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Conceptos | Between Pleasure and Health:

Food and distinction in the culinary recipes of the Kitab al ṭabīẖ


University of Tours

Research associate for the research program of the CESR (UMR7323 of the CNRS)

Reflection on «The Cookbook [1]» 

«The Cookbook» underscores an amount of dishes that contain medical recommendations. It is very interesting to mention that this cookbook written by an Anonymous author of the 12th-13th centuries is known from its two versions. The first one, from 1609, remains to the Colin manuscript n° 7009 of the National Library of France.  This version has neither the first sheet nor a title. It is from this version that the title Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ was given to the cookbook. Nevertheless, concerning the recognition of the role played by medicine and mostly by dietetic in the first cookbook of the Western Muslim territories, the information we can find in the second copy of the Anonymous manuscript that dates back to 1864, is even more relevant and confirms my remarks. Indeed, although this copy is also anonymous, it still has the first page where it is possible to read the tittle « Anwā ‘al-șaydala fī alwān al-aṭ’ima ». This tittle explicitly refers to pharmacopoeia (with the Arabic word șaydala) and food (with the Arabic word al-aṭ’ima). Thus, health, food and dietetics appear connected. This first reflection leads us to believe that there is no distinction between what is good to eat and what is good for the body. If we start from this meaning then there should be no social distinction since the goal of medicine is to keep in a good health – or to heal oneself – with the most appetizing and wholesome foods, in accordance with the complexion of each one. Being poor or being rich is not the point. A doctor will not advocate the consumption of one ingredient or dish over another based on whether the consumer is a peasant or a prince. This principle is verified moreover in the recipes which Maimonides (contemporary of the anonymous author of Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ) proposes in the medical treatise entitled Fī tadbīr al-ṣiḥḥa [Regimen of Health] (1198) he wrote at the request of the Egyptian prince al-Malik al-Afḍal. Lemon broth with eggs and vegetables are part of the diet applied to the prince to heal himself. You cannot find such inexpensive, healthy and ordinary food (Bos 2019). 

Of course, a comparative analysis of the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ’s content with the content of other cookbooks from the Eastern Muslim territories that date back to the same period, highlights a less importance in health and dietetic in the Anonymous cookbook. It’s true, “the medical text also offers the benefit of rigor and explanation; far from evasive recipes, medical prescriptions are proportionate and individualized”. Nevertheless, if we compare the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ with the only other cookbook of the West of the Dār al-Islām which also dates to the 13th century – the Fuḍālat al-ẖiwān[2] – it appears that the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ contains numerous medical-dietary recommendations that pertain to food. It seems to be halfway between these two categories. The geographic territory of Al-Andalus from which it has been written, may be the reason for this less medico-dietic representation from other cookbooks of the Muslim East.

The author’s knowledge spreads throughout the cookbook. Its clear and repeated presence leads you to believe that he could be a doctor. Nonetheless, it is necessary to note that perhaps, there is not only one author. Finally, his knowledge of Jewish dietary practices may also suggest that he could be Jewish. This would not be surprising given the number of Jewish doctors in Al-Andalus (Pitchon 2018). However, it remains to be determined whether the author's denomination influences the culinary dietetic and health he advocates. Once more, a look into Maimonides’ Regimen of Health highlights that there could be no distinction for the author between faith and food consumption as far as it concerned being in a good health (Bos 2019). The possibility that the author is a doctor also comes from large number of anthroponyms by undisputed figures of Greek and Arab scholars that were present before and after the twelfth century and who were mentioned in the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ. The author quotes Hippocrates in the opening of the cookbook: “It is advisable to choose, for the patients, the foods which have the most taste” (Guillaumond 2017: 68).

Then the author quotes Galen to explain Hippocrates words. He writes that “if the man takes this food with appetite and envy, his stomach keeps him, his soul accepts it and his nature cooks it perfectly” (Guillaumond 2017: 68). Note the importance of choosing foods for those who are sick. These foods must have a good taste because the patient will eat them with pleasure, and therefore they will be better digested. The appetite and the pleasure of eating are the essential elements for good health. There is no distinction as to the primacy of one over the other. If we cannot say that the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ is a dietetic and medical book, and if we cannot say that it is only a cookbook, we understand the somewhat hybrid status of this source. Why is there this difficulty for an obvious classification?  The reason is probably because it offers pleasure through the consumed recipes, and at the same time, respects the humorous percepts of the Greek scholars, whose Arab doctors took over in passing along this knowledge (Jacquart & Micheau 1990); (Pitchon 2018); (Nicoud 2013) ; (Jacquart, 2006); (García Sánchez 2007). 

