walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Old Recipes: _A Baghdad Cookery Book_

When I was young, and naive and foolish, I believed that the sweet potato dish my mother cooked and served was unique to our family. She usually made it with canned sweet potatoes, IIRC, but they were baked and then for the last few minutes, topped with marshmallows and then popped back in so the marshmallows would be toasted/melted inside. I suspect that there was brown sugar and margarine mixed in with the sweet potatoes but I don't really know. Unsurprisingly, when I expressed the belief in an online forum that this was a family recipe, I was laughed at, and everyone offered up their candied yams recipe. While marshmallows on top were slightly unusual, they were a helluva lot more common than I had any idea.

The experience led to a collection of paperback facsimile cookbooks, many of which I still have, in an effort to track other recipes to their origins; regular readers know I haven't let this habit go -- for example, when I decided to track to origin of the term "hand pie", or going back a bit further, when I decided to track down the "Basque Bread" recipe that I got from my sister D.

When I was making another stab at how-old-are-apple-pies, I stumbled across this:


It's a 13th century Arab cookbook. The previous available edition suffered from being a translation from a flawed transcription. Perry includes some very nice front matter to explain what he did with the original material and why, and how that differed from his predecessors. Like a lot of culinary historians, Perry is an independent scholar (professional historians and academic language types do very badly with this kind of material; I have some theories about why that I won't get into right now). And this "book" was originally an edition of a periodical publication that publishes similarlyd st obscure food writing.

Inevitably, I dug into the question of murri, but it was even more interesting to read blogs that thought a few of the recipes in this seemed very Roman to them. Like Perry, I was fascinated by the phrasing "grow quiet"; I'm wondering if maybe the phrase has a literal interpretation unimagined by Perry (what does soapstone sound like when you cook with it?). Other than that, several things stood out. (1) Wow, hadn't thought through the implications of a cuisine built around sheep. Yikes. (2) There were a lot more quantity specifications than I had anticipated -- but absolutely no time specifications. Like at all. That was weird. (I mean, unless you count overnight, which I do not.) Old cookbooks with comparable quantity specifications (few compared to what a modern cookbook would ordinarily contain) tend to have more time specifications than this one. (3) In much the same way that a lot of our recipes start by melting butter and then browning stuff in it, a lot of these recipes start by melting tail fat and then browning stuff in it. Gets a little boring after a while.

The candy making recipes are very recognizable, even to me, and I don't make candy. "Oh, hey, this is taffy."

I was looking for something like pastry or pie; haven't really found either (which is very different from saying it isn't here. I haven't read every recipe, and I may well have misunderstood something I read). But I did find a few cook-the-beans-and-rice-together recipes, which I had been interested in. Predictably, lentils and rice, but also mung beans and rice (did I know that Arab cookery had mung beans in it? No, no I did not). The pickled mint leaves also sounded delish.

With the exception of translating murri as soy sauce (and no, they are not the same thing, but wow, they are a lot more alike than you might initially think), there are few concessions to a modern kitchen. I'm not sure where to find tail fat to cook with, and I cannot imagine that being a good idea from a health perspective (the melting point of sheep and lamb and so forth fat is really high; it's even worse for you than beef). Soapstone cookware _can_ be bought, altho it's a bit tricky to acquire. I believe you can get all the spices through Penzey's. But anyone who can make sense of this at all can figure out how to swap fats and meats and understands that will have an impact on the resulting dish. The treatment of the meat (multiple rounds of spicing) is very similar to what is done in many middle Eastern cuisines to this day.

It had not, before this, occurred to me to really go looking for the Very Oldest Cookbooks by part of the world. Apicius, of course. I'm trying to find something like a usable translation of those cooking descriptions in cuneiform. I keep running across assertions that there aren't any ancient Egyptian cookbooks -- I'm a little skeptical, honestly. But what I'd _love_ to get hold of are translations of the oldest cooking literature for India and China. Any ideas where to find something like that? I do recognize that the nature of old Chinese technical literature is such that whatever we have is going to be quite late compared to the original composition -- and I don't really care. When I read people describing very old Chinese cookery stuff, it sounds like there's detailed quantity information, which suggests that the earliest stuff we have is pretty late in the evolution of it. I ordered a copy of _The Land of the Five Flavors_ in hopes it might point me at something useful. But I'm unable to make any progress on anything from India that isn't entirely adapted to modern expectations of cookbooks, and that's not really what I'm looking for.
Tags: book review, food
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