So what does one do between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Why not explore what in the world they ate in, say, A.D. 833? And what did they eat in Baghdad? It has long been a source of curiosity to cook a medieval meal. Aficionados have formed clubs dedicated to producing an authentic period meal based on the extant recipes from some bygone era. As long as one realizes that this is probably an exercise in fantasy, it is far more fun than historically illuminative. Most of the extant cookbooks — the earliest being the Arabic cookbooks from 10th-century Baghdad during the Abbasid era — are usually written for professionals of the time.
The most famous is the “Kitāb al-ṭabīkh” (Book of cookery), written in the second half of the 10th century by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq. It recently was translated as “Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen” by Nawal Nasrallah, a former professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Baghdad. The recipe I think one can make does not have any totally weird items, and it looks possible to do without resulting in something inedible, although I can’t guarantee you’ll like it.
The recipe is called zīrbāja wa’l-safarjal, that is, zīrbāja with quince. Zīrbāja is a word combining the Persian word for “gold” or “delicate” with the word for “broth” and represents a class of stews made with birds and yellowed with saffron and lightly soured with vinegar. This recipe is dedicated to or attributed to Ibn al-Mahdī, the gourmet Abbasid prince and half-brother of the famous caliph Harūn al-Rashīd (d. 833). Harūn al-Rashīd used to call the dish “the stomach fixer.”
The original recipe included the herb known as spikenard, today used in perfumery, and the writers instructed cooks to “serve it, God willing.” I love the last line. Good luck and let us know if you try it.
Golden Broth With Chicken and Quince
One 2½-pound young chicken (or 2 Cornish game hens), cut into 8 pieces
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
¼ cup dried chickpeas
1 pound onions
Water as needed
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup white wine vinegar
4 quince, peeled, cored, processed until smooth in a food processor with 2 tablespoons water, passed through a food mill or strainer until 1 cup of juice is obtained
5 tablespoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2-inch piece black licorice
1½ teaspoons cumin seed
2 ounces fresh breadcrumbs
1. Place the chicken, ginger, chickpeas, salt to taste and whole onions in a large pot and cover with water and the olive oil. Bring to a near boil over high heat then reduce to medium-low and simmer, with the water barely bubbling, until the onions are soft.
2. Remove the onions with a skimmer and discard.
3. Add the vinegar and cook 10 minutes.
4. Add the quince juice, coriander seed, black peppercorns, licorice, cumin and breadcrumbs. Set aside for 30 minutes then serve in bowls.
Photo: “Kitāb al-ṭabīkh,” or “Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright