Scherezade’s Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World

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By: Habeeb Salloum
Muna Salloum
Leila Salloum Elias

Scherezade’s Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 218 pp.$34.95. ISBN: 978-0812244779.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Anne Meneley, PhD

Trent University

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Difficult to classify, Scheherazade’s Feasts is part history, part cookbook, part conveyor of dozens of interesting tidbits of the medieval Arab world. Its focus is on the food of the elite, the ruling Caliphs of various medieval Arab dynasties, emanating from four principal centers: Baghdad and Aleppo under the Abbasids, Cairo under the Fatimids, Cordoba under the Ummayads, and Andalusia. Habeeb Salloum, one of the co-authors, along with Muna Salloum and Leila Salloum Elias, is described in the acknowledgements as being a “beacon of light in a world dim with the knowledge of the Arab past and their achievements” (p. 217).

Throughout the book, the cosmopolitanism of medieval Arab cookery is in evidence: The authors note the breadth of the food trading networks that supplied various foodstuffs to Baghdad’s markets from, among other places, Syria, Yemen, Isfahan, Egypt, Oman and Aleppo. In the Treasure of the Benefits in Varieties of the Dining Table, the unknown author displays a keen interest in the food ways, not only of Syria, Baghdad, Al-Maghrib (North Africa), but also those of Turkey, Nubia, Georgia and Greece, and places beyond (p. 12). The authors highlight the achievements of the medieval Arabs in the realm of agriculture. As they note, the Andalusian Arabs transformed rural Iberia with new irrigation techniques and abundant, diverse crops which eventually shaping the cuisine of the rest of Europe (p. 4). For example, they introduced spinach, isfanakh, to Spain, where it became known as espinaca, and from there, spinach as a material food item– along with versions of its Arabic name–spread to the rest of Europe. Umayyad caliph Hisham realized that the way in which olives were harvested affected their taste, so he admonished those who shook their trees instead of harvesting olives by hand (p. 15). In this, he anticipated the concerns of modern day producers of extra-virgin olive oil, who argue that high quality oil cannot be produced with harsh harvesting methods.

The cosmopolitanism of this time, and the degree to which food items, agricultural practices, and preparation and consumption practices spread and were transformed as they travelled, contrasts with the anti-cosmopolitan and a-historical discourses about food practices in contemporary times. Emphasis on “local” foods erases the history of origins; and diffusions of foodstuffs, and national discourses, as embodied in cookbooks, attempt to “fix” food in time, ignoring the relative recent emergence of the nation state itself. Foods such as hummus, which, as this book indicates, were widely enjoyed throughout the medieval Arab world, get dragged into territorial disputes as Israelis claim hummus as a national dish, a point hotly contested by both the Palestinians and the Lebanese. UNESCO has fanned the flames of long standing ethnic disputes by naming harissa a Turkish national dish, an act that enraged the Armenians who also claim it as their dish. UNESCO has declared “the Mediterranean Diet” an “intangible cultural relic” in contrast to the openness and fluidity in the medieval period when foodstuffs and practices flowed to and from the “Mediterranean” region.

One of the more interesting aspects of the text is the emphasis on how individuals in the medieval Arab world perceived the healthful qualities or dangers of food. In contemporary North American cuisine, our perceptions of the benefits and dangers of food are influenced by biomedical scientific studies which consider non-visible elements like calories and vitamins to be the primary factors in determining a healthful diet. Historian Harvey Levenstein calls this ideology “nutritionism,” where the consumer is at the mercy of the recommendation of scientific studies interpreted by food corporations. In medieval Arab cuisine, we see a deep concern for the connection between the properties of the food production, the means of its preparation and an individual’s health, but in contrast to modern nutritionism, it was couched in terms of the humoral system inherited from the Greeks. Doctors were teamed with cooks: doctors diagnosed, but cooks had the responsibility to fulfil the needs of the humoral system, which included evaluating the properties of food as well as the directive of cleanliness of the food, the cooking vessels, and the cook.

