Friday, June 11, 2021

Medieval Arabs Ate Sandwiches Too!?

Keep on reading to get to the bottom of it while making this millennium old pinwheel sandwich made for the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d.861), and surprise yourself with how exotic and yet so familiar it is. Enjoy!

We all bought into the theory that the inventor of the sandwich was John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich of England (1718 – 1792). The story goes that he was the one who started the trend when he asked for his meal to be served between two layers of bread. John Montagu was an avid gambler, or a workaholic, according to another account, who chose to forgo the traditional proper table-dinners that would have interrupted whatever it was he was doing and, more importantly, to keep a hand free. 

Fourth Earl of Sandwich

The speculation is that soon enough people around him started to imitate him, to have that same 'thing' that Sandwich had, and that was how food consumed this way acquired the name ‘sandwich,’ with the first documented English sandwich recipe appearing in the 1773 English cookbook The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying her Table by Charlotte Mason:

Mason, Lady's Assistant,  p. 427

Well, as far as naming goes, this is all plausible, but the fourth Earl of Sandwich was  definitely not the first one to have his meal this way. Food must have conveniently been eaten this way from ancient times in the Near East, where bread was baked in a variety of ways: flat ones and risen and spongy ones. They were variously made leavened and unleavened, large and small, and many more. Depending on how they were made, there was the clay oven tannūr for the leavened flat bread, the larger communal brick oven for baking puffed and spongy bread, and the metal plates (saj) for the large and thin bread varieties.

Baking Khubz in the tannūr

Excavated remains of a brick oven furn in ancient Mesopotamia Tell Brak

A baking thin sheet of flat bread, called marquq, shrak, lawash/lavash, etc.

In Mesopotamia alone more than 300 varieties of bread were known. Interestingly, we see in an ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seal, for instance, an Assyrian officer having a meal on the go-- the way sandwiches are always meant to be eaten. He is depicted as holding what looks like a roll of bread (a sandwich!) while standing, with his attendant fanning the flies away 

Iraqi Museum
(Reproduction in 
Tharwat Ukāsha, Al-Fann al-‘Irāqī, 1980: 517)

From scenes depicted on the ancient Egyptian temple walls we can see that fillings were added between two layers of bread resembling sandwiches, and cylindrical breads were made that looked like pinwheels.

An ancient Egyptian baking scene

As for ancient Greece and Rome, it was to the Near East that they looked for the well-made bread. In his “Life of Luxury,” Sicilian-Greek gourmet Archestratus (fourth century BCE) recommended the Phoenicians and Lydian bakers (in western Asia Minor) for their expertise in baking.

            A medieval cook kneading bread dough

Thus it follows that in a region so impressively rich and varied in making bread, it should come as no surprise to learn that the documented history of the sandwich and its culture in the Near East began much earlier than the eighteenth century in Europe. While the first English sandwich recipe appeared in the1773 Lady's Assistant, in the surviving medieval Arabic cookbooks many sandwich recipes were included as early as the tenth century. In fact, based on the references and descriptions of sandwiches in medieval Arabic literature, their origin can be pushed even further back to the eighth or ninth century, which was the beginning of the golden age of the Baghdadi cuisine. For instance, in al-Masʿūdī’s tenth-century Murūj al-Dhahab, a poem by the famous Abbasid poet of Baghdad Ibn al-Rūmī (d. 896) describes how to construct a sandwich, which he calls wasṭ (وسط), in which the stuffing is put between two layers of bread. Here is how he describes it: 

    You, seeker of delicious food, take a couple of fine breads, round and thick,
    The likes of which no one has seen, Slice off the top crusts, 
    so that you make them thin.
    Spread on one, finely minced grilled chicken, delectable and delicate, 
    which a mere puff would melt.
    On this arrange lines of almond intersected with lines of walnut.
    Let its dots be cheese and olive, and its vowels mint and tarragon,
    Now take boiled eggs, and with their dirhams [egg white] 
    and dinars [egg yolk] the wasṭ adorn.
    Give it a dusting of salt, but not much; just what it needs.
    And inspect it with your eyes for a second or two, 
    for the eyes have a share in it, too.
    Look at it appreciatively until your eyes have their fill, 
    then cover it with the other bread, and eat it with joy.

