When many people think of “middle eastern cuisine”, they think of rice- biryani, pulao, mujadara. While the wealthy of Baghdad in the 10th century did have easy access to rice and did occasionally eat it, rice was considered an inferior food and poor nutrition. The few rice recipes in the Kitab al-Tabikh are all heavy, fortified dishes full of milk or yogurt, animal fat, or sugar to increase its nutritional value.
What they ate was wheat. Wheat was considered the most nutritious grain and was eaten as porridge, pasta, dumplings, cookies, cakes, and bread of every description. Wheat starch was removed and used to make all sorts of sweets and delicate pastries. Stale bread was broken up or ground and soaked in meat broth, herbs, and spices, making a dressing-like dish called tharid that was central to the cuisine. Toasted wheat was ground and mixed with sugar and water to make a nourishing drink, called sawiq, that was flavored with all kinds of fruits and spices.
Another central ingredient to this cuisine is onions. Onions were thought to induce thirst, stimulate the appetite, and was cooked with meat to “remove offending odors”. They ate almost a dozen varieties of vegetables in the onion family, and there are onions in almost every dish. In testing the dishes in this manuscript I have come to appreciate more deeply the nuances in flavor between brown onions, leeks, green onions, chives, garlic, and red onions.
Certain combinations of flavors define cuisines, and this cuisine liked their meat dishes “sharp” and “sour”. Sumac juice, citron juice, and pomegranate juice were all used to introduce sour flavors in meat dishes too, but by far the most common ingredient is vinegar. Vinegar was thought to balance out the heaviness in meat-centered dishes and to help cool the body, an important concern in a desert climate. Vinegar was used to marinate meat before cooking and added to spices and onions at the end to make a sauce. It’s added to ground mustard seed and spices to make mustard sauces. There is also an entire range of dishes that are preserved in vinegar and served cold, called barida. Barida are not pickles exactly, more like cooked vegetables marinated in spiced vinegar. Barida were an important part of every feast, cooling the body and aiding in digestion. Vinegar was often made from fruits such as apples, dates, raisins and figs, but the best vinegar was made from grape wine. I will be using red wine vinegar for the dishes calling for vinegar in this feast.
Come prepared to savor the sour, the sharp, and the piquant. In this feast I have tried to present a balance of flavors, textures, and cooking methods, but these three ingredients are impossible to avoid. If you have an onion intolerance, wheat intolerance or a wheat allergy, this may not be the feast for you.