown, the last is probably most commonly sold in the West (in the late 20th and early 21st centuries). He goes on to say: "Although the pungency of black mustard is slightly stronger than that of brown mustard, black mustard is hardly planted in Europe anymore, and brown mustard is the dominating quality on the European market. The reason is that brown mustard, unlike black mustard, can be harvested by machines which make production much cheaper in countries where working force is expensive."

I am not sure, but it seems like it could have been 1, 2, or 3b.

Caraway seeds33% (2.7%)Carum carvi
Cloves22% (1.8%)Syzyium aromaticum
Anise seeds11% (0.89%)Pimpinella anisum
Asafoetida, "leaves" of11%This may mean "flakes", since this is one form in which asafoetida gum is sold, or it may actually mean leaves of this plant.Ferula assa-foetida
Edible Camphor11%Do NOT, under any circumstances, use chemical camphor. It is very toxic/poisonous!Edible camphor is steam distilled from Dryobalanops aromatica or Cinnamomum camphora, Lauraceae, and can sometimes be found in South Asian shops.
Cardamom11% Elettaria cardamomum
Musk11% (an animal product)
Order: Artiodactyla * Suborder: Ruminantia * Family: Moschidae
NOTE: Which kind of cinnamon was unclear. There are multiple kinds, most commonly, True or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), which is made of thin quills, complexly layered, amazingly fragrant and wonderfully flavored, and cassia or Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), which is what most Americans think is cinnamon, dark, thick, single layered quills with a simpler, coarser flavor. And there are two words for cinnamon in Arabic, dar sini, and qurfi/qirfa. In reading Arabic language and books about spices it seems that they get confused.

NOTE: Atraf al-tib contains twelve ingredients. Which they are depends in part on the translator, in Medieval Arab Cookery, Maxime Rodinson (p. 132) or Charles Perry (p. 21), and in Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens by Nawal Nasrallah, pp. 643-644 (listed as afwâh al-tîb). Nine are the same, but they differ on the last three.
  1. Betel leaves (not the nut) (Piper betle) (tanbûl)
  2. Green cardamom (hâl)
  3. Cloves (kibâsh qaranful)
  4. Ginger (zanjabîl)
  5. Long pepper (Piper longum) (dâr fulful)
  6. Black pepper (fulful)
  7. Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) (jauz al-tîb)
  8. Mace (Myristica fragrans) (bisbâsa)
  9. Bay laurel leaves (Laurus nobilis) (warq rand)
  10. Rose buds (zir ward)
  11. Spikenard (Bot.: Nardostachys jatamansi) (sunbul)
  12. (lisân al-‘asâfîr) - elm tree seeds (Nasrallah) - common ash (Perry) - on this ingredient i am not certain which.
    I wondered if it might not be one of the many Zanthoxylum spp. Examples include, but are not limited to, Szechuan pepper, Japanese shansho, and North Sumatran andaliman. Varieties grow in India, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, the Philipines, China, Korea, and Japan. The leaves are said to look rather like those of the ash tree.

Unfortunately, the one book that lists ingredients, the 'Abbasid Kitab Wusla ila al-Habib, gives no proportions.

Atraf al-tib seems to me to be something of an early analog of Moroccan Ras al-Hanout.

Number of
Percent of
total recipes
CommentsBotanical Name
mint 26 23% fresh, or dried, or bothMentha spicata
Cilantro/green coriander 12 11%(10.7)Coriandrum sativum L.
Celery leaves 8 7% Apium graveolens
Dill weed, fresh or dried 8 7% Anethum graveolens
Thyme/ saatar/ zaatar, dried 3 3%Zaatar is generally an herb related to thyme and marjoram. However, it is not just one specific herb used consistently in all places. Rather, there are many different but related local variations. One is Origanum syriaca. I use a blend of thyme and marjoram.
Citron leaves 1 1% Just from the Citron tree, or from some other citrus tree, or from any citrus tree?
Fennel stalks1 1% Foeniculum vulgare
"aromatic herbs" 4 4%Which, i'm not sure. I would assume cilantro, at least, and one or two others...
Number of
Percent of
total recipes
Onions 39 35%  
Garlic 21 19%(18.75) 
Leeks 6 5%  
Nabatean leeks 3 3%(2.7) 
vegetable leeks 2   
Syrian leeks 1   
I do not know the differences among the various kinds of leeks. A wide variety of leeks, onions, and other allia about which scholars are uncertain even shows up in the ancient clay cooking tablets found in Iraq dating to BCE (translated by Jean Bottero in Textes Culinaires Mesopotamiens published by Eisenbraun's).
Number of
Percent of
total recipes
MURRI1211%old murri was specified once 
Charles Perry brewed murri from scratch, starting with the moist barley "loaves" innoculated with the appropriate molds (somewhat like making cheese). He said it was like making koji, the basis for soy sauce, and in fact the finished murri tasted a lot like soy sauce. For some details, see the article MURRI in Stefan's Florilegium.