AS for recipes, the earliest ones occur in Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s 10th-century cookbook, Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh, chapter 23 (my English translation, Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens). In this chapter, five recipes are given with a bonus food poem. In these five recipes, sandwiches are made in three different ways:

1. A thin flat bread similar to today's marquq (lavash) is spread with layers of finely chopped ingredients (meat, vegetables, herbs, etc.), and then seasoned and tightly rolled. The sandwich is served sliced into pinwheels, called bazmaward, a name of Persian origin. It was also called muyassar wa muhanni ميسر ومهني (i.e. delightful and easy to eat).   

2. Another type of sandwich is called wast (pl. aswat اوساط); it is similar to the one described in Ibn al-Rimi's verses.

3. The third type is called wast mashtour (وسط مشطور), which is an open-faced sandwich. This one, al-Warraq tells us, was made by no less than the Abbasid gourmet Prince Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi himself (d. 839), who was half-brother of Hārūn al-Rashīd. The recipe describes how the crusty edges and top of a brick-oven bread are first sliced off, and the face is spread with a fermented condiment, called binn, and then slathered with walnut oil. It is toasted on a grill set on a brazier, and after smearing it with yolk of soft-cooked eggs, and grated cheese if wished, it is good to eat. Here is the recipe as it occurs in al-Warraq's Arabic edition:

What is even more exciting is the fact that Ibn al-Mahdī supplemented his recipe with a short poem describing it, which in effect is an artistic representation of the dish itself -- second best to today's camera images. Here is his poem:  

What a delicious sandwich on the brazier I made, 

        slathered with binn and walnut oil!

Fragrant and shining, as if the binn I used 

       with ambergris and musk was embalmed.

Of nigella seeds I put what it needed, 

        as for fennel, I did sprinkle some. 

Olive oil I made sure to add, 

        for it gives a luscious coating and a saffron-glow.

Smeared with egg yolks, with cheese sprinkled, 

        looking like speckled embroidered silk.  

As colorful as striped silk it looks, 

        exuding musk and camphor.

The taste, luscious as pure honey, 

        for the best of aromatic spices I did use.

Here is a recipe for you to try: 

It is a recipe for making the pinwheel sandwiches, bazmāward, from tenth-century Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, chapter 23. It was specially made for the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil, d. 861:

Use cold [cooked] meat of two legs and shoulders of a kid or lamb. Finely shred the meat into thread-like pieces. Choose whatever you like of leaf vegetables, excluding watercress (jirjīr) and endives (hindibāʾ). Finely chop them until they resemble sesame seeds and mix [part of] them with the shredded meat. Set the mixture aside.

Now choose good quality sharp cheese, scrape it with a knife, and collect the scraped cheese. Coarsely grind walnuts and add them [with the cheese] to the [set-aside meatless] chopped vegetables. Also add some chopped herbs and rue. A portion of the chopped vegetables should have been set aside unmixed with the meat. Next, peel and chop some olives and add them to the [meatless] chopped vegetable mixture.

Spread a soft and large ruqāqa [similar to lavash/markook bread], cover it with some of the meatless vegetable mixture and sprinkle it with seasoned salt. Next, spread the meat and vegetable mixture [to which you should have added] some spices. Then arrange a layer of eggs sliced lengthwise. Next, spread another layer of the meat and vegetable mixture followed by a layer of the meatless vegetable mixture. Sprinkle them with fine-tasting salt and drizzle them with sweet vinegar and rose water.

Tightly roll the bread with the filling and slice it crosswise into discs. Arrange the [pinwheels] on a platter and pass them around, God willing.


I am not giving exact amounts of ingredients here, but a good rule of thumb is to decide how much to use of the main ingredient, which is the cooked meat here, and build around it. The layering is kind of elaborate; the following steps will help you keep track of the layers. 

On a lavash bread spread the ingredients in this order:


1. vegetable mix

2. vegetable + meat mix

3. sliced eggs

4. vegetable + meat mix

5. vegetable mix

Roll it up and slice it into pinwheels.