What is important to remember in this cookbook is the place occupied by dietetics and health. Over 526 preparations that include 462 dishes[3]; are present, where “the separation between cuisine and medicine is sometimes imperceptible” (Laurioux 2006).



Foodstuffs in the recipes where health seems to take precedence over the pleasure of eating the dish

Curing the illness, avoiding it, taking pleasure, what is the goal of culinary recipes? That is the question. Before announcing the long list of recipes, the author quotes different foods and spices. You have to remember that “in the late Middle Ages, spices were first used as a drug before being used for food seasoning” (Laurioux 2006). 

A brief reflection concerning the cost of several food could constitute the first steps for a better understanding of the lack of distinction concerning the social condition of the consumers or patients. E. Ashtor explains that 

there are few notices on prices and wages in the works of Arab historians and geographers in Spain […]. […] The price indications contained in the chronicles of Muslim Spain almost all refer to times of scarcity or exceptional cheapness. It should also be noted that these authors are always concerned with the prices of various products in Andalusia, without our finding therein any information on the prices in other regions of the Iberian Peninsula, which were perhaps different. The materials from Jewish sources, which we add to those drawn from Arab literature, cited for the most part by Lévi-Provençal, also come from southern Spain […]. These are data contained in the collections of legal consultations of famous rabbis ("responsa") and which have been copied by jurisconsults little interested in these details. They may therefore have changed the value indications, so that when these texts (Hebrew, but mostly translated from Arabic) provide "round" sums, it is sometimes better to give up drawing conclusions, lest they be fictitious sums (Ashtor 1965: 664) [4]

This study deals with the evolution of the price of cereals (wheat, wheat, barley), cheese and wine. In the 12th century, a cheese arrobe cost 16 dirhams, one of flour cost a little more than 12 dirhams (but the price could double in times of drought), and one of wine cost 4 dirhams. Nothing is written about the prices of vegetables or spices. The author concludes that 

We do not know the price of bread in Muslim Spain in the 10th and 11th centuries. Arab writers only say that the loaf of bread was paid for by weight. However, we are right to assume that bread was even more expensive than in the East, like wheat; in any case, the pay of the millers […] was higher there. In general, despite their small number, the information on commodity prices in Muslim Spain at that time is clear (Ashtor 1965: 677)[5]

The scarcity of information on the sale and price of meat makes the processing of this data unreliable and it is therefore complex to establish a social profile of its consumers. All in all, we understand that price and scarcity are not necessarily reliable elements on which our analysis will be able to rest entirely to determine the existence of a social differentiation present in the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ. Spices (known as tābil or afāwīh, ṭīb, ṣibāġ  (García Sánchez 1997: 43-44) which were more expensive than meat – and could highlight the belonging to a upper class – are the mostly used ingredients in this cookbook. Furthermore, he writes that “know that familiarity with the use of spices is the first basis in cooked dishes, for it is the foundation of cooking, and on it cookery is built. In spices is what particularly suits the various recipes […]; in spices too is what distinguishes the foods, gives them flavor, and improves them; in spices is benefit and avoidance of harm” (Freidman, Heading120).

