DURING THE MEDIEVAL ISLAMIC ERA, civil and religious leaders in Baghdad—known as caliphs—hosted legendary, opulent banquets within their courts. Communal dishes lined tables and drinks flowed freely. The caliphs peppered in entertainment throughout the meal as well, often asking revelers to sing praises about the food before them. One such caliph, al-Mustakfī, implored people to gather one day to recite poetry and dish about food. That day, people waxed about the likes of kamakh, an ancient countertop cheese. Later, at al-Mustakfī’s behest, they made the food that they’d praised in song and verse.
Food and drink was a common cause for celebration in the Medieval Islamic world—a far cry from how, say, Medieval Europe conceived of food. “They liked to talk about food, they enjoyed it, and they had no prohibitions whatsoever,” says Nawal Nasrallah, an Iraqi scholar, author, and translator. “It’s unlike, for example, in Europe during Medieval times, where talking about food was considered a kind of gluttony. In Islam it was permissible.”
In the 10th century, intellectuals and creatives of the Muslim world flocked to Iraq. Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, grew substantially during this “golden era.” Caravans often passed through the city, which contributed to it becoming a place of both cultural and culinary exchange. “At this time it attracted all the world’s riches, material, spiritual, and intellectual alike,” writes Lilia Zaouali in the preface to her book Medieval Cuisine of the Islam World. “Cultures and languages from the world over came together here, coexisting and, of necessity, blending with one another.”Scholars, poets, philosophers, historians, and caliphs thrived in Baghdad.
The vast expansion carved out spaces for “prosperous leisurely classes that demanded the best wealth could offer, which naturally included gourmet cuisine,” as Nasrallah writes in her translation of the 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook, Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens. Nothing illustrated one’s taste and class like knowing how to cook, and from there, writing cookbooks and manuals became popular. That’s part of why the Middle East came to have the most in-depth trove of medieval food literature in the world. As Charles Perry notes in his foreword to Medieval Cuisine of the Islam World, “there are more cookbooks in Arabic from before 1400 than in the rest of the world’s languages put together.”
Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens, written around the 10th century by Ibn Sayyar al-Warrāq, is the earliest-known of these cookbooks. It’s an exhaustive tome that immortalizes Baghdad as a thriving cultural and culinary epicenter, with 615 recipes culled from more than 20 cookbooks and dozens of poems praising culinary wonders. It took centuries to come out of obscurity, however.
Nasrallah immigrated to the United States in the 1990s from Iraq. “People asked me about my food; I think this is a way of trying to know people better,” Nasrallah says. “So I tried to refer to cookbooks.” Finding nothing, she then set out to write her own Iraqi cookbook. While researching what would become that book, Delights from the Garden of Eden, she uncovered something unusual at IU’s library: two cookbooks from medieval-era Baghdad, written in the 10th and 13th centuries, respectively. While the earlier book had been edited in the 1980s, it hadn’t been translated. Stunned by this discovery, Nasrallah decided to take it on. She translated the book into English, which was published in 2007.