Recreating Arabic-inspired dishes from Forme of Cury
I’ve recently been on a book buying splurge. You know how it is: the allure is impossible to resist. I’m the moth to the bibliophilic flame, denying responsibility and excusing my excess with cries of “but it’s so beautiful”.
I won’t bore you with the full list, but will summarise my need for a new small bookcase, just for cookery and food reference works, with the statement that the postie has delivered me some old, but enduring, books, like the 1919 work Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, and some more recent publications, including the fabulous Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, edited and translated by Charles Perry.
It is the latter that reignited my medieval culinary experiments this week.
Kitāb al-Wuṣlah ilā l-Ḥabīb fī Waṣf al-Ṭayyibāt wal-Ṭīb is the Arabic name of the mid thirteenth-century Syrian cookbook of Perry’s title. It is an extensive compilation of culinary recipes that showcases the cuisine of the Ayyubid rulers of the time, with more than 600 recipes.
Scents and Flavors the Banqueter Favors, Perry’s full, rhyming English title, also incorporates recipes for perfumes and instructions on how to smell good when dining, reflecting the more literal meaning of the book’s name: ‘the link to the friend, concerning good things to eat and perfumes’.
I have no doubt that the recipe for ‘an incomparable antiperspirant’ will prove invaluable in linking me to my friends at table after I’ve slaved away in the kitchen all day, once I can invite them back round post-pandemic, that is.
But, I digress. You want to know, I’m sure, the connection between this Syrian cookery book and the English dishes in Forme of Cury (Richard II’s cookery book, c.1390) alluded to in my post title.
To the food!
My experiment was to reproduce two related dishes, blank desyre and mawmanye. Related, I say, not just because of their link to an Arabic recipe, but also because the king’s master cook tells us to serve them together:
… put in blank desyre & mawmanye in dysches togyder, & serue forth.Forme of Cury, For to make blank desyre, c.1390
These two dishes are essentially enriched rice puddings strewn with spices. One of them, mawmanye, is savoury; the other, blank desyre, is sweet. Both contain the meat of poultry. Odd as the combo of chicken and sugar may seem, I can tell you that in the end I actually preferred the sweet one.
Before I do my show and tell, let me first point you to the medieval Syrian dish from which the English dishes get their inspiration: ma’mūniyyah.
Boil fattened chickens and fry in sesame oil. Take the breasts and separate into threads. Wash rice, pound fine, and sieve. On every 2kg of rice put the shredded breasts of two chickens and enough sugar to sweeten to taste. Then take milk, boil, and dissolve the sugar to make it extremely sweet. Add the chicken breasts and bring to the boil two or three times, then sprinkle with the rice and stir so that it doesn’t set. When the mixture is like porridge, or a little more liquid than that, add tail fat. Keep cooking on a low fire until it exudes fat and turns brown. And keep stirring till it can be spread out in a dish. Ladle out and put whole peeled pistachios in the middle. By incorporating chicken breasts, it turns out very nicely. This is how it is done in the house of my uncle, al-Malik al-Ashraf.Ma’mūniyyah (third version of the recipe), from Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, ed. and trans. by Charles Perry (New York University Press, 2017), p. 147, 7.7.
First, I should point out what you may have already noticed, that the name of this dish in Arabic provides the basis for the medieval Anglicised name. The similarity is clear: mawmanye (and its variants) is an analogue of ma’mūniyyah. (This etymology was recognised back in 1985 by Bruno Laurioux, in ‘Spices in the Medieval Diet: A New Approach’, p. 69, n. 24.)
Mincing chicken breast for blank desyre (‘White of Syria’). As with the original Syrian dish, chicken breast is a key ingredient alongside sugar, creating a very pleasing combination of sweet and umami.
The same core ingredients and essential method of this Syrian recipe is used for both our dishes from Forme of Cury: chicken or capons are ground up, combined with some kind of milk and ground rice, and cooked further to thicken. In the case of blank desyre, ‘white fat’ and sugar are also added, emulating ma’mūniyyah.
