Abū Ḥamza’s Bread

15 April, 2022


Philip Grant


One of the many beau­ti­ful things about being four years old (or so it seems from an adult per­spec­tive) is that all the eccen­tric­i­ties of the grown-up world, which for us some­times threat­en to become dis­qui­et­ing in their strange­ness, can be tak­en for grant­ed, mere­ly pieces of new infor­ma­tion to be incor­po­rat­ed into one’s expand­ing knowl­edge of the uni­verse. So when I told my son we were going to make Abū Ḥamza’s bread — or, since we speak main­ly Per­sian at home, nun‑e Abu Hamzeh — for him it was just anoth­er kind of bread, flour, water and oil mixed to make dough requir­ing knead­ing. After a few min­utes’ pound­ing he lost inter­est, resumed only once the bread was cooked and cooled. I am not entire­ly sure he knew Abū Ḥamza was the name of a per­son, where­as here I was imag­in­ing myself fold­ed into cen­turies past, mak­ing a bread that Abū Ḥamza as-Sukkarī, “the sug­ary,” known as such because of his sweet dis­po­si­tion, might have recognized.

Whether this per­son­age from ear­ly Abbasid court cir­cles, who died in 792AD/176AH, was actu­al­ly the inven­tor of or inspi­ra­tion for this recipe is informed spec­u­la­tion, a sug­ges­tion on the part of Naw­al Nas­ral­lah, the eru­dite edi­tor and trans­la­tor of Ibn Sayyār al-War­rāq’s tenth cen­tu­ry Bagh­da­di cook­book, Kitāb aṭ-Ṭabīkh. Abū Ḥamza would have no doubt told me that my North Amer­i­can organ­ic white bread flour was by no means the same as his samīdh, “high in starch and bran-free,” as Nas­ral­lah relates; would have point­ed out that my Pales­tin­ian olive oil, while deli­cious, was not zayt al-anfāq — oil extract­ed from unripe olives; would have been flab­ber­gast­ed by my putting the pieces of dough on a met­al tray in my gas oven, rather than stick­ing them to the walls of a tan­nūr, a domed clay oven, by the upper open­ing of which (ra’s at-tan­nūr) I could have dried out the fin­ished prod­uct. Per­haps, though, he would have allowed him­self a (no doubt sweet) smile when he saw us prick­ing the bread as instruct­ed, with a feath­er (a crow feath­er my son had found, as it hap­pens; the type of bird is not specified).

Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens. Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Cen­tu­ry Bagh­da­di Cook­book, Naw­al Nas­ral­lah, Eng­lish Trans­la­tion with Intro­duc­tion and Glos­sary.  Lei­den and Boston: Brill.

The bread was sim­ple, tasty enough, and pro­voked some rem­i­nis­cences from old­er in-laws about bread vil­lagers used to make in Iran. Ibn Sayyār, describ­ing Abū Ḥamza’s recipe, states that its dough is sim­i­lar to barāzīd­haj, described ear­li­er, a name (like many of the dish­es in this book) of Mid­dle Per­sian ori­gin (if of uncer­tain mean­ing), the -ag suf­fix Ara­bized to aj. For a lover of ancient and medieval his­to­ry, pos­sessed, in spite of myself, of a roman­tic streak, such names plunge me into rever­ies about van­ished worlds, of the late antique Sasan­ian court and of its inher­i­tors in ear­ly Baghdad.

Writ­ers in Ara­bic of the ninth and tenth cen­turies AD/third-fourth cen­turies AH — to whom we owe much of our infor­ma­tion about Sasan­ian Iran, in how­ev­er embell­ished, lacu­nary, or dis­tort­ed a form — also had a fas­ci­na­tion with their pre­de­ces­sors, and Ibn Sayyār’s book con­tains sev­er­al anec­dotes about dish­es invent­ed by inge­nious cooks in the ser­vice of Sasan­ian mon­archs, some­times named, like Kisrā, i.e. Khos­row I (r.531–79), or Bahram Jūr (Wahram V, r.420–38), inde­fati­ga­ble slaugh­ter­er of wild ass­es, gūr); some­times just “a Per­sian king.” More than any­thing, though, it is root­ed in the Bagh­dad of the Abbasid caliphate in its almost first two cen­turies, from the found­ing of the city in 762/145 to the com­pi­la­tion of the book in the mid­dle of the tenth. Many of the recipes are attrib­uted to caliphs them­selves, even if the recipe col­lec­tions bear­ing their names, avail­able to Ibn Sayyār and long since lost, were most like­ly com­piled in their hon­or. Al-Rashīd (786–809/170–93), al-Ma’mūn (813–33/197–218), the prodi­gious gour­mand al-Wāthiq (r.842–47/227–32), al-Mutawakkil (r.847–61/232–247) and al-Muʿ­taḍid (r.892–902/279–89) appear the most often, but pride of place goes to Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī (d. 839/224), as his name indi­cates, son of the caliph al-Mahdī (r. 775–85/158–169), and there­fore al-Rashīd’s half-broth­er, who was him­self undoubt­ed­ly a tal­ent­ed chef and author of a wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed cook­ery book.

