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.

Another category of evidence is archaeology, and particularly what is nowadays called “archaeo-chemistry.” Forty-four years ago an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania excavated some ruins at Gordion, an ancient Phrygian site in central Turkey, where they found the remains of a funeral feast for a king, perhaps the famous Midas himself. The king had died, and in accordance with the custom of the time and the place, there was a great farewell dinner for him. Whether through drunkenness, carelessness, or obedience to custom, they did no washing up. The king was buried with the entire remains of the feast: the dirty plates and dishes, the unwashed glasses, the leftovers.

We are told that when the archaeologists went and opened the ruins, their nostrils were assailed by the stink of rancid meat. They couldn’t do much about it at the time, but since then new techniques have been evolved for the chemical analysis of organic remains. These have now produced extremely interesting data about what they ate and what they drank 2,700 years ago in Turkey.


What were the ingredients of ancient cuisine? We start of course with milk and honey. Milk is a very basic foodstuff, taken sweet, curdled, clarified, and various other ways. One can, in a sense, divide the civilizations of this planet into three zones: the sweet-milk zone, the sour-milk zone, and the no-milk zone. The sweet-milk zone is Europe and the Americas; the sour-milk zone the Islamic lands and India; the no-milk zone China and Japan, where they neither drink it nor use it in their traditional cuisine—no milk, no cheese, no butter.

Honey was also important. It wasn’t until comparatively recently that sugar became known, and before that honey was the main sweetener. It was also used to make alcoholic drinks. Cereals are attested to from an early date: wheat, barley, sorghum. Rice seems to have been introduced from India. There is some evidence that it was cultivated immediately before the advent of Islam in Iraq and Iran, but probably not long before. It wasn’t known to the Greco-Roman world.

We have a rather interesting description from an early Arab source of their first encounter with rice, at the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Some Persian scouts whom an Arab armed force surprised in the marshes took flight, leaving behind them two baskets: one containing dates, and the other what they afterward learned to be unhusked rice. The Arab leader told his men: eat the dates, but leave this other thing, for it might be poison which the enemy has prepared for you. They therefore ate the dates, and avoided the other basket. But while they were eating, one of their horses broke loose and started to eat the rice. They were about to slaughter the horse, so that they could eat it before its flesh was also poisoned, but the horse’s owner told them to wait, and said that he would see to it in due course.

The following morning, finding the horse was still in excellent condition, they lit a fire under the rice and burned off the husks. “And their commander said: pronounce the name of Allah over it and eat. And they ate of it and they found it a most tasty food.”

Bread of course is attested to from a very early time, and even acquired a kind of sanctity. Here is a passage from no less an author than al-Ghazali, the great Muslim theologian who died in 1111. In a treatise on table manners, on the correct way to behave while eating, he says: One should eat from the roundness of the loaf, except where there is only a little bread. A person should break bread and not cut it with a knife. That is disrespectful to the bread. The Prophet is quoted as saying: Tear it with your teeth. No bowl or other vessel should be placed on the bread, but only foodstuffs. Honor bread, which Almighty God sent down as a blessing from heaven. Don’t wipe your hand with bread. If anyone lets a mouthful of bread drop, he should pick it up, remove any dirt on it, and not leave it for the devil. A kind of respect for bread still survives in many parts of this region to the present day.

Meat was for most of antiquity something rare and precious, not something for ordinary everyday people. But we have indications of the various birds and beasts that were consumed, and those that were forbidden. Some historians have even argued that the ban on pork set the limits of Islamic expansion. The Islamic religion came out of Arabia in the seventh century, spread very rapidly eastward and westward and northward and southward, and then came to a stop in Spain, the Balkans, and China, three regions depending very heavily on pig husbandry.

Another theory sets the limits of the Islamic expansion in terms of the olive, the cultivation of olives and the production of olive oil, a staple of virtually all cuisine in the Middle Eastern region. That idea seems even more far-fetched than the pork theory, since Islam has after all spread very extensively in lands where the olive is not cultivated or known.

We find plenty of references to fruits and vegetables, including figs, dates, grapes, peaches; eggplant is a great staple. The apple seems to be so basic that it even serves as a sort of generic term for fruits and vegetables, so that something unfamiliar is called a kind of apple. An Italian pilgrim, describing his first encounter with a banana in Egypt in 1384, calls it a “paradise apple.” When the potato, an American innovation, first appeared, the French called it pomme de terre. When modern Israel needed names for oranges and potatoes, lacking in biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, they both became apples of a kind: “golden apples” and “earth apples.” And when the tomato was introduced to Italy, it was the “golden apple,” the pomodoro, which eventually passed into Arabic in the forms banadura and bandura.

