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 and French to English translator. He is currently translating an Iranian novelist’s second novel, details to be announced by the publisher shortly. His translation of Iranian philosopher Seyyed Javad Tabatabai’s Ibn Khaldun and the Social Sciences. A Discourse on Conditions of Im-possibility will be published by Polity Press in 2024. He has a PhD in Socio-cultural Anthropology from UC Irvine, during which he carried out extensive collaborative fieldwork with Iranian women’s activists based in California. He also collaborated with the artists Goldin + Senneby on two of their projects about contemporary finance infrastructure, writing about the experience in e-flux. He is also researching a history of the Zanj Rebellion in 9th century Iraq and Iran. He has published on both the Zanj and finance in various academic forums.

AbbasidsBaghdadcookeryIranIraqNawal NasrallahPersian

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