Five Myths About Medieval Cuisines – and Jewish Foods and Books to Unlearn Them

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica. (British Museum, public domain)

Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.

We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha  was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tchaand the similar Serbian pihtije  – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.

Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).
  1. Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Escabeche
Escabeche. (Photo Pisco Trail)

Jewish food: Escabeche. This recipe originated as an Arab and Jewish preparation for cooked fish, which it remains today. In escabeche, cooked fish is preserved in a heavily spiced vinegar mixture, often alongside anchovies. Vinegar was not meant to hide the taste of overripe fish, but rather to keep the fish not rotten. Hence the sauce must be acidic enough to preserve the fish. Spaniards continued to prepare escabeche after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and brought the recipe to Latin America and the Philippines. Jews, meanwhile, prepared the recipe in Turkey, France, and the Netherlands, and from the latter the dish ended up across the Dutch and French colonial empires too. Today, dozens of variations exist around the world – including the garlicky Catalan version, the eggplant-filled Uruguayan recipe (link in Spanish), and of course the simple and elegant Filipino recipe. Of course, escabeche is still found on Jewish tables too. Escabeche is also the origin of my favorite dish from my parents’ homeland of South Africa, Kaapse kerrievis. The Capetonian version has Malay and African influence! (I’m also planning to make this for you.)

Book recommendation: Out of the East, by Paul Freedman. In this book, Freedman explores many of the ways spices were used – as an approximation of Eden, an expression of class, and as a stimulant and flavoring. In addition, many scholars now note that some spices, including cloves and pepper, have antimicrobial properties that aid in keeping food fresh.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.

Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.

Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. This is a royal bread. (Photo mine, October 2016)
  1. There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.

Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.

Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Food has many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.

Rosemary
Rosemary – one of the few things that has constantly been used in Mediterranean cuisines. (Photo mine, December 2016)
  1. What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.

Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.

Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power is important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
Qatayef (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

BONUS: In the Middle Ages many of the culinary cues were taken from the Arab world – and so it is well worth your while to read Clifford Wright’s blog post on the delicious realm of medieval Arab cooking. Don’t tell Trump, Farage, Le Pen, or anyone seeking to make Europe or America “great again” – but actually, totally do.

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