Feeding the food brainiac

Pub date December 18, 2007

› paulr@sfbg.com

Amid the agonies and anxieties of last-minute holiday shopping can be found at least one sure stocking stuffer, provided your list includes a food brainiac (with a Christmas stocking). You’ll know one when you meet one; a large clue will be a passionate interest in not merely recipes and restaurants but also the cultural story they help tell.

And what is that sure thing, in a world where many a gift goes astray like a bad JDAM? A book, of course, since the reports of print’s death have been greatly exaggerated and the food brainiac loves books. One of the better food brainiac–friendly books available is Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World (University of California Press, $24.95), whose subtitle, A Concise History with 174 Recipes, suggests that we aren’t talking about a volume with a companion Saturday-morning, how-to-cook-it series on public television.

No, Zaouali’s book dwells more on the history than the recipes, which are interesting though possibly too vague to be of much use in the contemporary, anal-retentive kitchen. Even a reasonably competent home cook is likely to be uneasy about such instructions as "put some red meat cut into small pieces in a pot with some water. When it is cooked, strain it and brown it in fat" (from a recipe for rutabiyya, or meat with dates).

But even if your brainiac never boils a dollop of honey in a splash of vinegar (medieval Islamic cooking being rich in sweet-sour effects), pleasurable sustenance can be had from the book’s many fascinating historical nuggets: the migratory route of couscous from North Africa through Sicily into Tuscany, for instance, or the Moorish roots (culinary and linguistic) of the dish the Spanish call escabeche, or the religious importance to Muslims of eating meat (other than pork) with most meals. As Zaouali puts it, "One may wonder whether a vegetarian could be admitted to the community of believers."

Of transcendent interest is not the bequest of medieval Islamic cooks to their modern heirs in both the Middle East and Europe but their own debt to the Romans, many of whose ingredients and flavor patterns they adopted and continued. The Roman gastronome Apicius, who lived at the time of Christ, is especially relevant here. For details, consult your stocking.