History of Islamic food recipes

Writing cookbooks, a strong passion of earlier Muslims

islamic food history


Within in the Islamic food traditions, It is worth noting some writing and writers who have served as the source of the Islamic culinary history.

The oldest book known today of Islamic food dates from the tenth century; however, classical Arab literature is full and rich of tales and anecdotes relating to gastronomy. This includes description of lavish banquets and marvelous dishes, good table manners, the prices of food items, their quality and place of origin, etc.

Medieval recipes were written not only to transmit knowledge about cooking but also the medicinal value of its ingredients. Writers of the thirteenth century cookbooks had training in science and safe handling of food. They were aware of the rules of for healthy diet and hygienic measures recommended by physicians. 

Although many books and accounts were written of medieval Islamic cuisine, there are few that have survived in their entirety. I will mention some of these books as they are also notable accounts of economic and cultural history of the Muslims of their time.

Kitab al-Tabikh written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq

islamic food

This compilation of Muslim recipes was most likely compiled in Baghdad in the second half of the ninth century.  Ibn Sayyar was asked by a patron to collect recipes of the caliphs and nobles in the court. As a result, the book paints a good picture of the kind of foods being eaten in the courts of Baghdad

Though not a cook himself, in this book, he describes complicated cooking procedures, illustrating recipes with poetry and tales that give a more precise idea of the appearance, odor, and flavour of the dish. 

This book serves as the most fundamental source for the Islamic food and culinary history of the ninth and tenth centuries.  It is also the book that acquaints us with al-Mahdi, author of the first Arab cookbook (now lost to us) and a caliph with great passion for culinary arts along with his woman companion, Bid’a. Bid’a was  a specialist of sikbaj (meat cooked in vinegar) and bawarid (cold appetizers); both of them experimented greatly with food and came up with many new inventions (as related to us by Ibn Sayyar).

Kanz al-Fawa’id fi tanwi al-mawa’id  (“The Treasure of Useful Advice for the Composition of a Varied Table”) by Unknown

islamic food history

This book was written in the thirteenth century. The culinary art of the thirteenth century reflects the diversity of the Muslim peoples. The Crusades in Syria and Palestine, the invasion of the Maghreb by the Arab tribe of Banu Hilal, and the Mongol invasion of Iraq brought new waves of immigration and new eating habits.

Unlike the ninth or tenth century, the new Islamic food traditions now expressed an identity based on cities, regions, ethnic groups, and sometimes religious affiliation.

Kanz was compiled in Egypt under the reign of the Mamluks in the middle of the 13th century. In it, there are not only Egyptian and regional recipes but also of foreign dishes:  Kishk from Khorasan, recipes for a condensed yogurt product (qanbaris) from Mosul, Baghdad, and Damascus; a cheese of Turkoman type; turnips in the Greek style; Frankish condiments (salsa) served with fish; and so on.

Kitab al-Wusla ila l-habib fi wasf al-tayyibat wa-l-tib (“Book of the Relation with the Beloved in the Description of the Best Dishes and Spices”) by Ibn al-‘Adim of Aleppo (1192 – 1262)

Ibn al-‘Adim of Aleppa is said to have immigrated to Gaza and then to Egypt after Tatar occupation of Aleppo.  In this book, Crusades are recalled by one recipe, shiwa ifranji, a meat dish prepared in the Frankish manner. What was new in this book was also introduction of North African dishes, such as couscous, into Islamic food traditions.

There are also recipes identified with particular regions, such as “cooked vinegar of Abyssina”, “Indian wine”, the “Turkoman recipe”, “recipe of Basra”, or “recipe of Asyut”. These recipes show integration of diverse and deeply rooted cultures within Islamic food traditions.

Fadalat al-khiwan fi tayyibat al-ta-am wa-l-alwan (“Book of the Excellent Table Composed of the Best Foods and the Best Dishes”) by its author Ibn Razin al-Tujibi

This book was compiled in Murcia, in the south-east Spain also known as Andalusia, in the first half of the 13th century. For Ibn Razin, “the passion of booking... is a sign of generosity and hold at bay the spirit of avarice.”  God, he says, is to be praised for “having given to man the faculty of inventing and excelling in culinary arts.”

In the introduction to this collection of Islamic food recipes he says that he wishes to devote himself mainly to Andalusian specialties, including only some eastern dishes. The cuisines of the Muslim East (from Baghdad to Syria or Egypt) and Muslim West (Andalusia and North Africa) were clearly distinguished in his work, oriental recipes being termed as mashriqi, or “eastern”.

His book showed a mix of Berber influence as well as of that of Genoa and Pisa republics, thus illustrating the culinary arts that developed with mixing of Muslim and non-Muslim cultures  in the Andalusia.

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