We are thus in the Bagh­dad of the “Gold­en Age,” a mod­ern appel­la­tion, even if, as the his­to­ri­an Michael Coop­er­son has point­ed out, a cer­tain nos­tal­gia for the ear­ly Abbasid peri­od as spe­cial and glo­ri­ous already appears in ear­li­er Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture. One cel­e­brat­ed fea­ture of this time is its cos­mopoli­tan sophis­ti­ca­tion: the age of trans­la­tion of Greek phi­los­o­phy into Ara­bic; the adop­tion and adap­ta­tion of Per­sian cer­e­mo­ni­al and polit­i­cal forms by the Mus­lim elite; the flour­ish­ing of med­i­cine draw­ing on Greek, Iran­ian, and Indi­an tra­di­tions alike; the efflo­res­cence of poet­ry and his­to­ry-writ­ing and Ara­bic gram­mar and sundry oth­er forms of lit­er­a­ture; the for­ma­tion of Islam­ic jurispru­dence and the­ol­o­gy; ocean-going trad­ing ships leav­ing from Bas­ra and Sir­af to com­pass a world stretch­ing from East Africa to East Asia and of which Iraq was one of the major cen­ters; prodi­gious achieve­ments in the arts and crafts rang­ing from archi­tec­ture to ceram­ics to paper-making.

This world cer­tain­ly infus­es the pages of Ibn Sayyār’s book: the dish­es and uten­sils with Iran­ian names; the fre­quent uses of spices brought across the Indi­an Ocean, includ­ing cas­sia (dār ṣīnī, Chi­nese wood, some­times con­fused with cin­na­mon), Cey­lon (“gen­uine”) cin­na­mon (qar­fa), and, today more asso­ci­at­ed with Thai than Mid­dle East­ern cui­sine, galan­gal (khu­lan­jān); the chap­ters on the humoral prop­er­ties of dif­fer­ent ingre­di­ents and the foods peo­ple with dif­fer­ent tem­pera­ments should eat or avoid, sit­u­at­ing the whole work with­in the Galenic med­ical tra­di­tion (and there are a num­ber of recipes and reme­dies tak­en from books by cel­e­brat­ed doc­tors); the chap­ters on adab, cor­rect eti­quette when eat­ing in elite gath­er­ings; and the fre­quent poems, charm­ing­ly described by Nas­ral­lah as the medieval equiv­a­lent of the pho­tographs in mod­ern cook­ery books, cel­e­brat­ing a par­tic­u­lar dish or ingre­di­ent. Some of these are com­posed by the most dis­tin­guished Ara­bic poets of the peri­od, includ­ing al-Ḥāfiẓ, al-Ṣūlī, al-Kushājim (who trans­mit­ted direct­ly to the author, and was him­self a cel­e­brat­ed cook­book author), and Ibn al-Rūmī, who, for instance, did not dis­dain to make either ruqāq (a thin bread) or fine vine­gar the sub­ject of his verses.

The very name al-War­rāq indi­cates the oth­er­wise obscure author’s con­nec­tion to the paper and book trade, then in full vig­or; he clear­ly had access to an exten­sive range of culi­nary and med­ical literature.

