Founded in 762 AD, Baghdad rapidly grew into a vibrant hub, strategically located at the crossroads of the Muslim lands that spanned east and west from China to southern Spain. Merchants ventured far east for spices and other luxuries to meet the demands of the growing wealthy classes and their lavish lifestyles. And while the region itself was a great place for agriculture from ancient times, new important crops that had been spreading westwards from the far east, such as sugarcane, rice, taro, eggplant, and citrus fruits, were introduced.
Baghdad had the ingredients for the development of an indulgent food culture aided by the city’s wealth to facilitate it and the absence of prohibitions in Islam against the enjoyment of God’s bounties. It thrived on luxuriously prepared dishes and encouraged gastronomic discourses in prose and verse as sources for entertainment in affluent circles, where contests reminiscent of today’s “Iron Chef” were arranged, sometimes by the caliphs themselves.
Food to them was also a means for physical regeneration, a notion that was based on the then popular Galenic medico-culinary tradition of the four humors that dominated the thinking of the medieval world.
This inevitably gave rise to the trend of writing books on cooking and dietetics and instructive manuals on table manners, made possible by the flourishing of the papermaking industry around the ninth century. Cookbooks in particular were in great demand. Not only were they written by professionals as aids-in-training apprentices, but their creation extended to caliphs, by whom or in whose name the cookbooks were written, as well as princes, dignitaries, and physicians.
Of these, Ibrahim bin al-Mahdi (d. 839), half-brother of Harun al-Rasheed, stands out as the most passionate among them. The cookbook he wrote enjoyed wide circulation in the medieval eastern and western Islamic world. Unfortunately, only fractions of it have survived, which were copied in other cookbooks.
Material prosperity during the Abbasid era created a social class, the “nouveau riche,” whose desire to emulate the aristocracy might have also played a role in the popularity of cookbooks. They had the means but lacked the knowledge. It is fortunate that a cookbook tailored to meet such demands has survived from the second half of the tenth century.
Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh (Cookery Book) was authored by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq of whom nothing else is known. Addressing his commissioner, he writes: “You asked me to write a book on dishes cooked for kings, caliphs, lords, and dignitaries, and here it is.” He further tells his benefactor that he browsed all the books related to food and health so that he could save him the trouble of seeking them himself. The cookbooks he credited amounted to more than 20, none of which survived.
Al-Warrāq’s cookbook was a remarkable achievement, a full-fledged volume that anthologized the sophisticated Abbasid cuisine with its 132 chapters comprising more than 600 recipes. It was in effect comparable to today’s coffee-table books with its amusing anecdotes and 86 gastronomic poems, some of which illustrated the dishes, as we do today with photos.
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The only other Baghdadi cookbook from this era that has been preserved was written in 1226, but unlike al-Warrāq’s, it is a much smaller volume, limited in scope, and contains recipes only. It nevertheless turned out to be far reaching in its influence. Its title is also Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh (Cookery Book), by scholar Muḥammad Ibn al-Ḥasan al-Kātib al-Baghdadi, who claimed that he wrote it for himself and whoever wished to benefit from it. It more or less reflects the same cuisine encountered in al-Warrāq’s cookbook.
After Baghdad was taken over by the Mongols in 1258, attention shifted to Egypt, which fell to the Arabs in the seventh century. New crops were brought into the region, the most important of which were rice and sugarcane, adding to the already abundant foods growing there. With the successions of caliphates and sultanates over a period of several centuries, Cairo developed into a flourishing metropolis.
Based on what can be garnered from the available sources, the picture we get is of a culture that was similarly fond of food and cooking. We learn, for instance, that one of the Ayyubid kings was a cookbook collector, another wrote a cookbook, and yet another – a Mamluk sultan – treated his mother and her friends to a feast he prepared with his own hands.
Three cookbooks have survived from the 13th and 14th centuries, hailing from Egypt and the Levant.
