Forbidden fruit in Iranian cuisine

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By | The Researcher’s View

Iran has a long history of interaction with the West. One aspect of cultural cross-fertilization is the art of cooking. The Library recently acquired a new Persian manuscript collection of culinary recipes, which sheds new light on the influence of fashionable western cuisine in 19th century Iran.

19th century persian manuscript of recipes

A page from the newly acquired collection of 19th century Iranian recipes. Library reference: WMS Pers 2013/1(provis.)

19th century Iran was undergoing a period of rapid change characterized above all by the opening of inter-cultural communication with the western world. When Mohammad Shah died in 1848 the succession passed to his son Naser-e-Din, who proved to be the ablest and most successful of the Qajar sovereigns. During Naser-e-Din Shah’s reign western science, technology, and educational methods were introduced into the country, and he himself made several  trips to Europe. It was in the context of this opening up of traditional Iranian society that our manual was created, perhaps by an Iranian emigrant in France.

In Iran the art of cooking is directly connected to religion, agricultural tradition, health preservation, ethics, trade and fashion.  Evidence of the evolution of the culture of eating can reveal telling aspects of change in the cultural landscape of a society. This manuscript contains recipes of French origin but  it is not clear if  it was written by a Frenchman or a westernized Iranian. To an Iranian eye the recipes would not read altogether smoothly. Like every language, Persian did not have pre-existing words to describe foreign imports.  Therefore the author simply had recourse to loanwords taken from French and Italian, which did not follow Iranian noun patterns and therefore occasionally might have sounded somewhat unclear or even misleading to an Iranian ear. An obvious example is the transliteration of the French word la soupe pronounced as [sūp] and written in Persian as سوپ. In Persian a similar word is used to describe water.

The recipes are in no obvious order, but each is well structured, and the manuscript  is written in a fine professional hand, beginning with the invocation to the Almighty, the basmala. There is no physical evidence, such as grease or oil spots, to suggest the recipes were actually used in the kitchen. However, the simple and widely available ingredients as well as the lack of elaborate food processing instructions suggest a practical manual rather than an educational treatise, normally ranked under “adab” in classical Arabic and Islamic literary tradition.

The author is anonymous. The patron mentioned in the colophon, a so-called “emir of Maqan”, would suggest a ruler of Maqan region, except no such region appears to exist. The suspicion is that the author was trying to conceal his identity, whilst shaping his text according to well known forms. What was so sensitive to cause this book to be produced in such manner?

Iranian cuisine has been influenced by its neighbours at various stages throughout its history. However, its  characteristic patterns  remain unchanged. Most  Iranian dishes are even now still prepared with herbs, vegetables and rice along with lamb, chicken or fish. Iran has a long history of agriculture, and use of fresh fruit and vegetables in Persian recipes is very common. Characteristic foods include: kebab (rice and bread with meat), broth (lamb mixed with spices, beans and potatoes), fesenjan (especially duck and goose meat with nuts and pomegranates paste), dolme (vine leaves stuffed with ground beef and herbs), and a variety of vegetable stews. There are certain accompaniments that are essential to every Iranian meal, regardless of region. These include a plate of fresh herbs, called sabzi khordan, a variety of flat breads, a plate of fresh white cheese called panir, (somewhat similar to feta), walnuts, and sliced and peeled cucumbers.

Analysis of the Wellcome manuscript shows that its Islamic framework is rather superficial. Apart from the Islamic invocation, the basmala, and the colophon where mention is made of  the mysterious emir of Maqan, it contains no references to the Holy Koran, the hadith or other Islamic authorities. Its main contents are recipes for preparing western food, notably of French or Italian origin. The generic names of the food “potage”, “sauce” or “soupe” are written in transliteration. Alongside them are traditional generic names for food as appropriate for  Iranian cuisine, such as kebabs. A comparison of western and Iranian generic names shows that the latter  occur over 70 times, whereas the Iranian generic names are mentioned only in 20 instances.

The predominance of Western recipes suggests a cookery manual written  for an educated readership  with broad views, money and the spare time, who were inclined to taste something different or even forbidden in their own cooking tradition. In the Wellcome manuscript taboo ingredients like pork and wine not infrequently constitute integral parts, occasionally even coming together as in the recipe for spanial, a pork stew mixed with white wine. Such experiments were certainly not accepted in  Islamic society. Offering this kind of food to a Muslim could be dangerous for the author and the unfortunate cook. Therefore the forbidden recipes are disguised among a great variety of traditional meals (kebabs).

Cultural mimicry was applied to “sell”  recipes to an Iranian readership. French or Italian methods are applied to traditional Iranian kebabs; soups are prepared using  familiar Iranian ingredients, like onion, pepper, lemon, beans, saffron. Naming a foreign food by the  traditional word  “kebab” ensured  a recipe did not attract unwanted attention or sound suspicious, and moreover gave some freedom to experiment  Such mimicry also applied in traditional Islamic medicine. Compound remedies were based on simples, which in turn were often food ingredients, like garlic, saffron, carrots, lemons, etc.  A new ingredient (occasionally under a foreign name) might be  included in the recipe  surrounded by the well-known ones. Forbidden or non-approved ingredients could be treated differently when consumed as a remedy, since people often regarded medical problems from a practical point of view. Likewise some foods mentioned in the Iranian cooking manual could be considered medicinal. For example, soup or shurba was usually prepared for a sick person, and kebab was eaten after illness as a restorative.

Notwithstanding such tactics of disguise and mimicry our author still chose to remain anonymous. Forbidden fruit might be too enticing to resist but that was no reason not to take sensible precautions.

Author: Milda Petkauskaite is an oriental studies student from the University of Vilnius in Lithuania, who worked as an intern at the Wellcome Library.

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