Cookbooks & History: Syrian Khātūnī Rice

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the eleventh essay in this series, written by Giselle Lord.

Recreating a historical recipe in my own kitchen is about as good as homework gets and I certainly did not intend to squander the opportunity. I cracked open my brand new book, Scents and Flavors – a recently published translation of a very old book containing recipes that represent the cuisine and aroma mania of 13th-century Syrian Ayyubid rulers (Perry 2017, xxix). The table of contents alone is a fantastic curiosity, essentially broken up into sections or categories that are (usually) further broken up into numbered variations. In the “Section on rice dishes – nine recipes,” there is a “Tenth dish – making khātūnī rice, which is wonderful” (Perry 2017, xiv). Aside from the inclusion of a tenth recipe in a section of nine recipes, the snippet of the unknown author’s voice and relatively unusual revelation of his culinary preference caught my attention. Of the dozen or so recipes that feature a nod to deliciousness from the author, this seemingly simple rice dish with pistachios and sugar seemed my most practicable option. Hence, I procured a bag of pistachios fit for the job and took to my kitchen to attempt to recreate the recipe.

All of the recipes in this volume were extracted from the original paragraph-less manuscripts and broken out into one-part recipes. The recipe for “making khātūnī rice” is translated as follows:

*Tenth dish – making khātūnī  rice, which is wonderful Boil water and add tail fat and chicken fat, both melted without salt. Add rice, and when half-done, let the water reduce till nothing is left but the fat. Take pistachios toasted in sesame oil, crush, and add pounded sugar. Put them in the rice – put plenty – spray with rose water and a little musk, and serve. It is outstanding. (Perry 2017, 121).

I assumed that tail fat and chicken fat were simply the rendered fat of two animals (sheep and chicken, respectively), and substituted pork fat for them, or more specifically, the clean leaf lard I had rendered from the fat of a pig raised by local farmers. I left out the musk – which is “a glandular secretion of the musk deer and certain other animals, [and] has a strong smell… In appropriately discreet quantity or diluted form, musk was formerly used in the kitchen with rosewater to flavor such things as pies but this practice seems to have died out during the 17th century…” (Davidson 2014, 540). I recently spent some time with a 1798 cookbook by Amelia Simmons titled American Cookery wherein she consistently includes rosewater and orange flower water as interchangeable ingredients, so I substituted orange blossom water for the rosewater, since, without the musk, we would not benefit from the apparently lovely combination of musk and rosewater anyhow. All other ingredients, namely rice, pistachios, sesame oil, and sugar, I already had in my kitchen or was able to procure with an easy visit to a local grocer.

Before I describe the cooking process, I will admit a dire fault in the assumption mentioned earlier. Upon further inspection, regrettably conducted after I had recreated the recipe, I discovered tail fat to be a veritable cornucopia of flavors captured in the process of rendering the fat of a sheep’s tail. The fourth chapter of the cookbook, albeit a one-page chapter, is entirely dedicated to instructing the reader “How to Melt the Several Varieties of Tail Fat,” a process which involves quince, Fathi apple, coriander seeds, fresh dill, raw onion, Chinese cinnamon, and salt (2017, 40). While wondering how a recipe with aromatics but no spice could be quite so ‘wonderful’, I missed the simple fact that the spices were in fact captured and given to the dish by the all-important tail fat.

To recreate the recipe, I began with melting the leaf lard in a large dutch oven – a pot I often use for making large quantities of rice. I added twice the amount of water as rice I had soaked and rinsed, and let the water boil before adding the rice to the pot. I then lowered the water to a simmer, covered the pot, and let the rice cook twenty minutes. While the rice cooked, I toasted the pistachios in sesame oil and tossed them in sugar. After twenty minutes of cooking and five minutes of resting, I fluffed the rice and transferred it to a wooden bowl. I then added the pistachio and orange blossom. As you can see, this description of my process does not differ greatly from the book’s recipe, except that I used my experience of cooking rice to adapt the volume and cooking time. I also added a pinch of salt to the toasted pistachios and, ultimately, to the pistachio and rice dish. Aside from the lack of clarity on ingredient volume and cook time, the instructions were easy to follow and resulted in what seemed like a perfectly good, if not entirely wonderful or a marvelous rice dish [1].

The aromatics were fittingly the most notable and arguably the most enjoyable feature of the dish – I first noticed the tantalizing aroma of sesame-oil-toasted pistachios and then basked in the perfume-like, floral scent of the orange blossom water. The inclusion of recipes for incenses, soaps, perfumes, and hand-washing solutions suggests the prevalence of aromatics in the medieval Syrian world, and Charles Perry poetically endorses this evidence in writing, “The medieval banquet was a feast for the nose” (2017, xxix). Aside from emphasizing the importance of aromatics in the flavor spectrum of thirteenth-century Syria, Perry also points out that “The cuisine of this book is definitely banquet food, special-occasion food. Not only is it highly aromatic, it is thoroughly luxurious” and that the book “is organized roughly in parallel with the stages of a banquet” including the pre- and post-meal washing and scenting in which the diners engaged (2017, xxx). Thus, it seems this relatively simple rice dish would have greatly contributed to the aroma feast of any good banquet and likely been accompanied by a variety of other main dishes.

In an attempt to right my wrong, I decided to infuse some leaf lard with the spices and flavors included in the author’s directions on rendering tail fat. I heated the lard and the spices slowly over low heat and tossed the leftover rice into the righteously seasoned animal fat. The takeaway from this simple mistake, and its redemption, is to never underestimate the complexity of a single ingredient. I might also add that the intuitive distrust of a recipe without spices merits further research. The seasoned-fat version was truly wonderful, and I can only imagine how much of a marvel this dish may be when prepared with expertly rendered medieval tail fat. For the time being, I’m quite delighted that this thirteenth-century recipe may very well be my inspiration for a great number of nut and spice flavored rice dishes in my future, “which is wonderful” (Perry 2017, xiv).

Works Cited

Davidson, A., & Jaine, Tom. 2014. The Oxford Companion to Food (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Charles. 2017. Scents & Flavors: a Syrian cookbook. New York: New York University Press.

Simmons, Amelia. 1798. American Cookery. Hartford: Simeon Butler.

Zaouali, Lilia. 2007. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A concise history with 174 recipes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] In another translation of the same recipe that appears in Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, the final sentence is translated as “It is a marvel” (Zaouali 2007, 127).