The author begins by treating caraway. He writes that it is “good for health” (Freidman, Heading119). It “enters into karanbiyya and baqliyya mukarrara [spelled makawwara], and when there are cabbage and spinach in a dish or tharîd, caraway is necessary, for it improves its taste and gives it sharpness and removes the windiness from the vegetables[6]” . Then he mentions cumin, and explain that it “appears in dishes of vinegar and in the sauces of foods fried with what birds and other meats are fried with. And cumin, with its ability to reduce winds and for its digestibility, goes well with foods flavored with vinegar or murri[7]” . After that, comes coriander. It “enters into all dishes and is the specialty of tafâyâ and mahshi, because it goes well with foods in the stomach, and does not pass through rapidly before it has been digested” . Finally, the book ends with the importance of saffron for its color and taste. The saffron culture was very widespread in Spain and mainly in the south of Al-Andalus, but also in Valencia and Toledo. However, as E. García Sánchez recalls, “despite its abundance, it was still a luxury item” (García Sánchez 1997: 47). Therefore, it can be deduced that its acquisition was reserved for the wealthier classes of society. Those who could not obtain it were forced to use a substitute such as the orcanette (riǧl al-ḥamām, Alkanna tinctoria (L.) Tausch.). Analysis of the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ’s ingredients reveals that saffron was used in the recipes, not its substitute. The food distinction underscores a social distinction. We are therefore moving towards a cookbook intended for the elites. Endemics spices like cumin, coriander, mint, caraway were very popular in Al-Andalus and commonly used in cuisine. Unlike saffron or pepper, these spices were inexpensive. Their frequent use in Al-Andalus's recipes suggests that they were also used for their medicinal benefits, and that the question of making a social distinction through food did not arise. Then, the author adds some precision on the relevant role played by vinegar in order to develop the pleasure of eating the dish and its benefits to health. He explains that

there are others who put in vinegar and murrī at the end, after the cooking is done; the taste of the raw vinegar stays in the sauce, and none of its flavor enters into the meat. They think that if they put it in at the start, its acidity will go away and diminish its taste. But it is not as they believe; cooking rather augments and sharpens the flavor of the vinegar, for it evaporates the water from the vinegar and strengthens its acidity, and hides any greasy or heavy flavor it has, and makes that flavor vanish on serving the meat and whatever was cooked with it, like that which is made with saffron, if it is put in at the start (Friedman)

As far as the food that is good for health is concerned, the author of Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ mentions fruits and vegetables as they facilitate digestion. He advocates lettuce to fall asleep and sugar loaf to warm the stomach and perfume the breath. Finally, he highlights the importance of chickpeas for those who are hungry. Those who want to strengthen themselves with it, only takes its juice, add it to meat, to make a dish or a ṯarīd from it. He highlights the power of vinegar to fight against nausea but also to enhance the dishes and, thus, to give them more taste and to ensure the pleasure of consuming them. This information is very important because more than one third of the recipes use vinegar.

As regards “salted” dishes that mention medical recommendations, one of the most important concerns those with “meatballs”, in Arabic, “albunduq” and in Spanish “albóndigas”. The dish has the particularity to strengthen health. The meatball recipes represent almost a quarter of the whole cookbook. Therefore, we can advance that both eating pleasant and healthy foods have usually fitted together. We can also note that roasted meat is a good dish for fat men, old men and those with wet stomachs. This list should add a dish with quinces, eaten to fight against fever but which are also good for the stomach, and other dishes that bear an Arabic name such as the ğašiša, to gain weight, the harīsa almost only for young people, and the muǧabana that taste good but which we should not eat with excess because it is a heavy dish that takes a long time to digest. The ṯarīd dish helps to defend yourself against a cold, and the zirbaǧ regulate the liver and the stomach. The last dish which could be underscore is the ğūdāba dish. It seems to be important because it is recognized as an aphrodisiac. It represents the perfect dish that brings together the pleasure of eating and the pleasure to the body. More relevant information is proposed by the author in the text “Information about Harīsa According to its Kinds”. It is easy to understand that harīsas can be aphrodisiac recipes as se can read that 

Harisa is heating, moist, very nutritious, strengthening and fertilizing for dry, thin bodies. It increases blood and sperm, with increased ability in coitus, but makes digestion and good bowel elimination difficult. If one can digest it well, it is beneficial for the person who wishes to strengthen and make good use of his body after ... [words missing] ... free of fever and intestinal heaviness. It is good for the thin and those with strong stomachs, especially if they are mild and easy-tempered and do not have severe constipation, because mildness and compliance hasten bowel elimination and its effect on fat delays its growth. [Last few words obscure; in the MS a marginal notation reads sic.] (Freidman, Heading: 401)

