Wednesday, August 8

Show me what you eat and I will tell you what you are

This article is brilliant in terms of providing a window on how the Middle Ages in Egypt played out under the Mamluks. I quote:

Food and Cooking during the Mamluk Era: Social and Political Implications

By Amalia Levanoni

Mamluk Studies Review, Vol.9:2 (2005)

Introduction: Food has been a long-standing object of attention in ethnographic and sociological research. Anthropologists of the nineteenth century focused on the ritual supernatural aspects of food consumption. Their twentieth-century successors, especially field anthropologists, studied rituals surrounding food and then food in the wider context of social systems. Among historians, too, leading historians of the Annales School pioneered attempts to develop a “total history” emphasizing the macro-historical analysis of societies over long periods and the study of all aspects of human experience, especially material culture. A salient example is Fernand Braudel’s major works, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Capitalism and Material Life 1400–1800, in which the author underscored the influence of long-term changes in material culture, including food, on the social systems in Europe. Braudel’s monumental works provided an incentive for the study of social history. Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, one of the most important studies written in the last decades in this field, traces the origins of the norms of conduct in today’s western Europe in late medieval royal courts. The western European way of conduct, including table manners, was modeled by cultural factors in royal courts in a long-term political process related to the formation of states and power monopolization in them.

In the last decades, scholars studying the history of Islam have also begun to focus on the study of material culture, including food. The collection Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, edited by Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, examines Middle Eastern cuisine mainly in the modern era, while studies by David Waines and Manuela Marín focus on the medieval period. In David Waines’ In a Caliph’s Kitchen and A. J. Arberry’s “A Baghdad Cookery-Book” an attempt was made to learn about the culinary culture of medieval Baghdad from recipe books. Eliyahu Ashtor’s “Essai sur l’alimentation des diverses classes social dans l’Orient médiéval” looks at social stratification in medieval Near Eastern populations by way of their patterns of food consumption. In his Al-Matbakh al-Sultani Nabil Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz examines the royal kitchen during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. Geert Jan Van Gelder explored food manifestations in Arabic literature and G. S. Reynolds studied the Sufi approach to food in adab literature. Late medieval humoristic and allegorical “debates” between foods were studied and edited by Manuela Marín and Ibrahim Kh. Geries. Two articles are especially interesting for the research of food and cooking in medieval Islam: Maxime Rodinson’s “Recherches sur documents arabes relatifs a la cuisine” is a valuable bibliography of the Arabic sources on cuisine, and David Waines’ “Prolegomena to the Study of Cooking in Abbasid Times: A Circuitous Bibliographical Essay” is an excellent survey of the modern study of cooking and methodological issues connected with this field of research.

Some of the interesting points which made me wonder:

The preparation of food during the
Mamluk era was similarly affected by social stratification, within both the ruling
Mamluk elite and the general population. Only people of means could maintain
kitchens in their homes, not only because of the great expense involved but also
because of the danger entailed in keeping fire indoors since no effective means
were available to extinguish it.

Another difficulty in maintaining a kitchen was the high cost of cooking
utensils. The ownership of pots and their quality were symbols of social status.
While the elite had kitchens equipped with "astounding utensils" (al-alat al-‘aj|bah), ≠
the lower classes sometimes had to rent utensils in the market

Members of the civilian middle class, those who earned a respectable living
but were not well off, prepared their food at home in "kitchenettes." These were
most likely without fire and running water, as borne out by evidence that the
water was supplied by water vendors and the food sent to the market to be
cooked, at the shop of the butcher (shara≠’ih˝|), the cook (t¸abba≠kh), or the baker
(khabba≠z), who also baked bread that had been prepared at home.


The preparation of food was of interest mainly to the top echelon of the Mamluk
ruling elite, to members of the civilian upper class who were able to cook food at
home, and to the professional cooks who kept shops catering to the vast urban
lower classes. The latter's attitude toward food preparation was simple, pragmatic,
and aimed at the maximization of profit. The cooks used countless tricks to
adulterate the food, while muh˝tasibs used counter-methods to expose their deceit.
As a result, the quality of food prepared in the market, though it varied, was
generally poor. Mud˝|rah, a sour milk soup sold by weight, was deviously made
heavier by the addition of ground rice flour. Ways of adulterating meat dishes
included the incorporation of much fat and little meat; the replacement of mutton
with goat meat or with the meat of impure animals like dogs, and the use of
spoiled, cooked meat or carrion masked by the liberal use of spices.


Appreciation of fine food was a trait associated with the owning class, and
therefore they dabbled in culinary adventures. To some of the elite, cooking was a
hobby. The vizier Maj|d Ibn Khas˝|b owned seven hundred slave girls, two of
whom were experts at preparing fried dishes. To illustrate the vast wealth he
accumulated during his period of service, al-Maqr|z| relates that large quantities
of food were cooked "in his kitchen at home." Sultan al-S˛a≠lih˝  S˛a≠lih˝
(752–55/1351–54) was an amateur cook. He himself laid the table at a banquet he
held in honor of his mother, Qutlubak, and he served her and other close associates ≠
dishes he had cooked "with his own hands

Traditional Muslim table manners involved partaking food in common meals
from one central dish, as was the standard among the upper class of western
Europe at the time.  As there was no recommendation in Muslim tradition to use
personal utensils like plates or spoons, the diner was required to take a small
morsel with three fingers and deposit it in his mouth without making contact with
his saliva. This also held true for drinking: the drinker was required to drink
without touching the vessel with his lips. Licking one's fingers and then putting
them into the common dish was considered abhorrent. Licking the fingers at the
end of the meal, on the other hand, was allowed as this was equal to wiping one's
hand with a napkin

As mentioned earlier, dishes of horseflesh were included in meals served at
their banquets. After the Oirat, the Mongol warriors who had fled the Mongol
Ilkhanate of Persia (695/1295), found refuge in the Mamluk Sultanate, they were
allowed into the Mamluk army and their children into the majority of the amirs'
households. Since they kept their homeland tradition without intervention, they
consumed horseflesh as was the custom in the Eurasian steppes. This was abhorrent
to the Muslims because they used to tether the beast and beat it to death.

The Muslim tradition, however, forbids the flesh of animals beaten to death.  Furthermore, it provides detailed prescriptions of how to slaughter the animal with minimum suffering and purify it for consumption by setting aside its blood.  Such blatant deviations from Muslim codes of behavior by the ruling elite made it easier for the ulama to level sharp criticism against the Mamluks' cultural repertoire and bar its dissemination to the general population

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