It has been suggested (by Master Adamantius, IIRC) that the kind of soy sauce made with more grain than soy beans might be a good substitute for barley-based murri. I wonder if diluted barley miso (another Japanese product) might also be a possibility.

Number of
rosewater 34  
rose petals 1Rosa damascena 
Number of
CommentsBotanical Name
Almonds 21 Prunus dulcis
Walnuts 13 Juglans regia
Sesame seeds 9of which peeled = 3 and meal = 2Sesamum indicum
Pistachios 4 Pistacia vera
Hazelnuts 1 Corylus avellana
Poppy seeds 1 Papaver somniferum
Hemp seeds 1 Cannabis sativa
Note there are NO pine nuts in the savory recipes and there are NONE in the sweets chapters, either
Number of
Sugar 13 of which scented sugar = 1 
Honey 4 
Grape juice from sweet old grapes 3 
(sugar) Syrup 3 
Date juice 1 
Date honey 1possibly dibbs 
TOTAL SWEET 25of which 52% sugar and 16% honey 
Number of
CommentsBotanical Name
Vinegar 34of which wine vinegar = 10; good vinegar = 6; distilled vinegar = 1; sour vinegar = 1

I don't know if it was made of red or white wine.

Lemon juice 18Citrus limon
Sumac 11 of which sumac juice = 5Rhus coriaria
Pomegranate 6of which sour pomegranate = 4Punica granatum
Grape juice, sour 4 
Lemon, salted 3 
Orange, Seville or bitter 2Citrus sinensis
Apple juice, sour 2Malus spp.
Citron 1Citrus medica
Rhubarb 1Rheum rhabarbarum
Quince 1 Cydonia oblongata
TOTAL SOUR 83of which 41% vinegar - 22% lemon juice - 13% sumac 

Conclusion - The Basic Baghdadi Spice Box

Soooo, i suggest that the basic spice box needs the items used in 10% or more of the recipes in al-Baghdadi's cookbook:

Basic Spices:

  • 9 parts - Coriander seeds
  • 8 parts - Cinnamon
  • 6 parts - Cumin
  • 5 parts - Gum mastic
  • 4 parts - Peppercorns
  • 3 parts - Saffron
  • 2 parts - Ginger
  • 1 part   - Sumac
  • 1 part   - Atraf al-Tib
Based on the analysis above, i would assume "the usual seasonings" would be coriander, cinnamon, cumin, and pepper, so i'd up the quantity of each by 1 part.

Fresh herbs:

  • 2 parts - Mint (or dried)
  • 1 part   - fresh Cilantro

a small bottle of Murri

Charles Perry brewed murri from scratch, starting with the "rotted" barley, and said it tasted a lot like soy sauce. So perhaps a light soy sauce or a liquid made from barley miso would be similar.

2 parts - Garlic

It should be fresh, but for camping, you could use dried or already pureed, if you prefer.

Other useful ingredients include:

  • White Sugar
  • Wine Vinegar (i prefer white wine vinegar, but red is ok where it negatively won't affect the color of the finished dish)
  • Lemon Juice


Sample the Spicebox of Andalusia

Compare the Spiceboxes of al-Baghdadi and Andalusia

the doorway

Step through the doorway back to the Front Hall Directory to Dar Anahita
Or go back to al-Iwan, the Dining Niche

Questions? Comments? Corrections?

updated 25 February 2011