On the other hand, we note that dishes called “acidulous” are recommended to open the appetite. Only a sweet dish recipe from Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ contains dietary recommendations. This is the case for a recipe called “Recipe for Honeyed Rice” (Freidman, Heading418) but it is recommended not to eat a lot of it because, as for all kinds of starch dishes, “they are heavier and slower to digest and of more phlegm and cause constipation[8]” . By the way, it is surprising that other dishes with a high sugar content do not mention dietary recommendations. By this, I mean preparation called fānīd, a Persian word mentioned in the first cookbook from the Muslim West, the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq [9], and additionally in another cookbook called the Kanz al fawā’id[10]  and the second is written by a doctor. This is even more relevant given that the word fānīd is written for the first time by an Andalusian doctor, Abu l Quasim al Zahrawi, commonly called Abulcasis (dead at the beginning of the 11th century), in his “Medical book of surgery,” Al-Tasrif.  It is possible to find a recipe of fānīd in the Anonymous cookbook. This dish contains white sugar diluted in water, cooked until it makes a dough-like consistency. Then it is stretched by hand in order to make sticks or rings or other forms. Then, they are left to dry before consumption. It is possible to add camphor or musk or rose water. In the Fuḍālat al-ẖiwān, the other cookbook of the Iberian Peninsula dating back to the same period, a chapter opens with remarks about various types of fānīd, but the way they are prepared is different. Indeed, those are made with sugar, water (sometimes rose water), then they are cooked. Almonds can be incorporated to these recipes. Finally, small rings are made and covered with honey, sugar or starch. Indeed, these kinds of «sweets» were known in the Middle Eastern Arabic tradition and used as “drugs”. However, in the Andalusian cookbook, no mention links fānīd to its primary function, and honey was used to sweeten the dishes. Using sugar “became part of the culinary habits only of the most privileged classes” (Kuhne Brabant Rosa & Da Silva Monique 1997). Nowadays, the term “fānīḏ” is still used in the Moroccan language to designate a candy.

I will close this part quoting the anonymous author and with those words written at the beginning of the cookbook:

(God) inspires people to like to roast meat, and He inspires the cooking and making of it with whatever will improve and augment its strength, flavor, and characteristic virtue so it may be cause to improve the opposing natures of the people, for there are people of sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic humor. […] Many are the differences between people in their dishes and their garnishes; their tastes, their foods, their strengths, and their benefits are opposite, and according to what is used in the subject of cookery […]. As for the method fitting in medicine, it is the method of cooking the different kinds and the balance of the various flavors, because each kind is good for heat, or for cold, or for moderation, according to its heaviness or lightness and the speed and temper of digesting it. […] I have thought to mention what makes food agreeable and improves the preparation […] (Freidman, Heading: 122)

The purpose of cooking is to prevent sickness and to preserve health and to use the pleasure of eating to heal.



Health and pleasure in specific dishes

It is important to remember, while proposing some examples of dishes, the transition of dietary knowledge from the Muslim East to the West of the Dār al-Islām. For example, we can present a dish recognized for its acidulous flavors, which in the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ appear under the name of “Another Dish Which Strengthens the Stomach Before Heat” (Friedman, Heading183). It consists of chicken meat that must be prepared with pomegranate juice, quince, and apples, which are added to fresh coriander and mint. There is also an apple dish called “Preparation of Tuffâhiyya, Apple Stew” (Friedman, Heading184), mainly consisting of sour apples, chickpeas, apple juice, mint, and celery. Finally, we can mention the “Safarjaliyya, a Dish Made with Quinces” (Friedman, Heading331) which is a “good food for the feverish, it excites the appetite, strengthens the stomach and prevents stomach vapors from rising to the head” (Friedman, Heading331). It is made of chicken, chickpeas and onions, pomegranate juice and quince. The dishes presented here highlight the importance of acidulous food, as the author underscores, they are important because they open the appetite. Therefore, it may be supposed that arousing the eater’s appetite is associated with the pleasure he will have to consume the dish. The acidity of the dishes mentioned above is to be linked with a Western dish like zirbāğ, the benefits of which the Jewish physician Al-Isrā'īlī[11]; recognizes. 

