An Islamic Dinner
Islamic feasts in the Society are only occasionally cooked from recipes from period sources; yet Islam was a literate culture early in our period, with the result that there are a number of surviving cookbooks from the 10th to the 15th century. My lord Cariadoc of the Bow and I have been cooking from the cookbooks available in English for some years and now have a large stock of tested Islamic recipes, so I decided to cook a dinner for the Grey Gargoyles’ Spring Tournament completely from medieval Islamic recipes. I had three objectives in designing the menu, in addition to making a good dinner that my friends would enjoy: I wanted to show something of the range of medieval Islamic food; I wanted to make it a very low-work feast, so that more of us could enjoy the tourney; and I wanted to reduce the cost as much as possible. Other considerations included balance of flavors, allowing for allergies, and limited kitchen space.
There are a number of recipes for relishes or dips in the period Islamic cookbooks. The feast started with one of these, Badinjan Muhassa, served with bread. Unfortunately, I know very little about medieval Islamic bread other than the fact that it existed, but I assumed that modern pita bread would be a reasonable guess. Badinjan Muhassa is based on eggplant, ground and toasted walnut, and raw onion; eggplant is probably the most common vegetable in medieval Islamic cookbooks. This version of the recipe is from a 10th century collection; another version is in the 13th-century cookbook of al-Bagdadi.
The main course consisted of Tabâ hajah, a Cooked Dish of Lentils, and Andalusian Chicken, served with rice. The Tabâ hajah is from another of the cookbooks in the 10th-century collection. It is one of those rare period recipes which gives exact quantities for most of the ingredients. It consists of meat (we used lamb) marinated, cooked in oil, and topped with chopped greens. The marinade is based on murri, a condiment widely used in medieval Islamic cooking. Real murri was made by a lengthy process involving fermentation; so far as we know it has not been used since the 15th century. However, there exists a period recipe for quick and cheap imitation murri, and we made up a supply of that for the marinade. Judging by comments, and by the limited amount left over, the Tabâ hajah was the real hit of the feast.
The Cooked Dish of Lentils consists of lentils cooked with onions and spices, with eggs cooked on top at the end. It is one of the easiest dishes I know of, the only real work being chopping the onions, and is a favorite with our after fighter practise crowd. It also provides a main dish for vegetarians (at least those who eat eggs and dairy products). Both this and the Andalusian Chicken are from an Andalusian (Moorish Spanish) cookbook of the 13th century by al-Andalusi.
The original title on the recipe for Andalusian Chicken was just “Another Dish,” so I gave it a more descriptive name. It is made by frying the chicken with oil and some seasonings “until it is gilded,” simmering it in the juice of onion and green coriander (cilantro), and finally thickening the sauce with breadcrumb and egg.
Of the three main dishes, the lentil dish has neither meat nor wheat, the Tabâ hajah has neither eggs nor dairy products, and the chicken has neither onions nor dairy products, so that someone with any single one of these common food allergies would be able to eat at least one dish. With only three main dishes, I could not allow for multiple allergies. In order that our guests could find out what was in the food, the servers, both kitchens, and the autocrat were provided with a list of all ingredients in each dish, including drinks and desserts.
We served two drinks in addition to water: sekanjabin (a sweet mint drink), and a lemon drink. Both of these are made by making a flavored sugar syrup, which keeps without refrigeration, and diluting it to prepare the drink. Sekanjabin is mentioned by al-Nadim in the 10th century and still survives today; we used a modern Middle-Eastern recipe. The lemon drink comes from an anonymous 13th-century Andalusian cookbook which has a great many recipes for syrup drinks of this sort.
For dessert we served a plate of several pastries and sweets. Khushkananaj is a pastry made with flour and sesame oil with a filling of almonds, sugar, and rosewater. Hais are little balls made of dates, ground nuts, breadcrumbs, and butter. They are a fair amount of work, but as they keep well (the original recipe recommends them as travellers’ food) they were made a week in advance. Both of these come from the 13th-century eastern Islamic cookbook of al-Bagdadi. Hulwa is a general term for sweets or candy. There is a recipe for several kinds of hulwa in the 15th-century eastern Islamic cookbook of Ibn al-Mabrad. One kind is rather like modern divinity and can be made with either sugar or honey; we made it for the feast with sugar. A second kind of candy we made is Makshufa, from al-Bagdadi’s cookbook, made with sugar, honey, almonds, and sesame oil.
