Arabian meatballs in eggplant sauce

Extra recipe: eggplants in eggplant sauce

Miniature from the thirteenth centuryDuring the caliphate of the Abbasides (749-1258 AD) the Arabian cuisine was at its prime. In its heydays the Caliphate reached from modern Tunesia to India.
The culinary arts were highly regarded. Poets composed works on their favorite dishes, cookbooks were dedicated to the caliphs. There were also scientific works on the properties of all kinds of foodstuff and the effect they had on human health. Many Greek and Latin works were translated into Arabic. This Arabic knowledge spread throughout Europe through translations in Latin made on the Iberic paeninsula.
The influence of the Arabian kitchen on the European one is undeniable, but the extent of this influence is hard to define. A number of exotic ingredients became known in Europe through the Arabs: rice, spinach, eggplants, apricots and lemons, to name a few. Arabs were also middlemen in the trade of spices between Europe and the Far East. Direct influence from Arabic culinary texts however seems very small. There are dishes which are called Sarracen in medieval European cookbooks, but these cannot be traced to Arabic recipes. These dishes are often prepared with dried dates, figs, raisins, or are coloured heavily.
The Arabian cuisine itself has been influenced primarily by the Persian culinary arts, but also by the Bedouin and Turkish kitchens.
On this page are an Arabic recipe for meatballs of lamb in eggplant sauce and an extra recipe from Italy for eggplants in eggplant sauce. More medieval recipes from the Arabian cuisine on Coquinaria: Spicy meatballs, Pasties with eggplant and spinach stuffing, Stir-fried lamb, and Deep-fried braids.

Tacuinum Sanitatis

Arabian science formed a bridge between the knowledge of Antiquity and the European Middle Ages. One subject was the properties of foodstuffs and the role they played in the health balance of persons. Many texts were translated from Greek and Latin into Arabic. These generated new texts that were translated back into Latin on the Iberic peninsula and spread out over Europe. One example is the Tacuinum Sanitatis, written in the eleventh century by the physician Ibn Botlar. In the thirteenth century this book was translated into Latin. Tacuinum is a Latinized verion of the Arabic word taqwm, that means 'table' (in the meaning of 'chart'). Literally, Tacuinum Sanitatis means 'health table'. Not only foodstuffs were described, also the workings of the seasons and even the directions of the wind, with their effect on our physical health and possible remedies. This schematic knowledge of the humoral pathology is based on wotks of the Greek-Roman physician Galen (second century aD) and Hippocrates (around 400 bC). Several beuatifully illustrated manuscripts of the Tacuinum Sanitatis were produced in Italy att the end of the fourteenth century. You'll find several miniatures from these manuscripts elsewhere on this site (1, 2, 3), and below you'll see another one.

Eggplants (or aubergines)

I had already chosen the recipe for Buran before reading the paper of C.Perry on the history of this dish ('Buran: Eleven hundred years in the history of a dish', see bibliography). The reason I chose it was because it was so delicious! Below you find a very short summary of his paper. To grasp the finer points you must absolutely read the paper itself.
The dish Buran is named after the bride of caliph  al-Ma'mun. The wedding was in 825 AD (222 AH, the islamic era). The nuptials must have been splendid, in luxurious festivities as well as in luscious banquets.
Dishes called Buran appear in the middle of the tenth century. Eggplant was an exotic fruit in ninth century (AD) Baghdad. Originating from India, it was at first mistrusted. It was supposed to be bad for your health, and the inherent bitterness of the eggplant did not help its popularity. Perry presumes that Buran was the first recipe in which the eggplant was first parboiled in salted water to remove the bitterness, and thus helped making the eggplant acceptable. 
The eldest dishes named Buran contain no meat. Perry traces the history of the dish through the centuries and regions, with variations with meat, with vegetables and grains, and even variations without eggplant.
The extra recipe, South-Italian from the fifteenth century, is a descendant of the meatless Buran. Sicily was ruled by Arabs until the end of the eleventh century, and the Duchy of Naples was by turns ally and enemy of Mohammedan Sicily. This proximity is also noticeable in the kitchen.

The Kitab al-Tabikh, a cookbook from Bagdad from the thirteenth century

The text for this recipe is given only in English. The recipe is from Kitab al-Tabikh, published by A.J. Arberry in 1939 as A Baghdad Cookery Book. This edition is reprinted in the splendid volume Medieval Arab Cookery, which contains essays on and translation from medieval Arab culinary texts, edited by M. Rodinson and C. Perry (Prospect Books, 2001).
The cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh is written by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Karim al-Katib al-Baghdadi in the year 1226 AD (623 AH). Nothing is known of the author. The manuscript, an autograph, was discovered and edited in 1934 by the Iraqi scientist Daoud Chelebi. Later other, extended versions were discovered, such as the Kitab Wasf al-At'ima al-Mu'tada (also published in Medieval Arab Cookery).
Like the recipes in European medieval cookbooks, the Arabian recipes are meant for the upper class. All known vegetables, fruits and herbs are used. Chicken is highly regarded. Sheep and lamb are prepared. Spices are also highly regarded, including some that have not or only very rarely found their way into European kitchens, such as musc and betel.

The original recipe: meatballs in eggplant sauce
The original text is Arabic, and that is a language I have no knowledge of. That is why I offer the English translation of Charles Perry. Edition: 'A Baghdad cookery book', in Petits Propos Culinaires, November 2005. The recipe can be found on p. 58.