A dish called “recipe for zirbāğ” is one of the Andalusian recipes. Its author writes that “It is a dish that regulates the humors; its nutritive power is praised; it is good for the stomach and liver; it combines the advantages of the meat and vinegar stew sikbâja” (Friedman, Heading44). The recipe mentions an anecdote that took place in the city of Baghdad, which allows us to include this dish in the Eastern culinary tradition. The benefits of zirbāğ are praised because it is written that when the doctor prescribed it to a sick woman, she was cured of her illness. This doctor explains that this is normal because “this is a neutral dish […]. Others [doctors] say, ‘It is the apple of the kitchen, there is no harm in it at all’” (Friedman, Heading44). He says that “it is the most nutritious dish and good for all temperaments; this dish is made with hens or pigeons or doves, or with the meat of a young lamb”. In this zirbāğ there is pepper, coriander, cinnamon, saffron, oil, vinegar. Then you add almonds, sugar and rosewater. Let's briefly dwell on the use of cinnamon (dār ṣīnī, or qifra). It is one of the major Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ spices. It was not an endemic spice from Al-Andalus as it comes from the East (China, Ceylan, India). Furthermore, as for a large part of the imported products (cinnamon, saffron, pepper, etc.), their quality was adulterated when they were sold in the souks; without changing the price however (García Sánchez 1997: 49). Cinnamon has always been considered as a luxury product and therefore its quality was often adulterated. Consequently, it is relatively complex to establish a social distinction based on the purchase and consumption of certain products – notably those from the East – on the price of their sale since the quality could be altered. They could therefore be consumed by everyone but the taste and medicinal values could be lower.

The Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ also offers two recipes under the name of sikbağ. As of the beginning of the recipe, the author mentions that “When vinegar is put in sikbâj it is strong in sourness, very sharp; it is regulated by joining it with sweets and plenty of fat” (Friedman: Heading150). It consists of meat, vinegar in sufficient quantity to cover the meat, raisins, pepper, dried coriander, green fresh coriander, crushed onion, garlic, yolks, hard boiled eggs and bread crumbs. The second recipe is called “Sikbâj of Veal, Used for Young People in Summer” Friedman, Heading186). It contains veal, vinegar, enough water to cover the meat, pounded onion, green coriander, salt, pepper, caraway, dried coriander, walnuts, cedar leaves, rue, celery, galangal, sugar, cinnamon, saffron, garlic, squash, nabid.  In the Andalusian cookbook, the zirbāğ is a dish with sweet notes, and one of the sikbağ recipes also contains sugar. For Al-Isrā’īlī, the zirbāğ seems to have more pronounced sweet flavors thanks to apple juice and sugar, and sikbağ contains garlic but also sugar or pomegranate juice. We can underscore that pomegranate juice does not fit in the composition of the zirbāğ and sikbağ dishes of the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ since this is the case in some of these Eastern dishes. Nevertheless, it is found in other dishes of the Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ that has a different title (“dish fortifying the stomach before the heat” and “quince dish”) (Friedman, Heading183 and 218). These two dishes can be related thanks to the sourness elements which compose them, that is to say mainly the vinegar, but also the green coriander and the crushed onion.

I will conclude this part by proposing some references to the Regimen of Health written by Maimonides[12]. In this work, he explains that

Men will strive to eat sweet food, because sweet foods are those that feed, as mentioned Galen [...]. But if sweet foods repugn and displease him, then they will be corrected with a small amount of acidic products, or by something whose flavor is salty or varied, such as the dish that is cooked in a sour juice (quince), vinegar, barley sauce, sumac, quince or pomegranate, because these products, even if they are not sweet and they are not foods, provide many benefits (Maimonides & Ferre, 2016)

He also explains the benefits of vinegar on the body and the health (cutting phlegm, prevents bad moods from spoiling is good against all types of fever). However, it is not good for the liver.




As Expiración García Sánchez wrote, in medical and culinary treaties the criteria do not always coincide:

Generally, the doctors’ recommendations give more importance to the criteria of health than to pleasure. In the same way, diet appears as the base of food and the capacity to produce pleasure is not, indeed, a priority. Nonetheless, it is better, as the doctors highlight, if both health and pleasure, are combined whenever possible. From their perspective, cooks invert, in the best case, the order of priorities, prevailing over, most of the time, the real pleasure of the sense; in this way, the pleasure you have when you eat food becomes a blessing  (García Sánchez 2005).

