Book Club: The contribution of Arabs and Moors to the Iberian Peninsula remains evident through architectural and academic advancements. But what about gastronomy? Portugal: The Cookbook details the vast extent of Arab culinary innovation in the country.
Among other notable products, the Arabs and Moors brought sugar to the Iberian Peninsula [Phaidon Press]
“For these new rulers, cooking was an art and food a gift from God to be eaten in moderation and shared with those in need.” So writes Leandro Carreira, the chef and author of Portugal: the cookbookabout the Arabs and Amazighs (Moors) who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century and ushered in a food revolution.
That 800 years of Islamic civilization in Spain and Portugal influenced the evolution of Portuguese cuisine is not surprising, but it is nonetheless striking how extraordinary this impact has been. In this new cookbook of around 700 recipes, half of them are inspired by the Moors.
When the Moors arrived, they brought the warriors and administrators needed to rule the newly acquired lands; but alongside them came architects, astronomers, poets and cooks armed with cookbooks, like the famous medieval Baghdadi Kitab al Tabikh.
“The Moors popularized sour oranges, lemons, apricots, dates, melons and watermelons; their use of spices such as pepper and ginger, pickling olives and nuts, sour marinade to preserve fish and rose water and orange blossom water have also left their place. indelible mark”
The more advanced civilization of the Moors introduced hydraulics which allowed the irrigation of agricultural land (as well as orchards and green gardens).
The Moors also beautified the land elsewhere by planting citrus trees along the streets for both the fruit and the smell.
The list of crops introduced by the Moors is remarkably long: eggplant, artichoke, carrot, lentil, cucumber and lettuce among many others. Lettuce would later lend its name to the inhabitants of Lisbon, known colloquially as Alfachinhas (“little lettuces”).
The Moors popularized sour oranges, lemons, apricots, dates, melons and watermelons; their use of spices such as pepper and ginger, pickling olives and nuts, sour marinade to preserve fish, and rose and orange blossom water also left their indelible mark.
And the Portuguese folk art of dipping fish in flour and frying it in oil also has its origins in Moorish cuisine. The Moors of Mesopotamia, for their part, were surprised by the wonderful new range of sea fish; they had been accustomed to freshwater fish.
The vinegared salads of the Moors soaked in spring water were the ancestor of gazpacho. And sugar cane crops were planted, which the Portuguese then exported to their colonies and gave us the global sugar boom (harvested by slaves) that transformed sugar – from Arabic sukar – from a luxury into a staple enjoyed by all.
Naturally, North African Moors crossing the Iberian Peninsula via Gibraltar carried bags of couscous with them. Rolled wheat semolina quickly became a staple of the regional diet until the end of the 16th century when it was replaced by cereals that took less time to prepare.
To this day, however, there are villages in the northwestern part of the country where couscous is still made by hand using the same methods and utensils employed by the Berbers 900 years ago.
The Moors cultivated not only the ingredients and the recipes but also the spirit of hospitality and conviviality at the table as well as the order in which the dishes were served: soups followed by fish or meat and ending with sweets.
“While Moorish rule over the Iberian Peninsula has finally come to an end, the legacy remains visible and tasty. Even recipes that are not halal (served with pork) are often rooted in Moorish cuisine with the original made with meat or fish without pork”
The cousins of the Arabs, the Jews, it should be mentioned, also helped shape Portuguese cuisine. Observant Jews had to prepare their after-Sabbath meal before the Sabbath, which meant setting aside a slow-burning stew that would be ready the next day.
Today, the Portuguese call it Adafina, a tasty mix of meat, chickpeas, green cabbage, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables. And it was the Jews who introduced fried vegetables, which Portuguese missionaries then brought to Japan, and so we have tempura.
While Moorish rule over the Iberian Peninsula finally came to an end, the legacy remains visible and flavorful. Even recipes that are not halal (served with pork) are often rooted in Moorish cuisine with the original made with meat or fish without pork.
What Portugal: the cookbook beautifully demonstrates the deep interconnectedness between peoples and the arbitrary nature of the now fashionable but fraudulent effort to impose discreet boundaries around the kitchen and shout “cultural appropriation” at any perceived offender.
What we eat cannot be so easily grouped into a dichotomy between us and them. Food, even more than language, tells a story of intertwined humanity.
Portugal: the cookbook continues the new tradition of cookbooks conveying the story behind the food and is a great addition to any kitchen where Mediterranean cuisine is favored.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer and civil rights activist based in Washington, DC. His work can be found at the Washington Blade, Palestine Square and other publications.