Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook

  • Book Title:
 Annals Of The Caliphs Kitchens
  • Book Author:
Nawal Nasrallah
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Had I foreseen the ordeals and perplexities, the challenges and frustrations that translating a cookbook had tossed me into for the last three years, perhaps I would not have undertaken the task. But I am glad I had not, for the translation proved a most gratifying experience. Throughout, the desire to spread the word about this most interesting book was my leading spur. Al-Warr§q’s tenth-cen-tury Kit§b al-•abÊÕ9 is the earliest known, and the most important culinary document to have come down to us from medieval times worldwide.

It is a complete text, well written, thoughtfully devised, and abounds with illustrative poems and anecdotes, most of which are nowhere else preserved. The book’s comprehensive Introduction addresses these and other aspects of interest to the modern reader as it places al-Warr§q’s work in the era’s cultural and historical con-texts.

Although Arabic has not changed much since the Middle Ages, many names of objects and ingredients have metamorphosed or fell out of use altogether. Overcoming this daunting hurdle would have been unlikely without medieval lexicons and books on dietetics, medicine, and botany.

What sometimes limits the benefits of such sources is their tendency to refrain from explaining a given ingredient because it is too ‘well-known’ mabråf. Added to this, are the semantic confusions due to the medieval copyists’ disinclination to use the dots and diacritics to differentiate otherwise graphically similar words.

 I was lucky to have at my disposal numerous electronic texts through a website,, whose search functions saved me hundreds of hours of going through the voluminous printed versions looking for a meaning or a clue. This, however, did not eliminate trips to the library in order to check possible typographical or editorial errors in the scanned editions.

In translating this cookbook, my main concerns were accuracy and readability. Each of the book’s gastronomic poems, more than eighty in all, traditionally follows a single rhyme scheme. Reproducing them in verse form was not my intention, although I could not resist the temptation to use a rhyme or two here and there.

READ  In the Authors Hand pdf

My decision to fully translate all the poems is based on the fact that they constitute a rare culinary mine worthy of exploration. Guided by comparable readability principles, the medieval weights and measures are followed by the modern equivalents throughout the book. The Glossary, which derives mainly from medieval sources, and the Appendix on people and places are meant to help animate a world a thousand years apart. My choice of the illustrations was similarly motivated.

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