Tamatem, bandora, uta… these are all names given by Arabs to the not-so-humble tomato. If the many names to the one fruit is any indication, it’s that the tomato reigns supreme in kitchens all over the Arab world. What would a good tabbouleh or fattoush salad be without tomatoes? What would a tagen (casserole) of okra look like without it’s red sauce? Is it even possible to imagine Middle Eastern cuisine without that vital ingredient?
And more importantly, why on earth am I writing about tomatoes instead of say, writing, reading, or chocolate? Have I fallen into the bottomless abyss of bloggers who have lost their focus and start to spout nonsensical and irrelevant information about whatever crosses their mind?
No. You see, the history of the tomato in the Middle East is probably one of the most interesting discoveries in my research so far.
As some of you may know, my current work-in-progress is a historical novel set in the Arab world during the Crusades. When I first started entertaining the idea of the story, I knew that I would have to do some research about the history of the Crusades. Of course I would. I obviously needed to know what happened in order to write about the time and place. So off I went, rather cheerfully, to the library and various bookstores (perfect excuse for buying books, by the way).
Most of what I was reading was political history, which is the first thing that comes to the minds of most people when they hear “history” and “research”. Some of it was fascinating, and some of it was dead boring.
The only problem was that although it was important, indeed vital, for me to be completely immersed in the historical events of that time period, it soon became clear that in order to be able to write, I would have to take my research to a new level. And this is where the story of the tomato begins.
While I was busily taking notes on the various battles, my characters were — gosh darn them! — getting hungry. So, kind writer and renowned feeder of people that I am, I had to prepare a meal for them. I put a few battles on “hold” and off I went to read up on Arab kitchens during the Crusades. An invaluable resource I found was Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes.
This is what I found:
1. There were more Arabic cookbooks written before the year 1400 CE than in the rest of the world. That’s even if you added all the cookbooks written in all other languages together. Well, considering how much we still love food, it figures.
2. Moreover, the mere act of writing down recipes and compiling them was peculiar to medieval Arabs. Other people taught cooking through apprenticeship only.
3. The oldest surviving Arabic cookbook — which does not necessarily mean it is the oldest Arabic cookbook — is called Kitab al-tabikh, or “The Book of Cooking”. It was compiled in the tenth century by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, and contains recipes from the courts of eighth and ninth century caliphs.
4. The private physicians of the caliphs had actually recommended certain dishes as being healthy, and this is one of the reasons the Arab world fell in love with the idea of cookbooks. In the eleventh century, a Baghdad physician called Ibn Jazla wrote Minhaj al-bayan fi ma yastaamiluhu al-insan, or very roughly “A declaration of clarification to things used by humans”, a book in which he explained the health benefits of different herbs, plants, and foods, and wrote down a few dozen recipes in detail. The recipes in his book soon became “bestselling” recipes, copied into other cookbooks, and even translated into Latin and German in the fourteenth century.
5. The Arabs were very open to trying out new cuisines, and borrowed and developed recipes from Persia, different regions in the Arab world (after all, it does extend from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean), and sometimes from Europe. But in places where Europeans and Arabs were in constant contact, such as Andalusia and the Middle East during the Crusades, it was more often the Europeans who borrowed from the Arabs.
6. Finally, to get to the poor tomato. Alas, it did not exist in the Middle East at the time of the Crusades. The tomato, which originated in South America, was “discovered” by the Spanish in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. So what did the Arabs use instead? Fruits and flowers. Instead of stewing vegetables and meats in tomato juice, the Arabs used fruits such as pomegranates, quinces, grapes, apples, or plums.
So, while on this Eid holiday I’ll be enjoying oven-roasted stuffed tomatoes for lunch, the characters in my novel will feast on chicken with Seville oranges. Or perhaps some beef with rosebuds.
But of course, like any good writer, for the sake of authenticity, I’ll have to try out some of those medieval recipes, won’t I?