[Sca-cooks] Atraf al-Tib

lilinah at earthlink.net lilinah at earthlink.net
Wed Jan 28 13:49:30 PST 2009

As i have previously written...

Atraf al-tib contains twelve ingredients. Which they are depends in part on the translator:
-- A.J. Arberry, p. 132, Medieval Arab Cookery;
-- Charles Perry, p. 21, Medieval Arab Cookery;
-- Nawal Nasrallah, pp. 643-644, Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, listed in the index as afwah al-tib.

Unfortunately, the one book that lists ingredients, the 'Abbasid "Kitab Wusla ila al-Habib", gives no proportions.

Nine of the ingredients are the same regardless of translator. But there are three on which they differ. I am confident about two of them, but the last remains a mystery.

1. betel nut (Piper betle) (tanbul)
2. green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) (hal)
3. cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) (kibash qaranful)
4. ginger (Zingiber officinale) (zanjabil)
5. long pepper (Piper longum) (dar fulful)
6. black pepper (Piper nigrum) (fulful)
7. nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) (jauz al-tib)
8. mace (Myristica fragrans) (bisbasa)
9. bay laurel leaves (Laurus nobilis) (warq rand)

10. rose buds (Rosa damascena) (zir ward) (Arberry & Nasrallah)
-- Perry gives rose hips, which is unlikely in my opinion, given how common rose petals are in cooking and how rarely rose hips appear.
11. spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) (sunbul) (Perry & Nasrallah)
-- Arberry gave lavender, but we now know that this is inaccurate. Lavender does not appear in recipes from the Eastern Mediterranean and not in the medicinal manuals i have from the region, although it is frequently used in savory dishes in al-Andalus.

And finally the mystery ingredient:
12. lisan al-'asafir
-- Arberry gave beech nuts, which is highly unlikely for several reasons (see below);
-- Perry gives common ash, which has some potential;
-- Nasrallah gives elm tree seeds, which i question - i should write to her again (we were corresponding during the summer) and ask for more details.

I wonder if it might not be an ash-like plant, one of the many Zanthoxylum spp. The leaves are said to look rather like those of the ash tree, and the leaves as well as the berries/seeds are used as a seasoning. Besides being spicy and hot, the seeds also have a numbing quality, which is an essential part of their usage.

The most familiar examples include:
Chinese Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum, Z. simulans, Z. planispinum, Z. armatum, and Z. piperitum);
Japanese shansho (Z. sancho);
and i am personally familiar with North Sumatran andaliman (Z. acanthopodium).

Besides China, Japan (Z. sancho and Z. nitidum), and Indonesia (Z. acanthopodium, Z. nitidum, Z. rhetsa), Zanthoxylum species grow in India (Z. rhetsa), Nepal (Z. alatum and Z. armatum), Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, and Korea (Z. coreanum, Z. ailanthoides, Z. schinifolium, and Z. planispinum).

Today I received e-mail from Eike Wulfmeyer from Germany (i don't know if he's SCA or not). He wrote:
Regarding lisan al-‘asafir, beech nuts are probably right out. Beech is neither a common plant in the region, nor are beechnuts useful in a spice mixture - they have little taste of their own and are oily enough to make it all go rancid.

Likewise, "elm tree seeds" is probably just a misunderstanding; I do not know of any culinary use of elm seed.

Ash seed is by far the likeliest of the three alternatives. In this case probably Fraxinus ornus (Manna Ash), the species native to the region. Ash seeds are highly fragrant when dried and ground and have a bitter-almondy taste; I know they were used as a spice in central Europe in the past. But I do not know whether they were ever used in the Arab world.

Insofar, you may well be right with Zanthoxylum; in any case it is more likely even than ash seed at face value. But I can't judge on the linguistic issues involved - IIRC the genus is not native to the Middle East (it is essentially of trans-Beringian distribution, i.e. the Americas and East Asia). So the medieval Arab writers might not have been aware of the plants themselves, only of the fruit, which unlike the leaves does not resemble those of ash at all (the plants are quite unrelated). Still, anyone traveling from there to eastern Asia would have found ash trees reasonably similar to Zanthoxylum (cf. "prickly ash" for North American Zanthoxylum species).

So it basically boils down to the question of whether the Arabs knew only the spice derived from Zanthoxylon (or did not know it at all), or whether they also knew the trees it came from.


Is anyone familiar with Manna Ash seeds or any other Ash seeds used as a seasoning in any cuisine, modern, ethnic, or historical?

Does anyone know where i can get Ash seeds to use in cooking?
Urtatim (that's urr-tah-TEEM)
the persona formerly known as Anahita

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