Ziryab’s contribution to cuisine in the Mediterranean and Al-Andalus

The Maghreb region, particularly Morocco, is world famous for its gastronomy. Indeed, its traditional cuisine is distinguished by its great refinement, harmoniously blending flavors that one would never have thought of combining, especially sweet and savory. This know-how was developed thanks to a common heritage from the Mediterranean, especially after the arrival of Ziryab (Abu Hassan Ali ben Nafi, 789 – 857) in Al-Andalus, during the 9th century. Exiled from Baghdad (Iraq), the musician of Kurdish and Persian origins is known as a historical figure in Arab-Andalusian music, of which he is considered the founding father. In addition to having introduced the Arabic lute to Al-Andalus, adding a fifth string to it, this virtuoso is a man of letters, an astronomer and a geographer. Having several strings to his bow, he is also credited with having greatly influenced the Andalusian culinary way of life.

If the cuisine and gastronomy of Al-Andalus experienced a turning point between the 9th and 12th centuries, it was mainly thanks to Ziryab, who introduced new preparations inspired by the traditions of the East, combining them with local customs. , which quickly spread between Cordoba and Granada, then beyond. In 822, the young musician left Baghdad to arrive in Cordoba. Invited by the emir, he introduced certain Persian customs and a refined know-how of gastronomy, especially as he discovered in Al-Andalus a rich terroir and diversified orchards.

Banquets that paved the way for Andalusian culinary refinement

Despite the richness of the vegetable garden, elegance has not always gone hand in hand with local culinary preparations. So far, the dishes consumed in the peninsula have Roman, Visigothic, Arab and Amazigh influences, but the harmony in the assembly of flavors and ingredients is lacking. Thanks to his ancestral Baghdad gastronomic background, in addition to his career in music and poetry, Ziryab quickly became the culinary adviser to the court. He innovated new preparations that for the first time mixed certain varieties of vegetables, established table rules such as the serving of drinks in crystal glasses instead of metal cups, as well as the refinement of the service and linen tablecloths.

In the order of the dishes to be served per meal, Ziryab orders a successive and not simultaneous presentation, for a progressive tasting. He suggests starting with soups or cereals, moving on to fish or meat, then ending with desserts. This know-how increasingly influenced Andalusian families, who brought these uses with them after finding refuge in North Africa, in the context of the fall of Granada and the end of the Reconquest (722 – 1492) .

But before that, the progress of agricultural techniques in the region made the peninsula a prosperous land. It grows “rice, sugar cane, eggplant, artichoke or spinach”. “Quinces from Asia Minor, melons from Persia, watermelons from Syria, as well as little-known fruit trees such as the pomegranate tree, the orange tree or the lemon tree have brought diversity to a diet hitherto little open to consumption. of fresh fruit,” writes Ana Vega, culinary arts specialist in Al-Andalus.

Ziryab also took care to document his contribution to Andalusian gastronomy, leaving manuscripts that include unpublished culinary preparations, savory and sweet, in the form of dishes or cakes, influenced by the use of honey and sugar in the Middle Orient, but marked at the same time by the significant use of vegetables, a tradition of Mediterranean cuisine. “The Muslims even improved the cultivation of plants that already existed in the peninsula, such as the olive grove,” adds Ana Vega, who mentions the use of olive oil, the consumption of apricots, carrots, beans, eggplants and citrus fruits.

For centuries, many manuscripts of scholars who wrote about the gastronomy of the region fell into oblivion, were lost or found without the names of their authors. Still, the use of wheat, barley, rye and other cereals has long been documented. It is even considered a main component of bread, pasta, noodles and couscous semolina, widely consumed for centuries. Also, the introduction of rice in Al-Andalus made it possible to develop preparations of thick soups, where we find broad beans, chickpeas or peas, in combinations reminiscent of those of chorba or harira.

Over the centuries, the consumption of meat has made its way into the wealthiest households. Historical writings indicate that meats were often “roasted, stewed, made into sausages and dumplings” or stewed, in other regions. For their part, the most modest families often consumed fish, fried or preserved in salt or even marinade.

Ziryab died in 857, but the great banquets of which he was the craftsman laid the groundwork for the demonstrations of refinement that we know in the culinary arts having inherited this know-how. Under the great caliphate of Cordoba (929 – 1031), these customs were perpetuated, in particular by Abd Al-Rahman III (929 – 961) who called on a large team of cooks in his court, while setting high demands for the quality of the food. Among the publications that have traced the basics of the most fashionable recipes since that time, we note “Fiḍālat al-Khiwān fī Ṭayyibāt al-Ṭaʿām wa-l-Alwān” (Best delicious foods and dishes of Al-Andalus et al -Maghrib).

This work was elaborated in Tunis, around 1260, by the 13th century Andalusian scholar Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī (1227-1293). But his manuscript was only discovered and reconstructed centuries later. In 2019, the Franco-Syrian historian Farouk Mardam-Bey for his part devoted his book “La cuisine de Ziryâb” to the musician’s great gastronomic contribution to the Andalusian region, as well as to the whole art of living, from hairstyle and clothing, thanks to which Ziryab embellished Al-Andalus and the whole Mediterranean.

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