Ziryab’s Contribution to Cuisine in the Mediterranean and Al-Andalus

The Maghreb region and Morocco in particular is world famous for its gastronomy. Indeed, traditional cuisine is distinguished by its great refinement, harmonious blending of flavors that one would never have thought to combine, especially sweet and savory. This know-how has been developed thanks to a common heritage from the Mediterranean, especially after the arrival of Ziryab (Abu Hassan Ali ben Nafi, 789 – 857) in Al-Andalus, in the 9th century. The musician of Kurdish and Persian descent, who was exiled from Baghdad (Iraq), is known as a historical figure in Arab-Andalusian music, of which he is considered the founder. Besides introducing the Arabic lute to Al-Andalus and adding a fifth string to it, this virtuoso is a man of letters, an astronomer and a geographer. With several strings on his bow, he is also credited with having greatly influenced the Andalusian culinary way of life.

If the cuisine and gastronomy of Al-Andalus experienced a turning point between the 9th and 12th centuries, it was mainly thanks to Ziryab, who introduced new preparations that were inspired by the traditions of the East and combined them with local customs. , which quickly spread between Cordoba and Granada, then further. In 822, the young musician left Baghdad to arrive in Cordoba. At the invitation of the Emir, he introduced certain Persian customs and a refined know-how of gastronomy, especially when he discovered in Al-Andalus a country rich in diversified orchards.

Banquets that paved the way for Andalusian culinary sophistication

Despite the richness of the vegetable garden, elegance did not always go hand in hand with local culinary preparations. Until now, the dishes consumed on the peninsula have Roman, Visigoth, Arab and Amazigh influences, but the harmony in the composition of flavors and ingredients is lacking. Thanks to his ancestral gastronomic background in Baghdad, in addition to his career in music and poetry, Ziryab quickly became the court’s culinary advisor. He innovated new preparations that mixed certain types of vegetables for the first time, established table rules such as serving drinks in crystal glasses instead of metal cups, as well as the refinement of the crockery and linen tablecloths.

In order of the dishes to be served per meal, Ziryab orders a sequential presentation of the dishes and not simultaneously, for a progressive tasting. He suggests starting with soups or cereals, moving on to fish or meat, and then ending with desserts. This know-how increasingly influenced the Andalusian families, who brought these customs with them by taking refuge in North Africa after the fall of Granada and the end of the Reconquest (722 – 1492).

But before that, the advancement of agricultural techniques in the region made the peninsula a prosperous country. It grows “rice, sugar cane, eggplant, artichoke or spinach”. “Quinces from Asia Minor, melons from Persia, watermelons from Syria, as well as little-known fruit trees such as the pomegranate tree, the orange tree or the lemon tree have brought diversity to a diet hitherto little open to consumption of fresh fruit,” writes Ana. Vega, specialist in culinary arts in Al-Andalus.

Ziryab also took care to document his contribution to Andalusian gastronomy, leaving behind manuscripts of unpublished culinary preparations, savory and sweet in the form of dishes or pastries, influenced by the use of honey and sugar in the Middle East. , but marked at the same time. time due to the important use of vegetables in Mediterranean cuisine. “The Muslims even improved the cultivation of plants that already existed on the peninsula, such as the olive grove,” adds Ana Vega, who mentions the use of olive oil, the consumption of apricots, carrots, beans, aubergines and citrus fruits.

For centuries, many manuscripts of scholars who wrote about the gastronomy of the region have been forgotten, lost or found without the names of their authors. Still, the use of wheat, barley, rye, and other grains has long been documented and has been considered a staple of widely consumed breads, pasta, noodles, and couscous for centuries. Also, the introduction of rice in Al-Andalus made it possible to develop preparations of thick soups, where we find broad beans, chickpeas or peas, in combinations reminiscent of those of chorba or harira.

Over the centuries, meat consumption has found its way into the wealthiest households. Historical records indicate that meats in other regions were often “roasted, stewed, made into sausages and dumplings” or stewed. For their part, the most modest families often ate fish, fried or preserved in salt or marinade.

Ziryab died in 857, but the great banquets of which he was the craftsman laid the foundation for the demonstrations of refinement we know in the culinary arts that have inherited this know-how. Under the great Caliphate of Cordoba (929 – 1031), these customs were maintained, notably by Abd Al-Rahman III (929 – 961) who put a large team of chefs to work at his court and set high standards for the quality of the food. Among the publications that traced the basis of the most fashionable recipes since that time, we note “Fiḍālat al-Khiwān fī Ṭayyibāt al-Ṭaʿām wa-l-Alwān” (Best delicious dishes and dishes of Al-Andalus et al-Maghrib) .

This work was elaborated in Tunis around 1260 by the 13th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī (1227-1293). But his manuscript was not discovered and reconstructed until centuries later. In 2019, the French-Syrian historian Farouk Mardam-Bey, for his part, devoted his book “La cuisine de Ziryâb” to the great gastronomic contribution of the musician to the Andalusian region, as well as to the whole art of living, of hairstyle and clothing, which made Ziryab Al -Andalus and embellished the whole Mediterranean.

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