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Spinach With Yogurt: the doctor of the Sultan and his cookbook

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Time: ~1450 | Place: Anatolia, (today: Turkey) | Language: Ottoman Turkish | Author: Muḥammed bin Maḥmūd Shirwanī

Chia seeds, quinoa, green smoothies – food culture in America today seems to be obsessed with creating and maintaining the young, healthy, and potent body. Culinary knowledge is not limited to cooking techniques, but also includes concerns of health and nutrition. This link between food, pleasure, and health has been around for a long time, as attested by a cookery book written in the early fifteenth century by Muḥammed bin Maḥmūd Shirwanī.

Shirwanī was a scholar of medicine who acquired fame in Anatolia (the Asian part of modern-day Turkey) at the turn of the fifteenth century. This was just before the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, and turned their state into an enduring empire that stretched over three continents for more than four centuries. Within the still fragmented political landscape of Anatolia, Shirwanī offered his services to various Muslim rulers in Anatolia, including the Ottoman Sultan, and was known as a man of knowledge who authored books on medicine, precious stones, and culinary techniques.

The treatment of a patient in an early period for curvature of the spine and reduction of a hunched back. Sabuncuoglu,Cerrâhiyat al-Hâniye.

The treatment of a patient in an early period for curvature of the spine and reduction of a hunched back. Sabuncuoglu, Cerrâhiyat al-Hâniye.

The recipe below is from the untitled cookery book that Shirwanī authored on the basis of an older Arabic cookbook that had been written in the 13th century by an author called al-Baghdadī` Scholars agree that al- Baghdadī’s work is the oldest extant cookbook in Arabic)

Shirwanī’s contribution is not simply a translation of the Arabic recipes into Ottoman Turkish, but also connects culinary recommendations to health and medicine. He added meticulous explanations of how and why the various dishes would be good for the body and the mind.

As such, this book reveals not only a culinary history but also a medical history, with different theories of mind-body connections and concepts of well-being.  Very few cookery books were written in the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century, and Shirwanī`s is one of the earliest among them. Many of the dishes that Shirwanī described in his book were prepared and served in Ottoman palaces from the 15th century onwards. His book thus offers us a glimpse into the Ottoman empire’s elite culinary culture.

Banquet (Safranpilav) for the Janissaries, given by the Sultan. If they refused the meal, they signaled their disapproval of the Sultan. In this case they accept the meal. Ottoman miniature painting, from the Surname-i Vehbi (1720) at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Banquet (Safranpilav) for the Janissaries, given by the Sultan. If they refused the meal, they signaled their disapproval of the Sultan. In this case they accept the meal. Ottoman miniature painting, from the Surname-i Vehbi (1720) at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul.

The recipe translated here is for “spinach with yogurt,” described by Shirwanī as an appetizer with many benefits. It:

“helps digestion, whets the appetite, cleans the stomach, helps discharge bile from the stomach, and appeases the liver and the stomach. Very good for those [suffering from] dizziness, sudden visual loss, indigestion [dyspepsia], or cognitive deficit.”

A similar version of this dish is one of the most common vegetable dishes served in Turkey today – though many would be surprised about the cinnamon that Shirwanī recommends!

*Translation from modern Turkish and historical introduction by Orcun Can Okan*

 

Spinach With Yogurt

Recipe: Roots of the spinach are cut out. The remaining parts are washed and boiled in salted water for a little while. The boiled spinach is then dried and drained, and sautéed in sesame oil until the scent of it can be smelled. Served with yogurt with garlic or just with garlic; threshed cumin, coriander, and cinnamon are added before eating.

 

Making the recipe in our 2015 kitchen:

How much? Though written almost 600 years ago, this recipe was not very complicated to decipher. The main thing to consider was quantities, which are not given here. Spinach shrinks in size considerably when cooked, so we used two bags of spinach (16oz) to produce two small portions. Because sesame oil has a very strong flavor, we only used one teaspoon of it.

Spinach? Turkish varieties of spinach are a bit thicker than our American produce, and stay a bit firmer after cooking. We tried to keep the cooking time as short as possible so that the spinach wouldn’t get too soggy.

Threshed spices? The term Shirwani uses here is “dögülmüş,” which literally means “beaten up.” We think that he just meant “in very, very little pieces,” but it is possible that he meant something like powder.

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Ingredients:

  • 16 oz spinach
  • 1 cup yogurt (preferably a fatty one made of goat’s milk)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • coriander, cumin, and cinnamon to taste
  1. Boil spinach in water for 2-3 minutes. (The spinach will lose most of its volume, and this is okay, but be careful not to overcook it because it will lose its light green color and freshness.) When finished, pour into a strainer and push down on the spinach a bit to get rid of the water.
  1. In a large non-stick pan, heat 1 tsp of sesame oil, add spinach and sauté. Again, cooking should be super quick, particularly if you’re not using Turkish spinach.
  1. Crush the garlic, mix with yogurt, and add spices to taste.

So how was this spinach and yogurt dish? This was hands down the best recipe we’ve tried out so far. It’s very simple and fresh, but the combination of spices and the hint of sesame makes it a real treat. We’re not sure that it’s as healthy as the book promises, but we found it very refreshing, and it’s a great appetizer indeed.

Our leftovers from this post:

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