Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
 
 
September 23, 2014
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Mangia Bene

 

Rivers of water unstalling, rivers of milk unchanging in flavor, and rivers of wine--a delight to the drinkers, rivers, too of honey purified, and therein for them is every fruit and forgiveness from their Lord.
The Koran, Sura 47:16ff.

 

    The historical foundation of Mediterranean gastronomy rests in part with the role Islamic civilization played in the early Middle Ages at a time when the Mediterranean basin and Europe in particular was backward. An Islamic aesthetic rooted in the descriptions of the gardens of paradise in the Koran spawned an Arab agricultural revolution in the Mediterranean. The enchantment with greenery and the description of the gardens of paradise in the Koran led to a penchant among Arab rulers to collect plants for their kitchen gardens. The kitchen garden was not only a garden supplying food but natural beauty as well and it gave rise to a genre of Arabic poetry known as the rawdiya, the garden poem, meant to conjure the image of the Garden of Paradise.

    What might account for this interest in and love of growing plants among Muslim communities? Can the philosophical beginning of the Arab agricultural initiative be found in the conception of man derived from the holy book of the Muslims, the Koran? The Koran is not a record of the Prophet's activities, like the New Testament is of Jesus, but is believed to be the actual Word of God. The Koran provides thorough and comprehensive guidelines on everything from diet to commercial law.

For our culinary purposes we are most interested in the Islamic conception of architectural space and the role the garden plays in that space. In the Western tradition there is a concentration on the external look of a building while traditional Islamic architecture is primarily concerned with enclosed space defined by its building materials. The Islamic aesthetic sees the quality of the volume, its light, its coolness, and its decoration as more important than the mass. The result is an internal architecture, inseparable from the fabric of the city, that forges a refuge. This architectural concept of the Islamic dwelling and city is meant to mirror the ideal human condition, which should be disinterested in outward symbols and deeply concerned with space for the inner soul to breathe and develop. The garden should create this refuge both literally and figuratively. It is not much of a leap to see the connection between the garden and the kitchen. These philosophical concerns are mirrored in the Islamic culinary aesthetic.

(Photo below: Generalife in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain)

    In this garden, meant to capture the feeling of the gardens of paradise (or the garden of delights), we find the roots of what centuries later in Spain and Italy became the kitchen garden and the horticultural foundation for the culinary imperative. In a way the story of how the Arabs influenced European cuisine begins with the celestial gardens of Paradise described in the Koran. Paradise is the reward for the Muslim faithful. The Muslim paradise is a continuation of the basic Judeo-Christian paradise.

The pre-Islamic tradition of a royal pleasure garden and the arid ecology of the birthplace of Islam resulted in a concept of paradise filled with water and plants of all kinds. Water and other liquids are an important feature. "Gardens underneath which rivers flow" is an expression that occurs more than thirty times in the Koran. "Rivers of water unstalling, rivers of milk unchanging in flavor, and rivers of wine--a delight to the drinkers, rivers, too of honey purified, and therein for them is every fruit and forgiveness from their Lord." (Sura 47:15 ff.)

In the promised garden are vineyards and the faithful will be accompanied by the huriyat, the buxom black-eyed virgins of paradise "with swelling breasts," and lovely boys, the ghilman, will attend every need (Sura 78). In the Islamic conception of paradise we find the origin of the quartered garden divided by means of four water-channels, all contained within a private walled enclosure.

Paradise is a purely sensual image of sight, sound, and taste. The fountains of paradise gush, the greenery is lush, the food delicious, and the elixir called ma' al- tasnim, literally "water of the ascended to heaven" is the beverage of the blessed in Paradise, giving everlasting life. Green leaves remind the faithful of heavenly gardens where angels and huriyat, are dressed in green silk and brocade (Sura 55: 48-76). There is more than one garden of Eden and each is planted with fruit trees, the palm, and pomegranate (Sura 55: 68-69). Abundant fruit trees are mentioned, with rich pavilions set among them where one talks with friends.

The descriptions of Koranic gardens may have been based on the actual gardens of Damascus, the Ghuta, which the first Muslims, the Meccan merchants, had seen. The early Arab caliphs and emirs designed luxurious and bountiful garden paradises to reflect the ideal Garden of Paradise.

