Arab and Moorish Influence on Spanish Food.

Al-Andalus: Cookbooks.
In 822, an exile from the Abbasid court of Baghdad arrived in Córdoba, the capital of the Islamic emirate of al-Andalus (the name given by the Moors to the land they occupied in the Iberian Peninsula). The exile’s name was Ali ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab. A scholar and outstanding musician, he also made his name as a trendsetter in fashion, arbiter of good taste and connoisseur of fine food.

Ziryab’s impact was significant and his cultural innovations, intended for the court and nobility, established the template for a refined life style in al-Andalus.  This careful nurturing of elegance and magnificence was the hallmark of the courts of all subsequent rulers of al-Andalus, even as their land contracted under the southward advances of Spain’s Christian kingdoms. In courtly, noble or urban elite circles food mattered, with sumptuous meals a vital part in impressing visiting dignitaries.

Not surprisingly, this important function of food led to the creation of cooking manuals, either as records of meals served or guides (much like cookbooks nowadays).

But recipes are notoriously unstable since we often modify them for a variety of reasons, e.g. availability of ingredients, consideration of our guests’ tastes, personal preferences and dislikes. Only when compiled and written down as manuals do recipes from the past acquire historic context. The ingredients used at the time of compiling or writing ancient cookbooks allow us to compare recipes between manuals and permit us to measure subsequent changes.

In al-Andalus, the two earliest known cookbooks are both from the 13th century. One is entitled The Delights of the Table Dealing with the Pleasures of Food and Different Dishes by Ibn Razin al-Tugabi (1227-1293). Born in Murcia, the scholarly Ibn Razin moved to Ceuta across the Straits of Gibraltar in 1248, shortly after the fall of his native town to Christian forces (1243).

The second cookbook is a Treatise on cooking in the Maghreb and al-Andalus during the period of the Almohads by an anonymous author, aka An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th century.

Ibn Razin opens The Delights by outlining the order in which food should be served and why, and urges cleanliness in the kitchen. Not only hygiene, but the nutritional value and medicinal quality of foods were important, and recipes often referred to how certain foods helped the digestive system and pointed out which dishes helped in overcoming certain ailments. Much like the health pages in magazines and newspapers nowadays!

The book contains 428 recipes carefully organised into 12 sections, dealing with bread, pasta and soups, meat, fowl, offal, fish and eggs, dairy products, vegetables, legumes (e.g. fava beans, chickpeas), desserts, pickled food and vinegars, and lobsters/crayfish and shrimps. The final (12th section) discusses the preparation of soaps.

Although Ibn Razin follows the general trend of Middle Eastern cookbooks, he pays tribute to his homeland declaring that he is “partial to Andalusian food” and claims that Andalusians “are progressive people, full of zeal in spite of the fact that they discovered late the invention of gastronomy“(Nadeau, 7).

Unlike Ibn Razin’s book, the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook is a haphazard compilation containing over 500 recipes. It has a clearly international flavour with dishes acknowledged to be from a variety of sources, e.g. Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Sicily, Tunisia.

Closer to home, there is a recipe for cheese pie identified as being from “the west of al-Andalus, as in Córdoba and Seville and Jerez, and elsewhere in the land of the West.” Another cheese pie recipe originates in Toledo. Individuals too are sometimes referenced. A whole section comes from “The cookbook of Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi,” and a recipe for Mujabbana (cheese pie) with eggs is “the invention of Musa b. al-Hajj Ya’ish.” There is one dish bearing Ziryab’s name, with instructions on how to prepare lamb using salt, onion, coriander seed, pepper, caraway, two spoons of oil, almonds and bread.

Interestingly there are also several Jewish dishes which, since there are no known Medieval Jewish cooking manuals, make these recipes fascinating witnesses to cultural cross fertilization in al-Andalus.

Ziryab’s influence can also be detected in the author’s recommendation that courses be served separately:  “Many of the great figures and their companions order that the separate dishes be placed on each table before the diners, one after another; and by my life, this is more beautiful than putting an uneaten mound all on the table.”

Much the same as Ibn Razin, the unknown author is proud of the sophistication of Andalusians and points out that “separating dishes is more elegant, better-bred, and modern; this has been the practice of the people of al-Andalus and the West, of their rulers, great figures, and men of merit…

Like Ibn Razin, the author of the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook advocates “care to avoid dirt and decay, and to clean the utensils used for cooking, in cleaning the kitchen.” Food should never be left in copper pots, cooking in a single pot is to be avoided and used pots should be cleaned every night with “hot water and bran.”

For the author, cooking is an “art” which depends on an intimate knowledge of “the variety of foods and their flavors.” He especially values spices and urges cooks to “know that familiarity with the use of spices is the first basis in cooked dishes, for it is the foundation of cooking, and on it cookery is built.

Lamb is the favourite meat, but there are plenty of dishes using chicken, partridge, pigeons, small birds, hare, rabbit, fish, starlings, veal, squab, sparrow hawk, goose, turtle doves. Meat balls figure prominently, fish less so. The abundance of beef and egg recipes in the Anonymous Cookbook (and Ibn Razin’s book) is an interesting feature since they distinguish this book from the manuals of the East.

Of the vegetables used, eggplants and chick peas are especially popular and there are a few featuring asparagus.  A section entitled “Kinds of Starch Dishes” contains possibly the first reference to couscous (kuskusû).

The book concludes with sections on desserts, syrups and pastes. Honey, rose water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, spikenard, camphor, eggs, almonds, walnuts, hazel nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, semolina, butter, cheese, olive oil, feature repeatedly in the desserts.

Advice is offered on the most appropriate foods for guarding one’s health. The nutritious value of numerous dishes is noted as well as the illnesses particular foods are good for.  Heavy foods that are hard to digest should be eaten alone and not mixed with light foods so as to avoid inflaming the stomach.

There are dishes identified as better for winter, others for summer; recipes for colds including one that both fixes a cold and “strengthens coitus!” For that you need “walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and pistachios ground finely. Then add bread crumbs, ground meat from the shoulder of a sheep, fifteen eggs and beat it all together. Add ginger, galingale (a member of the ginger family), pepper, cloves and Chinese cinnamon, one part of each, and mastic and saffron.  Put it all in a new pot and throw in fresh milk. Place it in a clay oven. Seal it and leave it until it is done and is ready. Take it out, scatter ground sugar on it and serve it!”

The recipes for syrups and pastes are quite short, and written by another hand. The syrups are valued for their medicinal qualities, with the benefits of each summarised at the end of each recipe.  You need a pick-me-up? “Take borage, mint, and citron leaves, cook them in water to cover until their strength comes out. Then  put in a bag a spoonful each of aloe stems, Chinese rhubarb, Chinese cinnamon, cinnamon and clove flowers; pound all these coarsely, place them in a cloth, tie it well, and place it in a kettle, macerate it again and again until its substance passes out, and cook until [the liquid] takes the consistency of syrups. Take with hot water. Benefits: It profits weak stomachs, fortifies the liver and cheers the heart, digests foods, and lightens the constitution gently.”   

A syrup of honey “is good for weak livers; it fortifies the stomach and benefits dropsy among other ailments; it dissolves phlegm from all parts of the body and heats it a great deal, gives gaiety, lightens the body, and it was used by the ancients like wine for weariness. Lemon syrup cuts the thirst and binds the bowels, while carrot syrup increases desire, and dissolves phlegm, heats the kidneys admirably, and likewise the other parts of the body, God willing.”

Pastes are also appreciated for their health benefits. For example, carrot paste “fortifies coitus and increases desire beautifully; it is admirable, while quince paste lightens the belly that suffers from bile, it suppresses bitterness in the mouth, and excites the appetite.”

Important features of both cooking manuals, and indicative of a Middle Eastern touch, are the combination of sweet and savoury, a love of highly seasoned and spiced meat, and a wide use of variety of seasonings in a single dish. Two recipes from the Anonymous Cookbook, one complicated, the other relatively simple, are typical of the use made of spices and herbs:

The Dish Mukhallal.
“Take the meat of a plump cow or sheep, cut it small, and put it in a new pot with salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, plenty of saffron, garlic peeled and diced, almonds peeled and split, and plenty of oil; cover it with strong, very pure vinegar, without the slightest bit of water; put it on a moderate charcoal fire and stir it, then boil it. When it cooks and the meat softens and it reduces, then put it on the hearthstone and coat it with much egg, cinnamon and lavender; color it with plenty of saffron, as desired, and put in it whole egg yolks and leave it on the hearthstone until it thickens and the broth evaporates and the fat appears. This dish lasts many days without changing or spoiling; it is called “wedding food” in the West [or the Algarve], and it is one of the seven dishes cited as used among us at banquets in Córdoba and Seville.”

Chicken Called Madhûna, Greased.
“Take a cleaned hen, still whole; slice the breast and pierce with wood [skewers] on all sides, grease with oil, murri** naqî’, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, lavender, and ginger; grease inside and out with this; then put it in a pot and pour on what remains of the oil and murri; cover the pot with a sealed lid and place it in the oven, leaving it there until the hen is done; take it out and use. It is extraordinarily good.”

**Murri: A salty condiment from fermented barley left
to rot. For more, see  

Appearing in the 13th century, both Ibn Razin’s manual and the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook appear fairly late in al-Andalus’s history, 711-1492. However, they both bear witness to a well-established culinary tradition and contact with the Islamic world where cooking manuals from the Middle East go back at least to the 10th century.

The earliest known Christian manual in Europe is a collection in Catalan, the Libre de Sent Sovi, first half of the 14th century. Although much shorter (72 recipes) than Ibn Razin’s manual and the Anonymous Cookbook, the Libre de Sent Sevi does contain recipes with ingredients popular in al-Andalus dishes e.g. spices, nuts, citrus fruits.  It shows that al-Andalus’s culinary sophistication had expanded into Christian lands even though its political presence had been reduced by then to the small kingdom of Granada in the south.

The food of al-Andalus has left an enduring legacy despite being subjected to Inquisitorial scrutiny during the 16th and early 17th centuries when food was used as a tool to measure the orthodoxy of converted Muslims and Jews (Moriscos and Conversos respectively). 

Popular dishes such as albóndigas (meat balls), or eggplant-based recipes or stews prepared in a sauce called  escabeche (from the Arabic assukkabáǧ) are instances of Moorish inspired foods that are part of the cultural fabric of Spain. So too are many pastries, biscuits (especially those using almonds), and flour-based desserts which are fried and then sweetened with honey or syrups. We’ll look at Moorish based dishes more closely in another page.

Adamson, Melitta Weiss Food in Medieval Times London, Westport, Conn. 2004.
Gitlitz, David M. & Davidson, Linda Kay A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews New York 1999.
Llopis, Manuel M. Martínez Historia de la gastronomía española Madrid 1989.
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.
Quotations from the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook are taken from Friedman, David ed: No pagination is available for the quotations above since there is none in Friedman’s text.