Would you believe the bowl of creamy, milky mahalabia dessert you savoured at the end of an iftar was originally a rice pudding made with chicken? Or that, centuries ago, the popular snack sambusek was often more sweet than savoury. Even the kunafa was once a thin, flatbread stuffed with nuts, unlike its current version of a shredded philo pastry soaked in syrup and layered with cheese.
These rare nuggets about the culinary history of staple Middle Eastern recipes come from The Sultan’s Feast, a book translated and edited by Daniel Newman, the chair for Arabic Studies at Durham University, UK.
The winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Award 2021, The Sultan’s Feast is the English translation of a 15th-century Egyptian cookbook by Ibn Mubarak Shah, originally titled Zahr-al-hadiqa fi’ l-atima al-aniqa (The Book of Flowers in the Garden of Elegant Food).
Medieval to modern times
Offering a unique insight into the world of medieval Arabic gastronomic writing, the bilingual tome has more than 330 recipes. “Essentially, the book provides readers with all aspects of fine dining. It not only has recipes for dishes, but also for drinks, pickles, medicinal preparations, aromatics and even tips for a cook,” Newman tells The National.
Through the book, a reader can discover that the medieval Arab, if transported to the contemporary table, would recognise quite a few recipes including kebabs, tharid, harissa, kaak, shish barak, zalabiyya and qatayef, to name a few.
On the other hand, recipes in the book also mention various exotic ingredients that are rarely found today in Middle Eastern food, such as ambergris, rue, spikenard, mastic and musk.
“The medieval Arab enjoyed a sweet and sour palate — they had sour stews with vinegar or sour grape juice, fruit stews and vegetables made with raisins,” says the author.
“The oldest version of the multi-fruit chicken stew mentioned in The Sultan's Feast, for instance, goes back to 13th-century Syria. It later travelled to Egypt, and was prepared with the sauce of pomegranate seeds, sugar, ground almonds, ginger, and pieces of quince and apple.”
Having travelled widely in the Arabic-speaking parts of the world, and having lived in Tunisia, Egypt and Qatar, Newman centred his research around Arabic culinary, geographical and travel literature. On his website, EatLikeASultan.com, the academician, who has a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies in the UK, posts some of the recipes he recreates from medieval cookbooks along with historical gourmet facts.
For instance, he writes that Arabic culinary traditions boomed in the middle of the 10th century, when a certain al-Warraq, about whose life nothing is known, compiled a culinary treatise titled Kitab al-tabikh (The Book of Dishes) containing more than 600 recipes.
For centuries to come, the Arab Muslim world produced cooking manuals and recipe books, most notably from Baghdad, Aleppo, Egypt, Muslim Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. A total of but nine age-old cookery books have survived. The Sultan’s Feast is one such rare book, bringing alive the flavours of Mamluk Cairo a few decades before it fell to the Ottomans.
About Ibn Mubarak Shah, the original compiler of the book, little is known, says Newman. “He is a bit of a mystery, but I would say he was a Renaissance man interested in science and the member of a well-known group of scholars. He has to his credit a large anthology of poetry. To the question, why did he compile a cookbook, I would say the clues in the text point he was an amateur gastronome, simply putting together his favourite recipes.”
The translation of the book throws light not only on the evolving tastes of generations of Arabs, but also acts as a chronicler of society and history. Through a historical cookbook, we get information about how food travelled without any socialpolitical obstacles.
“When human beings travel, they not only take their passports and belongings with them, but also memories of their native lands, of which culinary traditions are a major component,” Newman writes.
Explaining how food takes precedence over even politics, he narrates an interesting example from The Sultan’s Feast. Couscous, essentially a North African dish, finds reference in another book a couple of centuries later, in medieval Spain, when Muslims were being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. During this time, even consuming a dish with origins in the Islamic world was questionable. Remarkably, the couscous recipe was still listed in the book by the chef to the King of Spain, showing how recipes endure even when people are at war.
The book also reveals cultural exchanges through trade routes from the Arab world, India, China, North Africa and Europe, which resulted in the mobility of ingredients, fruits and spices enriching culinary legacies in each era. “Arab traders were essential in introducing many spices such as ginger, cinnamon, galangal, cassia and cumin from the Indian subcontinent to European kitchens through a number of routes in Italy and Spain,” points out Newman.
Readers also get to glimpse of age-old kitchenware in The Sultan’s Feast. A large variety of pots and pans aside, medieval chefs also used knives of different shapes and fine meshed sieves. The tannur (clay oven) and furn (brick oven), used then, continue to be found in some kitchens today.
Research on medieval cookery books has led Newman to several gastronomic breakthroughs. While making sugar-dried rose petal conserve, or rose murabba, he found its closest modern avatar is Indian gulkand.
He also traced surprising medieval Arab origins to two quintessential English dishes: marmalade and fish and chips.
“I found an identical recipe to the present-day marmalade in a 14th-century Egyptian cookbook. The fried battered fish, usually thought to have originated in the Jewish community in the UK, was in fact traced to a 13th-century Andalusian cookbook revealing it could have travelled from Muslim Spain with Jewish immigrants to the UK,” he says.
It took the author five years to source and write the book, and the recreation of more than 200 recipes, he says, has been a painstaking labour of love and passion.
“Since the recipes often contained very little or no precise information in terms of measurements, it was very much a question of trial and error. Fortunately, the results, until now, have been amazing and I’ve always enjoyed eating the dishes.”