09 January 2008

Daily Life: Moorish Hospitality in the Medieval World

By Lisa Yarde

Good food and good company were relished in the medieval Arab world, much the same as today. The roots of hospitality began in the early centuries with the migration of Arabs, who brought the culture of their desert dwellings refined by conversion to Islamic religious principles, to the West by the eighth century. The improvement of culinary arts and attention paid to the treatment of guests practiced in Moorish society evolved into an almost sacred duty.

In Moorish society, all guests were offered shelter and hospitality whether or not it was convenient for the host. Meals and entertainment were shared opportunities for interaction, though the social conventions requiring separations between the sexes where people were not closely related still held away. The extent of the hospitality remained closely related to the honor of the family - to show poor treatment to a guest impugned the reputation of the host.

Women ruled daily life in Moorish homes. Housewives in the noble or royal classes had servants to direct but even the poorest woman in the lowliest dwelling took pride of her home. Women burned incense and aloe wood in metal braziers, or perfumed candles to create a pleasing fragrance that drifted throughout the house. The scents they chose also possessed elements of purification. On arrival and departure, guests were offered braziers to perfume their clothes and hair; hotels around the Arabian Gulf still offer incense burners hefted by waiters even today. Women also hired the entertainment that followed the meal, whether a troupe of dancers or a singer. Most importantly, they supervised or directly participated in the creation of the meal.

To share in a meal in a Moorish home must have been a delight for the senses, with aromatic fragrances vying with the scents of spiced foods. Islamic tradition required that diners eat with the first three fingers of their right hand, and never to touch food with the left hand, which was considered unclean. Hosts signaled the start of the meal by offering their guests perfumed water, typically rosewater, in a ewer and basin set, to clean their hands. The basin had a perforated removable cover. When the diners had feasted, servants sprinkled rosewater on the guests' hands, signaling the end of the meal. One of inventions the Arab world brought to the West was the use of the toothpick.

The cuisine of Islamic societies varied by region, but Moorish society refined food preparation to an art form. The only meat not consumed was pork for religious reasons; beef, poultry and lamb were common staples of the Moorish diet. Foods were spiced with saffron, aniseed, cardamom, honey, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and sumac, to name a few. Harisa, called the "Mother of Strengthening" (pictured), was a popular dish made into a paste. Meat, ground wheat, chicken joints, cumin, and cinnamon were combined and cooked in an oven, sprinkled with lemon juice when ready. Tharid was a traditional dish of crumbled bread, meat and barley thickened in a broth. The only meat not consumed was pork for religious reasons; beef, poultry and lamb were common staples of the Moorish diet. Dishes that originated in the Moorish period are still a part of modern day Arabian cuisine.