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Did You Know: Food History - Famous Everyday Dishes from the Medieval Arab World
Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
January 21, 2017
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Mangia Bene

If today we can say that hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza are famous everyday dishes in America, the same can be discovered for the medieval Islamic Arab world during its golden age. Dishes eaten in Muslim Spain and Tunisia in the twelfth century had been traditional for centuries. As early as the tenth century al-Muqaddasī, the famed Arab traveler born in Jerusalem, wrote that he had “eaten ‘harīsa’ with the Sufis and ‘tharīda’ with the monks and ‘casīda’ with seamen.” All these dishes were famous medieval Arab preparations that have their descendants today. What were these dishes?

The harīsa mentioned by al-Muqaddasī has nothing to do with the spicy hot chile pepper paste with the same name used today as a condiment in North Africa, other than that both are made by pounding and that the Arabic verb harasa, to pound or to crush, gives them their names. From the seventh century until today al-Muqaddasī’s harīsa was a kind of porridge made from pounded wheat, butter, meat, and spices. Harīsa was as famous and as international a dish as pizza is today. During the reign of the Umayyad caliph Mucāwiya (661-680 A.D.) a delegation of Arabian Jews visited him in Damascus and the first question he asked them was whether they knew how to prepare the delightful harīsa, which he himself had had on a visit to Arabia. The Arabian Jews did in fact know how to make harīsa, and it is a dish that has been preserved to this day by Yemeni Jews. This famous dish also traveled to England, where the name was translated into the English of the fourteenth century as frumenty, derived from the Middle French word for “grain.” In England it became a kind of wheat stew boiled with milk, cinnamon, and sugar. In the nineteenth century the famous lexicographer Reinhart Dozy noted that harīsa was eaten by Moroccan Jews on Sunday.

Another, perhaps more famous, dish from the medieval Arab world is tharīda, basically a bread soup, consisting of bread crumbled with the fingers, then moistened with broth. The name of the dish very likely derives from tharāda, meaning, literally, and appropriately, to crumble bread into broth. According to the French scholar Maxime Rodinson, tharīda and casīda were typical foods among the Bedouin of pre-Islamic and, probably, later times. They could also be the food of the wealthy when prepared luxuriously with such extras as eggs and bone marrow.

Culinary historian and cook alike will find this soup one of the most intriguing. The references in all the classical lexica describe tharīd(a) as a kind of bread soup or a large earthenware bowl. It has been described as one of the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite dishes, in reference to his saying that his wife Aisha held a place among women that tharīd held among food. Tharīd was a food of the Quraysh tribe of the Arabian Peninsula in early Islamic times and, in what might be an apocryphal story, Hāshim, Muhammad’s great-grandfather, had cooked this dish unknown to non-Arabs during a visit to pre-Islamic Syria for the Byzantine emperor who like it so much that he was persuaded to grant the Quraysh mercantile privileges. When al-Muqaddasī related that he ate tharīd with the monks, he probably meant the Chaldean monks of Iraq, so the word may be originally Aramaic, Syriac, or Chaldean.

The trīd mentioned by cookbook writers Paula Wolfert and Zette Guinaudeau-Franc as the bastīla of the poor in Fès appears to be derived from the word tharīda. The role of bread (or crêpes as Guinaudeau-Franc not inaccurately calls trīd) is prominent and supports Wolfert’s claim that the Palestinian musakhkhan is related because of the use of the very thin crêpe-like flatbread. The role of wheat in general in tharīda has led the linguist Professor Dionisius Agius to wonder if there may be a relationship between tharīda and the early Arab form of macaroni known as itrīya. Although it’s unlikely, perhaps the original tharīda was really a soup of pasta secca and not bread soup.

The third of our famous dishes is casīda, that is actually the name of a variety of similar dishes, but basically is a kind of semolina porridge, rooted in the culinary traditions of Muslim Andalusia. It was as ubiquitous in the medieval Maghrib and Islamic Spain as French fries are today. One of the earliest written recipes for it can be found in an anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookbook. In the thirteenth century, casīda was also a porridge– a thick broth stirred into wheat flour, perhaps with butter and honey– usually made for religious holidays, such as Mawlid al-Nabī, the birthday festival of the Prophet Muhammad, or ceremonies such as the caqiqa, the traditional hair cutting of the newborn seven days after birth. It was also fed to women in labor. cAsīda was known in the Rif, the mountainous region along the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where flour made from lightly grilled barley was used. The famous Arab explorer Hasan al-Wazan (c.1465-1550), who was known as Leo Africanus in the West, and who journeyed into Africa, gives a recipe: Boil water in a large pot, add the barley flour, stirring with a stick. Pour the gruel into a plate and in the center make a small shallow where one puts the argan seed oil. The argan seed oil he mentions is extracted from the argan tree (Argania sideroxylon Roem. et Schult.), a kind of evergreen, the word coming from the Arabic arjān, where an oil is extracted from the seed, and is still used today in Moroccan cooking.

Finally, rafis is yet another dish similarly made of wheat flour, dates, honey, and butter and other ingredients which a sheik of Qairouan in the fourteenth century shared once a year in a celebration with the students of his zāwiyya, a hospice and theological school. A recipe preserved from the fifteenth century tells us how to make rafis: “Take pieces of bread smaller than an olive and mix with dates and honey until it looks like it will break apart. Work the mixture for a long time with the hands not over a fire until you get a rafis.”

The reasons these foods were so important around holidays of religious significance were several, including a belief in the medicinal properties of honey. When a bowl of casīda is eaten in celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, it reminds the believer that the holy Koran was recited to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel near Mecca in 610 A. D