The full article is published in ArabLit Quarterly: Summer 2021: The Kitchen

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Baked Falafel: Light and Delicious

الفلافل الفرنية لذيذة وخفيفة

Have your falafel and eat them, fry-free! Here is a way to make sure the chickpeas you are devouring are fully cooked and hence easier on the digestive system. 

Falafel is a Middle-Eastern snack food well known and loved in most parts of the world. Basically, it is ground chickpeas mixed with herbs and spices, shaped into balls or small patties, and deep-fried. The variety made with fava beans is called ta'miyya (طعمية). It is the favorite snack food in Egypt. Some people, though, prefer to make falafel with a combination of chickpeas and fava beans. Interestingly, falafel in Yemen is called bajiyya باجية,  made with a combination of chickpeas and black-eyed peas (cowpeas), which is lubya in Arabic, and dejer دجر in the Yemeni vernacular (here is a link for how it is made in Yemen).     

Whether from chickpeas, fava beans, cowpeas, or whatever beans, this type of fried snack food has always been a very popular food in the Middle East from olden times: a cheap alternative to meat -- it is  also known as kebab al-fuqara' (كباب الفقراء) 'kebab of the poor;'  and it conveniently replaces meat for Lent meals consumed by fasting Christians. That is how such fried delights -- made with fava beans-- came into being, according to one of the stories, which attributes its beginnings to the ancient Egyptian Copts.                      

In fact, that chickpeas were used to replace meat and eggs during Lent is evident from recipes that survived from medieval times. In the tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook كتاب الطبيخ by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq (p. 236), a fried disk is made with mashed chickpeas. The same recipe is repeated in fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook كنز الفوائد (p. 172). Likewise, in the thirteenth-century Andalusian cookbook Anwa' al-Saydala fi Alwan al-At'ima (انواع الصيدلة في الوان الاطعمة), where a similar disc, called isfiriyya اسفرية, is made basically from chickpea flour (p.4). Such meatless dishes were collectively called muzawwarat مزورات, 'false' or 'counterfeit' dishes made to simulate comparable dishes with meat.

The medieval physicians were also of the opinion that such false dishes were fit for the sick because they were believed to be easier to digest than the meat ones.        

Falafel in Iraq was first popularized by the Palestinians who were expelled from their homeland in 1948, and now it has become a favorite street food. However, unlike the rest of the Middle Eastern countries where the falafel sandwich is served rolled in pita bread, the Iraqis usually use sammoun bread (صمون) to stuff the fried balls in it. In my recipe below I used pita bread for convenience, but feel free to use any bread comparable to sammoun in texture such as ciabatta.  


Falafel is usually deep fried. To give it a lighter touch, you may bake it and save yourself the trouble of frying. More importantly, you will be quite sure that the chickpeas will be fully cooked, and they will not be as hard on the digestive system. Here is the recipe:     

Baked Falafel
 (Makes about 18 pieces)

3 1/2 cups of boiled chickpeas, or use two 15.5-oz canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained well 
1 cup parsley, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped, optional
2 garlic cloves, grated
1/4 cup grated onion
3 tablespoons flour, preferably whole wheat
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

Sesame seeds for coating
Olive oil for brushing
Sumac for sprinkling 

1. Combine and mix all the ingredients (except for the sesame seeds, olive oil, and sumac) in a large bowl. Process the mixture in a food processor, in batches (depending on its size), until smooth. 

2. Form falafel mixture into rounded patties (handle with slightly wetted hands), roll each piece in the sesame seeds, and place it in an oiled cookie sheet.

3. Brush the pieces with olive oil and bake in a preheated oven (400°F), middle shelf, for about 25 minutes, until they nicely crisp and brown. Handle them with care for they will be a bit brittle.     

4. Make falafel sandwiches by arranging three pieces of falafel on a warmed up round of pita bread. Scatter some diced salad vegetables (such as tomatoes and cucumber, or whatever you prefer). Drizzle all with some tahini sauce, made by whipping tahini with lemon juice and water, and season with some salt and grated garlic (if sauce turns out to be thick, add some more water and whip). Sprinkle all lightly with some sumac, and roll up the bread, and enjoy.