Three cookbooks have survived from the 13th and 14th centuries, hailing from Egypt and the Levant, which shared more or less similar culinary traditions: Aleppan’s Al-Wuṣla ilā l-ḥabīb fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭaʿām wa-l-ṭīb (Winning the Beloved’s Heart with Delicious Foods and Perfumes), anz al-fawāʾid fī tanwīʿ al-mawāʾid (Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table) by an anonymous Egyptian, and the anonymously plagiarized and augmented version of al-Baghdadi’s Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh (Cookery Book) – mentioned earlier – titled Kitāb Waṣf al-aṭʿima al-muʿtāda (Book of Familiar Foods). These were recipe books that largely shared cuisine styles which essentially did not depart from the Abbasid; nonetheless, they offered some interesting regional variations.
Egypt became a cultural haven for the surrounding regions and peoples of multiple ethnicities such as Moroccans, Turks, Sudanese, Persians, and Iraqis. Such multiplicities were expectedly reflected in the cookbooks mentioned above. For instance, indigenous vegetables like mulūkhiyya (Jews’ mallow) and bāmiya (okra), and Mediterranean fish varieties like absāriyya and būrī, were incorporated alongside the Amazigh Moroccan staple couscous.
Still farther west, another cuisine flourished in al-Andalus. The year 711 marks the beginning of a long chapter in the region’s history when the Muslims ruled, and with them additional crops were introduced, such as rice, saffron, eggplants, and durum wheat, which became the principal source for semolina flour used in making bread, pasta, and couscous. Here again, a remarkably refined cuisine developed. It was considerably influenced by the Mashriqi eastern cooking styles, at least in its early formative stages – most probably propagated by the famous musician Ziryāb, who fled Baghdad around 809 – at a time when Abbasid gastronomy was flourishing.
Ziryab eventually became the chief singer in the court of the Andalusi Umayyad Emir ʿAbd al-Raḥmān II in 822, where he set the grounds for a richly elegant cuisine that was enhanced with the indigenous resources, setting it apart – to some extent – from the Mashriqi cuisine. Figs for instance, replaced the familiar dates of the eastern Arabs, almost all the dishes and even desserts were cooked with olive oil rather than sesame oil and sheep-tail fat (alya); rabbit meat was also common, and tuna fish was consumed, fresh and salt cured.
Apparently, many cookbooks were written, but only two have survived, both from the 13th century: the anonymously written Anwāʿ al-ṣaydala fī alwān al-aṭʿima (Varieties of Dishes and Eating them Salubriously) and Fiḍālat al-khiwān fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭaʿām wa-l-alwān (Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes) by Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī.
This vibrant chapter in the history of food in the Arab world was eventually eclipsed by the ascension of the Ottomans to power.
This vibrant chapter in the history of food in the Arab world was eventually eclipsed by the ascension of the Ottomans to power and the expulsion of the Arabs from al-Andalus around the 15th century. The limelight shifted to Istanbul, where this time around a renowned cuisine developed.
Still, the Arab cuisine was an important factor in shaping it, which has indeed been acknowledged by Turkish food historian Marianna Yerasimos in her groundbreaking book, 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine. Yerasimos considers this influence important and definitive, and that it “should not be forgotten.” She further draws attention to the fact that “especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, Ottoman cuisine shared ingredients, cooking methods and dish names with the Middle East,” and that the impact of the Arab culinary heritage cannot possibly be downplayed.
Such influences can partly be attributed to the Arab cooks hired in the Ottoman kitchens of the affluent, and partly to the first Ottoman cookbook, Kitabu‘t-Tabeeh (Cookbook) written by Muhammed Ibn Mahmoud Shirvani, court physician for Sultan Murad II (d. 1450). It was, in reality, a translation of al-Baghdadi’s 13th-century cookbook Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh, mentioned earlier, expanded with medical information and 77 more recipes. But that is another story.