Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
February 2, 2023
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Mangia Bene

The sixteenth-century Mediterranean diet was a monotonous one, a lifetime of eating bread, more bread, and gruel.

[photo: Bab Souika in Tunis, 1899]

Of course, there were vegetables to eat, but the overwhelming percentage of calories in the diet derived from grain products. The famous New World vegetables had not yet arrived in Tunisia in 1500--the tomato, the potato, the chile, and beans. In Muslim Spain the gruel might be made of wheat flour—sakhīna or caṣīda—cooked in a soup of seasonal herbs, spinach, lettuce, or sorrel, and served in a common bowl for family meals. Or it might be a soup with a few fava beans and chick-peas.

Many of the dishes eaten in Muslim Spain and Tunisia had been traditional for centuries. As early as the tenth century al-Muqaddasī wrote that he had “eaten ‘harīsa’ with the Sufis and ‘tharīda’ with the monks and ‘caṣīda’ with seamen.” All these dishes were famous medieval Arab preparations that have their descendents today.

The harīsa mentioned by al-Muqaddasī has nothing to do with the spicy hot chile paste with the same name, 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 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.” It became in England 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.

Tharīda was 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 caṣīda 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.

cAṣīda, the name of a variety of similar dishes, but basically a kind of semolina porridge, is 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 caṣīda 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. cAṣīda 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 Ḥasan al-Wazan, who was known as Leo Africanus (c. 1465-1550) in the West, 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 s hallow 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.

[wood cut of Mansa Musa from Leo Africanus's 16th century manuscript]

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 caṣīda is eaten in celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, Mawlid al-Nabī, it reminds the believer that the holy Koran was recited to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel near Mecca in 610 AD.