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A Brief History Of Islamic Cooking

November 2018Words by Ms Suze Olbrich

Swordfish Brochettes. All photographs courtesy of Bloomsbury

Feast: Food Of The Islamic World, broadcaster and writer Ms Anissa Helou’s ninth cookbook, offers a fascinating insight into the food cultures of Muslim-majority nations, spanning the globe from Senegal to Indonesia. It is an elegant, in-depth, culinary epic, composed of historical snippets, as well as more than 300 recipes for everything from Zanzibari doughnuts to Emirati-style roast camel hump, and gives glimpses of daily life across the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, north-west China, south-east Asia, and (mostly northern) Africa.

Ms Helou opens Feast with the birth of Islam in Mecca, an oasis in the seventh-century Arabian desert, including detail of the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite meal: tharid – meat and vegetable stew on dry bread, variations of which still persist – before sharing a digestible overview of the faith’s evolution. Alighting upon the caliphates that spread Islam throughout the Levant, Maghreb, Iberian Peninsula and beyond, Ms Helou details how – via conquest, trade routes such as the Silk Road, and peaceable flows of populations – novel ingredients, indigenous eating habits and canny cooking methods informed Islam’s culinary lexicon, from the reign of the Omayyads (661-750) to the last major Muslim dynasty – the Mughals of the Indian subcontinent (1526-1827).

It was under the rule of the Baghdad-based, Persian chef-favouring Abbasid caliphs (750-1258; 1261-1521) “that Muslims started to develop a rich, culinary tradition,” Ms Helou says. Because: “Persian cuisine is the ‘mother cuisine’.” Ms Helou also deftly illustrates how the societies of North Africa, Turkey and Central Asia borrowed from the Persians, before the era of the Ottomans began and “a new culinary influence was born”. Having devoured the native cuisines of their subjects and availed themselves of New World ingredients, hundreds of Ottoman cooks simultaneously perfected dishes in the humungous Topkapi Palace kitchens in Istanbul, before regularly serving them to thousands of noblemen, and, during the holy month of Ramadan, the wider populace, allowing their creations to be reinterpreted. As for the Mughals (of the Indian subcontinent Mughal empire), Ms Helou states that their rarefied appetite for the arts was also evident in their dining habits, and that they, too, owe a debt to the Persians for their intoxicating, toasted spice-heavy cookery.