Friday, July 10, 2009

Noodles and Eggplant

I've been browsing in the book Medieval Arab Cookery. It includes a scholarly edited version of two manuscripts of recipes, and a number of short articles on diverse subjects, particularly on the history of various dishes. It's fascinating to learn how cooking ideas and ingredients spread through the Arab world and sometimes further.

"Notes on Persian Pasta" begins with the first Iranian noodle dish, mentioned in a tenth-century Arab cook book, called lakhsha. (p. 251-255) Noodles, we learn, were mentioned as early as the year 500 in Greece. The word laksha became a noodle word in a large number of places: in "Nogai, a Turkic language ... (laksa); Hungarian (laska); Ukrainian (lokshina), and via Ukranian Yiddish (lokshn); Russian (lapsha); and Lithuanian (lakstiniai)." In Indonesia, the word was laksa; noodles likely came there from the Muslims of Gujarat. By the 13th century, other types of noodles and other words for them became common in the Arab world, including stuffed pasta -- which influenced Russian stuffed pasta. I found this brief trip around the world of pasta to be very amusing. (Only a non-reader could still believe that Marco Polo brought pasta from China, you know)

Another article describes a family of dishes made from eggplant: "Buran: Eleven Hundred Years in the History of a Dish." (p. 239-249) In 825, at a lavish wedding took place in a high noble family. The bride's name, Buran, became associated with a type of eggplant dish. From a tenth century recipe: "Take small eggplants and gash them, cut off the stems and soak them in salted water. Then take a small pan and pour olive oil and murri (soy sauce), pepper, caraway, and rue."

Within a few centuries, other versions of the dish added walnuts, herbs and more spices, and varied the technique somewhat. More and more eggplant dishes, both with and without meat, appeared in Arabic recipe collections. Onions, coriander, saffron, meatballs, layered multi-ingredient casseroles, spreads (like baba ghannouj), yougurt, and grains eventually became part of the tradition, which extended as far west as Spain and far to the east as well. "As for the Lady Buran herself... she even traveled with her husband on his military campaigns... and was with him when he died in a war against Byzantium. She retired to spend her widowhood in a palace just downstream from Baghdad, ... [which] became famous for the elegance with which she decorated it."

Here's the reference, though I checked a copy out of the library:
Medieval Arab Cookery: Papers by Maxime Rodinson and Charles Perry with a Reprint of a Baghdad Cookery Book by Charles Perry, A. J. Arberry, and Maxime Rodinson (Hardcover - Jul 1, 1998)

Update. A few days after I read the book, a friend served us his special baklava, made with passion fruit syrup. I loved it because the tart passion fruit syrup adds a sour taste to the usual version, which I find too too sweet and cloying. From another chapter of Medieval Arab Cookery I remembered this description of medieval Arab pastry -- "Apparently the combination of sweet and sour flavors was considered appropriate with meat but not in a free-standing confection." (p. 283) So our friend has improved on a 1000 year tradition!

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