In Islamic Sicily and Spain the gardens of paradise were planted with exotic fruits such as oranges and bergamots and flowers such as asphodel and adorned with fountains where one heard the soothing spray or tinkle of running water while lounging on silken cushions ranged in order on richly spread carpets under the cool shade of broad-leaved trees. A peaceful repose in today's Alhambra palace in Granada or the al-Azim palace in Damascus makes this all clear.

There was nothing like these gardens in Europe of the time. A European traveler gazing upon the fabulous palace garden of the Tuluid ruler of Egypt Khumarawayh (ruled 884-96) would have been astonished. The garden was filled with sweet-smelling flowers planted to form Arabic calligraphy. In its courtyard was the wondrous pool of quicksilver where Khumarawaih could rest upon inflated leather cushions tethered with silk ropes to silver columns and drink his ratls of wine and eat rare figs and dates from far off lands.

The Islamic garden was quite different than the gardens of Europe that became famous during the Renaissance. The Muslims had different kinds of gardens serving different purposes. The bustan was the garden of the inner court of a house, a formal garden with pools and water channels. The jannah was an orchard with palms, oranges, and vines irrigated by canals. The rawdah referred in particular to the vegetable garden that produced foods for the cooks. Before long the kitchens of the caliphs saw an explosion of what one scholar called a "culinary nouvelle vague." The Muslim chefs in Baghdad were as dazzling cooks as the Michelin-starred chefs of France today, and very much influenced by the cuisine of Persia which the Arabs had recently conquered. They made involved preparations such as madfuna, a dish of eggplants stuffed with finely minced meat previously cooked in coriander and cinnamon with chickpeas, and then simmered in a sauce of onions, broth, and saffron sprinkled with rose water.

In later centuries, Muslim chefs in the courts of Ottoman Istanbul or Damascus were stuffing vegetables in the sixteenth century, some one thousand years after the rise of Islam.

For the gardens of Paradise to become reality, the relocated Arab farmers and gardeners needed water. Water was essential to life in the Mediterranean, but with the limited numbers of aquifers and the scanty rainfall it require all the ingenuity of the people to provide water for their crops and sweet water to drink. Arguably, of all the Mediterranean peoples, the Arabs may have the greatest appreciation for water, and the legacy of Arab hydrological technology is evident throughout the Mediterranean. There is the physical evidence of gardens, such as the water chadar (water channel) of the Ziza palace in Palermo and the Generalife (from the Arabic jannat al-'arif, meaning the inspector's paradise) in Granada, a Nasrid monument of the late thirteenth century whose villa was one of the outer buildings of the Alhambra. There is also horticultural evidence, such as the fact that Arabs were the first to lay out orchards in a grid to foster easier growth and harvesting, as well as other agricultural, technological, and linguistic evidence.

One of the most important hydraulic technologies that is a legacy of Islam is the qanat, an underground watercourse formed by linking up a series of wells to tap ground-water resources at what may be very considerable distances. It seems that the Arabs made it possible to develop what became the city of Madrid by introducing a sort of qanat. One historian argues that the very name of Madrid comes from the Arabic.

Islamic hydrological technology consisted of a profusion of devices for catching, storing, channeling, and lifting water. Among the more important of these, besides the qanat, were new kinds of dams and a variety of wheels, norias, turned by animal or water power and used for lifting water, sometimes to great heights, out of rivers, canals, wells, and storage basins. Several of these magnificent norias still groan away today in Hama, Syria, where the fourteenth-century Four Norias of Bishriyat or the al-Muhammadiyya, supply the water for the Grand Mosque.

  (Photo: The norias of Hama, Syria)

The Arabs did not invent new technologies as much as they modernized older technologies and spread them over wider areas. Arab innovations dramatically improved the quality of irrigation and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that by the eleventh century there was hardly a river, stream, spring, known acquifer, or predictable flood that went unused. Across the Islamic Mediterranean a a patchwork of heavily irrigated areas, some large and some small, transformed a hostile environment into one where a new agriculture could move and where both the old cabbage and the new crops were grown with astonishing success.