Arab tidbits

Medieval snacks

King Bokkus and Sidrak the Wise (cover illustration of the edition of the Middledutch Sidrac)The recipes on this page were made, together with clareit and medieval wafers, for the opening of an exhibition in the Utrecht University Museum on the medieval text Sidrac. The focus was on the Middle Dutch translation, Sidrac. There is also a late-medieval English translation of this text, Sidrak and Bokkus.

Sidrac (Sidrak and Bokkus)
Why arab snacks for a medieval Dutch text? The Dutch version is a translation from the fourteenth century of the Oldfrench Sydrac le Philisophe which dates from the thirteenth century. It is a dialogue between King Bokkus and Sidrak the Wise who answers the king's questions. Sources are, among others, scientific books presenting knowledge from antiquity returned through arab texts to medieval Europe. A new edition of the Middle Dutch Sidrac appeared in 2006.

The recipes
The food I prepared on this occasion was to be eaten by people standing with a glass in their hands. That is why the modern adaptations of the recipes on this page deviate more from the original ones than usual on this site. There are three recipes: one for spicy meatballs, and two for small pasties, with a stuffing with aubergines or eggplants and with spinach.
The recipes originate from two cookbooks: the meatballs and the stuffing with aubergines are taken from the thirteenth century Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook. You can read more about this book at the recipe for deep-fried braids. The stuffing with spinach is taken from the Kitab al-Tabikh-al-Baghdadi (also from the thirteenth century). This cookbook is mentioned more extensively at the recipe for meatballs in aubergine sauce, where there is also more information on medieval arab cooking. (See also the bibliography below). So, the recipes on this page represent the East as well the West of the Arab Caliphate.

Murrī, an arab condiment
Among the listed ingredients for spicy meatballs there is a curious condiment, called Murrī. This is a seasoning that has dissappeared from the arab kitchen, you'll have to prepare it yourself, or use miso or douchi as substitute. Murrī is a spicy, salty paste, made from quinces, spices, walnuts and lots of salt. To make your own Murrī: here is the recipe. If you prepare the amount in the recipe, you'll have enough for years: it keeps indefinitely, and you need but a teaspoonful at a time.

The original recipe
It will not surprise you that these recipes were written in arabic. Since I lack any knowledge of that language, I present here the translations by A.J. Arberry and Charles Perry as found in the editions mentioned in the bibliography below.

A Dish of Meatballs
Make meatballs, as told before, and put the pot on the fire. Put in it a spoon of vinegar and another of murri, spices, an onion pounded with cilantro and salt, a little thyme, a clove of garlic and enough rue and fresh water as needed until it is nearly done. Throw in the meatballs and dot with egg yolks and coat the contents of the pot with the whites, and add whole pine nuts and almonds. Ladle out and sprinkle with pepper, cinnamon and rue.
From the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook chapter 6.
Description of Mahshi (a stuffed dish) With Eggplants
Take sweet eggplants, peel them and boil in salted water until done, then remove their seedy flesh to one side. Make mahmiyya for the eggplants in a tajine. Add as much bread crumbs [as the quantity of eggplant], and pepper, coriander seed, cinnamon, saffron, chopped almond and as many eggs as you need; beat it all and cover with plenty of oil and bury in it whole egg yolks. Then plant the seedy flesh in it and put in an oven at moderate heat and leave until it has finished cooking and binds and is brown on top, then take out and leave until its heat flags and leave it. You might pound in it whatever meats of fried fowl you have ready, and each will result in a different dish; there are some who serve it with juices of coriander and mint.
From the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook chapter 7.
Isfanakh Mutajjan (fried spinach)
Take spinach, cut off the lower roots, and wash: then boil lightly in salt and water, and dry. Refine sesame-oil, drop in the spinach, and stir until fragrant. Chop up a little garlic, and add. Sprinkle with fine-ground cumin, dry coriander and cinnamon: then remove.
From the Kitab al-Tabikh-al-Baghdadi (Medieval Arab Cookery p.79). k