You may also serve the falafel without bread: simply arrange the pieces on a platter and serve them with tahini sauce. Also lovely with a dip of pepper jam. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

My Book of Delights is Out!

Delights from the Garden of Eden is now out with 25% discount from the publisher. Follow the link given in Equinox Publishing  tweet. 

Also available (ON SALE!),, and  Book Depository 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stuffed Potato Dough

Kubbat Puteta Chap

بتيتة جاب
It is the best guise that potatoes can ever take. The stuffed fried discs are a delight to look at and to eat.

The meaning of chap in this otherwise very Iraqi modern dish eludes me. In all probability, it is a corruption of some sort of an English or Indian word which might have filtered into the dialect during the time of the British colonization.

However, the art of making kubba, of stuffing food with food, is certainly not new to the Iraqi cooks. Indeed, it can be traced all the way back the ancient times, as manifested in the Babylonians' bird pies, prepared by enclosing birds cooked in white sauce between two layers of seasoned dough. Detailed recipes for making such an ancient stuffed food are found in a Babylonian culinary tablet written in Akkadian cuneiform in 1700 BC:

Babylonian culinary tablet 8958, Yale Babylonian Collection  
 Even the term kubba itself, used to designate this kind of stuffed food, might well have originally derived from the Akkadian ‘kubbusu,’ which designates a cake (think a meat patty or a fish cake). See also my previous post on Kubbat Halab.
Using the New World potatoes for making kubba is a relatively new development in the art of making kubba, which is more traditionally made with bulgur and rice.    

Here is how to make it:

(Makes 18 to 20 pieces)

For the shell:
2 pounds potatoes (all-purpose will do), boiled whole and unpeeled
½ cup cornstarch (use a bit less with starchy potatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
For the filling, see my previous post on kubbat Halab
About 1 cup breadcrumbs for coating
Oil for frying

1. Peel the boiled potatoes when cool enough to handle. Cut them into smaller pieces. Put them in a big bowl, and add cornstarch, salt, and pepper. Then mash them with a potato masher, or run them through a potato ricer. A blender or a food processor is not recommended because it will cause the potatoes to develop a gummy texture. With a moistened hand, knead mixture the way you knead pastry dough until well blended, about 5 minutes. If the mixture is too dry to form into dough (sometimes this happens when potatoes are too starchy), sprinkle it with a small amount of water. 

2. Divide dough into 18 to 20 pieces, size of a small lemon, each. With moistened hands, flatten a piece into a thin wok-like disk. Put about 2 tablespoons of the filling in the middle, gather edges, and close the piece into a ball. Flatten it into a disc by putting it between the palms of the hands and gently pressing the edges so that it is full in the middle and thinner around the edges. Always remember to handle dough with slightly moistened hands. Put finished discs in one layer on a tray or a flat dish.

3. Put breadcrumbs in a dish, and coat discs before frying. Shake off excess crumbs.

4. Put about an inch of oil in a skillet. When hot, fry discs turning once to brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes for each side. If they brown quickly, turn heat down a little. 

5. Put the fried discs in a large colander lined with white paper towels, and let them cool off a little before serving. Alternatively, you may spread the paper towels on a rack and put the fried discs in one layer to cool off. This way you will prevent them from getting soggy.

Serve warm with lots of salad, and bread. They also make an exciting filling for a sandwich (too much starch! But really delicious). Fill a sandwich bread (such as Italian ciabatta) with a piece or two of puteta chap along with lots of sliced salad vegetables.

Baked Puteta Chap
(Makes 18 to 20 squares)

Most of the Iraqi traditional dishes are fried, because up until the late 1950s, ovens were not available in every kitchen as they are today. Nowadays there is no reason why some of the fried dishes should not be baked. The following is a lighter version of the traditional puteta chap.

1. Use the same ingredients given above. Make dough as directed in the first step, and prepare filling as directed above.

2. Preheat oven to 380°F. Grease a 12x7x2-inch baking pan (or approximate size). Coat its bottom and sides generously with breadcrumbs. Shake off excess crumbs

3. Divide dough into 2 parts. Cover the bottom of the prepared pan with one part, and spread the filling all over it. Next, cover this filling with the other half of the dough by taking small portions, and flattening and putting them on the filling until the entire surface is covered. With wet fingers, lightly press the top layer closing any gaps on the surface. Brush with a beaten egg and sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Decorate surface with a fork, if you like, and drizzle it with a little oil.

4. Bake it in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, or until surface is golden brown. Let it cool for 10 minutes, and divide it into 18 to 20 squares. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Sweet and the Salty:

Cookies of the Medieval Arab World

with Modern Adaptations

Follow the advice of the medieval Arab gourmets: Keep your taste buds perked up while snacking on sweet cookies by alternating them with salty ones.   

Growing up in Baghdad, I remember that our favorite snack-time was in the afternoon, when Mom would summon us all to her tray of tea and goodies, typical of which would be an assortment of the flavorful aromatic sweet homemade cookies of kleicha (see my post), some stuffed with sugar and walnut and some with dates, and yet others stuffed with cheese and parsley. Along with these, would also be the purchased sugar-less sesame-encrusted dunking cookies of ka'ak, as well as baqsam (biscotti) and churek (see my post). A perfect harmony of flavors and textures of which we couldn't have enough and wished the afternoon would last for ever.   

The famous ka'ak bakery of Al-Seyyid in downtown Baghdad

A Bit of History:

Of the more than 300 varieties of breads the ancient Mesopotamians of Iraq knew, a good number of them were of the kind they called 'improved'. They were cookies, cakes and pastries variously enriched with clarified butter, dairy, beer, sweeteners, nuts, and dried fruits. The cookies were shaped into rings, pillars, turbans, crescents, hearts, heads, hands, ears, and even women's breasts. Such top quality breads were called 'kuku' in Akkadian, the ancient language of the Mesopotamians, from which the Arabic ka'k (كعك) must have derived. Mesopotamia was indeed the cradle of cookies.

And the tradition continued. The existing cookbooks of the medieval Arabo-Islamic world testify to the sophistication and popularity of cookie-making and consumption. The most prevalent were those stuffed with nuts or dates, back then called khushkananaj (خشكنانج), which resemble the ancient Mesopotamian 'qullupu' cookies, and the kleicha and ma'mul of modern times. There were also varieties of the ka'k dry cookies, sandwich cookies, glazed cookies, and there were the delicate almond cookies, sensuously called virgin's breasts. All differently infused with the aromas of rosewater and musk, seasoned with spices, and decked with nuts.

Here is the recipe for virgin's breasts:

Two versions of the cookie recipe nuhood al-adhraa' (virgin's breasts) from 14th-century كتاب وصف الاطعمة المعتادة (Book of Recipes of the Traditional Dishes), which is an augmented version of 13th-century al-Baghdadi's cookbook كتاب الطبيخ (Cookery Book) 

The same recipe in 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa'id
"One part flour, one part clarified butter (samn), one part sugar, and one part almond. Crush them all together, knead them very well, and shape it like breasts. Water is not used. Arrange pieces in a yellow-copper tray (ṭabaq) and bake them in a brick oven (furn)." (English translation mine)

Only one recipe survived, which describes how to make salted cookies. The recipe explains that these cookies are to be offered with the sweet ones, in case the eater’s appetite dulls with having only sweet foods. Here it is:  

Recipe for aqraas mamlooha (salted cookies) from 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kan al-Fawa'id
"Take as much as you need of flour. For each raṭl (1 pound/4 cups), use ¼ raṭl (4 ounces/½ cup) sesame oil, and enough salt to give a noticeably salty taste. Knead [the ingredients with yeast and water], and after dough rises shape it into discs as you do with khubz al-abār (cookies with spice-seeds), but make them a little bit thinner, and bake them. After they develop a golden hue (tawarrada), take them out. These cookies are offered in case the eater’s appetite dulls from having sweet foods. Therefore, they are to be served while having them." (English translation mine)  

Following are my adaptations of the two cookies, the sweet and the salty.  

