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