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Connecting to our past through food

Looking to the food of the past reveals that living a balanced life has always involved being mindful of everything that goes into our bodies. We may not live in Al Andalus or 10th-century Baghdad, but it is possible to recreate the aromas and flavours that animated our ancestors and were familiar to them. In this way, food is not only part of our present but also our connection to the past.

RAFIA ZAKARIA | New Delhi |

Tollund Man is one of the best preserved corpses from the Iron Age that have been discovered to date. He is believed to have died some 2,400 years ago and his body was found in a peat bog — an environment whose lack of oxygen meant that it was perfectly preserved. Scientists studying his remains, which are housed in Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum — have discovered that he was about 40 years old when he died.

The circumstances of his death were grim; he was a likely human sacrifice. A leather rope was found tightly wound around his neck. So well had nature preserved him that he was thought by the people in the area to have been a recent victim of murder. Tollund Man is also interesting for another reason. Scientists have been able to study the contents of his stomach to find out what people of that area and era ate.

According to scientists who released their findings last year, Tollund Man’s last meal served somewhere around 405-380 BC consisted of a kind of porridge made of barley, pale persicaria and flax. He had also likely eaten some fish on the last day of his life. The porridge was made of grains that had been ground before cooking but there were also seed husks in his intestine which suggested that he may have eaten wild seeds, perhaps as part of the gory ritual of sacrifice.

Scientists also found tapeworm and a few other parasites in his gut which point to the fact that humans in that area were still quite unhygienic and that not all the food that he ate may have been properly cooked. As humanity evolved, so did what they ate.

After visiting the Alhambra palace in Spain – back in the days when such tourism was possible – I discovered a cookbook called the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook which contains recipes for food said to have been prepared in the palace’s famous kitchens. It is an interesting read and is a testimony to the progress that human beings have made in food preparations over the centuries between the Iron Age and the time of Al Andalus.

By this time, food was valued for medicinal and nutritious purposes. There are instructions on how to make syrups from fruits and flowers. Apple syrup seems to be the favourite. A familiar recipe is a variation of what we know as yakhni or stock. It calls for half a lamb to which must be added half a kilo of onion juice, one tablespoon each of endive juice and fennel juice all boiled and strained along with half a kilo of water. Then the book instructs the cook to take a clean spoon and make a cloth pouch, for the cinnamon, cumin and dry dill, that must dangle from the spoon and into the broth as it is stirred. The broth is to be cooked until it has been reduced by half. The resulting broth is supposed to prevent fever.

Going through the cookbook, it is impossible not to note that a recurrent ingredient in the Andalusian kitchen were eggs. They seemed to be added as toppings to make patties and kebabs adhere and just to make vegetable dishes more nutritious. Meanwhile, if you happened to find yourself in 10th-century Baghdad you would eat very well.

Scholars have noted that the rulers of that time really celebrated food and opulent feasts with poets and artists and other kinds of creative people who lived there at the time. Mediaeval Baghdad attracted intellectuals and traders and the crowds of people passing through the area meant that spices and foods of faraway lands entered the local cuisine.

Noted culinary expert Nawal Nasrallah, who has translated a cookbook from 10th-century Baghdad, found that long before Ibn-i Sayyar Al Warraq, the author of the cookbook, gets to any recipes at all he spends time talking about the properties of all the foods, their aromas, their qualities. Such was the love of cuisine, and such was the importance accorded to chefs who could cook well that the mediaeval Islamic era produced perhaps the greatest trove of food literature in existence.

Nasrallah’s translation is titled Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen: Ibn-e-Sayyar Al Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook and has hundreds of recipes and instructions for which dishes should be served on what occasion. A 1,000-year-old recipe for a carrot dish from 10th-century Baghdad asks the cook to boil some carrots and slice them into discs. Then it asks the cook to chop onions, fresh herbs and rue (dandelion greens are suggested as a substitute for the latter) and fry these in olive oil.

Marri (a fermented sauce like soy sauce) and white vinegar should then be poured on them. Finally, ground pepper, cassia (or cinnamon as a substitute), coriander, caraway, ginger and cloves have to be added to the vinegar. When the carrots are boiled, the green mixture is to be mixed with the carrots. Just as we can learn so much about the past from the food that people ate, our own food tells a story. A look at the history of food reveals that when people paid attention to the meal they ate and consumed it not only to sate one’s appetite but to feed the mind, the soul and the body, the societies they lived in flourished as well.

Looking to the food of the past reveals that living a balanced life has always involved being mindful of everything that goes into our bodies. We may not live in Al Andalus or 10th-century Baghdad, but it is possible to recreate the aromas and flavours that animated our ancestors and were familiar to them. In this way, food is not only part of our present but also our connection to the past.

(Dawn/ANN)