From our perspective and looking back at human history, we are extremely lucky that anything has survived at all. Ruins may endure and the intrepid and the dogged may find evidence of lost cultures, now long extinct, but the vast majority of such finds throw up as many questions as answers.
This is particularly true of the human side of history, and even more so of the common people who made up the vast majority of the population, then as now. Almost all of the millions and billions who have died, their lives and dreams, their hardships and their way of life, is irretrievably gone.
However, occasionally we come across a miracle. Something survives through the centuries which allows a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. Something like the Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh, a cookbook which may have come from the aristocracy but which included favorite recipes than any commoner could make themselves.
What secrets does this magical book hold?
Dishes Fit for a Caliph
The original Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh dates all the way back to the 10th century, where it was compiled by an Arab scholar (and possibly foodie) named al-Warraq. These were not new dishes, and it is believed that the cookbook drew together than most popular dishes from the last two centuries.
Such recipes came from the court of the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled much of modern Iraq and the Middle East from its capital of Baghdad. We even think we can tentatively name the man for whom this book was created: Sayf al-Dawla, a prince of the Hamdanid dynasty of northern Mesopotamia.
Books were no casual thing to produce in those days, and with an illiterate population and the expense of acquiring the materials they were seen as a symbol of prestige and wealth. Prince Sayf may have commissioned the book to add prestige to his own court in Aleppo.
Not that it worked, however. The Hamdanids did not survive far into the 11th century and with the Abbasid court in decline also it would seem that the cookbook did not, by itself, fix the problems. It is a happy accident that it survives at all, but the 600 recipes and 132 chapters have come down to us complete.
And to be sure, there are some complex dishes in the book. Many rely on exotic ingredients, most notably spices which would not be available to a common population. Having a cookbook was a flex, certainly, but cooking meals from it which show the reach of your trading network and which offer something new for guests: that was impressive.
However, there are ordinary recipes in the mix as well. Many of these survive to this day as traditional recipes, unchanged in a millennia of human development. One such would be aṣīda, a simple dish of porridge sweetened with dates.
Ground wheat flour is added to boiling water and dates (or honey, if you are really lucky) are added to the resulting soft dough to create a nutritious, enjoyable dish. Such a meal is enjoyed today by millions in the Middle East, just as it would have been a thousand years ago.
There are more unusual and interesting recipes in the cookbook, for sure. An entire chapter devoted to what the Nabateneans (rural Iraqi farmers) were eating: thick, meaty stews with a rich broth. Such recipes are doubtless enhanced for the table of a Caliphate, but the core recipe is there and the tradition on which it builds is plain to see.
It is often said that the best food a traveler will encounter comes from the peasant cuisine and the street: simple dishes, perfectly over innumerable generations and cooked with a rare skill that only comes from extensive practice. It would seem that this wisdom was apparent to the princes and scholars of 10th century Baghdad and Aleppo, as clearly as it is to us.
Top Image: Sayf al-Dawla , Emir of Aleppo and the man believed to have commissioned the Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green