17 July 2013

Lamb Meatball Stew mudaqqaqa, 10th Century Baghdad: Food Item Sixteen: A&S 50 Challenge

Lamb Meatball Stew: mudaqqaqa, 10th Century Baghdad
Sayyeda al-Kaslaania
July 12, 2013
Redacted Recipe

[original recipe] Another mudaqqaqa
Take tender meat from the thigh of a yearling sheep, slice it thinly, and pound it. Add finely chopped white parts of fresh onions (bayāḍ baṣal) or chopped kurrāth al-baql (tender-leaf leeks). Add as well spices such as coriander, cumin, and cassia, all ground. Mix and pound all the ingredients in a stone mortar and shape mixture into balls [by oiling your hands] with sweet olive oil (zayt ṭayyib). Put the meatballs (kubab) on a plate and set them aside.

Take a clean pot, and put in it enough water to cover the meatballs. When the water boils, add the meatballs, [bring it to a boil] and skim the froth.

Add to the pot, sweet olive oil (zayt ṭayyib[1]), crushed salt, bruised soaked chick peas, and chopped onions, leeks (kurrāth), and cilantro. Cook the pot until it is almost done.

Take 30 dirhams (3 ounces) almonds, which have been skinned and pounded until they resemble mukh (bone marrow). Stir them with some water and add them to the pot. Salt the dish as needed.

Beat 10 eggs and pour them into the pot. Stir vigorously so that the meat [balls] mingle with the eggs. Give the pot a dusting of coriander and just a trifle of (rā’iḥa) black pepper and cassia. Stir in tal’ simsimānī [fn. 10]. Let the pot simmer [in the remaining heat of the fire] and settle for about an hour then ladle it and serve it, God willing.
[fn. 10] I amend here samsānī(?) to simsimānī “sesame-like”, used to describe the clusters of the seed-like buds of the first appearing dates in a female date palm, which are still enclosed in spathes. The male tal’ is like wheat flour. The other two [manuscripts, of the three extant copies,] do not include this ingredient in the recipe.

Nasrallah, Nawal, trans. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Brill, Leiden: 2010. Pp. 324-5.

Redacted Recipe:  Lamb Meatball Stew mudaqqaqa

1 lb. Lamb, ground fine
Green onions, small bunch
1 Tablespoon Coriander, ground
1 Tablespoon Cumin, ground
1/2 Tablespoon Cassia cinnamon, ground
Olive oil
1 lb. cooked chickpeas
½ white onion
1 leek, large
1 bunch cilantro
3 oz almond butter
10 small or 8 medium eggs
Pinch black pepper

Wash green onions and trim off roots. Chop the white parts of the green onions, reserve tender green parts for another purpose. Grind the lamb fine along with the prepared green onions. In a bowl, mix the meat-onion mixture, coriander, cumin, and cassia cinnamon. Oil your hands with olive oil and take almond sized pieces of the meat to make meatballs. Set meatballs aside.

In another bowl, coarsely mash the chickpeas with the back of a large serving fork or wooden spoon until most are broken. Chop the white onion in to small pieces, adding to the chickpea bowl. Wash the leeks and trim the roots. Finely slice the white parts of the leeks, adding to the chickpeas. Reserve the tender green parts of the leeks for another purpose. Chop several leaves of cilantro, adding to the same bowl. Gently toss the chickpea mixture.

 Boil just enough water to cover the meatballs. Add meatballs a few at a time and return to a boil. Once the meatballs float, remove them with a slotted spoon and add more meatballs until they are all cooked, skimming the froth between batches. Add the meatballs back into the cooking water. Add to this pot 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the chickpea mixture, and 1 tablespoon salt. Return pot to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in almond butter.

Beat eggs in another bowl. Remove meatball pot from the heat. Slowly pour eggs into the meatball pot while stirring vigorously. Return to pot to the heat for a gentle simmer, about 30 minutes, stirring frequently.

Before serving, wipe the edges of the pot, inside and outside, to make it presentable. Dust the dish with chopped cilantro, a pinch of black pepper, and a pinch of cassia cinnamon.

About the Recipe
A wide variety of dishes are called mudaqqaqa in this period, the word meaning “pounded meat.” Recipes vary from chicken pounded with spices then stuffed back into is skin and fried, to red meat pounded and formed into orange-sized cabobs and soured with vinegar or sumac.

