I am in no way an expert on the cuisine of the medieval Middle East, but two good friwends of mine who have hosted several of my feasts in the past both have SCA personas from that region, so we decided that this year, we would try a feast to fit them. I picked recipes from two sources: The twelfth-century recipe book of Al Baghdadi translated by A.J. Arberry and the fourteenth-century Description of Familiar Foods translated by Charles Perry (both found in the 2001 essay collection Medieval Arab Cookery by Prospect Books).
Both sources have their problems, and especially the Arberry Baghdadi has issues that were adressed by Charles Perry in a later translation. Unfortunately, did not have that on hand at the moment. This is what we made:
Tuffahiya (lamb and chicken cooked with mashed apple)
Take fat meat and cut into small strips: throw into the saucepan with a little salt and dry coriander, and boil until almost cooked. Remove and throw away the scum. Cut up onions small and throw in, with cinnamon-bark, peeper, mastic, and ginger ground fine and a few sprigs of mint. Take sour apples, remove the pips and pound in a stone mortar, squeezing out the juice. Put it on top of the meat. Peel almonds and soak in water, then throw in. Kindle the fire under it until the whole is done.: then leave over the fire to settle. If desired, add a chicken, cutting it into quarters, and letting it cook with the meat. Then remove.
(al Baghdadi, p. 44)
This was one of my favourite recipes last time I tried Middle Eastern recipes. I cook it for a long time and the acid and sugars in the apples create a lovely aroma on the very tender meat. We chopped the chicken meat rather than add entire quarters to make portioning easier.
Dikbarika (lamb with leeks and chickpeas)
Cut the meat into middling pieces and leave it in the saucepan, throwing in a little salt, a handful of peeled chickpeas, dry and green coriander, sliced onions and leeks; cover with water and boil. Remove the froth. Now add wine-vinegar and murri with a little pepper brayed fine, and cook until the flavour is distinct. Some sweeten with a little sugar. When cooked, throw in a little blattes de Bysance and leave to settle over the fire. Then remove.
(al Baghdadi, p. 42)
This recipe shows some of the problems with Arberry’s interpretation. The ‘blattes de Bysance’ (a perfume ingredient today) are very likely a mistranslation and the original means a spice mix. Murri, on the other hand, is a well known fermented sauce related to soy sauce, though made from wheat. I substitute modern soy sauce since I have never been able to find any murri. I also cook this for a long time to make the onion and leet fall apart into a rich sauce. That may or may not have been the original intent.
Buran (meatballs in eggplant sauce)
Take eggplant and boil lightly in water and salt, then take out and dry for an hour. Fry this in fresh sesame oil until cooked: peel, put into a dish or a large cup, and beat well with a ladle, until it becomes like kabis. Add a little salt and dry coriander. Take some Persian milk, mix in garlic, pour over the eggplant, and mix together well. Take red meat, mince fine, make into small cabobs, and melting fresh tail, throw the meat into it, stirring until browned. Then cover with water, and stew until the water has evaporated and only the oils remain. Pour on top of this the eggplant, sprinkle with fine-ground cumin and cinnamon, and serve.
(al Baghdadi, p. 59)
This was excellent. Modern eggplants do not really need parboiling (it is done to draw out the bitterness). I am fairly sure spices were involved at some stage with the meatballs, but they can be perfectly well made without. The ‘tail’ used for frying refers to the tail fat of local sheep.
Maghuma (spicy baked meat)
Take nice fat meat, cut it up into thin pieces and clean it of gristle and glands and wash it exceedingly well. Sprinkle coriander, pepper, mastic, Chinese cinnamon and fineoly milled ginger on it, as needed. Put it in a new earthenware pot which water has not touched, and cover its top with a lid of stiff dough and send it to the bread oven on a moderate fire. The sign that it is done is the doneness of that dough when it is done and it [viz. The dough] has toasted, take it out. Put that meat in a dish and it is eaten. If you like, sprinkle some juices on it, such as lemon, vinegar, verjuice and soy sauce, let it be when it is taken out of the pot. If you like to eat it plain, eat it plain.