A word or two about side dishes, condiments, flavorings—things which are not part of a main dish, but are used in various ways to give it flavor. There are the obvious ones, onions, leeks and garlic, all attested to in remote antiquity. Sugar is an interesting additional item, which came from India via Iran, and was either unknown or very little known in Greco-Roman antiquity. We find occasional references to what might be sugar, but they certainly didn’t use it normally for cuisine, and when it first appeared it was used for medicinal purposes. After the Islamic conquests sugar spread very rapidly—first its use, then its cultivation: from Persia to Egypt, to North Africa, to Spain, and from Spain to the Atlantic islands and to the New World. From the New World it came back to the Middle East. European powers were able to grow sugar more cheaply and more efficiently on their plantations than in the home countries. The same happened a little later with coffee.

Spices were of course very important. Mas’udi, a major Arabic writer of the Middle Ages, lists twenty-five different spices. Oddly enough, he does not include pepper, the most widely used of all of them, of which another author tells us there were seven hundred varieties. Spices are important also in another respect, and that is through commerce, both with Europe and Southeast Asia.

Mention has already been made of milk as a basic drink. The other most frequently mentioned in antiquity is alcoholic drink of various kinds, principally by fermentation, i.e., wine, or by brewing, i.e., beer. Distilling, making spirits, came later. We have a good deal of literary, archaeological, and even linguistic evidence on the history of wine.

Despite the explicit prohibition of all alcoholic drinks, they were widely indulged in, and there is a whole literature of wine poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other Islamic languages. Pious attempts to explain wine as a metaphor for mystical ecstasy are not always persuasive.

Where did they go for a drink? There were of course no taverns in Islamic lands, and no vintners. Christians were allowed to make wine, and Christian monasteries, then as now, there as elsewhere, often specialized in the production of fine wine. So in classical and medieval poetry, both Arabic and Persian, the convent, the der, appears almost in the sense of the tavern.

Hot drinks come surprisingly late. Fruit juices or infusions may have been heated, though even that is questionable. But the familiar hot drinks, tea, coffee, cocoa, were totally unknown in the Mediterranean and adjoining regions in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. We do find occasional reference in Arab travel books to the infusion of tea leaves in China. But they describe it with puzzlement and distaste, and don’t seem to have been tempted to import this. There is some evidence that when the Mongols conquered Iran in the thirteenth century they brought tea drinking with them, but it didn’t take. It wasn’t until much later that tea was reintroduced to the Middle East by Europeans. Sometimes it came over land from North China, sometimes by sea from South China. The North Chinese word for tea is chai, the South Chinese tey, two dialectal pronunciations of the same word, designated by the same Chinese character.

Coffee is better documented. It originated in Ethiopia, probably taking its name from the province of Kaffa, where coffee grows wild. One can only marvel at the ingenuity of the people who discovered how to make coffee from the coffee bean. Most of the basic foodstuffs and drinks are fairly simple; for coffee, they had to go through a long and elaborate process in order to get drinkable coffee from the beans that grow wild in Kaffa. But it happened, fortunately for all of us.

Coffee was imported from Ethiopia to Yemen, from Yemen through Arabia in the sixteenth century to Egypt and Syria, then to Turkey, and from Turkey to Europe. Tea came to the Middle East from Europe, ultimately from China. Coffee was at first a subject of astonishment among Europeans; some even spoke of it with a certain disgust.

A famous English book, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, written in 1621, offers this comment:

The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine), so named of a berry as black as soot and as bitter…which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer. They spend much time in those coffa houses, which are somewhat like our ale houses or taverns, and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience, that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion and procureth alacrity.

Like sugar, coffee was also taken by Europeans to their colonies in the West Indies and in Southeast Asia. By the eighteenth century both coffee and sugar figure among the imports to the Middle East from Europe.

Two other herbs are “drunk” in Arabic, though not in English: hashish and tobacco. Hashish is of course indigenous to the Middle East and goes back a long time; tobacco is another American import. Here we have precise documentation. It was brought at the beginning of the seventeenth century, by English merchants, who presumably brought it from the American colonies, and it caught on very rapidly. About both coffee and tobacco, there was a long argument whether they were permitted or forbidden according to Shari’a. For a while smoking was not only forbidden, but was treated as a capital offense. It is still forbidden by the Wahhabis and their disciples.


We know from antiquity of two places for preparing food. One is the oven, called tannur, a word that goes back to Assyro-Babylonian antiquity. It was used for baking bread and also for baking pies. The other is the hearth, in Arabic mustawqad, where a fire was made in one way or another for boiling, stewing, grilling, and sometimes frying, though that seems to have been comparatively rare, no doubt because of the high cost of oil. We have a fair amount of information on utensils, and even a quantity of utensils preserved.

