The Food of Andalusia – A Gourmet Arab Legacy

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By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Andalusia, known to many as “the bridge between two continents” is Spain’s largest province.  Joining Europe and Africa, it is a melting pot of cultures and civilizations and one of Europe’s oldest cities whose history goes back over three millennia.  The mixture of peoples, who through the centuries swept through the Iberian Peninsula for millennia, all left some trace of their cuisine in Andalusia’s kitchen

Andalusia’s cooking is a part of the larger Spanish culinary art and is based on the triangle of garlic, saffron and olive oil.  Andalusia is the world’s largest producer of olive oil and has been famous as a producer of olives and garlic since before Roman times.  Saffron, azafrán in Spanish, came later with the Arabs and still carries its Arabic name, al-za’faran.

Tartessians, Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans left their mark in the kitchen of the Mediterranean land.  However, it was perhaps under the refinement of the Muslim rule that Andalusia’s cuisine was most profoundly affected.  The Kingdom of Al-Andalus or Moorish Spain brought an authentic revolution in ways of irrigation and farming and a myriad of new products unheard of in Europe before.

Many of these still carry in Spanish their Arabic names.  Albaricoque (al-bargug – the apricot); alcachofa (al-khurshuf – the artichoke); alcaravea (al-karawiyah – the caraway); alcazuz or orozuz (al-‘irq al-sus – the licorice); alfónciga (al-fustag – the pistachio); algarroba (al-kharrub – the carob); alhabega or albahaca (al-habag – the basil); aljonjoli (al-juljulan – the sesame); alubia (al-lubiyah – the kidney-bean); arroz (al-ruzz – the rice); berenjena (badhinjan – eggplant); caña de azúcar, sugar cane (gana – canal and sukkar – sugar); chirivia (jiriwiyah – parsnip); espinaca (isbanakh – spinach); garbanzo, chickpeas (kharrubah – carob);  jengibre; (zanjabil – ginger); limón (laymun – lemon); naranja (naranj – orange); toronja (turunj – grapefruit); and zanahoria (isfariniyah – carrot) are a few of these foods introduced into Andalusia – the first place in Europe to cultivate these foods.

In those days, while medieval Europe had a few if any, lighted or paved streets and almost total illiteracy, cities such as Cordoba, Seville and Granada had lighted and paved streets, modern-like sewers and, even more importantly, almost everyone could read and write.  These cities and others became home to brilliant Christian, Jewish, and Moorish scientists and thinkers, and the most inspired gastronomy to match.

It was the Arabs in Andalusia who created the modern dining room, the current order of eating dishes.  Ziryab, a Baghdadi Arab of many talents, but best known as a musician and singer, is credited with having revolutionized the food and table manners of Europe.

He came to Spain under the patronage of the Andalusian Ummayad ruler ‘Abd al-Rahman II, carrying with him the mode of refined life as practiced in Baghdad – the world’s leading city in that period. With him, he brought to Cordova culinary discipline – the use of forks and knives, the drinking in glass rather than metal utensils and a good number of new recipes.

Perhaps, his greatest contribution to the European culinary world was the order or management of eating a meal. Before his time, food was consumed with no system and usually eaten by hand.  Ziryab laid down the courses of a meal, beginning with soup, then entrée, followed by dessert or fruit – the method by which we continue to eat our meals.

After the discovery of the New World, Andalusia was the first place in Europe where the exotic food products brought from the Americas were first cultivated.  Avocados, new types of beans, chocolate, corn, peanuts, peppers, potatoes, squash and tomatoes soon enhanced an already diverse cuisine.

Today, all these past influences have been instrumental in the development of modern Andalusian cuisine.  For centuries, neglected by food connoisseurs, this cuisine, which is a part of the larger Spanish kitchen, has just been discovered.

The Food of Andalusia - A Gourmet Arab Legacy
pescaito frito

Andalusia, today, is noted for its many seafood and shellfish dishes like the famous pescaito frito (deep-fry fish) found everywhere.  The Arab East, where a number of Spanish sauces like Salsa a la Granadina, had their origin, sauces made with tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic and lemon juice as a base are served with meat and vegetable dishes.  The Moors in Spain substituted some of the ingredients but continued to use the sauce in the same fashion.

The Food of Andalusia - A Gourmet Arab Legacy
Higado Frito

Higado Frito (fried liver), served as an appetizer, is often on the menu in Spain and the Arab East.  With the exception of the hot pepper and allspice, both unknown before the discovery of the New World, this dish could very well have been prepared in the same fashion by the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula.

The numerous types of gazpachos, like Sopa de Ajo Blanco, typical of Malaga, a favorite summer dish is another Arab contribution to Andalusia’s kitchen.  No less interesting is the history of Pincho Moruno (Moorish kababs).  In both North Africa and Spain, a traveler will experience hunger pains when engulfed by the smells of barbecuing meats marinated in the same fashion since the days of the Moors.

The Food of Andalusia - A Gourmet Arab Legacy
Sopa de Ajo Blanco

However, in Spain, pork is often used rather than beef and lamb.  After the expulsion of the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula, the major change the Spanish made to the Arab dishes was the addition of pork and wine to many of these foods.

The Food of Andalusia - A Gourmet Arab Legacy

Another delectable Andalusian dish, called Salsichas al Miel (sausages in honey), like any Spanish recipe that combines vinegar and honey or fruit, is usually of Arab origin.  As well, it is likely that the Arabs in Spain who had brought the dish along with them from the Middle East cooked the first Spanish tortilla.  The ‘Ajah (omelet), which is today prepared in the Arab East, is the twin of the tortilla – on the daily menu of the Andalusians.

As for sweets, Andalusia has an endless variety of obvious Arab origin that are often admirably preserved by the nuns of the many convents.  Among these are Polvorones, Alfajores, Mostachones, as well as many others.

For those interested in the kitchen of Spain, these few samples of the Andalusian cuisine, will give an idea of the contributions made by the Arabs to Andalusia’s food – a legacy of gourmet delights.