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In the Finger Zone


The Promised Land is defined by its frontiers and then by its abundant if basic food supply—“a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Lord’s Prayer deals with eternal truths, and with one practical request—for “our daily bread.” The pagan ancient Greeks, imagining the life of the immortals on Mount Olympus, provided for their sustenance—ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the gods.

The systematic study of the history of food is comparatively recent, but historians have already made impressive progress. This kind of history, like any other, requires evidence, and in the Middle East, the home of the most ancient civilizations known to history, such evidence is fortunately plentiful.* A major source of historical information consists of the actual words and names that we use to designate the foodstuffs that we eat and drink. In this, as in everything else, language is a primary and often very illuminating, though sometimes rather tricky, source of information. A few examples may suffice to illustrate the value and the pitfalls of verbal evidence. One is that familiar fruit, the orange: in English “orange,” from French orange, from Spanish naranja, from Arabic naranj, from Persian narang, which is of course related to the Hebrew etrog, from the Persian turung. An interesting term of Middle Eastern origin, traceable in various forms, designating citrus fruit.

But then we find something very puzzling. Most of the languages of Europe use a word of Persian origin to designate this fruit, but in the languages of the Middle East, in Turkish, in Persian, and in Arabic they call it Portugal. So why is the fruit which we in the West call by a Middle Eastern name called in the Middle East by the name of a West European country? This question, fortunately, is not difficult to answer. The narang is the small bitter orange, used for conserves, for flavoring, sometimes also for perfume and medicinal purposes. The sweet orange came from China and was unknown in the Middle East until it was brought by Portuguese merchants, who had picked it up in the Far East, brought it around the Cape, and then reexported it from Western Europe to the Middle East. The Germans got it right when they called it Apfelsin, the apple of China.

As for the peach, the English name comes from the French pèche, from Italian pesca, from Greek persica—referring to the “Persian fruit.” The Greek term also found its way into Hebrew in the form afarsek. This again is an instructive verbal route which one can retrace without too much difficulty.

Sometimes names can lead us astray. In the autumn of 1949 I was in Turkey, working in the Turkish state archives. This was just at the time when a new relationship was developing between the United States and Turkey, which culminated a couple of years later in the inclusion of Turkey in NATO. On Thanksgiving in 1949, President Truman, no doubt on the advice of his specialist advisers, thought it would be a gracious and pleasant gesture to present a turkey to the president of Turkey. In Istanbul, I could observe the general bewilderment. Nowadays of course they would understand immediately. But at that time people in Turkey didn’t know very much about the United States, and there was much mystification. They appreciated what was clearly meant as a friendly gesture, but they were very puzzled when a large dead bird arrived at Çankaya, the Turkish presidential residence, delivered by a special diplomatic courier.

The reason for the mystery is that the bird which in English is called “turkey,” in Turkish is called Hindi, Indian. It was an American bird, unknown in the Eastern Hemisphere before the discoveries of the American continents. Wanting to give it an exotic name, something odd, something different, Europeans made do with the most exotic they could think of. So some people called it “turkey,” others called it the Indian bird, dinde (d’Inde) in French, and equivalents in other languages. In time the bird reached the Middle East, where, in Arabic, it is called dik habashi or dik rumi, the Ethiopian bird or the Greek bird. In fact, the bird is neither Ethiopian nor Greek, neither Turkish nor Indian. All these words simply mean something strange and exotic from a far and unknown place.

The same thing happens with maize, that distinctively American cereal, also unknown in the Eastern Hemisphere before the discoveries. The first English settlers in North America called it “Indian corn.” “Corn” of course in English meant wheat, and still does in England. But in America it was “Indian corn.” Eventually there was no need to repeat the word “Indian” all the time, so “corn” came to be maize. In Europe it has various names. In Italian it’s called gran turco, Turkish grain; in Turkey it’s called misir, Egypt; in Egypt it’s called dura shamiyya, Syrian sorghum. All these names serve the same purpose; to indicate that this is something foreign and exotic.

There are other ways in which etymology can be either misleading or instructive. In Hebrew lehem means bread, whereas the Arabic lahm means meat. Both obviously derive from the same word, and designate a major foodstuff, but not the same foodstuff. Similarly, samn in Arabic means clarified butter; the cognate Hebrew word shemen means oil. A moment’s thought is enough to explain the difference. For the pastoral Arabs, these basic words designated meat and butter; for the agricultural Hebrews, bread and oil.

A second major group of sources is literary works, literary in the broad sense. Some deal explicitly with food and drink. One is surprised at how much there is, going back to remote antiquity. We have for example cookbooks with recipes in ancient Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions, and there is a fairly extensive culinary literature in classical Arabic, as well as in later writings. An important topic is spices. The same commodities often turn up as spices, perfumes, and medicines, and in all three capacities they evoked a considerable scientific literature, including, by the way, a book by Maimonides.

