This recommended diet consists of a great number of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses, together with fresh fish and seafood, all items that we can see on the supermarket shelves today no matter where we live. But did you know that much of this diet we owe to the Muslims who occupied Spain from the 8th until 15th centuries. The Christians may have expelled the last of the Moors in 1492 but they didn’t get rid of the legacy that they left in terms of cuisine, which has over the centuries spread across all of Europe.
The Moors introduced sugar to Europe for the first time by bringing sugarcane from the Nile valley. It grew particularly well along the Mediterranean coast and especially in the Málaga area of al-Andalus. Such was the liking for sweet foods that it became very popular in cakes, for making candied fruit and to sweeten fruit drinks, to preserve whole fruits and to make jams. One of the desserts that was as much in favour then as it is today, was churros, made from a doughnut type batter and deep-fried in oil, although in those days they preferred to cook it in boiling honey.
With the mild Mediterranean climate to help them, the Moors cultivated cherries, apples, pomegranates, bananas, figs, grapes, lemons and oranges. They used the grapes to make wine, vinegar to flavour their food, and dried them as raisins to add to their cooking. They also produced olive oil for cooking.
Flavouring was important to the Moors and they introduced many spices and herbs into al-Andalus: cinnamon, cardamon, coriander, cumin, mint, ginger, saffron, pepper, nutmeg and many others, all originating from India and Persia.
Nuts are also considered an important part of the Mediterranean diet and almonds and hazel nuts were often used in Moorish cuisine. Almonds, in particular grew in great abundance in al-Andalus and were used to make sweet pastries and marzipan, or ground into a smooth cream to make ajo blanco and Salmorejo. Both of these savoury soups we still enjoy today. The Moors also made a paste called almori from salt, honey, raisins, pine nuts, almonds, hazel nuts and flour, which they pounded together, moulded into a flat piece and then left to harden. They would break off a piece of this hard paste, soak it in water until it had softened and then add it to whichever dish they were cooking. Instant goodness and more healthy than our modern stock cubes.
Durum wheat, which is harder than other wheat and contains less moisture, is ideal for making various types of pasta because it can be rolled and shaped more easily. It was brought from central Asia by the Muslims and introduced into Sicily and al-Andalus as early as the 9th century and has the pasta it produced has featured in recipe books dating back to the 13th century.
According to the owner of one well-known restaurant in Córdoba, the preparation of sweet and sour stuffed dishes stretches back to Moorish Spain, as does the practice of adding dried fruit and nuts to meat dishes. He proudly admits that his chef still prepares traditional al-Andalus recipes that date back eight hundred years or more.
If you are interested you can read more about these Andalusian recipes online at http://italophiles.com/andalusian_cookbook.pdf
Evening was drawing in and the pale sun was hanging low in the sky. Soon it would sink below the horizon leaving the sky an inky black. They had built a bonfire outside in the street, alongside those of their neighbours. Everyone was turning out now, the women carrying the food in earthenware containers, the men stoking the fires and tending to the meat. Some were roasting whole animals over the charcoal, others had chopped their goat into pieces and were cooking it slowly in the embers of the fire. The air was rich with the smells of cardamon, cinnamon and paprika. Fatima had been all day preparing the goat that he and Ibrahim had slaughtered earlier. It was a good animal, young and tender. He had butchered it into pieces and his wife had marinated it with salt, pepper, dried coriander, cumin, saffron and oil. He had bought the finest saffron specially for the feast. Fatima had put the meat into their largest earthenware pot with layers of aubergine, chopped almonds, meat balls and lavender. Now it would simmer on the fire until it was done and then she would thicken it with whipped eggs and crown it with egg yolks. Qasim’s mouth watered as he thought about it. It was a recipe Fatima’s mother had made every Eid. Now Fatima did it for her family.