Sometimes Mrs Hindle likes to go out of her comfort zone of 18th-19th century Europe and USA. Today we plunge far outside the aforementioned zone when we visit 13th century Baghdad.
In 1226 Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and the centre of a vast empire deep in the middle of its golden age of culture and learning. The House of Wisdom was founded to collect and foster all the knowledge in the world, and advances were made in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and much more. Stories and fairytales from all over the empire were collected into “The Book of One Thousand And One Nights”. And in 1226, this centre of learning also encouraged Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi to publish a collection of the city’s most popular recipes, the “Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ” or Book of Dishes. Only a few decades later Baghdad was sacked by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan in a fury of destruction that saw almost the entire population massacred, irrigation systems filled in, buildings torched and the manuscripts of the House of Wisdom thrown into the Tiber river. A contemporary account famously states that the waters of the Tiber ran black for days with the ink from the manuscripts.
Needless to say, Mrs Hindle does not approve of the Mongols.
At least one copy of al-Baghdadi’s book survived the destruction and was preserved at a library in Istanbul, from whence it influenced the cooking traditions of the Ottoman empire and is also now available to us.
Most of the recipes in the book are so unfamiliar to me I haven’t been brave enough to try them, but today’s dish is called hais and seemed less challenging than many others.
I made half a batch, so the ingredients look like this:
- 225 grams breadcrumbs
- 170 grams dates, pitted
- 40 grams unsalted pistachios and peeled almonds, about half and half
- 30 grams sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cumin and coriander
- powdered sugar
Sesame oil might be difficult to come by and can be replaced by clarified butter, but for the flavour I really recommend sesame oil. The recipe does not specify what spices or in what quantities to use, so I made it up.
Not one for macerating anything by hand, I put the breadcrumbs, pistachios, almonds and dates in a food processor and gave them a whirl. Next, heat the oil and spices in a small saucepan. Heating the spices will release their aromas more effectively. Pour the oil onto the macerated mixture and mix it all well. I had to add more oil at this point because the mixture was too crumbly, so use your fingers and evaluate for yourself.
Once the mixture is of a consistency that sticks together, form small tight balls out of it with your hands and roll the balls in powdered sugar. Stack and serve.
“This is good for travellers“, al-Baghdadi writes, and I can definitely see why. The hais had a strong but pleasant flavour of sesame and spices, the sweetness of the dates was tempered by the other flavours, and the nuts and dates see to it that these little things are packed with energy. I strongly recommend trying these, because the preparation process is very simple.