Medieval Islamic Food
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Medieval Islamic Food

Orange Tree

February 2017 - Around the Mediterranean, people continued in the Islamic period to rely on the three main foods from antiquity: wheat, olive oil, and wine. Though technically speaking Islam did not allow alcoholic drinking, still a lot of people did drink wine. People who didn't drink wine started to drink more tea, which the Sogdians brought to the Islamic world from China.

When the Islamic Empire grew to include northern India, about 750 AD, traders brought back sugar cane to the rest of the Islamic world. Sugar was very popular, and soon people all over the Islamic Empire were eating sugary candy and putting sugar in their tea.

On the other hand, Islam forbade people to eat pig meat (pork and ham and bacon), and people really did stop keeping pigs. People were probably already not eating pigs in Egypt and Arabia and along the Mediterranean coast of West Asia, but with the spread of Islam people also stopped eating pigs in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. People stopped keeping pigs and started keeping more chickens and goats and sheep instead. This unfortunately had a bad effect on the environment, because pigs do not destroy a forest when they live in it, but sheep and goats do. As a result of there being more sheep and goats, the landscape of North Africa, especially, was stripped of a lot of trees, and a lot of what had been forest turned into bare hills with just little scrubby bushes on them. Without the trees to hold the soil, a lot of dirt washed off the hills into the ocean, and the farmland was no longer as good as it had been before.

brown-skinned women in a sea of green leafy plants
Picking tea

Another important change in food in the Islamic period was that people began growing and eating more citrus fruits. Citrons and bitter oranges had been available in West Asia for thousands of years already, but it was only around 900 AD that Islamic food scientists bred the two fruits together to get lemons, which quickly became popular all over West Asia. By the 1100s, Egyptian Jews were combining lemon juice and sugar to make lemonade. A few hundred years later, people in West Asia also began to eat sweet oranges, which had mainly been grown in India and China before this time. The addition of lemons and sweet oranges may have helped a lot with getting enough Vitamin C, which before people had gotten mainly from wine vinegar, onions, and cabbages.

red and green berries on a leafy branch
Coffee berries growing

Islamic food scientists working maybe in Iran or Afghanistan also bred purple carrots around 800 AD, which quickly became a popular treat all over West Asia, North Africa, and Islamic Spain. Encouraged by their success, people then produced red and yellow carrots, which also spread throughout the Islamic world (and beyond).

By 1450 AD, at the end of this period, Sufi believers were also just beginning to drink coffee as part of their religious experience. They bought the coffee from East African traders.

Learn by doing: make some lemonade
More about Lemons
More about Coffee

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Islamic food:

More about the Islamic Empire home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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