In the Middle Ages, fruits made up the sweet repertoire of the royal chefs in Bagdad, which at that time was the center of culinary innovation. Food from that period, at least for the sultan, was heavily fussed over-dishes were heady with exotic scents, dusted with spices and prepared with surprising flavor combinations, which even after hundreds of years would still be considered novelty. A few weeks ago on a night out with friends at Lilith restaurant in Tel Aviv, we ordered the most unusual appetizer on the menu, liver with bananas, a prime example of nouvelle cuisine. It would have surprised the chef that the idea was a ancient one, written in a 13th century Arab cookbook (in the recipe lamb is used instead of liver) and since it is made for royalty and the style of the day, it also includes rosewater, pistachios, hazelnuts, Cinnamon, saffron and mastic to keep it lively for eternity. There are many more examples of fruits used in savory dishes such as mishmishiya, a dish of meat cooked in apricot sauce, a popular dish in the Middle Ages and which can still be made today using the exact same recipe (but you will have to figure out what jujubes are):
“Take fat meat. Boil it in a little water and take its scum away. Take dried apricots and remove their pits and replace them with blanched almonds. And when the meat is done, throw the apricots on it, and raisins, a stick of Chinese cinnamon, mint, mastic saffron and jujubes, and sweeten it with sugar and honey. It comes out well.”1
Chicken with Apricots and Prunes
This is a recipe which I adopted from Israeli cookbook author Levana Rosenfeld. The sweet and sour flavor preference is found even in the most ancient of all cookbooks, written on clay tablets around 1700 BC in Babylonia. The recipe uses soy sauce, a distinctive Asian ingredient, to add an umami flavor boost to the dish, replacing murri, a similar rich fermented sauce which was used in the Middle East until the 16th century.
This may well have been a dish that a Sultan would have ordered, at least this is what I tell my children.
10-12 chicken drumsticks
200 grams dried prunes
200 dried apricots
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce (this is to add a bit of umami)
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup vegetable oil (this can be omitted)
3-4 crushed garlic cloves
1-2 teaspoons paprika
Mix all the ingredients for the sauce. Arrange the chicken in a baking dish and add the apricots and prunes between them. Pour the sauce over the chicken and bake for about one hour.
It is also possible to add all the ingredients to an oven proof pot and bring it to a boil first. Continue cooking in the oven at 180 C. This method shortens the cooking time and helps to keep the chicken from drying out.
Delights from the Garden of Eden, Nawal Nasrallah
1Medieval Arab Cookery, essays and translations by Maxime Rodinson, A.J. Arberry and Charles Perry