The Exile’s Cookbook: A taster menu in medieval Arab gastronomy

Translated by Daniel L. Newman, this medieval cookbook uncovers the development of Arab culinary tradition and its influence on European cooking.

Medieval Arab cookbooks provide a colourful look at the cuisines and foodscapes of people who lived centuries ago.

The book ‘Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib’, also known as Faḍālat al-khiwān fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭaʿām wa ’l-alwān, is one of the ten known Arabic works from medieval times.

It contains recipes and food practices from a wide area ranging from Baghdad to the Andalusian region to North Africa, making it a fascinating read for those interested in the culinary traditions of these regions.

Compiled by thirteenth-century Muslim-Andalusian scholar Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, the book maps the essence and flavours of culinary traditions along with intriguing cultural portraits of the time.

Published by Saqi, an English translation has been produced by Durham University’s Chair of Arabic Studies, Daniel L Newman.

The translation is based on three manuscripts existing in libraries located in Madrid, Berlin and London. While the manuscripts in Madrid and Berlin were recognised as written by Razin al-Tujibi, a jurist, a man of letters, an erudite and masterful scribe, who fled Christian armies invading his homeland in Andalusia, they were incomplete and lacked sections and chapters.

Another copy of the same manuscript was found in the British Library bound along with a collection of treatises relating to pharmacopoeia, dietetics, making of soaps with recipes for perfumes, syrups, sniffing medicines, soaps, dyes, and fruit waters among other things.

Since the manuscript did not specify the author or the title, it remained hidden till it was discovered and identified as al-Tujibi’s work. This version contained chapters missing from other versions as well as additional material.

The well-organised cookbook divided into twelve sections, contains a total of 480 recipes, including those for stews, crepes, vinegars, breads, different types of meats and even hand-washing soaps.

In his introduction to the book, Tujibi writes, “I have decided to be concise and restrict myself to the best cooking recipes since I have found that many people have composed cookbooks but limited themselves to what is famous, and failed to mention many [important] things.”

Accordingly, Tujibi goes on to not only write about foods eaten by the elite but also include recipes for food eaten by ordinary people in society. For example, the book includes a recipe for a meat and cheese dish called muʿallak prepared and eaten by shepherds, as well as recipes using barley, rice, millets, and beans, which in various cities at the time were not considered to be elite foods.   

Arab, Amazigh, Andalus: A fusion of influences

Born in Murcia and trained in religious sciences, Razin al-Tujibi left his native land when Christian conquerors came in the mid-thirteenth century. He first went to Morocco in what would be a series of moves till he reached Tunisia where he lived till his death in 1293 at 66 years of age. He was well-known in the scholarly and literary communities in the Maghreb region and across the Arab world. RELATED

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Newman begins the translation, aptly titled, The Exile’s Cookbook: Medieval Gastronomic Treasures from Al-Andalus and North Africa, with a lengthy introduction highlighting not only the author’s life and the background of the book but also the history of the region along with a deep dive into how the cuisines and terminology of food items differed in these regions.

In an email interview with The New Arab, Newman says about the book, “It is the work of an exile, pining for his native land and its food, with the latter emerging as a vector of identity. The book also reflects the journey of exile, as it includes dishes from the regions the author resided in (present-day Morocco, Algeria) before settling in Tunisia. So, the book reveals a regional cuisine that is not just Andalusian, but also North African, not least in dishes with an Amazigh (Berber) history, such as couscous.”

Regarding the sources from which information was taken by Tujibi, we find that he looked into not only food practises relevant during the time of writing the book but also looked at several sources like agriculture manuals, books on dietetics, pharmacology, medicine, and even manuals called hisba that gave guidelines for mindful eating practises. Tujibi also likely referred to cookbooks available in the region at the time even though he has not revealed the names of such books.

Lengthy footnotes provided by the translator give historical as well as modern perspectives to the recipes. Newman points out the differences in the names of foods in the different regions and also refers to how the condiments and aromatics used in the recipes can be used to pinpoint the original location of the recipe.

For example, spices mentioned in Andalusian Tharidas by Tujibi are salt, pepper, coriander, ginger, cinnamon and cumin. At the same time, those that suggest an eastern background have spikenard, caraway and cloves, alongside the pepper, ginger and cinnamon of the others.

Some of the recipes contain the phrase “if you are making this at home” which leads the reader to understand that some of the people reading the book may not necessarily be from noble families and may not have an oven at home to bake their bread.

Newman explains, “The reason is that some people – the ‘middle classes’, for want of a better word – would prepare a dish at home and then send it to the public oven for cooking since they would not have an oven at home (unlike the nobility, who of course did).” RELATED

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Also, buying bread readymade was not a popular choice during the period since people usually made their own dough and took it to the public oven for baking.

Newman points out that this is the custom even now in some countries, saying, “In Morocco, the dough is prepared at home and then it baked, or in Marrakech, the famous tanjiya (not to be confused with that other Moroccan delicacy, the tajine) which families prepare in the typical cone-shaped clay pots but are heated up in the communal furnace that heats water for the hammam!”

Commenting on how medieval foods have survived or influenced modern-day foods, Newman explained, “Several medieval dishes have survived to this day, though not always in the same form – e.g. knafeh, qatayif, tharid, khabis, and ka’ak. Naturally medieval Arab cuisine had a huge influence on medieval European cuisine, which can be seen in the use of certain ingredients like rose water, almond milk, and of course spices (cloves, cinnamon). Even the way the fish is made in the British classic ‘fish and chips’ has Arab roots! (not the chips, of course, since potatoes only arrived after the 15th century).”

Fehmida Zakeer is an independent writer and author based in Chennai, India. Her articles have been published in various Indian and international publications, including The Hindu Literary Review, The Hindu Young World, New Indian Express, Prevention, Better Homes and Garden, Women’s Feature Service, Women’s International Perspective, Azizah, Herbs for Health, and Good Housekeeping.

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