What Was Cooking in Medieval Cairo?

Take a stroll through a medieval Cairene culinary treasure trove and catch a rare glimpse of Egypt's kitchens and the cosmopolitan influences that flavour much of the food we eat until today

Illustration of an Egyptian Medieval Market (Contemporary Illustration) by Maged El SokkaryRAWI Publishing

Cairo's Bustling Medieval Markets

14th-c. Cairenes seldom cooked at home. The city’s famous markets provided them with all their needs on a daily basis.

At the market you could find everything: There was al-farrani, who ran the commercial brick oven, and al-bawaridi, who provided the customers with cold meatless dishes consumed as snacks, such as boiled vegetables, dairy items, condiments, and ‘ujaj (omelettes). There was also al-khudari for vegetables and al-fakahani for fruits piled high in pretty displays.

The Butcher

Al-rawwas sold offal such as head meat, trotters, and tripe, cooked or raw. Al-naqaniqi specialized in making sausages, and al-kubudi sold grilled liver.

The medieval cookbook Kanz al-Fawaʾid fī Tanwiʿ al-Mawaʾid  (Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table) with over 820 recipes, suggests household conditions where many hands were put to work to prepare dishes that often required numerous chores, utilities and tools including several types of knives: a cleaver for splitting the bones, a strong one for disjointing the meat, a thin and very sharp one for slicing it, and a separate knife and board for cutting onion and garlic. This would have most likely been done at the market.

The Confectioner

According to 14th-c. historian al-Maqrizi, mounds of filled cookies (khushkananj), sandwich cookies (basandud) and colourful lollipops (mushash) were always prepared for the festival at the end of the holy month of Ramadan and sold at the markets.

The number of confectioners (halwaniyyin) in the market was phenomenal. Ibn al-Ukhuwwa, in his 14th-c. inspector’s manual, gives a list of more than sixty types of desserts, and these, he says, ‘were only the popular ones’.

The Drink Vendor

To quench the thirst of the market goers we have the water-sellers (al-sa’ain) who sold water in jars to households or refreshing juices in cups to passers-by in the market.

The Baker

Personal hygiene was always emphasized in the inspectors’ manuals. The kneaders were required to shave the hair on their hands and wear clothes with tight fitting sleeves. They also had to cover their mouths and noses with face mufflers lest they sneeze or cough.

The Fishmonger

A popular export from Egypt to surrounding countries in the Mediterranean was samak qadid (salt-cured fish), a local snack that remains popular to this day.

The Cook

Most city dwellers had small kitchens, if at all. Al-sharaʾihi (professional cook) prepared dishes with ingredients provided by his customers. Poorer customers, on the other hand, availed themselves of the services offered by a great variety of cook-shops and stalls.

New Flavours

After the Arab conquest in 641 CE, Egypt saw many changes, especially in trade networks. This played a major role in adding to the already abundant harvests by introducing important crops such as rice, sugarcane, and aubergines.

Trade with the surrounding regions, especially the Levant, was quite active. Products imported from that region included walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, apples, quinces, and pears, all of which contributed to making Cairo the culinary hub of the medieval Middle East. 

For more of how Egyptians ate in the Middle Ages, check out this story on medieval takeaway.

Credits: Story

Illustration by Maged El Sokkary
Art direction by Maijane Saba

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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