Muslim Food History

Full of fascinating stories and myriad cultural traditions, Islam has the richest medieval food literature in the world

Muslim food history is very well accounted for in the history books and ancient cookbooks. This is because there are more cookbooks in Arabic from before 1400 than in the rest of the world’s languages together!

Medieval Arabs were particular in writing recipes down, compiling them into cookbooks, and cooking from them.

This practice was the legacy of ancient Persia. When the Muslim Arabian armies conquered Iran in the seventh century, they found that the Sasanian court was full of connoisseurs. The Persian aristocrats saved their favourite recipes in personal cookbooks and Baghdad followed this tradition.

(An Artist's rendition of Ancient Baghdad)

But one cannot talk about Muslim food history without first taking notice of how Baghdad (in modern day Iraq) played such an important role in the culinary traditions.

Baghdad history is rich in its culinary traditions...

Medieval collections of recipes within Baghdad history are invaluable sources not only for Muslim food history but also for the social and economic history of the region.

The oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-Tabikh, was compiled in the tenth century Baghdad by scribe called Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq from the recipe collections of eighth- and ninth-century caliphs and members of their courts.

Ibn Sayyar’s patron had assigned him the job of collecting the dishes of kings and caliphs and other important figures. The name of the patron was probably Saif al-Daula, who wanted to add cultural touch to start his provincial court in Aleppo, to the north of Baghdad.

Many Muslim and non-Muslim scribes over the centuries have studied his book as these Muslim food recipes show up in number of later cookbooks. Recipes by Ibn Sayyar were written during Baghdad history’s golden age, when the caliphs’ private physicians had testified to the healthful quality of many of these dishes. Not surprisingly, this further accustomed the Arab world to idea of writing cookbooks.

Way back then, Baghdad was so much different from the place we know today, one that is wrapped under the covers of war and invasion. Baghdad was founded by the Arabs in 762 AD. Baghdad history indicates that it was once called the City of Peace (madinat al-salaam), surrounded by three rings of walls with four gates. The palace of the caliph and the mosque were right in the centre of the city.

muslim food history

Baghdad history’s golden era came with the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809). This period also came to be known as the golden age of Islam. It attracted all the world’s riches, material, spiritual, intellectual; cultures and languages of the world coming together, melding with each other, and giving rise to new creations.

At its height, Baghdad was an intellectual centre of the Muslim world. It welcomed masters of philosophical and Sufi movements, theologians, scholars, poets, writers, physicians, and mystics. Within the Muslim food history, it was the meeting place of Arab, Persian, Greek, Indian, Turkish, Chinese, and African cuisine. However, to some extent Arab and Persian recipes become predominant, as indicated by the recipes Ibn Sayyar wrote in his cookbook.

With this kind of conviviality, also came a vibrant culinary culture and some of the most beloved Muslim food dishes at the time: sikbaj (meat cooked in vinegar or some other sour sauce) and bawarid (cold appetizers).

It was thanks Ibn Sayyar’s text that we get introduced to a vibrant character named Abu Ishaq al-Mahdi, who was also the author of the first Arab cookbook (which is now lost). Al-Mahdi  was an eccentric individual and an Abbasid prince who became a caliph without wishing to be one. His many talents included being a cook, poet, and musician.
Although a caliph, al-Mahdi seems to have spent a better part of his time in the palace kitchen along with his muse and concubine, Bid’a, also a great cook and an expert of sikbaj.  Both of them shared strong passion for culinary arts and developed romance based on experimenting with new dishes and flavours.  Their stories were later retold by the many scribes who were influences by Ibn Sayyar’s work, thus adding to accounts of food recipes being passed on to later generations.

When Bid’a cooked sikbaj for one of al-Mahdi’s guest, Caliph Al-Amin, it symbolized marriage of two culinary traditions, Arab and Persian. There was the classic preparation of meats and vegetables in vinegar which is sikbaj proper. This sikbaj was accompanied by tharid, bread cakes that have been crumbled and soaked in broth – the broth of sikbaj.

Many original recipes are attributed to Bid’a and al-Mahdi (some with very poetic names) such as ashiqa (beloved), narjisiyya (narcissus), and bustaniyya (orchard). 

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