Cleanliness and etiquette were closely intertwined in the medieval Arab courtly society. Cooks and guests were expected to have clipped nails, and clean mouths. In contemporary discourses of hygiene, the emphasis is on the invisible dangers of microbes and germs; in the medieval Arab world, the emphasis is more sensual, depending on the sense of smell to detect odors. In the presence of the caliph, guests were even to wear cotton underwear so as not to perspire (p. 8). Hand washing was enjoined upon them before and after meals, as having food smells on one’s hands was considered repugnant. Food aesthetics were highlighted in the Abbasid era, as the scholar al-Warraq attests, noting the twinning of the pleasure of the eye with the artful use of garnishes like pomegranate seeds, celery, cucumber, eggs and rue, which also produced the pleasure of taste. Abundant spices which ranged from musk, amber and aloe, to still familiar spices like saffron, nutmeg and cloves were thought to still further enhance the sensory experience of food by engaging as many of the senses as possible (p. 12).

Those familiar with the contemporary Arab world will not be surprised at the emphasis on hospitality during the medieval period, its role in diplomacy, and in mediating between rulers and subjects. Rulers encompassed their populations with their generous hospitality, providing the populace with long and lavish multi-course meals, especially at Ramadan. Being a miser, not providing enough food for one’s guests was despised. The etiquette extended to the recipients of the hospitality; guests were required to show appropriate restraint. As historians of manners, like Norbert Elias, or any ethnographer knows, one becomes aware of etiquette in its breach. One manual decries avaricious guests “who snatch food off a table like a falcon seizing and an eagle swooping, without any friendly familiarity or pleasantries beforehand” (p. 7). The authors include an amusing anecdote about the Umayyad Caliph Sulayman who loved to eat. When his cooks would bring him grilled chicken on spits, the caliph would “pounce” upon them, using the sleeves of his expensive cloaks to dismember the chicken; seventy years later the chicken grease was said to be still evident on his sleeves (p. 101).

The authors argue that the highlighting of gastronomic skills and pleasures underpinned an efflorescence of food writing, poetry and agricultural tomes. Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, the younger half- brother of caliphs Harun al-Rashid and al-Wathiq, is credited with having composed the “first functional and thorough cookbook in the Arabic language” (p. 11). Other food writing included that written by physicians, who presented recipes which combined food products with spices and aromatics that were thought to enhance health. We see that the connection between health and food is not a recent one, as it was commonplace for the medieval caliphs to refuse to eat unless their physicians were by their sides to advise them on the most and least nutritious foods at the table (p. 6).

The bibliography indicates the extent of the careful primary and secondary research that went into this book. A glossary entitled “Tools and Ingredients” notes when modern equipment like food processors and blenders may be used instead of the medieval kitchen tools. The ingredients list includes translations of the terms from the Arabic and approximations of ingredients like murri, a fermented barley salty sauce which is no longer available. The authors recommend using Japanese red miso, since it is also barley based and does not leave the overpowering taste of soya sauce, the usual substitute suggested by specialists of medieval Arabic cooking.

This is a carefully researched book, which is so much more than a mere cookbook. Like some contemporary Middle East cookbooks, like Ottolenghi’s and Tamimi’s Jerusalem (Random House, 2012), it combines the pedagogical and historical context of food with the recipes itself. While it lacks the food photography of the Jerusalem cookbook, the page layout is both legible and elegant. The original translated Arabic recipe is presented in italics, with the authors’ further “translation” of the recipe following, suggesting alternate ingredients, like filo pastry for the complicated dough recipe suggested by medieval writers, butter or oil for lamb tail fat, which is not widely available. The recipes provide a plausible possibility for nonprofessional cooks to re-create medieval Arab dishes, although many might find “A Dinner Feast Such as that Held in the Caliph’s court” which includes 19 courses, a little too ambitious. Perhaps with an eye to undermining the sectarianism which is said by some to define the contemporary Middle East, the menus at the end of the book are ecumenical: A Dinner During Ramadan, A Dinner During Lent, A Dinner During Passover, and a Dinner for Christmas. It is an enjoyable book, adorning inspiring recipes with amusing anecdotes and excerpts from the classic 1001 Nights, drawing our attention to the extent to which food captured the literary as well as the practical imagination of the medieval Arab world.

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