The “Gold­en Age” of course fea­tures heav­i­ly in the ide­ol­o­gy of mod­ern Iraqi and Arab nation­al­ism, while Iran­ian nation­al­ists mourn­ing the destruc­tion of the Sasan­ian empire have long tak­en solace in the thought that so much of “what made Bagh­dad great,” to use the sort of phras­ing that nation­al­ists every­where affect, was of Per­sian or Iran­ian ori­gin. Naw­al Nas­ral­lah in her fine and schol­ar­ly intro­duc­tion, with­out deny­ing the Iran­ian con­tri­bu­tion, sit­u­ates this cui­sine in the mil­len­nia-long his­to­ry of cook­ing in Mesopotamia. There and in foot­notes to the trans­la­tion she fre­quent­ly describes the “Nabateans” (an-Nabṭ) of ear­ly medieval al-Irāq as the “indige­nous inhab­i­tants of Iraq.” A num­ber of dish­es and ingre­di­ents are described as nabaṭī, “Nabatean” — not the Ara­bic-speak­ing Nabateans of ancient Petra and Madain Sal­ih, the famous ancient cities carved out of the stones of the desert in present-day Jor­dan and Sau­di Ara­bia respec­tive­ly, but the rur­al Ara­ma­ic-speak­ing and main­ly Chris­t­ian inhab­i­tants of ear­ly Islam­ic Iraq. The pres­ence of ele­ments linked to the land and waters of mod­ern Iraq (not iden­ti­cal with the province of al-ʿIrāq, which end­ed a lit­tle north of Bagh­dad around Tikrit; Mosul and present-day north­ern Iraq were in al-Jazīra), and of cer­tain ingre­di­ents and agri­cul­ture and rela­tions to the land that can be traced back many cen­turies is unde­ni­able, but so many peo­ple and armies and lan­guages and forms of devo­tion to dif­fer­ent deities had marched through this region, so many names been applied to it, so many polit­i­cal for­ma­tions from city-states to grand empires present in it, that it is hard to see who the “indige­nous” peo­ple could have been in the ninth or tenth cen­turies, if by indi­gene­ity we under­stand some­thing on the mod­el of the peo­ples whose ances­tors inhab­it­ed the Amer­i­c­as or Aus­tralia before Euro­pean con­quest. The sym­pa­thy for peo­ple who were mar­gin­al­ized in their own times, and in the nar­ra­tives of Ara­bic-speak­ing Mus­lim con­tem­po­raries, is nonethe­less wel­come, espe­cial­ly as they must have labored to pro­duce most of the ingre­di­ents which are tak­en for grant­ed as avail­able in these recipes.

Across the globe so many of us have acquired the habit of imag­in­ing that cuisines are nation­al: Indi­an, Ital­ian, Mex­i­can, French, Turk­ish, Thai. Units of vast­ly dif­fer­ing scale and het­ero­gene­ity are tak­en for grant­ed as the basis for com­par­i­son. I was sur­prised many years ago when study­ing Per­sian in Isfa­han, when a South Kore­an class­mate told me with con­fi­dence that wher­ev­er you go in the world, peo­ple think that Chi­nese food is the best, fol­lowed by their own nation­al cui­sine. Yet in response, it only occurred to me to sub­sti­tute “French” for “Chi­nese,” rather than chal­lenge the nation-state as basis for the judg­ment. It is true that, espe­cial­ly in sit­u­a­tions where a large num­ber of immi­grant-run restau­rants and stores com­pete for atten­tion in a crowd­ed and noisy mar­ket, region­al des­ig­na­tions have emerged, “Mediter­ranean,” for instance, rec­og­niz­ing the unsur­pris­ing com­mon ground of the nation­al cuisines of Lebanon, Syr­ia, and Pales­tine, as well as bestow­ing upon this food the safe­ly roman­tic aura of sun, sea, and antiq­ui­ty (“Per­sian” per­forms a sim­i­lar oper­a­tion for Iran); in the US at least, “pan-Asian” rather grandil­o­quent­ly describes any eclec­tic arrange­ment of ele­ments tak­en from a small num­ber of East Asian “nation­al” culi­nary traditions.

But for all the transna­tion­al flows that have shaped the world we live in, in food as in so many oth­er areas (pol­i­tics includ­ed), our glob­al­ized imag­i­nary is still one where the basic and most mean­ing­ful unit is the nation-state. The readi­ness with which the idea of the nation to be pre­served and defend­ed presents itself to resent­ful cham­pi­ons of authen­tic­i­ty, all too ready to sup­press dis­sent inter­nal­ly and aggres­sive­ly cham­pi­on their claims to supe­ri­or­i­ty exter­nal­ly, is no secret.