Thanks to this analysis, we could highlight that medicine has to get used to practices and uses of the Andalusian society. Medicine gets used to the society and introduces new culinary ways that can be used both by sick and non-sick people. As a result, choosing between eating well for good health or eating well for pleasure did not even arise. In addition, this dietary non-differentiation allowed social non-differentiation. This is therefore the reason why Maimonides is certainly one of the best examples. Doctor of Prince Al Afdhal (Egypt, 12th century), he treated the latter as he treated those who came to see him at his home in his modest house in Fustat, on the outskirts of Cairo. Finally, everybody follows this new approach to cooking, in order to keep everybody in good health. Through food, the culinary field applies to everyone. That is how popular dishes enter the medical category, taking into account the individual (way of life, humors, etc.). The dish has to be compatible with the person in order to keep the individual always healthy. What we have to keep in mind is that cuisine belongs to a long, Greek medical tradition, but with a certain suppleness. There are fewer theoretical concepts. Two conclusions could be drawn of this work, and they depend of the kind of sources that had been studied. First of all, the Andalusian cookbooks mainly aimed at the elite that means a very small socio-economic group. Their high purchasing power allow them to consume a large number of foods – and mainly spices from the East – manifesting its power. But on the other hand, the Andalusian cookbooks recipes used a large quantity of spices mentioned in ḥisba (García Sánchez & Lucas 1997) treaties and which were also cultivated in Al-Andalus. They were purchased and consumed by the ordinary people.  For the author, “medicine must be inspired from cuisine, in the way cuisine elaborates different dishes to be both mouthwatering healthy” (García Sánchez 2007). Cuisine enters Andalusian medical texts, and the pleasure to eat in a healthy manner presents itself as the best way to both protect yourself from sickness and to keep yourself in good health. 







Cited works



Abū L-'Azm Abdelghani (2010 (2nd ed.)), Anwā ‘al-ṣaydala fī alwān al-aṭ’ima. Rabat, Manshurat dirasat al-Andalus wa ḥiwar al-haḍara.

Ashtor Elie (1965), "Prix et salaires dans l’Espagne musulmane aux Xe et XIe siècles", in Annales ESC, 20/4, pp. 664-679.

Freidman Daniel (s.d.), An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century.Translated by Charles Perry. From

Garcia Sanchez Expiración and LUCAS Marie (1997), "Les Traités De "Hisba" Andalous: Un Exemple De Matière Médicale Et Botanique Populaires", in Arabica 44, no. 1, p. 76-93. 

_______________________________ (1997), "La consommation des épices et des plantes aromatiques en al-Andalus". in Médiévales, n°33, Cultures et nourritures de l'occident musulman. Essais dédiés à Bernard Rosenberger, sous la direction de Henri Bresc, p. 41-53.

_______________________________ (2005), "Comida de enfermos, dieta de sanos: hábitos alimenticios y procesos culinarios en los textos médicos andalusíes", in M. Marín, & C. De la Puente (eds.), El banquete de las palabras: la alimentación de los textos árabes (pp. 57-87), Madrid, CSIC.

_______________________________ (2007), "La diététique alimentaire arabe, reflet d’une réalité quotidienne ou d’une tradition fossilisée ? (IXe-XVe siècle)", in F. Audouin-Rouzeau, & F. Sabban (dirs.), Un aliment sain dans un corps sain. Perspectives historiques. Actes du 2e colloque de l’IEHCA, Tours 14-14 décembre 2002. (p. 65-92), Tours, PU François Rabelais.

Guillaumond Catherine (2017), Cuisine et diététique dans l’Occident arabe médiéval d’après un traité anonyme du XIIIe siècle, Paris, L'Harmattan.

Ibn Razīn Al-Tuğībī, & Marín (ed., transl in Spanish, notes), M. (2007), Relieves de las mesas acerca de las delicias de la comida y los diferentes platos (Fuḍālat al-ẖiwān fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭa’ām wa-l-alwān), Manuela Marín (ed., trad. et notes), Gijón, Trea.

Ibn Sāyyār Al-Warrāq, Öhrnberg, K., & Mroueh (eds.), S. (1987), Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ, Helsinki, Finnish Oriental Society.

Jacquart Danielle & Micheau Françoise (1990), La médecine arabe et l’Occident médiéval, Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose.

Jacquart Danielle (2006), "La nourriture et le corps au Moyen Âge", in Cahiers de recherches médiévales, 13 spécial, 259-266.

Kuhne Brabant Rosa & Da Silva Monique (1997), "Le sucre et le doux dans l'alimentation d'al-Andalus", Médiévales, n°33, 1997, in Cultures et nourritures de l'occident musulman. Essais dédiés à Bernard Rosenberger, 55-67.