In fact, out of the two English dishes, blank desyre most closely resembles ma’mūniyyah, despite mawmanye utilising the Arabic name. But then, it isn’t called ‘white of Syria’ for nothing (desyre is a corruption of de Syry ‘of Syria’; see the above note by Laurioux).
Let’s take a look at the two English recipes before I finally show you what I cooked.
For to make blank desyre (191)
Take brawne of hennes or capouns ysoden wiþouten þe skyn, and hewe hem as smale as þou may, and grynde hem in a morter; aftur, take gode mylke of almaundes & put þe brawne þerinne & stere hem wel togyder & do hem to seeþ; & take flour of rys & of amydoun, & lay hit so þat hyt be wel chargeaunt; & do þerto sugur a gode party & a party of whyte grece; & whan hit is put in dysches, strawe vppon blaunche powdour, & þan put in blank desyre & mawmanye in dysches togyder, & serue forth.
How to make white of Syria
Take cooked breast meat of hens or capons, without the skin, and chop them as small as you can and grind them in a mortar; after this, take good almond milk and put the breast meat therein and stir it together well and simmer; and take rice flour and wheat starch, and mix it so that it is thickened well; and add thereto a good amount of sugar and an amount of white fat; and when it is put into dishes, strew thereupon white powder; and then put the blanc desire and mawmanye together in the dishes, and serve forth.From Forme of Cury (Middle English text edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2020, directly from Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 88r-v)
For to make mawmany (192)
Take þe these & of fleysche of capouns or of hennes and hak smale and grynde hem smale in a morter; take mylke of almaundes wiþ þe broth of freysche fleysche or beef, & put þe fleysche in þe mylke or in þe broth; set hem to þe fyre and lye hem wiþ flour of rys or gastboun or amydoun as chargeaunt as þe blank desyre and with ȝolkes of ayroun and safroun for to make hit ȝelow; & whan hit ys dressyt in dysches wiþ blank desyre, styke aboue clowes de gylofre, and straw poudour of galyngale aboue & serue forþ.
How to make ma’mūniyyah
Take the thighs from meat of capons or hens and hack small and finely grind them in a mortar; take almond milk [made] with the broth of fresh meat, or beef, and put the meat [of the capons/hens] in the milk or in the broth; set them onto the fire and mix them with flour of rice or of good wastel, or wheat starch, as thick as the blanc desire, and with egg yolks and saffron in order to make it yellow; and when it is arranged in dishes with blanc desire, stick cloves on top and strew over galangal powder, and serve forth.From Forme of Cury (Middle English text edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2020, directly from Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folios 88v-89v)
As you can see, the aim of the master cook was to present two dishes at the same time, one white, the other yellow. The use of colour and the liberal employment of expensive spices – including sugar, which was viewed as a spice – were part of the extravagance and theatre of English elite cuisine of the time. The dishes would have served as accompaniments – pottages – to roasted meats, from venison to peacocks.
My own humble recreations were fated for nothing more than testing by me and my partner (more on the verdicts later).
In my kitchen
First I made up my spice mix, the ‘white powder’ of blank desyre. For this I actually followed a contemporary recipe found in a British Library manuscript (MS Harley 2378), just scaling down the quantities – I didn’t want 10 oz of the stuff!
So after heating my mortar and pestle (I used boiling water then dried them), I took 20g of cane sugar (the light golden stuff) and a 5g piece of dried ginger, which is what is alluded to in the recipe, since it is to be ‘wele pared’ – well peeled.
After soaking my ginger for about 15 minutes in hot water, I scraped off the peel and added it and the sugar to my heated mortar and began to ‘stampe euermore smertly’ with the pestle. I did this until the ginger fibres broke apart.
Then, I went into grind mode! And, slowly but surely, I ended up with a very fine powder, so fine that I felt I could give the medieval is-it-ready test a go, namely put some between my teeth to see if there was no longer a crunch. Well, ‘it crase noȝt’ – more or less. I then ultra-refined my mix by passing it through a sieve which removed a few extraneous fibrous bits.
I will have the finest blawnce pouder! After stamping and grinding, I even sieved out the extraneous bits.