To be remind­ed, then, that so many foods do not obvi­ous­ly belong to a sin­gle nation or eth­nic group is wel­come. Take the “cook­ies” pre­sent­ed to us by Ibn Sayyār in dif­fer­ent recipes for khushkanā­naj (from Mid­dle Per­sian khushk nān-ak, “dry small-bread”) and Abū Isḥāqī muʿar­raj, “cres­cent-shaped Abū Isḥāq”). Nas­ral­lah com­ments that these are rem­i­nis­cent of the klecha made by mod­ern Iraqis, espe­cial­ly at times of cel­e­bra­tion, but in one of her exten­sive glos­saries (part of the rea­son this book runs to over 800 pages) under raghūnīn she notes that these round “cook­ies” are what in lat­er medieval Ara­bic became known as kalījā, and then she notes this is klecha/klaycha in mod­ern Iraqi dialect, kolūcheh in Per­sian, kulcha in India (she might have added, like one Iraqi-Amer­i­can recipe I found, Kur­dish kulicha; the Russ­ian kulich she adduces, like oth­er Slav­ic terms, is prob­a­bly coin­ci­den­tal, since this comes from Old Slavon­ic kolo, “round”) — and she even some­what spec­u­la­tive­ly traces them back to the qullupu offered to the Baby­lon­ian god­dess Ishtar, with­out how­ev­er not­ing Mid­dle Per­sian kulūchag. Who do all these vari­a­tions on a theme of round dough belong to? When­ev­er we encounter, and are there­fore pro­voked to think about, and with, food (which is near con­stant­ly), we ought to recall its propen­si­ty for being trans­lat­ed across iden­ti­tar­i­an bor­ders (nation­al or oth­er), even when defend­ed with violence.

Bread bak­ing in a tan­nūr, a domed clay oven.

The anthro­pol­o­gist Sid­ney Mintz recalled being told, as an Amer­i­can sol­dier going to fight in the Sec­ond World War, that their Japan­ese ene­mies were bar­bar­ians, one proof of which was their con­sump­tion of raw fish — some­thing his grandchildren’s gen­er­a­tion in the Unit­ed States would take for grant­ed in restau­rants offer­ing sushi and sashi­mi across the coun­try (com­plete with vari­a­tions such as “Cal­i­for­nia rolls”).

Yet nor should we for­get that this trans­la­tion may itself have vio­lence as its con­di­tion, used to feed a new, aggres­sive nation­al nar­ra­tive, “Israeli” hum­mus being a noto­ri­ous exam­ple. Even when the nar­ra­tive in ques­tion is a res­olute­ly cos­mopoli­tan one, the dis­mal con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty are too eas­i­ly effaced. Yes, London’s culi­nary scene is glo­ri­ous­ly diverse and deli­cious, but how much of it would exist with­out under­paid immi­grant labor in one of the world’s most expen­sive cities, xeno­pho­bia and racism towards those immi­grants (includ­ing on the part of politi­cians all too hap­py to cel­e­brate the vari­ety of “eth­nic” restau­rants), or the rav­ages wrought by fac­to­ry farm­ing, indus­tri­al fish­ing and arti­fi­cial fertilizers?

Ibn Sayyār’s world was far less exten­sive in its impact, with prob­a­bly not more than 100,000 peo­ple in Bagh­dad at its peak, even as it was one of the largest cities on earth, but read­ing these recipes between the lines I can­not help but be struck by what must have been nec­es­sary to make them pos­si­ble. Many of the recipes are sim­pler, of course, but take one for sik­bāj, beef stewed in vine­gar. It requires var­i­ous cuts of beef, as well as sev­er­al kinds of innard; sweet olive oil; vine­gar; a pot fumi­gat­ed with aloe wood; salt; three kinds of herb; a skinned kid; a whole lamb; three chick­ens; five young fowl; five pul­lets; as many spar­rows and quail as will fit in the pot; ground corian­der; egg­plant boiled sep­a­rate­ly with vine­gar, car­rots, onion; saf­fron; bread cut into tri­an­gles; and “dec­o­ra­tions” of bazmāward (“rolled sand­wich­es”), meat pat­ties, sausages of small and large intestines (two types), stuffed oma­sums, cheese, and more herbs. This elab­o­rate prepa­ra­tion and gar­gan­tu­an scale is unsur­pris­ing if, as Nas­ral­lah sug­gests, the audi­ence for this book were nou­veaux rich­es want­i­ng to emu­late the hos­pi­tal­i­ty of the Abbasid elites — whence also the lat­er chap­ters on eti­quette, teach­ing read­ers how to wash their hands before the meal, use the cor­rect kind of hand-wash­ing prepa­ra­tions, learn­ing to do it like the khawāṣ (elites) not the ʿawām (com­mon­ers), and remem­ber­ing to wash one’s hands out of sight, in the cor­ner of the room, if din­ing with the caliph; not wip­ing one’s hands on one’s mous­tache or tur­ban (the addressees are male).