(Description, p. 371)
Similar dishes for meat baked with spices survive in the German tradition, and these are best when baked slowly in a tightly closed container so they steam or stew in their own juices. It worked very well in this case – the lamb came out meltingly tender, and the slight sour tang rounded it out beautifully.
Samaq maqlu (stuffed fish fillets)
Take fresh fish, cut open, and wash well, then cut into medium-sized pieces. Chop up garlic, thyme and the usual seasonings, and with this stuff the fish, folding the pieces over the stuffing. Colour with saffron, and fry in sesame oil. When cooked, remove from the frying pan and put into old murri. Some also stuff with the stuffing used in samaq mushwa as described above.
Stuffing: (…) Take sumach, grind fine, and throw out the seeds: take half this quantity of dry thyme, and also grind, together with a quarter as much garlic, skinned and chopped fine. Now take half the total quantity of walnuts, and chop: mix all together, adding a little fine-brayed coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and mastic. (…)
(al Baghdadi, p. 74)
The stuffing is actually intended for entire fish, but fillets are more easily obtained and many more squeamish people will eat them, but would not touch whole fish.
Roast chicken and banana judhab
Take bananas that are fully ripe. Peel them and immerse them in fine samid sour dough, kneaded as for pancakes. Then take them up and leave on something woven. Boil sesame oil fry the bananas, take them out and throw them in syrup. Take them up and throw them in pounded sugar, then arrange them in a tray with thin flat breads above and below. Hang fat chicken above it.
(Description, p. 411)
Judhab is a class of sweet dishes that are cooked in trays suspended under roasting chickens, with the fat and juices dripping in to flavour them. This attempt was proof of concept, and it worked satisfactorily.
I am not at all sure what kind of bananas are referenced here, but given they are fiorst fried and them cooked, we went with plaintains. they turned out reasonably soft, but sweet bananas might equally have worked. The bread above and below was wheat flatbread, though I suppose yufka dough might actually be the better choice.
Baqilla mukhallal (pickled beans)
Take fava beans near the time of cutting and remove their outer hull. Then boil them in water with a little salt until done. Then take them out and dry them off and sprinkle them with a little finely milled caraway. Take a little sesame oil and refine it with cumin seeds or throw a little Chinese cinnamon on it. Then throw vinegar to cover on them, and they are taken up, God the Most High willing.
(Description, p. 405)
These turned out quite satisfying, though I made far too many. They are eaten as a relish, not a vegetable side.
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, 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 soy sauce to cover, and boil until nearly done. Throw on a good amount of green olive oil and sesame oil, and cover with a thin flatbread, and leave on the coals until it settles. This is the salty variety of it.
(Description, p. 447)
This was a lovely dish, with the vegetables basically slow-steamed to unctuous softness. It went with everything reasonably well, though it has a strong individual character and does not gladly play second fiddle.
Shiraz bi-buqul (herb mustard dip)
This is an excellent relish which which both awakens and stimulates the appetite. Take mint, celery and vegetable leek: strip the leaves off the celery and mint, chop all fine with a knife, then pound in the mortar. Mix well with dried curds, and sprinkle with salt to taste and fine-ground mustard. Garnish with coarse-chopped walnuts, and serve. If dried curds are not available, use instead coagulated milk from which the water has been strained, mix with a little sour milk, and serve.
(al-Baghdadi, p. 78)
The interpretation as a dip hinges on how thick the curds you use are. If you go with something like quark or cottage cheese, as we did, you get a sauce. Thicker, drier curds would produce a spreadable paste or a crumble. The flavour combination is very pleasant, reminiscent of Pseudo-Virgilius’ moretum.
And that was the feast we had. All served with a dish of rice and lentils and a side of fresh flatbreads, and everybody enjoyed something. Even the young children of our Ukrainian guests, not usually adventurous eaters, liked the chicken, flatbread and rice.
Happy Easter, everyone.