Modern adaptation of the recipe for spicy meat balls Print the recipe Deutsche gekürzte Version bei Rezepte-Wiki
The recipe starts with "Make meatballs, as told before". From chapter 5 of the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook, 'Preparation of Meatballs from Any Meat You Wish'  I take it that all ingredients mentioned in the first part of the recipe are to be mixed with the ground meat, then the mixture is to be rolled into meatballs that can be either boiled or broiled. And then ... It seems that the meatballs are to be glazed with eggyolks and then the eggwhites are to be poured over it seperately? Other recipes have instructions like "break eggs into it and cover it" (recipe for Jimliyya ch.5) or "cover the contents of the pot with an egg and pour it out" (recipe for Dish of meat with walnuts and mastic", also ch.5). Because the meatballs were meant to be eaten at a reception (people standing around with a glass in one hand and a bite in the other)  I decided to omit the eggyolks and whites in the adaptation.
Makes 50 to 75 small balls; preparation in advance 10 minutes; preparation 20 minutes.

Spicy meatballs from the thirteenth centuryFor the meatballs
500 gram (1 pound) minced lamb meat
1 egg
1 Tbsp. in all from thyme, corianderseed, cumin, saffron (ratio 3:3:2:1)
pepper,salt to taste
crumbs of 3 slices of white bread (about 1 cup)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 1/2 Tbsp. chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves
1/2 Tbsp. chopped rue
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp. murri
3 Tbsp. sesame oil or olive oil
1 tsp. murri
1 dl (1/2 cup) chicken broth
2 Tbsp. toasted pine nuts and slivered almonds
several twigs of rue for decoration

Preparation in advance
Mix everything for the meatballs. Form into small balls which can be eaten in one bite.

Heat the oil in a wide frying pan. Add the meatballs and brown them. Add chicken broth and murri, bring to the boil and temper the heat until the meatballs are done.

To serve
Sprinkle the meatballs just before serving with toasted pine nuts and almond slivers, and adorn with twigs of rue if you have them.
The balls are to be eaten at room temperature, or slightly warm, but not sizzling hot. That would not be comfortable when one is to eat them by hand.

Modern adaptation of the recipes for pasties with eggplant and spinach stuffing Print the recipe Deutsche gekürzte Version bei Rezepte-Wiki Deutsche gekürzte Version bei Rezepte-Wiki
The idea to use these recipes for aubergine (egg plant) and spinach as stuffing for pasties is not authentic. But even in those days (thirteenth century) there were already small pasties, called sanbusaj, predecessors of samosas. In the Kitab al-Tabikh-al-Baghdadi these pasties are baked in sesame oil. The dough consisted of wheat flour with or without yeast. There is also a 'flat bread' which is stuffed with samosa stuffing. Starch or amylum is also mentioned in recipes, but you can't make dough from starch alone (see Charles Perry (2)).
For the pasties I chose to use filo dough (or phyllo or fillo dough). This dough is not specifically mentioned in the arab cookbooks I saw, but is does seem to be fairly authentic for the period. From the eleventh century onward there is a Turkish bread consisting of layers, the direct ancestor of filo dough. It wasn't until around 1500 that the dough sheets were rolled out or spread out until they were paper thin, although extremely thin sheets were mentioned before (a poet describes them as 'grasshoppers' wings' Charles Perry (2)).
Filo dough is made with wheat flour, water, oil and salt. In commercially produced filo dough starch is also added. The starch makes the dough slightly transparent when it is baked. For these pasties I have been lazy and used filo dough bought from a shop.
When you buy filo dough it's problaby frozen and has to thaw. Once you start to use it you must keep the dough in foil and/or a moist towel because it dries very quickly.

Arab pasties.Ingredients
1 or 2 packs of filo (phyllo/fillo)dough
sesame oil or olive olive oil to brush the dough wtth

Spread one sheet of filo dough on your work top. Brush with olive or sesame oil. Olive oil was used in the west, sesame oil in the east of tha arab countries. I used sesame oil because I like the taste best in this dish. Cover the sheet with another sheet of dough, brush it with oil, and cover this sheet with a third sheet. Now, using a pizza-cutter, divide the sheets in squares of 5 by 5 centimeters (2 by 2 inches). Brush the edges of the squares again with oil, and place on every square a teaspoon of stuffing. Now you can make either triangles by simply folding the squares diagonally, or little square hats by taking the four points and pinch them together. If you use both stuffings, you could shape the pasties differently according to the stuffing, so people know what each pasty contains.
Put the pasties on an oiled baking tin and place this in the middle of a prehated oven for 25 minutes on 180 dgC (350 oF). If you bake the pasties in advance, you'll have to reheat them in the oven to make them crisp again: 5 minutes on 200 dgC (400 oF). You can not heat them in the microwave, that won't make them crisp.

