“If I had a million dirhams…”

What did history taste like?

In Becoming Charlemagne, I used a pile of sources to speculate about how eighth-century Baghdad looked and felt. Scholars are fond of mentioning that the smells of medieval cities would have overwhelmed the modern nose—but the kitchens of the caliphs would have been a revelation.

As Charles Perry has pointed out, the cuisine of early medieval Baghdad was unlike the Middle Eastern menu of today. Rice wasn’t steamed but was mashed into porridge; dishes contained a medley of aromatic herbs; and stews were flavored with murri, the juice from moldy barley—which, Perry informs us, tasted exactly like soy sauce. “There’s no hummus or tabouli, no stuffed grape leaves, no kibbe, no baklava,” he explains. “Many dishes have strange, clanking medieval names like bazmaawurd, kardanaaj, isfiidhabaaj and diikbariika.”

Since Perry, author of Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, was kind enough to adapt several medieval Islamic dishes for modern ingredients and measurements, I thought I’d whip up some tabaahaja, a sweet lamb dish recorded by Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak.

Yahya was an interesting guy. His family, the Barmakids, were the protectors of a Buddhist shrine in what’s now Afghanistan. After the family converted to Islam, Yahya’s father, Khalid, helped fund the revolution that brought the Abbasid caliphs into power, thus leading to the founding of Baghdad in A.D. 762. Yahya himself was tutor and mentor to the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who sent Charlemagne an elephant; Yahya’s sons, Fadl and Jafar, were two of the most powerful men in the caliphate.

Reveling in the Persianized culture of the urban elite, the Barmakids threw the best parties in Baghdad—until Harun, for reasons no one really understands, destroyed the family and hung Jafar in pieces from a bridge.

Today, when movies feature a sinister vizier named Jafar, that’s a distant echo of the Barmakid story as filtered through the Arabian Nights and 19th-century Orientalism. You also may be familiar with those irreverent early-Islamic pop singers, the Barmakid Ladies.

Okay, okay, back to Yahya’s recipe.

A pound of lamb leg waits to be smothered in a marinade of soy sauce (murri substitute), honey, cinnamon, coriander, and black pepper. I splurged on good lamb, but iffy kitchen experiments warrant only cheap-ish spices.

Fun fact: the Islamic world was centuries ahead of medieval Europe in its adoption of bear-shaped plastic containers.

Here are the lamb-leg bits and pieces, soaking like harem girls in a hot tub.

Two hours later, the marinade hits the oil in the Le Creuset saucepan with an excited sizzle.

In an alternate universe where Charles Martel failed to stop the Muslim advance at Poitiers, the French never invented pricey cookware. Also, I would have a goatee.

Half an hour later, the lamb is ready for the vizier’s table. It’s been garnished with cilantro, but I left off the optional mustard greens and rue, the latter because finding a bitter abortifacent anywhere but in a garden store is difficult even in an area full of Asian markets, and hunting for it is too creepy to be worth the trouble.

Behold: tabaahaja. If lamb were candy, it would be this. The marinade has become a glaze so sweet it’s wince-inducing; the most prominent flavor is cinnamon; and the overall taste is reminiscent of spare ribs at a Chinese restaurant.

The vizier and his entourage would have eaten tabaahaja with flatbread and washed it down with fruit juice. (I opted for a tortilla and black cherry soda.) Harun himself was partial to gazelle milk, so let’s spare a sympathetic thought for history’s forgotten hero: the servant whose job was to milk the gazelle.

6 thoughts on ““If I had a million dirhams…”

  1. So is it, to modern Western taste-buds, a fun thing to eat, or is it just a way to ruin perfectly good lamb by completely hiding its flavour? `Sweet’, I get from your review, but `good’ or `bad’ are still hiding. Mind you, the tag `applied palaeobromatology’ makes up for any taciturnity…

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  2. You were en fuego with this post! Well played, sir.

    The dish looks like sesame beef we get at our local Chinese restaurant. And I must echo the above poster – how did it taste?

    Here’s some proof that cuisine, at least in Europe, did not improve much in the intervening 1000 years: Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.

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  3. Lamb-candy sounds intriguing…reminiscent of sweet-and-sour pork or sweet-glazed-salmon. Perhaps the bitter greens would have tempered the sweetness.

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  4. Thanks for the comments!

    I have a serious sweet tooth, but this dish was a bit much even for me. To my palate, it was unpleasantly unsubtle: the spices and seasonings overwhelmed the lamb and didn’t blend into a distinctive whole, like they do in an Indian or Thai or Burmese curry. That lack of subtlety seems to be the common effect of high-end Abbasid cuisine, because the two Abbasid chicken dishes I’ve made were also overwhelmed by massive amounts of fresh herbs. (Wil, you’re surely right about the effect of the bitter greens, but at the prospect of adding another ingredient, my tastebuds cry out in anguish, “More flavors?”)

    I can see why the Abbasid elite liked this dish: eating it would have made their tastebuds party, unlike the relatively bland Arab diet. I suspect Yahya the Barkmakid loved to see how his guests reacted to something so flavorful and exotic, much in the same way modern people like to see how their friends react to eating kimchee or Ethiopian cuisine for the first time. The average Arab in the street—the soldier, the bookseller, the fishmonger—never would have eaten tabaahaja but probably would have found it as unpleasantly overwhelming as I did.

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