In the anonymous Andalusian cookbook there is a discussion of whether food should be served with each kind on a separate dish or with everything on one platter: “Many of the great figures and their companions order that the separate dishes be placed on each table before the diners, one after another; and by my life, this is more beautiful than putting an uneaten mound all on the table, and it is more elegant, better-bred, and modern”. [p. 24 verso-25 recto in the Arabic original] In spite of his strong words, I decided on the inelegant version. We served each table a large platter with rice on top of which were the chicken, the lamb and the lentils next to each other. The Badinjan Muhassa and the bread were served first in small bowls, and all the desserts for each table on one plate.
Cost: It is usually worth checking out wholesale prices for the most expensive and largest quantity items in a feast; for meats, it is worth figuring out the cheapest cut that will work for the dishes you are cooking. We bought boneless lamb shoulders and chicken leg quarters from a wholesale butcher who happens to be our seneschal. If the butcher had not been a member of the group we would have had to cut up the lamb and cut the chicken legs and thighs apart ourselves rather than getting it done for us, but we still would have gotten a much better price than at the local grocery. Often ethnic or health food stores will have some foods in bulk that would be available in your local grocery only in small quantities at high prices; we got nuts and some of the spices in bulk at an Indian grocery store. Serving one meatless main dish (the lentils) also helped to keep the cost down. The total cost of the food was about $475 for almost 250 people.
Quantity: My usual rule for estimating quantities is that all dishes put together should add up to about half a pound of boneless meat per person, a little less if there are a lot of hefty meatless dishes or if you don’t expect people to be very hungry. Given that this was a tournament, I expected people to be hungry. I allowed a quarter pound of lamb per person and 7 ounces of chicken with bone, which comes to about another quarter pound of boneless meat. How much of the other dishes we wanted I estimated by experience. I checked these estimates by serving a “practice feast” a few weeks before the event: the whole feast done in miniature for 8 people. (This also helps to spot other potential problems with a feast.)
Work: I deliberately chose low-work dishes, and ones where some of the work could be done in advance. The walnut for the Badinjan Muhassa was ground and toasted a few days before the feast, and the Badinjan Muhassa was mixed up the day before the feast. The murri for the Tabâ hajah was made the week before. The hardest part of making Andalusian chicken is turning onions and green coriander into juice. We did that in advance with the help of an unmedieval blender and food processor, turning the kitchen green in the process, and froze the juice. The onions for the lentil dish were chopped the day before, and the desserts were made anywhere from a week to a day in advance, depending on how well they keep. The use of only one platter per table for the main dishes and rice reduced the amount of washing-up to be done.
Kitchens: Our site has two small kitchens, the smaller one with a four-burner stove and the larger with a six-burner stove. Since the food was cooking in very large pots, only two pots could fit onto the smaller stove, and four onto the larger stove. Both the rice and the lentils could start cooking on the stove and then be removed to finish cooking by their own heat; five gallons of lentils or nine gallons of rice will stay hot enough to cook for a long time. (By the same token, leftovers should be put in small containers before being refrigerated after the feast: that much food in one mass will stay warm enough to spoil for a long time even in the refrigerator.) We therefore cooked the rice and lentils first and the lamb and chicken afterward on the same stoves.
Recipes and Quantities
(Page numbers refer to this edition of the Miscellany)
Badinjan Muhassa (25 recipes), p. 13
Tabâhajah from the manuscript of Yahya b. Khalid (64 recipes), p. 29
Cooked Dish of Lentils (~21 recipes), p. 24
Andalusian Chicken (32 recipes), p. 34
Hais (3 recipes), p. 64
Khushkananaj (8 recipes), p. 68
Hulwa (5 batches), p. 82
Makshufa (6.5 recipes), p. 83
Sekanjabin (5 recipes = 25 c syrup), p. 86
Syrup of Lemon, p. 87
The Fihrist of al-Nadim, tr. Bayard Dodge, Columbia University Press 1970. The reference to sekanjabin is vol. II, p. 706 (footnote 184).
Manuscrito Anonimo (13th c. Andalusian.) A translation by Charles Perry of the Arabic edition of Ambrosio Huici Miranda with the assistance of an English translation by Elise Fleming, Stephen Bloch, Habib ibn al-Andalusi and Janet Hinson of the Spanish translation by Ambrosio Huici Miranda. Included in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks 5th Edition, 1992, vol. II, ed. David Friedman/Cariadoc of the Bow. Referred to above as Andalusian.