Almond Kisses

(بسكت باللوز)

Makes 20 pieces

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup oil (such as canola)

3 tablespoons rosewater
20 raisins

1. Put all the dry ingredients (the first six) in a food processor, and pulse once or twice to mix ingredients.
2. Add oil slowly through the tube, and pulse a few more times.
3. Add the rosewater, and pulse several times until the mix clumps together. Add a bit more if needed.
4. Take a walnut-size piece, press by hand into a ball and place it on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Slightly moisten your hands with a bit of rosewater while handling the mix. Repeat with the rest of pieces. Press a raisin in the middle of each piece, and bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven (375 F.) for 13 to 15 minutes (do not let them over bake). During the last two minutes of baking, let the cookies bake on the top shelf of the oven. 

Cheesy Cookies

(بسكت بالجبن)

Makes 26 pieces

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds
1/4 teaspoon ground nigella seeds 
1/4 teaspoon ground dried ginger 

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup oil (such as canola)
1/2 cup yogurt
2 eggs, divided

26 macadamia or hazelnuts nuts

chili pepper, for sprinkling, optional

1. Stir dry ingredients (first seven) in a bowl.
2. Stir in the cheese by fork or hand.
3. Beat together oil, yogurt and one egg, and pour them on the flour mix. Stir with a fork or by fingers in a circular movement at first to allow the flout to absorb the moisture, and then knead them into a medium-consistency dough.
4. Lightly flour the working space. Take some of the dough, and flatten it with a rolling pin to 1/3-inch thickness. Cut it into shapes with cookie cutters. Arrange the pieces on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Stick a macadamia nut or a hazelnut in each cookie, and sprinkle surface with chili pepper (optional). Beat the second egg and brush the pieces with it.
5. Bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven (375 F.) for about 15 minutes. During the last two minutes of baking, let the cookies bake on the top shelf of the oven.


Monday, April 4, 2016

Everybody Loves Salsa

 Mustard and Vinegar Sauce
خل وخردل

The perfect salsa for your grilled dishes:

In modern Iraq what first comes to one’s mind at the mention of the words sauce and salsa is a store-bought bottle of steak sauce similar to A1, which we use primarily with hamburger sandwiches. We think of salsa as a loan word and a foreign concept. Other store-bought sauces are more commonly known by their names, such as khardal (yellow mustard sauce), ketchup, and mayonnaise. Homemade dips and sauces are usually given names, such as hummus bi-thina, jajeek (yogurt sauce), etc.

The general consensus nowadays regarding the etymological origin of salsa and sauce is that they have been borrowed into English from Spanish and French, respectively, and that both ultimately come from Latin salsus ‘salted,’ which stems from sal ‘salt,’ which indeed is an important ingredient in making sauce and salsa (see American Heritage Dictionary 4th edition). BUT:

Etymology aside, serving dishes with some sort of sauce, relish, or condiment is an ancient custom going back to the ancient world. In one of the Babylonian recipes preserved on cuneiform tablets written around 1700 BC, there are directions for the cook to send the dish to the table accompanied with “garlic, greens, and vinegar” (Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamian Culinary Texts 12). 

Given the high level of sophistication the ancient Mesopotamian cuisine achieved, it is likely that these ingredients were presented in the form of a relish, or what we call today salsa, i.e. chopped and mixed with vinegar. Otherwise, there is no logic in imagining that these ingredients were actually presented to the aristocratic diners in separate containers, so that they munch on whole garlic cloves and vegetables, and sip vinegar from a bowl. In fact, judging from the Akkadian herbal texts and related medicinal practices, such relishes and sauces were indeed meant to function as appetizers and digestives.

Later on, the ancient Greeks and the Romans showed the same tendencies, as exemplified in Apiciusthe only cookbook which came down to us from classical antiquity, believed to have been compiled around late 4th or early 5th century AD. The book abounds with sauce recipes called oenogarum. They were served with all kinds of meat and vegetables, such as in the recipe “Herb sauce for fried fish:

Prepare, wash, and fry whatever fish you like. Pound pepper, cumin, coriander seed, laser root [asafetida], oregano, rue, pound again; pour on vinegar, add date, honey, defrutum [reduced grape juice], oil, flavor with liquamen [fermented fish sauce]. Put into a pan, bring it to heat; when it is simmering, pour it over the fried fish, sprinkle with pepper and serve. (Grocock and Grainger, Apicius 301) 
Evidently, the tradition of serving meat and vegetable dishes with the suitable dips and sauces continued well into the medieval times. In the Islamic-Arab medieval world, the general Arabic word used designating such condiments was إدام idam and صباغ  sibagh. To my knowledge, the earliest record occurs in the Qur’an (revealed between 610 and 632 AD), where the olive tree is said to provide people with oil used as sibgh (صِبغ) condiment (Al-Mu’minoun, Chapter xxiii: verse 20). Indeed, olive oil along with vinegar was deemed the most basic of all condiments. We still relish a dip of seasoned olive oil with bread, and think of it as being an exclusively Italian simple dip.

Now, we come to the earliest extant Arabic cookbook, which is al-Warraq’s tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook Kitab al-Tabeekh كتاب الطبيخ  . It covers the Abbasid cuisine from late eighth to mid- tenth century. This cookbook contains many recipes for condiments called sibagh (صباغ), which are similar to what we have in Apicius. They are served as dips and sauces with meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, as an aid to digestion, particularly with grilled dishes, as they were thought to be hard to digest. Fish was deemed especially bad for the digestion, due to its cold properties, unless aided with the suitable sibagh.

In al-Warraq’s chapter dealing with fish dips, the book explains that sauces cooked with asafetida, onion, and spices aid digestion and sauces cooked with raisins and pomegranate seeds whet the appetite and help purge the food out of the system fast. The best were sauces cooked with sumac and almond because they digest very fast.  

The gourmet prince Ibrahim bin al-Mahdi (d. 839), half-brother of Harun al-Rasheed, composed a poem on a perfect fish dish served with sibagh (al-Warraq, Chapter 33):

وطاه اتى في يوم قيظ بصحفة     وفيها من الشبوط كالجدي احمرا
قد احكمه شيّا وصير حشوه      كرفسا وكراثا وزيتا وصعترا
وهيّا له من بعد ذلك صباغه     عصارة رمان ولوز وسكّرا
وخلا ومريا وانجذانا وفلفلا      وزيتا ركابيا وجوزا وكزبرا
فجاء بها كالشمس لونا وبهجة     تعاطيك انجوجا ومسكا وعنبرا

On a hot summer day, the cook brought us a dish of shabbut (carp) fish, a golden kid-roast resembled.
Masterly roasted; with parsley, leeks, olive oil, and thyme stuffed.
Then its sibagh he made of pomegranate juice, sugar, and almond,
Vinegar, murri, asafetida leaves, black pepper, olive oil, walnut, and coriander.
He brought it in looking like the sun, a radiant delight, redolent with aloe wood, musk, and amber (My translation, in Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens)

Sibagh was sometimes served as a dip alongside the grilled or fried dishes. It was put in small bowls called sakarij. They were used communally by the eaters, which necessitated that they should stay clean. Diners were strongly cautioned against what today is called double dipping -- dip a morsel into the sibagh bowl, have a bite, and dip it again (as happens in one of Seinfeld's episodes). Such a person back then was disparagingly called القطّاع al-qattaa’ ‘the cutter.’

Etymologically, one of the medieval meanings of sibagh was ‘a dip,’ from the verb sabagha صبغ  'to dip.’ Interestingly, this term was also applied to the Christians’ rite of baptizing children, and explains why John the Baptist, for example, was given the name Yohanna al-Sabbagh يوحنا الصباغ.

It turns out the word ultimately derives from the ancient Mesopotamian language. In the Akkadian dictionary, the verb sapu (variant saba’u) means ‘to soak, drench.’ Interestingly, this also sheds light on the meaning of the name of an ancient religious group that still exists in modern Iraq, the Sabians (الصابئة). In the Iraqi dialect, they are called Subba, followers of John the Baptist, who choose to live close to rivers.    

To resume the subject of sauces and dips, as we come to the thirteenth century, we notice some kind of development. In al-Baghdadi’s cookbook Kitab al-Tabeekh, sibagh recipes given were no longer poured all over the cooked meat and vegetables. Instead, they were presented as separate appetizers to be eaten with bread. According to al-Baghdadi, they were given between dishes, to cleanse the palate, sharpen the appetite, and aid digestion.

