Book Review of “Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook” by Nawal Nasrallah

Written nearly a thousand years ago, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's tenth-century cookbook is the most comprehensive work of its kind. Its recent edition and English translation offers a unique glimpse into the culinary culture of the Medieval Islam. This traditional cookbook with more than 600 recipes from the luxurious cuisine of classical Islam is also a rare guide to the contemporary culinary culture. Its numerous anecdotes and poems unfold the role of food in the politics of Islam's golden era. Informative and entertaining to scholars and general readers, the book has recently been edited and translated into English by Nawal Nasrallah. We present in the following review this important book, with references and links to related literature on the Islamic cuisine.

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Table of contents

  1. General survey on the book
  2. Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq
  3. About the editor and translator
  4. Table of contents of the book
  5. Articles on Islamic cuisine on MuslimHeritage.com
  6. References and further reading

Review of Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook. English Translation with Introduction and Glossary by Nawal Nasrallah. Leiden: BRILL, (Islamic History and Civilization) (Hardcover), 2007. ISBN-10: 9004158677 - | ISBN-13: 978-9004158672. Edition: Bilingual, 867 pages.


Fig. 1: Front cover of Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens (Brill, 2007).

1. General survey on the book

Written nearly a thousand years ago, the cookbook Kitab al-tabikh of Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq is the most comprehensive work of its kind. Including more than 600 recipes from the luxurious cuisine of medieval Islam, the book is also a rare guide to the contemporary culinary culture. Its numerous anecdotes and poems unfold the role of food in the politics of Islam's golden era.

The book was recently edited and translated into English, with introduction, notes and glossary by Nawal nasrallah under the entertaining title Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook (Brill, 2007). This publication introduces to the interested reader a thorough survey of the period and its food culture. An extensive glossary, in Arabic and English, of medieval ingredients and dishes, and an appendix of historical figures provide the necessary reference tools for this work. Making this key resource available in English for the first time to scholars and the general reader fills a gap in the cultural history of the Medieval Islam.

Massive, impressive and marvellous are some of the adjectives that come to mind when attempting to describe this book. For the first time we can hold in our hands an English translation of the complete text of the Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes or Book of Cookery) a cookery book by Ibn Sayya'r al-Warraq. This means that 600 plus recipes dating from the tenth century are now available. This edition is drawn from and cross-checked through the three surviving manuscripts which are located in England, Helsinki, and Istanbul.


Fig 2: Two pages from the ms of Kitab al-tabikh in the National Library of Finland (Source).

In translation, the work begins on page 65 of this volume and extends through page 519. This results in 455 pages of recipes for dishes ranging from stews, cold and hot poultry dishes, dips and sauces, boiled dishes, porridges, vegetables, fried dishes, roasted kid and other meats, puddings, pastries, confections, and beverages. The text also includes discussions of the utensils needed, the spices, food for the elderly and very young, the humours, numerous food poems, manners and decorum. Footnotes abound to guide the reader and point out differences between the texts.

The editor and translator Nawal Nasrallah includes a comprehensive introduction, glossary of Arabic to English and English to Arabic terms, an appendix of important people and places mentioned in the text, and works cited. A full range of five sub-divided indexes, including an ingredients index and a separate index for prepared foods and drinks, compliments the text. The medical terms, recipes, and advice are in yet another index.

In sum, this is a volume to treasure and honour with a place on the shelves of anyone seriously interested in food and culinary history. In her Preface, the editor writes that she was most concerned with accuracy and readability. She seems to have accomplished her aims in this fascinating volume.


Fig 3: Two editions of Kitab al-Tabikh [The Book of Cookery] by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Karim al-Katib al-Baghdadi (d. 1240): (a). Edited by Dawud al-Jalabi. Al-Musil: Matba'at Umm al-Rabi'ayn, 1934. The author, a native of Baghdad, Iraq and an ardent food lover, wrote his book towards the end of the Abbasid Caliphate. In the recipes he mentions, he describes the different foods and dishes used to be prepared by the residents of Baghdad during the era of its opulence. The manuscript of this book is an autograph which the author finished on 20 Dhu al-Hijjah, 623 Hijri (12 December, 1226); b) Kitab al-Tabikh [The Book of Cookery] by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Katib al-Baghdadi (d. 1240), reprint of Dawud al-Jalabi edition (published in 1934 by Matba'at Umm al-Rabi'ayn in Mosul, by Fakhri al-Barudi. Beirut : Dar al-Kitab al-Jadid, 1964 (Source).

2. Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq

Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq of Baghdad was the compiler of a tenth-century cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh (The Book of Dishes). This is the earliest cookbook to be known in Arabic.

3. About the editor and the translator

Nawal Nasrallah, a native of Iraq, holds a Masters of Arts in English and Comparative Literature and taught English and American Literature at Baghdad and Mosul universities from 1977 through 1990. She gave a number of lectures, presentations, and demonstrations on the ancient Mesopotamian and medieval Baghdadi cuisine, as well as modern Iraqi cooking in Bloomington, Indiana, and Boston, Massachusetts.


Fig. 4: Photo of the author, Nawal Nasrallah. (Source: Picture provided by the author)

Nasrallah produced a television program entitled "Baking with the Ancient Mesopotamians and Much More" on the ancient Sumerian flat tannur bread that is still being cooked to this day. She won second-place prize for "Milk on the Menu" cooking contest arranged by Gourmet Magazine, February 1997, and won first prize of the 1998 annual Holiday Cookie Bake-off in Bloomington, Indiana, and nationally under the aegis of Gourmet Magazine.

Of her recent publications as an independent scholar are Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine (Authorhouse, 2003), and Beginner's Iraqi Arabic (Hippocrene Books, 2006).

See her website at: Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine.

Read part of the book online with "Google Books": Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens

4. Table of contents of the book

Preface and Acknowledgements

Introduction:

Part One:
I. Discovery of Kitab al-Tabikh
II. The Istanbul Manuscript
III. Al-Warraq and Kitab al-Tabikh
IV. Sources of Kitab al-Tabikh
V. Legacy of Kitab al-Tabikh

Part Two:
VI. Medieval Baghdad and Food Culture
VII. The Abbasid Baghdadi Cuisine as Manifested in Kitab al-Tabikh
VIII. Beginnings of the Abbasid Baghdadi Cuisine

Part Three:
IX. The Medieval Galenic Humoral Theory and the Concept of Remedying Food
The Book of Cookery Kitab al-Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq

Plates
Appendix: People and Places
Glossary: Arabic-English/English-Arabic
Works Cited
Indices

5. Articles on Islamic cuisine on MuslimHeritage.com

6. References and further reading

  • Nawal Nasrallah (translator), Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook, Brill, 2007. Partially online in Google Books here.
  • Kaj Öhrnberg and Sahban Mroueh, eds., Kitab al-tabikh, Studia orientalia 60, Finnish Oriental Society, 1987. See the Pages From Kitab al-Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, edited by Kaj Öhrnberg and Sahban Mroueh (published by the Finnish Oriental Society as Studia Orientalia 60).
  • Charles Perry (illustrated by Linda Sawaya), "Cooking with the Caliphs", Saudi Aramco World, vol. 57:4 (July/August 2006), pp. 14-23: read the full text online.
  • Charles Perry, A Baghdad Cookery Book (Petits Propos Culinaires), Prospect Books, 2006.
  • A.J. Arberry, "A Baghdad cookery-book", Islamic Culture, vol. 13 (1939), pp. 21–47 and 189-214. A translation of Kitab al-?abik? by Mu?ammad bin al-?asan bin Mu?ammad bin al-Karim al-Baghdadi, usually called al-Baghdadi (d. 1239 CE).
  • Middle Eastern & Islamic Cuisine: The Tradition Continues… An Exhibition at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library (February 1-April 19, 2007).

[1] Kaouthar Chatioui is Executive Research Assistant at the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) and member of the editorial board of MuslimHeritage.com.
[2] Cem Nizamoglu, Member of the FSTC editorial board.

 

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