Buran. The way to make it is to take eggplant and boil it lightly in water and salt, then take it out and let it dry awhile, then fry it in fresh sesame oil until it is done. Peel it and leave it in a plate or large bowl, and mix it well with a ladle until it becomes like a pudding. Throw in a little salt and dry coriander. Then take Persian yoghurt, mix garlicwith it, throw it on that eggplant and mix well with it. Then take lean meat and beat it well [and make it into small meatballs], and take fresh tail fat (sc. and melt it), and throw the meatballs into it and stir them until they are browned. Then cover them with water and boil them until the water dries up and they return to their fat (i.e. begin to fry in the fat). Put them on the surface of the eggplant, sprinkle with cumin and finely pounded cinnamon and use it.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
Tailfat from sheep may be hard to come by. You could use sesame oil and/or olive oil instead. Lard can't tbe used, as that is pork meat.
For 4 persons.

Meatballs in eggplant sauce.Ingredients
1 eggplant
3 Tbsp. sesame oil or 1 Tbsp. sesame oil + 2 Tbsp. neutral oil
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 decilitre (3 fl.oz) yoghurt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
500 gram (1 pound) ground meat of lamb
40 gram (1/4 cup) sheep fat (optional)
1/2 tsp. in all of ground cumin and cinnamon

Preparation in advance
Boil the eggplant for five minutes in water with salt. Let it drain, cool and dry. Heat oil in a casserole and stew de eggplant on a very slow fire with the lid on until it is very soft (30 to 45 minutes). Turn the eggplant a couple of times. Pull the skin off the eggplant, and mince the flesh with a fork or in a blender. Temper with yoghurt, garlic, salt and ground coriander.

Form small balls of the minced lamb meat. Choose a casserole in which the balls fit snugly. Heat sheep fat or oil, fry the meatballs until they are brown. Pour enough water in to cover the balls. Let it simmer until the water has evaporated. Add the eggplant sauce to the meatballs, heat through. The modern cook would add some salt and pepper to the meatballs.

To serve
Serve the meatballs in the casserole, or on a dish. Sprinkle with ground cumin and cinnamon just before serving. If you want to add some colour, garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
In Arabic medieval cookbooks dishes are often served in the pan in which they were prepared. The rim is wiped clean, and sometimes the food is sprinkled with rosewater.

Extra recipe: Marignani, eggplants in eggplant sauce

I have included this recipe of eggplants in eggplant sauce because it seems to me a descendant of the Arabic recipe given above. It is taken from an Italian cookbook at the end of the fifteenth century, edited by T. Scully (see bibliography). The anonymous author is called Cuoco Napoletano.

Piglia li marignani he falli bene netare he bene mondare sutilmente; poi pone a focho uno pocho de aqua he falli dare uno bullore; che siano tagliati in quarti he pone in quella aqua uno pocho de sale, he non li lassare bullire piu che doi Pater Noster; poi cavali fora sopra uno tagliero he falli sugare; poi infarinali he frigeli; et como li harai friti, scola fora quasi tuto lo olio; poi piglia una spica de aglio he pistala bene cum uno quarto de quisti marignani; he poi habi uno poco de rigano de quello se mette sopra le alice, he pistalo cum lo aglio cum uno pocho de pane, pipero, saffrano he sale; poi distempera tute queste cise insieme cum agresto he cum uno poco de aceto; poi getta ogni cosa insiema in la padella a frigere un pochetto; poi meteli in piatti he manda a tavola cum specie fine.Take eggplants and wash them and peel them well. Then add a little water on the fire and bring to the boil. Cut the eggplants [first] into quarters and add some salt to the water. Do not let them boil for more than two Our Fathers. Take them out on a cutting board and let them drain. Then cover them with flour and fry them. When they are fried, pour almost all the oil out [of the pan]. Take a clove of garlic, grind this with one quart (amount) of the eggplant. Take some oregano, the kind you put on little anchovies. Grind it together with the garlic and some bread, pepper, saffron and salt. Temper all this with verjuice and a little vinegar and put all in the pan to fry a short while. Then dish up and serve it [sprinkled] with fine spices.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
For 4 persons as a side dish.

Miniature with eggplants from the Tacuinum SanitatisIngredients
4 small eggplants or 2 big ones
2 Tbsp. flour
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. dried oregano
crumbs of 1 slice of white bread
pepper,salt and saffron
2 Tbsp. verjuice or applecider vinegar
1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
olive oil
1 tsp. in all of sugar and cinnamon

Preparation in advance
Blanch the peeled and quartered eggplants in water with salt for 1 minute. Let them drain, pat them dry. Cover the pieces of eggplant with flour. Fry in plenty of olive oil, drain again. Pour almost all oil from the pan.

Take a quarter of the total amount of eggplant, blend in the blender with garlic and bread crumbs. Add oregano, pepper and salt. Heat the verjuice with vinegar, crush the saffron threads in it. Add this to the pureed eggplant.
Return the pieces of eggplant and the eggplant sauce to the pan in heat through, or fry the eggplant parts again and serve the warm sauce separately.

To serve
At once, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

All descriptions of ingredients

Fat-tail sheep.Tail fat - In Europe and large parts of the world there are sheep with small, thin tails. However, in the Middle East and North Africa you find since prehistoric times the so called 'fat-tail sheep'. Every one in four sheep in the world is a fat-tail sheep. These sheep store the fat in the tail, instead of throughout their body. The tail is enlarged because of the fat. This storage of fat in the tail results in lean meat. The tail fat, which melts at lower temperature, was much appreciated in the Middle Ages in the Arab cuisine, not only to prepare meat, but also in sweet dishes. (source: Alan Davison, The Oxford Companion of Food)
Verjuice - The juice of sour, unripe grapes. You can still buy it, but you may have to look for it. In the Netherlands verjuice as also made from unripe apples and sorrel. You can use applecider vinegar as a substitute. More about verjuice and a recipe to make your own verjuice

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)