Level of Authenticity
I made a tasty thing! This is the recipe I used.
I keep saying I need to up my research/authenticity game on food. I still haven’t. Maybe this will be the time!
This is a drink/syrup called “Sekanjabin”. It’s been variously described to me as “Persian lemonade” (no Persians or lemons are harmed in the making of this drink) and “Medieval Gatorade”. Zaouali defines “sikanjubin” in its glossary as “a syrupy drink thought to have medicinal properties” (Zaouali p 199).
This is a drink that is said to come from the medieval Islamic world. Yes, I know, . This honestly is as much research as I’ve done on it at this point.
A while back there was an SCA “would you rather” meme going around Facebook and one of the questions was “Sekanjabin or pickles?” Much to my surprise, the majority of Avacalians’ answers was “pickles because I don’t know what sekanjabin is”. So I decided I was going to cook up a batch and serve it out at Dragonslayer to educate people, but then my car died and I didn’t make it to Dragonslayer.
Many SCAdians I’ve talked to say that they find sekanjabin more hydrating than plain water at events that are very hot, hence its reputation as “Medieval Gatorade”. I’m not a doctor or a biologist or anything like that, so I’m not sure if there is any real truth to this reputation or not. I’d love to hear from someone who knows more about biology about whether anything in the recipe genuinely restores electrolytes or improves hydration.
Interestingly, Zaouali claims sekanjabin was also considered medicinal in the period sources. The source quoted by Zaouali for sikanjubin also indicates, for example, that “If one fears indigestion after having eaten biraf* without taking anything with it, drink sikanjubin, which is made from quinces, or eat a quince, a pear, or some figs.” (Zaouali p 110). This instruction makes it sound like the medieval author thought the actual medicinal ingredient was the quinces rather than the syrup, but (as mentioned above) Zaouali defines sekanjabin as something thought to have medicinal properties. I would probably prefer to see more than a single source for a claim about the social meaning or assumptions about something I’m making or researching, especially where things have been translated from a language I don’t speak and/or where I can’t look at the original quote myself**. It does make me think though of the Elizabethans’ love of importing medicinal qualities to sugar – does the claim that it’s medicinal originate really in the fact that it’s a prestige ingredient and one that humans tend to crave?
*I read the recipe for biraf multiple times and I couldn’t really tell what it was supposed to be. Something like ghee, I think?
**Zaouali was translated, not from Arabic as I assumed, but from Italian!
First I asked on Facebook if anybody had a good recipe they would recommend to me. I got lots of ingredient lists but no guidance on proportions. Most of my correspondents indicated the ingredients were honey, vinegar, and mint. Then I forgot about it for a while.
I remembered that I said I was going to make sekanjabin after I was already at the grocery store, so I googled it on my phone and found this recipe on Food.com. As you’ll see, the author there attributes it to 16th century Persia.
Zaouali has a recipe for “quince sikanjubin” at p. 133-134. This recipe comes from a source called Kanz al-Fawa’id fi tanwi’ al-mawa’id (“The Treasure of Useful Advice for the Composition of a Varied Table”) (Zaouali p. 10), which was compiled in Mamluk Egypt around the middle of the thirteenth century (Zaouali p. 14). The ingredients called for in this recipe are quince juice, white sugar, and strong vinegar, with optional rose water, saffron, musk, honey, and quince slices. This along with the wide variety of optional ingredients I’ve found in modern recipes leads me to wonder whether the word “sekanjabin/sikanjubin” refers not to a drink made with a particular set of ingredients, but to an entire class of drinks, as modern English speakers have drink categories such as “pop/soda” or “herbal tea”. Always there are more rabbit holes, wherever you look.
The ingredients I used were:
Sugar: Directions from friends mostly told me to use honey. The recipe I found on the internet told me to use sugar. From a modern ethical and health perspective, honey could be preferable because it’s lower glycemic (? IANAD) but sugar could be preferable because it’s not an animal-based product. From a medieval perspective, I reasoned that sugar was known fairly early in the Arab world (I don’t really know how early) and was something of a prestige ingredient, so a cook could have accessed it if their patron wanted to be fancy. I did make sure to get cane sugar instead of beet sugar, which I’m pretty sure is not a period source of sugar. Usually I buy the cane sugar that is still a little golden in color rather than the super extra refined sparkling white sugar. Although the recipe from Zaouali is quite different to the one I found on line, it does call for “refined white sugar.” One opportunity for more research is to determine what form of sugar a medieval cook in the Arab world would most likely have had access to.
Water: I used Calgary tap water, but listen. Even an ingredient as apparently commonplace as water can be subject to more research and refinement. Where did my medieval cook in the Arab world get their cooking water from? (I have had the chance to visit sites of the medieval Islamic world in both Spain and Turkey and they had running water way earlier than the Europeans did). Would it have needed to be boiled first? Was plain water ever even used, or would they have only used rose water or something else? Let’s get really detail-oriented. Calgary tap water is notorious for its high mineral content. What was the mineral content of the water available to the compiler of this cookbook? Opportunity for improvement: unneeded here, because the new recipe I want to try doesn’t call for any plain water. But maybe if I’m doing a recipe that calls for plain or “fair” water I could try using bottled or distilled for a more neutral taste? I’m a life-long Calgarian so Calgary water DOES taste neutral to me.
Vinegar: My online recipe says to use red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar. I chose the white because it’s slightly more neutral in flavor and I already had reason to believe that the taste was going to be a hard sell for some people. The recipe in Zaouali calls for “strong” vinegar. Well, what does that mean to a medieval cook in the Arab world? Can we even be sure that that’s the most accurate translation of what the original recipe says? Here, I can’t, because the original recipes aren’t in Zaouali and even if they were I don’t have any understanding of Arabic. I would certainly caution against the assumption that wine vinegar couldn’t have been used in the medieval Islamic world; there is a whole entry for wine with several sub-entries in the index of Zaouali, and I’ve learned through both research and travels that not every Islamic country then or now follows so strict a Dry policy as you might imagine. Opportunity for improvement: do more research on what kind of vinegar might have been used.
Mint: If you talk to a modern person who has heard of sekanjabin, they will probably tell you that mint is the signature ingredient. The recipe I found in Zaouali doesn’t call for mint at all, so one opportunity for improvement is to follow that recipe, but I suspect that if I did more research I would find more evidence of period sekanjabin recipes that do call for mint. As with any produce, one area for research/improvement is to get a better idea of which varietal is the most like the one that would have been available in the middle ages.
Tools and Processes
This is a pretty simple recipe. I measured sugar and water into a sauce pan, then when it was dissolved I added the chopped mint and vinegar and simmered for about 30 minutes before straining. Because of how simple it is, I feel like this is a recipe that would be good for initial experiments with cooking on period heat sources, which is a thing I feel would significantly up my game in the field of culinary. Something that would probably be easy for me to research is what kind of sieves or strainers were available in this period; something a little more difficult would be to determine what format a medieval cook got their sugar in and what processes they had to personally do (or get an underling to do) before it was usable.
When I was done, I poured the syrup hot into a mason jar and then put a canning lid on it, so that when the liquid had cooled enough, the lid popped and the jar was sealed. I am pretty sure this is a method for storing food that is no earlier than the late 19th century, so another piece of research I could do is how sekanjabin was stored in between preparation and use.
Zaouali, Lilia; M. B. DeBevoise transl., Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2007 (“Zaouali”)