Laurioux Bruno (2006), "Cuisine et médecine au Moyen Âge. Alliées ou ennemies", in Cahiers de recherches médiévales, 13 spécial, 223-238.

Maimonides Moshe & Munter (ed. in Heb. and Engl. from the Heb. text), S. (1957), Hanhagat ha-Beri’ut [Regimen Sanitatis], Jerusalem.

Maimonides Moshe, Bar-Sela A., Faris (ed. and transl.), E., & E. Hoff H. (1964), Moses Maimonides’ two Treaties on the Regimen of Health [in English from the Arabic text], Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 54, n°. 4, 3–50.

Maimonides Moshe, & Ferre Lola (intro. and transl. in Spanish) (2016), Obras médicas I: El régimen de la salud. Tratado sobre la curación de las hemoroides [Fī Tadbīr aṣ-Ṣiḥḥa], Barcelona, Herder.

Nasrallah Nawel (2007), Annals of the caliph's kitchen, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook, Leiden, Brill.

Nicoud Marylin (2013), "Médecine et alimentation au Moyen Âge". in DEPECKER T., LHUISSIER A., & MAURICE A. (dirs.), La juste mesure. Éléments pour une socio-histoire des normes alimentaires (23-37), Rennes, PUR.

Pitchon Véronique (2018), La gastronomie médiévale arabe, entre diététique et plaisir, Paris, Erick Bonnier.

Waines David (1999), "Dietetics in Medieval Islamic Culture", in Medical Historv, 43, 228-240.






[1] (Guillaumond, 2017) ; (Abū l-'Azm, 2010 (2nd ed.)); (Freidman).

[2] (Ibn Razīn al-Tuğībī & Marín (ed., transl in Spanish, notes), 2007).

[3] These results are the fruit of my PhD research, at the University of Tours under the supervision of Bruno Laurioux, within the framework of my PhD entitled “Arabic recipes, Jewish practices and culinary heritage of the Iberian Peninsula since the 12th century”. It has been defended on November 23, 2019.

[4] (Ashtor 1965: 664) : “ Les notices touchant les prix et les salaires qu'on trouve dans les œuvres des historiens et des géographes arabes de l'Espagne sont peu nombreuses […]. […] les indications des prix contenues dans les chroniques de l'Espagne musulmane se réfèrent presque toutes aux époques de disette ou de bon marché exceptionnel. Encore faut-il relever qu'il s'agit toujours, chez ces auteurs, des prix de divers produits en Andalousie, sans que nous y trouvions des renseignements sur les prix dans d'autres régions de la péninsule Ibérique, qui étaient peut-être différents. Les matériaux de source juive, que nous ajoutons à ceux tirés de la littérature arabe, cités pour la plupart par Lévi-Provençal, proviennent eux aussi de l'Espagne méridionale […]. Ce sont des données contenues dans les recueils de consultations juridiques de fameux rabbins (responsa) et qui ont été copiées par des jurisconsultes peu intéressés par ces détails. Il se peut donc qu'ils aient changé les indications de valeurs, de sorte que lorsque ces textes (hébreux, mais pour la plupart traduits de l'arabe) fournissent des sommes ‘rondes’, il vaut quelquefois mieux renoncer à en tirer des conclusions, de crainte que ce ne soient des sommes fictives.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] (Freidman) Heading388.

[9] The Kitāb al-ṭabīẖ by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq dates back to the 10th century (Bagdad). (Ibn Sāyyār al-Warrāq, 1987); (Nasrallah , 2007).

[10] The anonymous cookbook Kanz al fawā’id fi tanwi al-mawā’id dates back to the 13th century (Cairo).

[11] Isḥaq ibn Sulaymān al-Isrā’īlī (832-932 ca.) was a Jewish medical doctor and philosopher. He belonged to a Jewish family from Egypt. Then, he moved to Kairouan (Tunisia) where he wrote the most important part of its treaties. Cf. (Waines, 1999).

[12] Maimonides was a medical doctor, philosopher and rabbi, born in Al-Andalus (-1232). He moved to Morocco, and Egypt (1165) after persecution of the Almohad. He is the author of treaties concerning medicine, theology, philosophy. Cf. (Maïmonide & FERRE (intro. and transl. in Spanish), 2016); (Maimonides & Munter (ed. in Heb. and Engl. from the Heb. text), 1957); (Maimonides, Bar-Sela, Faris (ed. and transl.), & E. Hoff, 1964).

