Citizens, I apologize for the lacunæ separating my last post and this one – between my dog re-injuring himself and the last two weeks showing the fragility of relations between different ethnicities here in the United States, it has been difficult to break out of my depression.
While the Nabob of Neutrality seeks a deft and nuanced approach to understanding the issues on each side of the current rioting and opposing sides, it is important to remind ourselves that world history is replete with conflicts of nearly-identical nature across the gulfs of time and space alike.
To illustrate my point that labels are both dangerous and meaningless, I shall be going back a thousand years to the Moorish empire in medieval Spain and simultaneously sharing a recipe of meritorious virtue to both sides of that particular conflict.
The Moors were the Muslim inhabitants of the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages. The Moors initially were the indigenous Maghrebine Berbers and the name was later also applied to Arabs.
Moors are not a distinct or self-defined people, and the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica observed that “The term ‘Moors’ has no real ethnological value.” Europeans of the Middle Ages and the early modern period variously applied the name to Arabs, North African Berbers, and Muslim Europeans.
The term has also been used in Europe in a broader, somewhat derogatory sense to refer to Muslims in general, especially those of Arab or Berber descent, whether living in Spain or North Africa.
During the colonial era, the Portuguese introduced the names “Ceylon Moors” and “Indian Moors” in South Asia and Sri Lanka, and the Bengali Muslims were also called Moors. In the Philippines, the longstanding Muslim community, which predates the arrival of the Spanish, now self-identifies as the “Moro people”, an exonym introduced by Spanish colonizers due to their Muslim faith.
In 711, troops mostly formed by Moors from northern Africa led the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. The Iberian peninsula then came to be known in Classical Arabic as al-Andalus, which at its peak included most of Septimania and modern-day Spain and Portugal.
In 827, the Moors occupied Mazara on Sicily, developing it as a port. They eventually went on to consolidate the rest of the island. Differences in religion and culture led to a centuries-long conflict with the Christian kingdoms of Europe, which tried to reclaim control of Muslim areas; this conflict was referred to as the Reconquista.
In 1224 the Muslims were expelled from Sicily to the settlement of Lucera, which was destroyed by European Christians in 1300. The fall of Granada in 1492 marked the end of Muslim rule in Iberia, although a Muslim minority persisted until their expulsion in 1609.
The origin of the word ‘Moor’ dates back to the classical period, when the Romans interacted with, and later conquered, parts of Mauretania, a state that covered modern northern Morocco, western Algeria, and the Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla.
The Berber tribes of the region were noted in the Classics as Mauri, which was subsequently rendered as “Moors” in English and in related variations in other European languages. Mauri (Μαῦροι) is recorded as the native name by Strabo in the early 1st century.
This appellation was also adopted into Latin, whereas the Greek name for the tribe was Maurusii (Ancient Greek: Μαυρούσιοι). The Moors were also mentioned by Tacitus as having revolted against the Roman Empire in 24 AD.
During the Latin Middle Ages, Mauri was used to refer to Berbers and Arabs in the coastal regions of Northwest Africa. The 16th century scholar Leo Africanus (c. 1494–1554) identified the Moors (Mauri) as the native Berber inhabitants of the former Roman Africa Province (Roman Africans).
He described Moors as one of five main population groups on the continent alongside Egyptians, Abyssinians (Abassins), Arabians and Cafri (Cafates).
So as you can see, an individual that one person called a ‘Moor’ could in fact not be a classical ‘Moor’ at all, and the name most definitely carries a stigma today – not as bad as the ‘N-word’ to an African-American, but sadly still quite perjorative. Let us learn from these errors of the past and embrace one another as all members of one human race!
Now, as to the recipe (and ingredients!) in question!
As noted in this lightly-edited article from the scholarly gastronomic website medievalspanishchef.com:
A native of Turkmenistan, cumin quickly adapted to the Mediterranean Region, especially Levant, where it was exported to China and India. Jews used it in cakes and cheeses. It is mentioned in the Bible (Isa 2:25, 27; Dem. 2:1 and Matthew xxiii, xxiii, 23).
The Romans prior to or after meals drank a cumin tonic or infusion to stimulate the stomach. Emperor Claudius issued an edit permitting it to be consumed at his dinner table. Romans introduced cumin to Spain but over the centuries it was forgotten.
In 1031, the Arabs reintroduced it to Spain, bringing it from Arabia Petraea (Rocky Arabia, the area between Egypt and Mesopotamia).
They obviously promoted its use as crops became abundant in Andalusia within the same century, especially in the southern part. It adapted best in the Las Alpujarras (the region from Granada to Almería).
The seeds, actually the dried fruits of the plant, and leaves were systematically used in Al-Andalus culinary art for their flavor and color. They were used to flavor chicken, lamb, yogurt and eggplant.
They were used especially in dishes containing vinegar and sauces for fried foods as they facilitated digestion after eating food that was not easily broken down.
Following the Muslim exodus from the peninsula (from end of the 15 C to the beginning of the 16 C), cumin seeds began to fall into disuse again. Now cumin is grown on the Mediterranean but rarely in Spain. Today the seeds are used as flavoring for Lieden cheese and are an ingredient for curry.
Medicinally, they are used as a home remedy for stomach problems and as an antispasmodic. The oil is used medicinally. Cumin is added to alcoholic beverages for flavoring and to perfumes for the aroma. See alcaravea. [Benavides-Barajas. Nueva-Clásica. 1995:66; Herbs. Oct 8, 02; ES: Mabberley. Oct 11, 01; and Villena/Calero. 2002:23a]
One of the key seasonings in this medieval recipe is an ancient spiced seasoning known as ‘murri’, which is closely related to soy sauce – murri is not safe to make today due to risk of food poisoning, but my suggested modification is to use a combination of several ingredients that closely approximate it.
My recipe is to combine 50% soy sauce, 25% barley (hatcho) miso, 25 % fish sauce, plus a bit of Georgian khmeli-suneli spice mixed with honey. If you prefer, you could use Worcestershire sauce, though it’s just not the same!
In the fine tradition of making medieval recipes for nobility as over-the-top as possible visually, I recommend gilding the meatballs with edible-quality gold foil – you can buy some here, but be assured you don’t need to do this optional step to enjoy the recipe!
This recipe was originally found in Huici’s translation of ‘Anón al-Ándalus #4 – Plato de Albóndigas p. 17, but has been heavily modified by me to be easier to create in a modern kitchen with currently-available ingredients.
I hope you enjoy this recipe’s antiquity, its delicious flavors and its visual appeal at your earliest opportunity, ! You may perhaps enjoy this ancient recipe with a modern and gorgeously color-complementary pairing of Spanish black noodles!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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