Exploring a 'Treasure Trove' of Medieval Egyptian Recipes
A newly translated cookbook provides a tantalizing glimpse of Cairo's past.
by Abbey Perreault <https://www.atlasobscura.com/users/abbey-perreault?view=articles>
September 04, 2018
Behold!Behold! Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table/Brill
The markets found in medieval Egypt were spectacles to behold—or rather, to taste. From street
vendors selling fried-pigeon snacks to streets lined with jars of foamy beer, descriptions of
streets like Bayn al-Qaṣrayn can make one salivate centuries later. Now, a newly translated cookbook
offers one of the only comprehensive looks at this culinary world of 14th-century Egypt.
/Kanz al-Fawa'id Fi Tanwi' al-Mawa'id/, or /Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table/,
features 830 recipes for medieval Egyptian dishes, desserts, digestives, and even scented hand
perfumes (to apply after the meal). From traditional sweet chicken dishes to desserts resembling
threads of a silkworm cocoon, these recipes bring to life an important yet oft-forgotten moment in
Cairene culinary history: In the 1300s, the city was a diverse, thriving metropolis known as the
"mother of all nations."
Nawal Nasrallah, who translated the /Kanz/ into English, is an independent scholar and food writer.
But her work may also qualify her as a detective. Translating the text, which had been edited in
1993, was no simple task.* The /Kanz/ has been hand-copied many times by various scribes, many of
whom may have lacked the linguistic knowledge or additional sources to properly work with the text.
This left the existing cookbook ridden with miscopied words, merged recipes, and excerpts that
simply didn't make sense. By returning to the manuscript and drawing upon other contemporary
resources, Nasrallah created a more comprehensive iteration of the cookbook. Her familiarity with
Arabic, her native language, as well as with Middle Eastern cuisine, allowed her to see things
others likely did not notice.
Nasrallah's years of parsing through the medieval manuscripts has finally brought forth a fuller,
more fleshed out /Kanz/—complete with an extensive introduction, glossary, and adapted recipes for
the modern reader curious to recreate medieval Cairene cuisine.
Though the author of the /Kanz/ is anonymous, Nasrallah was able to determine that the author likely
drew from several specialized pamphlets for various recipes—one for fish, another for pickles, even
some medical manuals from physicians—to compile the cookbook. Thanks to this anonymous author, these
recipes that otherwise would have vanished have been preserved in a single source.
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Extensive as it is, the /Kanz/ offers a colorful culinary lens through which readers can glimpse
into the markets, plates, and people living in a bustling, 14th-century Cairo. For instance,
Nasrallah notes the abundance of fish dishes. "There are recipes for fresh (/ṭarī/) fish, salt-cured
(/māliḥ/) small fish … and condiments of small crushed fishes (/ṣaḥna/)." Fish were popular and
widely accessible, she writes, since during the Nile's flooding season, even children could catch
them. They were often consumed alongside sour ingredients and spices to aid their digestion.
Pages from the manuscript of the <em>Kanz</em>. Pages from the manuscript of the /Kanz/. Wellcome
Collection/CC BY 4.0
Another beloved meat was pigeon—and young, ripe, plump ones at that. Known as /zaghālīl/, these
pigeons differed from house pigeons, as they were raised in cotes located outside of the city
<https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/gahmr-delta>. They could be enjoyed fried, stewed, or smothered
in various sauces, or even in omelets.
Particularly intriguing, Nasrallah says, is a recipe that uses lemon juice to flavor sugar. The
result is the traveler's lemonade. By simply adding a bit of cold water, says Nasrallah, those on
the move could create "something like today's Kool-Aid." The author of the /Kanz/ includes several
such travel provisions, which allowed traveling Egyptians to preserve food. For instance, the /Kanz/
includes a recipe for dried mustard. "It's prepared in a clump," she says, "like a cookie shape, so
when they're on the road and have to grill meat, they can simply add water to create the sauce."
Those with a sweet tooth could draw on an extensive collection of desserts and sweets. The cookbook
includes a delightful array of somewhat playful recipes, ranging from "sandwich cookies … named
chanteuses' cheeks," to "dainty cookies shaped like breasts … called virgins' breasts."
Stretching beyond food, the /Kanz/ includes medicinal foods (meant to aid conditions such as mild
lethargy or indigestion), recipes for distilled perfume waters, and even a bit of magic. "Surprise
your master," one recipe reads, according to Nasrallah, "with a plate of lusciously ripe fruits with
verses inscribed in green and you will be in his good graces."
One of the most notable aspects of the /Kanz/ is its flexibility. Though likely intended for middle
and upper class diners—specifically those who could afford a kitchen or even chefs of their own—it
offers cheaper versions of recipes for Cairenes on a tighter budget. That flexibility extended, too,
to an awareness of the varying tastes of Cairo's unusually cosmopolitan population. One recipe for a
table sauce, Nasrallah writes, noted to "add garlic if making it for a Turk; and not to add it if it
is for a local person (/baladī/)."
In addition to translating the /Kanz/, Nasrallah has adapted some of the recipes for today's cooks.
She's put together 22 modern versions, some of which appear on her blog
<https://egyptianmedievalcookbook.wordpress.com/recipes/>, that swap a mortar and pestle for a food
processor. And perhaps, you might try whipping up a syrupy digestive to consume after your meal, or
an aromatic hand perfume so as not to continue smelling like what you've eaten, because, as
Nasrallah notes, the /Kanz/ isn't simply about eating. "It's the whole experience," she says. "It
doesn't only cater to the stomach but also the whole well-being of the body."
/**Correction:* This post previously misattributed the merged recipes and mistranslations in the
Kanz to a 1993 English translation. They are predominantly due to inaccuracies that arose from the
process of copying the manuscript by hand; the 1993 version is an edited text./
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