In recent years we have seen a renewed interest in medieval cooking. Historians have been researching cookbooks and other sources to learn what people ate in the Middle Ages, and how they prepared meals.
One of the largest and most interesting medieval cookbooks is the The Book of Dishes, written in 10th-century Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. His work covers a wide number of topics, from good table manners to the health benefits of all types of foods and drinks. There are over 600 recipes in this text, ranging from honey beer to ribs. Here are ten medieval cooking tips from al-Warraq:
Advice on how to stop food from spoiling
Cutting onion, leeks, carrots, eggplant, and all other vegetables with the same knife used for cutting meat would also spoil the cooked dish, so you need to know this. Have a special knife for cutting the meat and another one for cutting the vegetables.
If the cooking pots smell unpleasantly greasy, throw into them one or two whole walnuts, and keep them there for a while. The walnuts will absorb the greasy odors. To prove this, take out the walnut and break it open. Its greasy odor will be so repugnantly powerful that you will not tolerate its smell.
Porridges are cooked in tin-lined copper pots because such foods are usually beaten vigorously and stirred for a long time until they thicken. Stone pots will never stand all this beating as they might break in the process.
Glass jars are the best for storing pounded spices, second best are willow wood containers. The worst for storing spices are leather drawstring sacks. You need to remember this, God willing.
You can get rid of the stench of any burnt food by placing the pot on urine. However, a better way for doing it is to pour the contents of the burnt pot into another one then scrape out the burnt food. This is what is usually done in such extreme cases.
The Best Eggs
The most suitable eggs for human consumption are those of chickens and pheasants. Next are eggs of ducks, but the nutrition they provide is poor in quality. As for other varieties of eggs such as those of sparrows and birds, they are more likely to be taken as medicine.
Eggs, boiled and scrambled are nourishing but are slow to digest and take longer to go through the digestive system. Soft-cooked eggs nourish the body remarkably fast. Eggs cooked in stews are less harmful than boiled eggs and faster to digest.
When preparing the vegetable of your choice, heat in water in a pot and let it come to a full rolling boil. Pick over the vegetables and tie them in bundles or just add them to the boiling water. There should be more than enough water to cover the vegetables. Keep a hot steady fire under the pot. When you add the vegetables, do not let the fire go any lower. On the contrary, feed it with more fuel.
While vegetables are boiling, cover the pot with a lid otherwise they will turn yellow. Moreover, do not add cold water while the vegetables are boiling as this will also cause them to turn yellow. Once the vegetables are cooked, take them out of the pot, and arrange them on a platter.
A recipe for white omelet
Thoroughly wash a frying pan and pour into it 2 tablespoons of sweet and mellow olive oil. Now, take 10 eggs, break them in a green-glazed bowl, and pour into them ⅓ cup of milk. Add a handful of ground pistachio, almond, and walnut, all ground. Beat the mixture very well and pour into the frying pan. When the bottom side is done, flip it to the other side. Then take it away from the fire. It will taste like ripe fresh dates, remarkably excellent and delicious, God willing.
A recipe for rice with milk
Wash the rice and let it soak in milk overnight. Put water in a large copper pot or a regular pot, according to your estimate, the amount should be enough to cover the rice or a little less. Add fat to water. It can clarified butter from cows milk, almond oil, or fresh sesame oil. Let the pot boil once.
Add the soaked rice and a suitable amount of honey. Wait until it is almost cooked and then start adding milk gradually until the rice is fully cooked and it has absorbed all the milk. Take the pot away from the fire.
It would be even more delicious if you substitute honey with ground white sugar. Besides, you need to soak the rice in fresh milk that has just been milked. Soaking the rice overnight in milk can only be done in cold weather.
On eating right
Al-Warraq noted seeing a table which had this inscription in gold: “Let your food be the best you can get to keep your body strong and fit. Know that you can eat what you crave and what you do not crave will eat you. Therefore, do not eat to your fill, nor should you starve yourself.”
You can read the entire work in Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayarr al-Warraq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook, translated by Nawal Nasrallah (Brill, 2010)