Muslim Food History

Culinary arts from Baghdad to Cordoba, from Tunis to Palermo



Muslim food history in the 13th century reflected the Muslim empire, which ran from Baghdad in the east to Cordoba to the West...

It was divided in two sections, Muslim East and Muslim West (North Africa, Andalusia, Sicily). Although they were all Islamic regions, their culinary traditions were quite different from each other as they each had their own unique local influences.

muslim food history

It was in the ninth century that Ziryab, a Kurdish musician, who brought the Muslim food tradition of East (ruled by the ‘Abbasid) to Andalusia. He fled Baghdad in the time of Harun al-Rashid, taking refuge in Cordoba after stopping at Tunis. Ziryab is credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Andalusia, with its preference for small, low tables, tablecloths of fine leather, and cups made from glass.  He also introduced stage of  meal courses in definite order (in contrast to serving everything at once).


muslim food history

The 13th century Andalusian cookbook, Manuscrito Anonimo, even remembered Ziryab with a recipe that had his name on it! It was called, baqliyya li-Ziryab, a stew of lamb and cabbage and other flavourings, covered with a topping of meat, bread crumbs, almonds, and eggs. In Tunisia today, this dish is known has marquit ‘asafir, or “bird stew”, in which small clumps of cauliflower are soaked in egg batter, dredged in flour, and fried.

The circulation of cookbooks played an important role in preserving and diffusing the Arab Muslim food and culinary heritage. Recipes tended to travel with the men who carried these books.

Although people of North Africa and Andalusia had kept connected to their older Mediterranean culinary roots, the changes and influences of Arab culinary traditions were inevitable as there were many travelers between the East and the West. By the 13th century, sugar and vinegar were found in many of the recipes for sour dishes.

Rice, eggplant, and spinach were cultivated in both North Africa and Spain. Condiments, vinegars, syrups, and aromatic essences were well rooted in the Muslim food traditions of the Mediterranean.  There were meat sauces with cherries, apricots, and quinces; seasoned sauces for fish garnished with pomegranate seeds; banana cakes; balls of minced meat mixed with rice and chickpeas; fish in raisin and vinegar sauce as well as recipes enriched with sugar, honey, spices, and seasoning.

Although Arab ‘Abbasid culinary was still noteworthy and highly regarded in these traditions, new vocabulary was added that used terms from Spanish, Berber, Turkish, and other roots. Sikbaj and Tharid, once mainly Muslim food of the Eastern areas, became firmly grounded in Andalusia and the Muslim West. Local traditions consolidated and new Muslim food recipes were created in Egypt, Syria, Andalusia, and North Africa.

Egypt and Syria had many dishes in common including a puree of chickpeas (hummus, known today as Lebanese specialty), sesame paste (tahina or tahini in Lebanon), little balls of rice and meat, fermented cereal preserves (kishk) , and yoghurt (yaghurt).

Muslim west was known for its small cheese dumplings (mujabbanat), steamed couscous (kuskusu), various types of pasta (itriya, fidawish) cooked in broth, semolina cakes filled with date paste (maqrud), and mutton sausages (mirqas). Recipes began to be known around their ethnic identities. In the East, they were styled Kurdish, Turkish, Indian, Ethiopian, Morrocan, Maghrebi, etc. In the west, they had Berber names such as Kutama, Lamtuna, Sanhaja.

In Europe that names of medieval dishes betray their Arab origin - for example, festiggia (from the Arabic fastuqiyya, a dish with pistachios), fidei and fidellini (from fidawish, a type of pasta), Romania (from rummaniyya, a dish made with pomegranates), limonia (from limuniyya, denoting various lemon dishes), somacchia (from summaqiyya, meaning “sumac”).

The Arabic and Muslim food specialty of the East, sikbaj, a vinegar-based dish, spread across Mediterranean in various forms. It survives in Spanish (escabeche in Castilian, escabeig in catalan) and in Italian of Tyrrhenian coast – scabeccio in Genoese, scapece in Neapolitan, schibbeci and scabbici in Sicilian, and so on. 

Slightly sour flavours, influenced by the Muslim traditions, became popular throughout Europe, as is evident from cookbooks of 14th and 15th century. In France, a taste for acidity was satisfied by vinegar, verjuice, and ginger. In Italy, it was the sweet-and-sour taste that became popular through combining sugar, honey, or raisins with vinegar.

Nowadays, we don’t speak in terms of Arab cuisine or Islamic cuisine, but rather of national cuisines: Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian, Yemini, and so on. The tradition of writing cookbooks was revived only in the late 19th century with development of printing.  At first they had the classical title, kitab al-tabikh (“cookbook”), to which was added the term sharqi (“eastern”) after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Finally in the second half of the twentieth century, the names were given in national terms. For example, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to produce a book of national cuisine, in 1922, called ‘La veritable cuisine Tunisienne’ by Jacques-Victor Levy.

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