Talk of the Table | Meatballs Cursed by Jews


Summer Issue 2021

Among the pages of a medieval Middle Eastern cookbook lies a 600-year-old recipe with a title equal parts perplexing and alarming: “Meatballs Cursed by Jews.” I stumbled upon this recipe when I was a doctoral student researching the diet of 13th-century Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. I was looking for recipes that explicitly mentioned the word “Jewish” in the title, and after reviewing the cookbooks of the West under Muslim rule, I became interested in the cookbooks of the Muslim East. And that’s when this surprising recipe title caught my eye.

The cookbook in question was the Kitab wasf al-at’ima al-mu’tada (which translates to “Description of Familiar Foods”). Written in Cairo, Egypt, the oldest known copy of the book dates back to 1373 and contains 420 recipes. It is one among many Eastern Muslim cookbooks of the Middle Ages—but it is the only one to include a dish that explicitly mentions Jews. Makabib la’nuha al-Yahud, or “Meatballs Cursed by Jews,” can be made with any red meat, along with pistachios, cinnamon, parsley, mint, celery and eggs. The meatballs are small—I suggest the size of a walnut—and are to be fried on each side for three minutes.

The cookbook is anonymous; no details about the authors, including their religion, are mentioned. Whoever they were, they provided no context for this baffling recipe title. We do not know why meatballs would be cursed, what such a curse might entail, or why Jews would be the ones doing the cursing.

Without answers to these questions, I set about looking for other clues. During the period the cookbook was written, Egypt was ruled by Mameluk Muslims, who wanted to safeguard the purity of their faith. The existence of 14th-century Jewish communities in Egypt is well established, although the precise number is unknown. It is, however, known that during that time, Jews were arriving from the Muslim West, mainly from Spain; Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, also known as the Rambam, was one of those migrants.

But why would the authors of “Meatballs Cursed by Jews” choose to call out Jews in this recipe title? We don’t know their background—could they have been Jewish? But obviously they must have had some sort of interest in Jewish culture and culinary habits. We also do not know what “cursed” means in this context. The name may have simply been a way to emphasize Jews’ unique culinary laws, or maybe Jews wanted to distinguish themselves from cultures that prepared their meatballs differently. Maybe “cursed” even recalls some sort of disastrous event, such as disease or poisoning, involving this dish.

The recipe’s directions provide a few hints: First, the recipe says that the red meat should be boiled and tenderized, and then the veins must be removed. This instruction is interesting because after meat is boiled, it should no longer contain blood—but we are still told to remove the veins, a step that perhaps alludes to kashrut, the system of Jewish dietary laws. On the other hand, both Jews and Muslims are prohibited from consuming blood, so we don’t know for sure which religious dietary restrictions this step is meant to accommodate.

The next piece of the puzzle appears 400 years later, in the 18th-century copy of the same cookbook. In this later copy, the meatball recipe is still there, but the title has changed; the term “Cursed” has disappeared. Instead of “Meatballs Cursed by Jews,” the recipe is called Makabib al-Yahud, or “Meatballs of the Jews.” As might be expected, the cookbook leaves the title change unexplained.

There are several other differences between the two editions. While the 14th-century edition directs us to remove the veins from the meat before grinding, the 18th-century edition instead says to remove the tendons. With this change, it seems likely that the recipe is written with the laws of kashrut in mind, since eating the sciatic nerve is forbidden. And while the original recipe calls for red meat, often used in meatball recipes in Eastern cookbooks, the newer recipe calls for lean meat, often specified in Jewish recipes. Another early Muslim cookbook, the Kitab al-tabih (which translates as simply “The Cookbook”), dates back to 13th-century Spain and includes six recipes that use the word “Jewish,” all of which are made with partridges, chicken or lamb, all lean meats.

While so much about this recipe is unknown, there’s one thing we can be sure of: “Meatballs Cursed by Jews” are delicious. They are easy to make in advance, as they stay soft and juicy, and can be served in a small bowl or on skewers for a buffet. These meatballs also can be easily shared, making them perfect for Shabbat and other special occasions.


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