Who pre­pared all this food and arranged these rooms for such ban­quets? Of course, there were chefs, like al-Wāthiq’s, Abu Samīn, men­tioned sev­er­al times, or the name­less chef in an anec­dote set at a chess-play­ing par­ty who, in front of his con­vives, instructs a “ser­vant boy” in the rig­or­ous wash­ing of a cook­ing pot, key to dis­tin­guish­ing the taste of the food in an elite kitchen from that of the com­mon folk. And there is the clue: “ser­vants,” often enslaved (the Ara­bic words are not giv­en), who appear here and there in the text, some­times as “slave boys” or “girls,” espe­cial­ly in the poems, always so reveal­ing of social real­i­ties. They are often name­less, known only if they sub­se­quent­ly rose to a grander posi­tion, like Bidʿa, who made the sik­bāj I described above for the caliph al-Amīn; she was orig­i­nal­ly giv­en by al-Rashīd to his gour­mand half-broth­er Ibrāhim b. al-Mahdī, whose chef she became. Even the rel­a­tive­ly high posi­tions that freed for­mer slaves on occa­sion reached can­not have com­pen­sat­ed for the vio­lence of being tak­en forcibly from one’s fam­i­ly, sold, and exploit­ed, or being born into slav­ery. “Singing girls,” qiyān, also appear, and they too began their careers enslaved, often bred for the pur­pose; Isḥāq b. Ibrāhim al-Mawṣilī (d.850), a famous court musi­cian, son of a famous court musi­cian, has many recipes here; both he and his father were man­agers and deal­ers in enslaved singing-girls.

This cos­mopoli­tan gold­en age was vio­lent, hier­ar­chi­cal, and extrac­tive. An anony­mous poet described barād­hizaj bread at a bak­ery as “more play­ful than gor­geous singing girls”: an elite male gaze wan­der­ing through Bagh­dad see­ing bread as sex­u­al­ized and enslaved. If its eco­log­i­cal foot­print was far lighter than our own, read­ing the recipes for sawīq, soaked and toast­ed wheat enriched with sug­ar, as well as almonds, musk, saf­fron, or pome­gran­ate, decribed as suit­able for trav­el­ers — what came to mind was the rather more basic sawīq we know was one of the only forms of nour­ish­ment pro­vid­ed to the enslaved Zanj (East African) labor­ers tasked with clear­ing the nitrous top­soils of south­ern Iraq in order to pre­pare them for the plant­i­ng of crops, to be cul­ti­vat­ed to bring prof­it to absen­tee landown­ers. Along with a vari­ety of allies, the Zanj rebelled, defy­ing the forces of the Abbasid caliphate in south­ern al-ʿIrāq and neigh­bor­ing al-Ahwāz (Khuzes­tan in mod­ern-day Iran) for four­teen years (869–83/255–70). While they were even­tu­al­ly defeat­ed (the future caliph Muʿ­taḍid, who appears in these recipes, fought against them), their upris­ing seems to have stopped any move towards mass plan­ta­tion slav­ery: the bru­tal exploita­tion of the labor pow­er of human beings torn from the col­lec­tiv­i­ties they were born into in order to rearrange entire ecosys­tems to pre­pare them for agri­cul­tur­al mono­cul­tures that would have prof­it­ed elite prop­er­ty own­ers — and no doubt pro­vid­ed the ban­quets of the rich with all sorts of delights, includ­ing the sug­ar which appears in var­i­ous forms, under var­i­ous names, in so many of these recipes.

The Zanj rebels were no egal­i­tar­i­ans; they enslaved (often elite) women cap­tured from their oppo­nents, and their lead­ers at least seem to have aspired to repli­cate some­thing of the Abbasid state and social order. We are egal­i­tar­i­ans, and yet live in a world (simul­ta­ne­ous­ly cos­mopoli­tan and nation­al­ist) where the extent and inten­si­ty of exploita­tion, includ­ing that embod­ied in our food sys­tems, dwarfs that of the Abbasids. Insur­rec­tion may not be a bad idea; but it will have to val­ue both inge­nu­ity in cui­sine, and the labor that makes it possible.


Philip Grant is a Persian-English and French-English translator based in Los Angeles. He has worked as an academic anthropologist and sociologist at the University of Edinburgh and the University of California, Irvine, as well as a non-profit researcher in philosophy of technology, and in investment management. He is co-author of Chains of Finance (OUP, 2017), and is currently working on a history of the Zanj Rebellion. An article on silk cloth in the Zanj Rebellion will be coming out in al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā in December 2022.

AbbasidsBaghdadcookeryIranIraqNawal NasrallahPersian


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