Forbidden Foods

The story of an eccentric ruler, an intoxicated doctor, and a controversial green soup

Illustration of al-Hakim bi-Amrillah (Contemporary Illustration) by Maged El SokkaryRAWI Publishing

History tends to forget many people, if not most. Some characters, however, are so interesting, so unusual, that their eccentricities remain part of popular folklore for hundreds (or even thousands) of years.

The infamous Fatimid caliph al-Ḥakim bi-Amrillah (d. 1021 CE) is a case in point. Ask any random Egyptian today about the man who banned molokheyya soup, and they’ll almost surely have heard the story.

The Fatimids were an Ismaili Shi’ite sect of Islam who ruled predominantly Sunni Egypt between the 10th and the 12th c. CE, and many of al-Hakim’s unusual sanctions were imposed for sectarian reasons. 

The ban relating to the molokheyya (Jew’s mallow) soup beloved by Egyptians was one of those. Al-Hakim is said to have banned it simply because it had been favoured by the Sunni Umayyad caliph Mu‘awiyya (d. 680 CE).

Qulqas (Taro) DishRAWI Publishing

Another dish he also banned was a popular one cooked with qulqas (taro) called al-mutawakkileyya because it was named after the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861 CE), who was, again, a Sunni. 

After al-Ḥakim’s death, Egyptians resumed eating all their favourite foods, and al-mutawakkileyya acquired another name, sitt al-shana‘ or ‘the best of the maligned dishes’.

Honey and RaisinsRAWI Publishing

Al-Hakim’s most aggressive ban, however, was for wine. First, he imposed a religious ban on the beverage but then lifted it when he was prescribed wine and music by his physician as a cure for his ailments. All was fine again for wine drinkers until the caliph’s doctor, heavily inebriated, fell into a pond and drowned.

This incident triggered a far more aggressive ban on wine, its production, and even its basic ingredients. Al-Hakim ordered the destruction of stocks at wine shops, then had vineyards yanked out and ploughed over. Anyone caught carrying raisins or honey, two main ingredients in wine, was arrested and punished, their contraband seized and destroyed.

Ever defiant of those who get in the way of their worldly pleasures, Egyptians found ways to evade the ban. They bought up all the stock before the authorities reached the shops and secretly stockpiled imported raisins. Churches also continued to secretly press grapes and produce wine,  be it for mass or for fun.

In 1021 CE, al-Hakim left his palace and simply vanished, never to return. The disappearance remained a mystery but with it, Egyptians simply went back to eating qulqas and molokheyya and enjoying wine which undoubtedly helped them recover from two decades of anxiety still remembered today.

For more on Egyptian culinary history, check out this story on peasant food in the 17th century.

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