Sweet-Delights-rev - 9/20/13
Review of "Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets" by Urtatim Al-Qurtubiyya.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2013 11:08:25 -0700 (GMT-07:00)
From: <lilinah at earthlink.net>
To: SCA-Cooks <sca-cooks at lists.ansteorra.org>
Subject: [Sca-cooks] Review: Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One
Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets
by Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum and Leila Salloum Elias
I.B. Tauris, London & New York; 2013
The authors are a father and his two daughters, all authors, both daughters with MAs in Middle East and Islamic Studies. Besides their Acknowledgements, the opening of the book includes a brief Glossary which I found not particularly helpful, since all the info is included elsewhere in the book, but YMMV; an Introduction - pretty good for 7 pages; their Medieval Sources - also pretty good; and Basic Recipes for sugar syrup, honey syrup, and modern custard cream, which are frequently called for in the worked-out recipes.
The sources they used include several that are not yet available in English. They are:
-- Book of Cookery by ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, late 10 c. collection of 9 & 10 c recipes; Baghdad (translation published as Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens);
-- Minhaj al-Bayan by ibn Jazlah, last quarter of 11 c, Baghdad, unpublished translation by Charles Perry;
-- Book of Cookery by al-Baghdadi, early 13 c, Baghdad (in Medieval Arab Cookery);
-- Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook, early 13 c, al-Andalus (on David Friedman's website);
-- Fadala al-Khiwan fi Tayyibat al-Ta'am wa al-Alwan by Ibn Razin al-Tujibi, written between 1239 & 1269; Murcia, al-Andalus (not in English);
-- Kitab Wusla ila'l-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wa'l-Tib for which they name as presumed author ibn al-'Adim, 1261, Aleppo, Syria (not in English);
-- Kanz al-Fawa'id fi Tanwi' al-Mawa'id, 13 or 14 c, Egypt (not in English);
-- Wasf al-At'ima al-Mu'tada, 14 c, Egypt (in Medieval Arab Cookery);
-- Book of Cookery presumed by ibn al-Mabrad/Mubarrad, 15 c, Damascus, Syria (in Medieval Arab Cookery).
Recipes are organized into 5 sections by type: pastries, cookies, cakes and pies, candies, puddings. Each recipe includes the family's own translation of the original, labeled Historical Recipe, followed by commentary that often adds more information about time period, ingredients, historical variations, etc. and explains terminology and techniques.
This is followed by their working of the recipe, labeled Traditional Recipe. They say whether the recipe is Easy, Moderately Difficult, or For the Experienced Cook; and they include number of servings, prep time, cooking time, and, if required, standing time or chilling time. They often make substitutions or even additions. Sometimes these are understandable, such as butter for sheep tail fat, not unreasonably, since I haven't found it in a supermarket, and haven't asked for in a halal market. They always substitute cornstarch for wheat starch, which is somewhat understandable, since wheat starch is not easily found in standard supermarkets and they wanted to make the recipes accessible to most people.
But sometimes these additions and substitutions do not make a lot of sense to me. For example, they frequently add spices, especially cinnamon, to recipes that do not call for any spices at all. Instead of making pomegranate syrup from scratch, which is not difficult or terribly time consuming, they substitute pomegranate "molasses", which still has to be cooked with sugar to a syrup stage. They replace mastic with mahleb, which as far as I can tell is no easier to find than mastic - I can get both - in the same halal market. They replace musk and camphor - the first almost impossible, the second difficult, to find - with rose or orange flower water, which to me is not a reasonable substitute. And they sometimes even include vanilla!
Then they feature a Modern Recipe, sometimes several, for a sweet made today in the Arabic speaking world or areas formerly in Dar al-Islam - such as Sicily, Spain, and Malta - that they deem similar to the Historical Recipe, although in some cases it seemed a bit of a stretch to me.
There is also a section with photographs of the dishes as they made them, which is helpful, in case you're curious what they "should" look like, or to compare your version to theirs.
They have an extensive bibliography of primary texts in Arabic, as well as secondary sources in a number of languages, in print and on the internet. One "fault", as I see it, in this section is that they link to the PDF of the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook on italophiles.com, rather than to the original on Cariadoc's website; that PDF has been previously discussed on this list.
So in the end, I recommend this book to those who want to make SCA-period Near and Middle Eastern sweets. I haven't cooked from their recipes, so I cannot comment on the outcome. I prefer to work out my own recipes, but I find it useful to compare my initial versions with the versions of others. I do find their explanations helpful, since I don't make candy and rarely make pastries, so am not well versed in those techniques. I especially recommend it because it has recipes from 4 sources inaccesible to those of use who don't read Arabic.
Urtatim (that's oor-tah-TEEM)