The 'Tray of Intoxication'

The 'sukurdan': A medieval Egyptian platter of delicacies

(illustration based on) Prisse d’Avennes, L'art arabe d'après les monuments du Kaire: depuis le VIIe siècle jusqu'à la fin du XVIIIe, Art arabe : mobilier de soultan Mohammed ben Qalaoûn : flambeau et plateau d'alcarazas, 1877RAWI Publishing

A Trayful of Delights

In medieval Egypt, a large ornate tray, called sukurdan, would be loaded with a variety of small delicious dishes served as snacks and nibbles during social gatherings, including those involving the consumption of alcoholic beverages. In fact, it was the latter that gave rise to the sukurdan ritual, including its name, which was said to be a combination of the Arabic sukr meaning to ‘imbibe alcoholic drinks’ and the Persian dan or ‘vessel’. 

Medieval Mezze

The tray was loaded with dishes such as apricot compote, pickles of carrot and quince, yoghurt condiment of jajaq (a prototype of today’s jajik or Greek tzatziki), lemons preserved in salt, cured olives and capers, and salt-cured sparrows and ṣir (anchovies). 

TrayThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

This 14th-c. brass tray inlaid with silver contains compartments for small mezze plates. The inscription around the raised centre is a dedication to an anonymous high-ranking Mamluk official.

A Trayful of Delights | Illustration (Contemporary Illustration) by Maged El SokkaryRAWI Publishing

Using clues from medieval cookbooks, we reimagined a ‘sukkurdan’ tray with some of the popular mezzes of 14th-c. Egypt.   

Pickled Lemon

Still common in Egypt today, pickled lemons were part of a larger repertoire of preserved foods including staples such as onions, carrots, cucumbers, turnips, and eggplants, as well as the (today) less common pickled walnuts, and roses.


Egyptians prepared dried apricot compote (naqu’ al-mishmash) in a variety of ways, sometimes with saffron, musk, rosewater or mint and often infused with the fragrant smoke of aloe wood.

Salt-cured Sparrows

A variety of cooked sparrow dishes were common in medieval Egypt, but by the 20th c., it was mostly the salt-cured sparrows that remained popular as a mezze sold by street vendors at cafés and taverns.


Although it was often prohibited in Muslim-ruled Egypt, wine was enjoyed by many Egyptians, albeit discreetly. Date wine was popular, but wine made from imported grapes seems to have been considered the best. An 11th-c. Cairene physician states that the favourite wine consumed by Egyptians was called ash-shamsī (sun-made). It was an expensive, long-lasting wine made of imported raisins and honey and fermented in the sun. 


Caramel-like hard candies made of lemon and orange juice were also a popular snack.

Cured Olives

A 14th-c. recipe for seasoned olives tells us to 'remove pits and extract half of the oil. Keep them in several changes of water then squeeze. Take toasted seeds of caraway and coriander, “spice blend”, hazelnuts, tahini and very sour wine vinegar. Season the olives and set them aside in a vessel for three days. Mix in olive oil, and use.'

Pickles of Carrot and Quince

In a climate as warm as Egypt’s, preserving was essential to prolong the life of seasonal vegetables. Egyptians also enjoy the sharp vinegary taste of pickles. Today, no Egyptian meal is complete without a side of torshi or pickles, most often carrots and cucumbers.


A lot of thought went into seemingly simple mezze; a 14th-c. cookbook recommends frying deboned, split-open anchovies in 'sweet' olive oil then adding a mix of golden-brown onions, cilantro, coriander, caraway, spices, mint and tahini. Quite a blend!  

For more on Egyptian culinary culture, check out this story on Fisikh, Egypt's beloved cured fish.

Credits: Story

Sources: Nawal Nasrallah, Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook, Brill, 2017
Paulina Lewicka, Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes : Aspects of Life in an Islamic Metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean, Brill, 2011

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