To serve
You can serve these pasties warm or at room temperature. The pomegranate in the picture was meant as decoration, but it was a very good idea to dip the pasties into the slightly sour juice. Yoghurt with mint would also have been a good idea.

Aubergine/Eggplant stuffing
Warning: This adaptation is VERY adapted! Only the ingredients from the original recipe are the same. As you can read in the origal recipe the aubergine is peeled and boiled in salted water, the other ingredients are mixed seperatedly, and then the aubergine is added together with whole, hardboiled egg yolks. Oil is poured over this, then the whole goes in the oven in a tagine until it has formed a brown crust (see the note of Perry for this recipe). I have omitted the boiled yolks, roasted the aubergine instead of cooking it, and mixed everything to obtain a stuffing for pasties.
(For 20 to 40 pasties)

1 aubergine
3 slices of white bread, crumbled without the crust (1 cup)
1 Tbsp. in all of powdered coriander, pepper, cinnamon, saffron (ratio 6:3:3:1)
1 1/2 Tbsp. chopped or ground almonds
1 Tbsp. chopped coriander and mint leaves (ratio 3:4)
1 small egg, stirred
salt to taste

Preparation in advance
Halve the aubergine lengthwise, sprinkle the cut sides with salt, rinse the salt off after 30 minutes, pat the aubergines dry. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 175 dgC (345 oF). Roast the aubergine for 30 minutes. Let the aubergine halves cool slightly, then peel off the skin.

Mash the aubergine flesh to a pulp, using a blender or fork. Add the other ingredients, mix well. Use this as stuffing for the pasties (see above).

Spinach stuffing
The adaptation of this recipe has remained close to the original (except for the use of the spinach as stuffing). 
(For 20 to 40 pasties)

1 kilo spinach (2 pounds/7 dry quarts), or 750 gram (1 1/2 pound/3 1/4 dry quarts) wild/winter spinach
1 Tbsp. in all of powdered cumin, coriander, cinnamon (ratio 3:2:1)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 egg yolk (optional)

Preparation in advance
Wash the spinach. Put it in a pan without adding water (the spinach has enough of its own), bring to the boil and heat until the spinach has lost its volume. Drain well, squeeze to get rid of the last excess water. Then chop the spinach.

Heat sesame oil in a low, wide pan. Lower the fire, add the chopped garlic, and after a few moments the spices. Mix, and immediately add the spinach. Stirfry until everything is mixed well.
When using the spinach for pasties let the spinach cool to room temperature before stuffing. You can add a raw egg yolk to the spinach, but this is not essential. This stirfried spinach can also be served as a side course or vegetable, as is the original intention of the medieval recipe.

All descriptions of ingredients

Rue in bloom.Rue - A little shrub (Ruta graveolens), indigenous to Southern Europe. The odiferous plant has a strong, bitter taste. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved rue, and it is still an ingredient in the Italian drink Grappa Ruta. In modern cuisine rue has mostly dissappeared, which is a pity. A few rue leaves in broth are very good. However, it is thought to be an anaphrodisiac (quenches lust), and pregnant women must be careful not to use too much of it, because it could also be abortive. But a leaf or two won't do any harm.
Rue plants can be found at garden centers. It is quite decorative, a semi-perennial with small yellow flowers that can be used to decorate any dish.
Sesame oil - Meditteranean sesame oil is pressed from raw seeds, chinese sesame oil is pressed from toasted seeds, resulting in a stronger flavoured, darker oil. So take care that you use the right sesame oil. If you find the taste of Chinese sesame oil too overwhelming, you can temper it with a neutral oil. Buy a small bottle of sesame oil, the taste deteriorates once the bottle is openend.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)