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June 23, 2017

Food and Diet in Medieval Islamic World

Foot & Diet in Medieval Islam

Medieval Islamic culinary culture mirrored the territorial expansion of the Islamic empire. Before AH 132/ 750 CE, the diet of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula generally consisted of local, simply prepared foods. Pastoral staples such as dates, milk and dairy products, and some meats (particularly mutton, but also camel, goat, rabbit) predominated, along with grains and vegetables cultivated by the sedentary Populations in the southern part of the Peninsula.

After 132/750, the sociopolitical unification of a vast geographical territory led to the dissemination of crops across the Islamic lands whose consumption had formerly been confined to limited areas. Rice and sugar cane, originally cultivated in India, are two examples of a variety of food crops that moved westward across the empire as far as the western Mediterranean. With the expansion of the Islamic empire after the mid-eighth century, a variety of regional cooking traditions were absorbed, notably that of the pre-Islamic Sasanian empire of Persia. The combination of traditional Arab dishes with the refined Persian culinary tradition and many other regional cooking practices characterized the ‘‘high’’ cuisine of courts and urban centers. This cuisine is reflected in surviving works of medieval Islamic culinary literature: cookbooks, treatises on dietetics, agriculture, handbooks of etiquette, and other literary works that celebrated food as one of life’s pleasures.

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Food was prepared both in private households and in public markets. Rulers and other wealthy elites enjoyed specialized kitchens furnished with ovens, fireplaces, a variety of cooking implements, and a dedicated kitchen staff, whereas others made do with simple areas for food preparation in the home, supplemented by the services of public ovens and the offerings of public food markets.

The main grains consumed were wheat, barley, and rice, as well as chickpeas, lentils, and mungo beans. Wheat was a major commodity, and bread was a staple throughout the Islamic lands, though the wealthy enjoyed loaves made from fine wheat flour while the poor made do with loaves made from coarser flours. Mutton and lamb were the most favored types of meat, but goat, fowl, fish, and a variety of game animals were also eaten. The great variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs available to consumers is reflected in cookbooks and in agricultural treatises, particularly those of the Islamic Iberian Peninsula.

Food served as a luxury product for the wealthy, and status was displayed at feasts. Culinary manuals created by and for the wealthy reflect a concern thatfood appeal to all the senses. Dishes were served with a variety of condiments and were often decorated with other foodstuffs arranged in decorative patterns or chosen to lend color to the dish. Saffron was especially favored for the golden color(and the implication of wealth) that it provided finished dishes. In addition to their appearance, medieval Islamic cooksand diners were also attuned to the fragrance of dishes. Finished dishes and drinks were often perfumed with fragrant substances like rosewater, or for the very wealthy, musk and camphor, which were also believed to function medicinally. Drinks were generally consumed after meals, and were made from a variety of fruits. A tenth-century ‘Abbasid text mentions wine made from grapes, raisins, honey, and dates, while an Andalusi agricultural calendar of the same period refers to the juices of green grapes, blackberries, and pomegranates. The consumption of intoxicating beverages was generally frowned upon for religious reasons.

Despite injunctions against it, however, members of all social classes throughout the Islamic lands consumed wine. Toleration of the consumption of intoxicating substances varied according to specific segments of the population, as well as with time and place, and jurists devoted a great deal of attention to the subject.

Food was popularly believed to affect the human body and temperament, and opinions on the relationship between substances consumed and the one who consumed them circulated in popular culture, as well as in scientific literature. For example, eating the heart or liver of a sheep was popularly believed to strengthen one’s heart and liver, whereas consuming the sheep’s brain was believed to lead to the mental weakness associated with the animal. Dietetics was considered a branch of medicine, and medical treatises approached food from a scientific standpoint, detailing the positive and negative effects of specific food son the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the consumer.

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