The past few months have been months of transition. After over two years abroad I’m back to Washington, where I’ve been cooking, writing, studying, tweeting things from my smartphone, running to class, running to yoga – all these things one seems to do in Washington. Meanwhile the blog has just been sitting here, feeling a bit neglected, but all that ends tonight.
As I’m turning to the subject of food in history in my studies, I’ve been refamiliarizing myself with some of the classics of Arab cookery in my kitchen, starting with Lilia Zaouali’s excellent Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. The book gives an overview of what high cuisine food looked like in classical and medieval Arabic-speaking cultures, and nearly half the book is recipes drawn from books of medieval Arabic cookery. This recipe, which is included in her collection, grabbed me because of its curious name: Sitt al-Nawba.
Due to the fact that Arabic texts typically don’t include short vowels, Zaouali notes that the name of the dish could also be interpreted as “Sitt al-Nuba.” Thus, she explains, it might mean “the Nubian Lady,” or “lady of misfortune.”
A few points: the recipe comes from a 13th century cookbook likely written in Cairo (its full name: Kanz al-fawa’id fi tanwi al-mawa’id. This rhymes, and is why its clunky translation in the title of this post also rhymes. Also, because rhymes are fun). This makes sense given the title “Sitt,” which means lady (as in Oum Kalthoum, The Lady, Al-Sitt) but which I’ve been told is a uniquely Egyptian word, predating the Arab conquests. “Nuba,” then, would be a logical choice for the translation, as Nubia has had historical ties to Egypt for millennia.
But the dish itself, with its mix of sweet and savory and its use of dried fruits, reminds me more of Persian-influenced Abbasid cuisine than anything else, and so rather than arguing that it refers to Nubian influence, I would like to posit an alternate translation based (more or less arbitrarily, I’ll admit) on my favorite definition of nawba in Edward Lane’s lexicon: “an assembly of men.” I’d like to name this dish after a lady who presides over an assembly of men. Sitt al-Nawba.
It seems that most of these classical cookbooks were written by men. But there are also a number of anonymous manuscripts with recipes floating around, and Zaouali points out that perhaps, just perhaps, these were written by women. After all, let’s be honest, women run the world.
Whatever its name, the dish stands the test of time. After I made it, I ate it in sandwiches with slices of Manchego for a week. My version departs significantly from the Zaouali translation – for one, medieval cookbook recipes are set up completely differently from the way modern cookbooks (and food blogs) are: they tend to be a list of instructions with no ingredient list or amounts or timing given. I also did a bit of cheating (rather than making almond milk myself, I just bought almond milk. Hello 21st century) and substituting (couldn’t find jujubes, used dates instead). But I like to think I captured the spirit of the dish.
Run the World Chicken
Adapted from Kanz al-fawa’id fi tanwiʿ al-mawa’id, translated by Lilia Zaouali
You will need:
1 chicken, cut into pieces, with bone
2 cups almond milk
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of saffron
6 dates (or, if you’ve got them, use jujubes, as the original recipe calls for. Although supposedly domesticated in Southern Asia, friends tell me that jujubes (ʿaynāb in Arabic) are cultivated throughout Palestine and Egypt, and are the namesake of a famous song. Also, jujubes are the namesake of a particular shade of red – something like burgundy – as they were also used as a dye.)
1/4 cup of dark raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
Handful of crushed rosebuds (which you can find in spice stores) or half cup of rosewater (check the ethnic foods aisle)
1/2 teaspoon anise
First, soak the raisins and dates either in rosewater or in water with the rosebuds and anise. Set aside.
Cook the chicken in water at a simmer for 25 minutes.
Strain the chicken (now you have the makings of a lovely stock) and brown the pieces in sesame oil, 5-7 minutes per side.
In a large pot, cook the almond milk, saffron, sugar, and dried fruit mixture until it starts to thicken.
Place the chicken in the pot and cook together for 10 minutes.
Serve with nuts on top.
On a separate – but related – note, today is World Food Day and Food Sovereignty Day (h/t to Kitchen Counter Culture). This makes today an especially apt opportunity to point out that the recipe above reflects court cuisine – that is, high class food that very, very few people were able to eat at the time the cookbook was written. In fact, until the 19th and 20th centuries, when food systems had emerged to the point of enabling what Rachel Laudan calls “middling cuisines,” there really wasn’t much between high and very humble cuisines available to most of the world’s population.
“Middling cuisines” offer variety and nutrition and pleasure to a far greater number of people, but the truth is that even today, Laudan says, probably only one in three people worldwide have access to such cuisines. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those people who “enjoy hot meals at least once a day…eat soft, creamy, crispy, crunchy, and often sweet foods, or foods with the rich flavors of meat.” It’s a sobering reminder of how far we’ve come in the broad sweep of global food history, and how far we have yet to go.