Foodstuffs were of course an important item of trade. Obviously a large part of what people ate was perishable, bulky, and inexpensive, and therefore unsuitable for long-distance commerce and of no interest to business. But there was nevertheless quite a lot to interest the traders. Spices were very important; also sugar, olive oil, alcoholic drinks. We also find nuts, dried fruits, honey, tea, coffee, and pulses (beans and lentils) listed among commodities.

The generality of Western travelers seem to agree that very few people, other than the great and the wealthy, cooked food in their own homes. They bought cooked food in marketplaces, in cook-shops, from a widely ramified range of professional cooks. An account of the city of Istanbul prepared by order of the Sultan Murad IV in 1638, cited by Evliya Çelebi, a Turkish writer of the time, lists the “guilds and professions” of the city. Among those concerned with food, the first group consists of the cultivators, the people who grow food. The second group, led by the chief of the bakers, includes bakers, salt-makers, cracker-bakers, and pastry cooks, followed by millers, flour merchants, purifiers of corn, sieve-makers, bag-makers, starch-makers, and biscuit-makers. Then come what he calls “the Egyptian merchants.” These are importers of rice, coffee, and sugar. Then the purveyors of rice and lentils, of sugar and sweets, of sherbets and of coffee: three hundred men and shops, all Greek and all rich, he says.

The next group consists of the butchers—the slaughterers, the beef butchers, the Jewish butchers, the sheep butchers; and a number of others concerned with the care, slaughter, and sale of animals. Then come the dairymen, divided into purveyors of buffalo milk and sheep’s milk, cheese-mongers, cream merchants, butter merchants, and yogurt sellers. Then come the cooks, and those who prepare food for sale in the public places. He enumerates the different kinds of food they sell: dried meats and salt meats, and also liver, tripe, pickled fruits and vegetables, garlic and onions. There are various groups who cook for the poor and a separate guild of carvers. In every cook-shop there is at least one carver who, after having set the dish before the guest, says bismillah (in the name of God), eats two morsels, and then bids the guest to eat. This is presumably to show that it is not poisoned. Then there are roasters and stewers and preparers of pilaf, of dolma, of eggplant, vine-leaves, onions, mustard, syrups, sherbets, and many kinds of fish.

The Middle East doesn’t seem to have had restaurants. At the beginning of the nineteenth century an Egyptian sheikh from al-Azhar, Rifa’a Rafi al-Tahtawi, visited Paris, and wrote a fascinating account of his experiences and observations in the mysterious Occident. One of the oddities of Paris that he noticed was a place called a restaurant. He spells out the word “restaurant” in Arabic script and explains what it is.

We take tables and chairs for granted in places where we eat—we sit on chairs and have the food served on tables. But that is by no means a law of nature. Tables and chairs seem to have existed in the ancient Middle East; they disappeared in the medieval and early modern periods. In a society where wood was rare and precious, and wool and leather cheap and plentiful, they had different arrangements for seating and serving.

With what did they eat the food? Here again we may divide the world into three zones—the cutlery zone in the West, the chopstick zone in the East, and the finger zone in the middle. Chopsticks seem to be a very ancient invention in the Far East. Cutlery is much more recent in the West. A knife was of course necessary, but was not a utensil for eating. The fork was the main one, and seems to have been a Byzantine innovation, introduced to England in the early seventeenth century. English travelers found it in Italy, and they were most impressed by it. The English word “fork” comes from the Italian forchetta. The Italians, it was noted, are rather fastidious and don’t like getting their fingers or their napkins dirty. We find a couple of references to this new device, a fork, in the plays of Ben Jonson (d. 1637). It hadn’t yet arrived in Shakespeare’s time.

We have a number of descriptions of Eastern banquets by Western travelers, and of Western banquets by Eastern travelers. They noticed different things; they were struck by different things. One thing that struck Eastern travelers to the West was that men and women actually dined together. This happened in antiquity, but it was not customary in Islamic times, and it astonished—or even shocked—Middle Eastern visitors to Europe. One such visitor, a certain Vahid Efendi, Ottoman ambassador to France, wrote in 1806 or 1807: “At European banquets many women are present. The women sit at table, while the men sit behind them, watching like hungry animals as the women eat. If the women take pity on them, they give them something to eat, and if not, the men go hungry.”

I don’t know which banquets he attended, but let me just say this: his account of a Western banquet is not more fantastic than some of the Western travelers’ accounts of Middle Eastern life. But these comments take us into a different area, from alimentary and culinary to social and cultural history—in a word, from eating to dining. And that is another story.

This Issue

May 23, 2002