In the rest of the extant medieval Arabic cookbooks, which belong more or less to the same era as that of al-Baghdadi's, such as the Aleppan Al-Wusla ila ’l-Habeeb الوصلة الى الحبيب by the Syrian historian Ibn al-‘Adeem and the Egyptian Kanz al-Fawa’id كنز الفوائد, we come across condiments known by the name صُلص/ صلوصات suls/ sulusat (singular صَلص sals).

From the many recipes given in these books, we realize we are dealing with condiments — in content and function — similar to those of sibagh. However, from the sulusat recipes we infer that the dips and sauces started to be made smoother and uniform in consistency. The ingredients were pounded in a mortar until they resembled marham (ointment), as one of the recipes specified. The cook was also instructed to adjust the liquid added until the mixture attains قوام الصلص qiwam al-sals (sauce consistency), which I take to be neither runny nor too thick, the eater should be able to pick up some of the sauce with a piece of bread. Some of the sauces were meant for immediate use, such as the one prepared by mixing yogurt with pounded garlic and mint. Others were sealed in containers for up to a month. In one of the recipes, the prepared sauce was kept in one-time-use bottles because the sauce would mold after the bottle was opened. Here is its recipe from the Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa’id, recipe no. 491, called sals Kamili (صلص كاملي), most probably after the Ayyubid King al-Malik al-Kamil, who ruled 1218 to 1238:

12-century glass bottle, probably Syrian.
Credit: MET Museum, 2005,318,
Friends of Islamic Art Gifts, 2005 
Recipe for Sals Kamili:
Take the very tender leaves from the tips of citron stems (qulub al-utrunj), soak them in fine-tasting water, and then [drain them and] take one part, and pound them in jurn al-fuqqa’i. Take a similar amount, by weight, of chervil (baqdunis), and another similar amount of rayhan turunji (lemon balm). Pound them in the same manner, and mix them all; sprinkle on them crushed Andarani salt (rock salt), and squeeze in what is needed of lime juice.

Empty the sauce into glass bottles, and seal their surfaces with sweet olive oil. In each bottle, there should be an amount enough for a single table. Before serving the sauce, [a mix of] galangal, ginger, cloves, and black pepper—all crushed, are sprinkled on it to give it a delicious flavor. Some people choose to use it without adding these spices (My translation). 

It is still unresolved whether the suls dipping condiments were indigenous to the Middle Eastern region, etymologically and in substance, or whether they were an imported concept during the time of the Crusades. However, I venture here to side with the former. The condiment in all its varieties has a long established history in the region. Besides, the name, after all, might not necessarily have been Latin in origin (from salsus and sal). In the major medieval Arabic dictionaries, salas (pl. suls) is descriptive of the consistency of ‘soft mud,’ which indeed is applicable to the consistency of the sauces, described above. 

Clearly, the history of salsa needs to be revised in light of what is being discovered of the medieval Arab cuisine. Meanwhile here is a simple medieval recipe to enjoy for a condiment, usually served with grilled meat, from al-Baghdadi’s thirteenth-century cookbook كتاب الطبيخ Kitab al-Tabeekh. It is called Khal wa Khardal (vinegar and mustard): 

Take sweet almonds, skin them, finely pound them, and mix them with very sour vinegar, adding enough of it to thin down the mix. Finely pound mustard seeds and add, as much as you wish of it to the the almond mix, along with the spice blend atraf al-teeb (My translation).     

Mustard and Vinegar Sauce
(Khal wa Khardal)
خل وخردل
This is my adaptation of this recipe: 

            ½ cup (2 ounces) whole almonds, toasted and cooled
            1 cup (2 ounces) chopped parsley
            2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
            ¼ cup olive oil

            ¼ cup vinegar
            2 tablespoons mustard sauce
            1 teaspoon thyme or za'tar
            ½ teaspoon salt
            ¼ teaspoon black pepper
1. Put almonds, parsley, and garlic in a blender or food processor. Blend, adding oil gradually until mixture is well pureed.
2. Add vinegar, mustard, thyme, salt, and pepper. Pulse mixture for a few seconds to blend.

Delicious with all kinds of grilled meat.