The Arabic verbs used to describe the preparation of this mudaqqaqa dish are not those of frying-- these verbs indicate boiling instead, according to Prof. Nasrallah [2]. The practice of boiling meat, not common in modern US cooking, is seen frequently in medieval Islamic cooking. The goal was to get all the “froth, scum, grease, and whatever might float upon it during boiling [3]” out of the dish by skimming the froth from the cooking liquid.

This dish being a stew, I decided on the smaller sized meatballs when the original text was silent about the shape. Small meatballs appear in other recipes. My suspicion is that the different variations of the word kubab indicate the size of the meatballs: “yukabbab,” “mukabbab,” “kubab” and “kabāb.” It is possible that the translators do not identify the differences because the subtleties of the language are regional, or have been lost as is the case with textiles from the same period. 

Another frequently seen item in dishes of this period is eggs. Typically, they are left to poach on the top of the dish as a finishing element. Occasionally, they are used as a sort of crust or lid, then removed and discarded. In this dish, scrambling them and stirring them in is an interesting and uncommon twist on the theme. The medieval author, al-Baghdadi, states that “eggs cooked in stews are less harmful than boiled eggs and faster to digest.[4]” Perhaps the constitution of the first person for whom this dish was prepared required the moderation.

Recreating the dish
One aspect of the dish I presented is clearly out-of-line with the medieval mindset: it is reheated. The meatballs and broth were prepared off site then reheated the day of so the eggs could be added fresh. Reheating food was considered unhealthy in the Middle East, and was believed to cause a dish to “spoil.[5]” Given my modern role at the event (running registration), I chose to deviate from this expectation.  The use of reliable refrigeration was certainly a factor in this decision! 

Oiling the meatballs was unexpected and interesting. Looking at a bowl of fatty ground meat, it becomes difficult to imagine why oiling is requested. However, during the process the meat absorbed a surprising amount of the oil. As I continued to fill the bowl with meatballs, the first ones stopped glistening. As they were boiling, the scum was caught in with the excess oil that floated to the top of the pot. Olive oil being a lighter flavored oil, and considering the amount of spices included in the meatballs, I don’t expect that it affected the flavor much.


I could not bring myself to dump all the meatballs in the water at the same time. With the constraints of the original recipe, there was not enough water for them to cook evenly or for the heat in the water to recover quickly from the cool meat being immersed. I used the same amount of water called out in the original, but cooked the meatballs in small batches and removed them to a bowl as they floated to the top.

The next time I prepare this dish, I will grind the green onions with the meat. Chopping them small was not enough: the pieces were too large to make very small meatballs. The coarseness of the onions caused the meatballs to break apart easily while cooking.

Pan-frying would be included in my next attempt. The dish lacks umami—the flavor found in grilling, frying, caramelizing, etc. I found the dish somewhat mediocre without it. However I believe that my Western bias is showing here (e.g. Indian cuisine can often be prepared without frying and still be full of flavor). Humorally, roasting and frying food makes it “heavy” for the stomach and difficult to digest [6]. 

An accidental success was allowing the flavors to blend overnight. While not period, it allowed the spices (all contained in the meatballs) to express their flavor.


So, why three alliums? The text is not precise on this. However, the first half of this text is an analysis of the humoral properties of the foods discussed. All three of these alliums are humorally hot and dry, and overall the dish tends toward that quadrant of humoral theory. Cassia, cumin, salt and olive oil are all hot and dry.  Coriander is hot and moist. Lamb is hot.

Another collection of humoral properties to note is role of the ingredients to “strengthen the heart” (cassia), “arouse and whet the appetite” (salt), “increase sperm” (eggs and chickpeas), “produce more excretions” (lamb), “stimulate the appetite” (leeks), “stimulate the appetite and sexual desire” (onion), etc [7].  Perhaps this is a potency potion?


[1] Lweicka defines zayt ṭayyib as “good olive oil”. 

[2] Nasrallah, Nawal, trans. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Brill, Leiden: 2010, p 324.
[3] Lewicka, Paula B. Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes: Aspects of Life in an Islamic Metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean. Islamic History and Civilization Studies and Texts, Vol. 88. Brill:Leiden, 2011, p 188.
[4] Nasrallah, p 116.
[5] Leiwcka, p 98 fn.

[6] Nasrallah, 108-9.
[7] Nasrallah.


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