Also it has the most wonderful smell and taste.
The next step was to make up some almond milk for the blank desyre. I added 100g ground almonds to 300ml of boiled water, gave it a good stir, and added a good pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon of white wine vinegar. I put half a chicken breast into the milk and poached it gently for no longer than ten minutes.
At the same time, I placed the other half of the chicken breast into 300ml of beef bone broth that I’d made and frozen several months ago. This too I gently poached for the same amount of time. This was for my mawmanye.
Once both were cooked, I finely minced them, separately, in a mini food processor.
I should say at this stage that the amount of chicken was based roughly on the quantities specified in the Arabic ma’mūniyyah recipe, but scaled down.
I then made up another almond milk but substituted the poaching beef bone broth for the water. (I realise now I could have poached the mawmanye chicken in this rather than make it up afterward.)
Then both minced chickens were placed into their pans, on a low heat, with their respective almond milks.
To each pan I added 100g of rice flour and gave them a good stir. I soon realised that there wasn’t enough liquid, especially in the blank desyre pan, so I kept adding extra hot water to this one, and extra bone broth to the other. I stirred them both fairly continuously for about 10 minutes to cook out any floury taste. I was looking for a fairly thick consistency.
Next, when happy with my rice puddings, I removed my mawmanye pan from the heat to cool slightly, as I was going to be adding egg yolks to it, and didn’t want to scramble them.
Whilst it was cooling, I beat in 40g of pork lard (I used a really nice organic one from a local farm) and 3 tablespoons of cane sugar into my blank desyre pan. This lent a silky sheen to the dish. I also gradually added the sugar as I wasn’t quite sure what my palate could handle, but to my surpise I quickly went from 1 tablespoon to 3.
Once this was completed, I removed the blank desyre from the heat and focused on my mawmanye pan, to which I beat in 2 egg yolks, along with a good pinch of saffron strands, which had been soaking a few minutes in hot water, to bring out the saffron’s gift of colour. As you can see these additions gave a rather splendid, and in no sense vulgar, yellow hue to my dish.
The contents of the two pans were dished up into fancy bowls, very carefully chosen from my not very vast selection (I’m no Richard II), and sprinkled generously with their relevant spices: blank desyre with my white powder, and mawmanye with ground galingale.
Just a note on galingale, which can be hard to find, I bought it (from Spice Mountain in London) in small dried pieces. I first followed the instructions to pre-soak it before grinding it but found this didn’t work – it was far too clumpy, not powdery. So I bashed it to death in its dried state. This didn’t really work that well either but with some sieving I managed to get enough powdered galangal for the dish.
Once they were both dished up, I studded my mawmanye with whole cloves – a small fortune in Richard II’s day – and decided to place some rather posh roasted Spanish almonds (from M&S, UK folks) onto my blank desyre (see picture at the top of the post). I’d spotted that another version of the dish in another medieval cookbook used roasted almonds for decoration.
Top: Glossy ‘white of Syria’ (blank desyre), well maybe more almond white. Sprinkled with ‘white powder’, finely ground sugar and ginger. Yummy!
Bottom: Yellow mawmanye, spruced up with whole cloves and strewn with galingale powder. Where’s the haunch of venison?
Well, let me preface this conclusion by saying that I really don’t know why I bother to share my marvellous medieval food experiments with my beloved. Only joking, he can offer some good suggestions on occasion. But, even so, “manky marzipan” was not what I was hoping for!
That was for the mawmanye, which I have to admit, though it had a decent enough savouriness about it, needed to be eaten with something else – a swan, maybe – and so as my partner says, it is indeed a foil for something else.
He felt the same way about the blank desyre – that it was a foil for something else, not that it too was manky marzipan – but actually preferred it. As I did. In fact I would go as far as to say I really liked it. In double fact, I continued eating it later, with some Mrs Bridges jam (those little pots that people give you as part of a Christmas tea-time set): blackberry and blueberry, just in case you need to know.
And just to underscore that I fib not about my turning to the dark side of the aforementioned sweet-umaminess of chicken and sugar, I leave you with one further piece of evidence.