Medieval cookbooks were surprisingly sophisticated


When you think of old cookbooks, you might imagine tomes from the late 1700s or early 1800s, but they existed hundreds of years before that. Most of them were written by nobles or kings seeking to burnish their reputations, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good. And they weren’t just European, either – some of the best cookbooks of the 15th and 16th centuries originated in India.

Farah Yameen takes us on a journey to learn of the ‘exotic’ spices and elaborate preparations that you could find in the Middle Ages in India. Yameen notes that during this time, “the sultans of the kingdom of Mandu were obsessing about every flavour, ingredient, and culinary technique,” and they codified their recipes to showcase their wealth and knowledge. 

The dishes contained in these ancient tomes  rival that of many modern-day foods, featuring flavorful spices like asafoetida, saffron, rosewater, and camphor. Preparations were elaborate (as befitted a king), with entire ditches being dug and lined with an impressive array of herbs and spices to enhance the meats to be cooked in the ad hoc earthen ovens. 

After reading the instructions for some of the recipe – for example, one instructs you to “Chop cardamoms, cloves, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cassia, cumin and fenugreek, tie them up in muslin and add this to the meat” – you might want to be able to time travel to experience what these dishes tasted like. The emphasis was on coaxing the natural flavors from foods, and not relying on heavy sauces or gravies as became the custom later.

While the recipes were usually vague on timing or measurements, these old texts provide a glimpse into what at least a portion of the populace ate. In addition to kingly dishes, the books also contained some ‘everyday’ types of foods, with many simple rice and vegetable recipes that the common folk may have enjoyed. Read more about these fascinating cookbooks.

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