DUBAI: Food, even something as simple as a loaf of bread, can be emotive. As the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who lived as an exile for decades, once wrote: “I yearn for my mother’s bread, my mother’s coffee, my mother’s brushing touch.”
That same connection between food and a longing for home has been a familiar feeling for displaced Muslims and Arabs for centuries, as a new book reveals. “The Exile’s Cookbook: Medieval Gastronomic Treasures from Al-Andalus and North Africa” features a collection of recipes and cookery manuscripts written in the 13th century by an important Andalusian scholar in Muslim Spain called Ibn Razin Al-Tujibi. They have been compiled and translated by Daniel Newman, a professor, linguist and cultural historian at Durham University in England, who specializes in food history pertaining to the Arab world.
“Why is food history important? The answer lies in the question. Is there anything more profoundly human than food? Food is literally life. Without food, we die,” Newman tells Arab News. “In that sense, food history is an integral part of who we are as human beings. Similarly, food, as a factor of social intercourse, is also one of the most important elements of not just who we are as people — as a society and culture, it serves to forge relationships. When people are eating together, they’re not waging war. ‘Breaking bread with somebody’ means that you establish a relationship. From an academic perspective, there is a multitude of questions that food history allows you to answer. For instance, it’s through food that we can trace the movement of peoples. It tells us about how societies develop. We see, for instance, when a society is in trouble, the sophistication of food suddenly decreases.”
So passionate is Newman about medieval Arab cuisine that, over the past 13 years, he has recreated close to 5,000 of its dishes.
“At home, we have medieval dishes (regularly), simply because the flavor is so nice,” he says. “Actually, it’s not as alien as you might think.” He has organized banqueting events in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, bringing these ancient dishes to life for the public.
“It’s always very interesting, because it’s not a subject that many people know about — especially in the Arab world. People have no idea of this amazing tradition. Most people really do believe that Arab cuisine now is just kebab or koshari, and that it’s all fast food. So, in that sense, it’s been quite an amazing experience for everybody to discover this long, rich heritage.”
“The Exile’s Cookbook” presents an impressive roster of 480 recipes, including breads, stews, porridges, truffles, eggs, poultry and meats, vegetables, sweets, and even explains how to make soaps and powders.
“It’s very well-structured. The recipes are divided according to ingredients, which was quite novel if you think of it,” noted Newman. “(It’s clear from) the seriousness with which he completed his task that food was much more than just sustenance to him. This was not somebody who just decided to put down a couple of notes. This was somebody who really was in the business of preserving a heritage.”
What stood out for Newman while translating these texts were “the ingredients used; the complexity and sophistication of this cuisine; the multiplicity of cooking methods within one recipe — boiling, frying, baking; and the sophistication of the kitchen implements — they had specific tools to roll out sweets. . . For the most part, it reflects a cuisine of the elite, because these recipes are very complicated, requiring specialized equipment, kitchens, ‘tannours’ (big ovens), where you could put several whole sheep in — not the kind of thing people would have in their home.” Newman was also fascinated by the fact that several of the original recipes include dishes that are still around today, from paella with rabbit to date- or fig-filled ‘maqrud’ sweets.
Little is known of Al-Tujibi, born in the southern Spanish city of Murcia to a wealthy family of scholars. His life was turned upside-down when he and his family were forced to depart from his hometown in 1247 during a period of political turbulence.
“These were very troubling times,” explains Newman. “The poor man found himself pushed out of his native Murcia by Christian armies. He would never see Andalusia again.
“He was in his early twenties when he left, and eventually made his way to Tunis. His story is a journey of exile, but also a geographical journey to other parts of the Muslim world that he had not visited before. I felt a personal connection with Al-Tujibi because the book is a culinary anthology with autobiographical elements. In a way, it’s a very moving tribute to his native land, which he very dearly missed.”
Newman says Arabs introduced a range of foods and spices to European cuisine in the Middle Ages, including sugar, carrots, aubergines, and cauliflowers. Even contemporary Italian food staples like pasta and cream-filled cannoli pastries (listed amid Al-Tujibi’s recipes) are believed to have Arab origins.
Popular ingredients in Al-Tujibi’s time included meat, dairy, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, mint and, especially, eggs.
“They were absolutely obsessed with eggs. They’d have eggs in a dish, and then they’d have eggs on top of that, and then they’d put yolks on top,” says Newman. “Modern Spaniards, clearly, are descended from the Andalusians — the modern Spanish tortilla is a thick omelet. They clearly retained their love of eggs.”
Newman believes Al-Tujibi’s work has not had the attention it deserved.
“Obviously, works survive if they are copied and used by others,” he says. “And his weren’t. But his cookery book brings to life something that is quintessentially human and something that we can immediately relate to. It is through food that I think we’re able to really tap into Al-Tujibi’s world. As we read the recipes, we imagine how they must have tasted, we imagine how we would’ve sat and enjoyed them.”
Example recipes from ‘The Exile’s Cookbook’
Knead unleavened darmak (high-quality wheat) flour with only water until you get a firm dough. Wrap the dough around cane reeds, covering them entirely, and roll them on the table with the palm of the hand to smooth out the dough. Cut only the dough into small tubes and keep them apart from one another. Leave them to dry on the reeds. Then put honey in a cauldron and skim off the froth as it is heated on the fire. Mix in good-quality pounded skinned almonds and any of the usual aromatic spices you have to hand. If any of the dough breaks off, crush it and also mix it in. Thicken the mixture with honey. Then gingerly remove the dough tubes from the reeds and fry them in an earthenware pot with good-quality olive oil until they turn golden brown. When they are ready, stuff them with the above-mentioned filling and put a blanched almond at the ends of each of them. Dust with cinnamon and sugar, and then serve.
Milk tharida baked in the oven
Take two pounds of semolina or prime-quality flour and knead into a firm dough. Make extremely thin loaves out of it and bake them for a bit in the oven. Then take one-and-a-half cups of milk and stir in eight eggs with a dash of flour. Cook over a moderate fire. Next, take a good-quality casserole dish, put butter and milk at the bottom, and a loaf on top. Cover with another layer of butter and milk, followed by a loaf, and so on. Continue doing this until you have run out of loaves and butter and milk. Then, put a thick loaf on top of the thin ones and put the dish in the oven for baking. When it is almost done, take it out, pour in some more milk and return to the oven. Do this once or twice until the loaves have absorbed all the milk they can. When it is fully done, gingerly break the dish and you will be left with the loaves, which will look as if they have merged together and turned into one large cake. Split it with a knife and cut into pieces. Dust with sugar and then eat and enjoy.
Take the desired quantity of large grasshoppers of the variety known as Al-Arabi. Put them in a pot with hot water and let them boil once or twice. Then, take them out, remove their wings and legs, and fry them in a clean pan with olive oil until they are golden brown and their moisture dries out. Transfer them to a small ceramic bowl, add murri, cinnamon, and pepper, and serve.