Travel literature is of particular interest. Pilgrimage is one of the basic obligations of the Muslim faith, and every Muslim is required to go on pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina at least once in a lifetime. This brought pilgrims every year, traveling great distances from all the lands of Islam, in what must surely be the most important example of voluntary, personal mobility in pre-modern times. Many of the pilgrims wrote accounts of their travels, including descriptions of the places that they visited, the people that they met, and—more relevantly—the foodstuffs that they encountered and consumed in the course of their peregrinations.

An important contribution of the medieval historians is the lists of taxes and tributes which they sometimes provide. Many of these were levied in kind, and the enumeration of places, products, quantities, and prices can also be extremely informative.

There is also much to be learned from literature in the stricter and narrower sense: stories, poetry, even anecdotes. A characteristic example, related by a fourteenth-century Persian writer, deals with the eggplant, known in Persian as Badinjan, from which “aubergine” and other European names are derived:

One day when Sultan Mahmud [reigned 998–1010] was hungry, they brought him a dish of eggplant. He liked it very much and said, “Eggplant is an excellent food.” A courtier began to praise the eggplant with great eloquence. When the sultan grew tired of the dish he said, “Eggplant is a very harmful thing,” whereupon the courtier began to speak in hyperbole of the harmful qualities of the eggplant. “Man alive,” said the sultan, “have you not just now uttered the praises of the eggplant?” “Yes,” said the courtier, “but I am your courtier and not the eggplant’s courtier.”

One Persian poet deserves special mention. His name is Abu Ishaq, usually shortened to Boshaq, and he is known as Boshaq-i at’ ima, Boshaq of the foodstuffs, because he devoted almost his entire literary output to writing poems about food. He was obviously fascinated by the subject. He flourished in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in Shiraz. His major work is called Kanz al-Ishtiha, or Treasure of Appetite. He also wrote an epic called Dastan-i Muza’far o Bughra, The Epic of Saffron-Flavored Rice and Meat Pie; a story in prose and verse called Majera-i Berenj o Bughra, The Adventures of Rice and Pie; and even a dictionary of culinary terms, the Farhang-i Divan-i at’ima, or The Science of Foodstuffs, mainly rather humorous definitions of food terms.

Another category of particular importance in this region, though perhaps less so in others, is religious and juristic writings, which deal, often quite extensively, with what may or may not be eaten or drunk, and lay down rules and restrictions concerning food and drink. These are primarily Jewish and Muslim. Christians may eat or drink anything.

This literature begins with ancient religious texts; it continues right through to the modern period. There are many legal and administrative texts dealing with the lawfulness or otherwise of foodstuffs, their pricing and distribution, and other related matters.

A recurring problem was that of wine, forbidden to Muslims but not to non-Muslims. Difficulties inevitably arose when two groups of people, Jews and Christians, were free to make, sell, and drink wine, and the Muslim majority was not. There are numerous decrees and regulations dealing with such questions—how one prevents the Jews and Christians from selling wine to the Muslims, and even the problem of Muslim guests at Jewish or Christian weddings, at which wine is served.

A third category of evidence consists of documents, meaning not literary works, but actual documentary texts. Here again the Ottoman archives, both central and provincial, offer millions of documents. They cover the whole food process from production, reflected in detailed lists of taxes in kind, to preparation and consumption, illustrated by kitchen accounts from the palace, the military, and a chain of hospices providing free meals to the needy.

We also have some much more ancient documents. Sometime between 884 and 859 BC, the Assyrian king Ashur Nasirpal II thought it worthwhile, in a major inscription near the doorway to his throne, to include a description of a banquet which he gave. The usual purpose of these royal inscriptions was to say: Look how great I am, look how strong I am, look what I accomplished. The normal pattern is: I conquered so many territories, I enslaved so many peoples.

But Ashur Nasirpal II was a man of kindlier disposition, and he describes in great detail a banquet which lasted ten days, with food and drink for 69,574 invited guests, both men and—remarkably—women. The food served is specified and enumerated in this inscription, in very great detail; so many head of cattle, cows, sheep, lambs, stags, gazelles, ducks, geese, pigeons and other birds, fish, eggs, bread, vegetables, fruits, nuts, condiments, and spices, and also 10,000 kegs of beer and 10,000 skins of wine. There are several references in the Bible to royal feasts, given by Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20), Solomon (1 Kings 3:15), and Ahasuerus (Esther 1:3–5; 2:18; 8:17; 9:17–22), but Ashur Nasirpal’s would appear to be the oldest described in detail.

  1. *

    Useful surveys of various aspects of the subject, with bibliographical details, will be found in two major works of reference, the Encyclopedia Iranica and the Encyclopedia of Islam. In the first, reference may be made to the articles on “Cooking,” “Fisheries and fishing,” “Fruit,” etc. The Encyclopedia of Islam is published in English and French, but the articles are, for the most part, listed under their Arabic names. Of particular value are the articles on food (Ghidh–a‘), drinks (Mashr–ub–at), and cooking (Matbakh). There are also valuable articles on more limited and specific themes, such as coffee (K°ahwa), wine (Khamr), and tea (Shay).

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