A unique feature of Spanish food is its historic relationship with Arab-Moorish cuisine. This is especially so in Andalusia and up the eastern half of the country to the Ebro River and along its fertile valley to Aragón, i.e. areas where Moorish presence was most rooted. The Moors** contributed enormously to the gastronomy of al-Andalus over the roughly 800 years they lived in the Iberian Peninsula. (**Moors was the general name given to Muslim forces who invaded Spain in 711, irrespective of ethnic origin. The land they occupied they called al-Andalus.)
Much of al-Andalus’s culinary inspiration originated in the Middle East, especially Baghdad, which under the Abbasid Caliphate, was the arbiter of style and decorum from the 8th to the 11th centuries. The court at Baghdad was a cultural mecca, where good taste in music, poetry, perfumes and clothes were measures of social distinction and a refined life-style. And fine dining was considered a prestigious and necessary complement to this gracious life-style.
Ali ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab.
One notable arbiter of good taste was the scholar Ali ibn Nafi (789-857AD), who made his mark in the court in Baghdad as astronomer, geographer and above all as musician. Better known as Ziryab, from the Arabic term meaning “blackbird” –a possible allusion to his dark complexion as well as to his beautiful singing voice— Ibn Nafi is said to have incurred the enmity of his former teacher and royal court musician, Ishaq al-Mawsili. Jealous of Ziryab’s popularity, Ishaq allegedly made Ziryab an “offer”: accept a sum of money and leave the court or remain under threat of death. Whatever the exact circumstances, Ziryab left, first for Egypt and then to Kairouan, in present-day Tunisia.
By this time, news had reached him of the Umayyad** court of Córdoba in Spain and its attraction as a growing cultural centre to rival Baghdad. The tone was set by the sociable and pleasure-loving Emir of Córdoba, al-Hakam I (r. 796-822), himself a poet. Ziryab wrote to al-Hakam, offering his services, and receiving a favourable reply headed with his family to al-Andalus.
Ziryab arrived in Córdoba in 822 only to find that al-Hakam had recently died. Fortunately, al-Hakam’s successor, Abd al-Rahman II (r. 822-852), was a patron of learning, had refined tastes and led an elegant life-style. An amateur astronomer and scientist, as well as an accomplished poet, Abd al-Rahman II was immediately impressed by Ziryab’s talents and showered him with gifts and privileges: e.g. a generous salary, villas in the country, special bonuses. It is said that when Abd al-Rahman first heard Ziryab sing, he was so captivated by his voice and his style of playing that he no longer listened to any other singer. Roughly of the same age, ruler and courtier frequently dined together, and discussed a wide variety of topics, including music, poetry, science and history. Ziryab also established a school of music in Córdoba and is credited with adding a fifth string to the lute.
But Ziryab was much more than a musician. A polished conversationalist, he was a trendsetter in fashion (style of clothes and their colours changed according to the season), an advocate of personal hygiene (he introduced toothpaste, deodorants, hair shampoo and perfumes), and also a connoisseur of fine food. At a time when eating in Europe was a matter of crude consumption with little or no attention to refinement, Ziryab looked on eating an aesthetic, harmonious experience: a source of pleasure to all the senses, and attended by rules of etiquette and table manners.
Ziryab brought with him recipes from Baghdad and created innovative dishes of his own. One of these dishes, consisting of meatballs and small triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil, came to be known as taqliyat Ziryab, or Ziryab’s fried dish (Flight of the Blackbird web page). He is also credited with introducing asparagus, until then looked upon as a weed, to the table.
To Ziryab, the presentation of food was an essential part of the aesthetic experience. Fine food was served on tables covered with exquisitely worked leather and heavy gold or silver goblets for drink were replaced by delicate glassware which glinted and exposed the colour of its content. To ensure this, Ziryab saw to it that a glass factory was built in Córdoba, the fame of which soon spread far and wide.
But perhaps Ziryab’s most revolutionary contribution to gastronomy was his rejection of food piled on one plate in favour of separate dishes, beginning with soup, followed by fish or meat and ending with fruit, sweet desserts and different nuts. It was an innovation unknown even in sophisticated Baghdad. It eventually spread to the rest of Europe, and is the forerunner of our modern multi-course meals.
Ziryab’s contribution to Western culture is still not widely recognised, but increasing contact with the Islamic world is gradually changing that. There are now hotels, cafés, restaurants and tapas bars bearing his name in Spain and elsewhere. There is a Lycée Ziryab in Casablanca, and a Ziryab’s deodorant and soap store in New Mexico. There are Youtube videos of music inspired by Ziryab, and even a Ziryab blog by a chess enthusiast. For lots more, simply Google Ziryab.
Adamson, Melitta Weiss Food in Medieval Times London, Westport, Conn. 2004
Llopis, Manuel M. Martinez Historia de la gastronomia espanola Madrid 1989
Lane-Poole, Stanley The Story of the Moors in Spain Baltimore 1990 (first published 1886)
Nadeau, Carolyn Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain Toronto 2016
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011
Web Page: http://www.islamicspain.tv/Arts-and-Science/flight_of_the_blackbird.htm