Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. Edited and translated by CHARLES PERRY. Library of Arabic Literature. New York: NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2017. Pp. xliii + 320. $40.
As a topic of historical research, food is unusual for its tendency to attract, in variable proportions, academic research and hedonistic exploration. While a celebratory attitude mars the quality of some food scholars' work at times, the book under review is a good example of the best that can come out of a combination of quality scholarship and practical experience.
Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook is the combined edition and translation of an anonymous thirteenth-century cookbook originally entitled Kitab al-Wusla ila l-habib fi wasf al-tabiyydat wa-l-tib (loosely translated, p. xxxix, as Scents and Flavors the Banqueter Favors). The editor cum translator, Charles Perry, is an independent scholar with a long career as a food writer and journalist. The volume appears in the already renowned Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) series; as we have come to expect, after an introduction presenting a short history of cookbooks (a literary genre that was unique to the Arab world for a good part of the Middle Ages), it offers, on facing pages, a critical edition of the original Arabic text and an English translation of the same. The translation was reviewed by David Waines, a dominant figure in the field of Middle Eastern food history.
The text contains close to seven hundred recipes, many of which are variations on a base version. These are divided into ten chapters "organized roughly in parallel with the stages of a banquet" (p. xxx). Most of these recipes correspond to what a modern reader would expect from a cookbook, providing directions on how to prepare various meat dishes, pickles, sweets, drinks, and the like. The first and last two chapters, however, cover more surprising ground by offering recipes for various perfumes and incense, soaps and other hand-washing powders, and guidence "On distilling waters and perfuming the breath." Throughout the translation and the edition, Perry uses footnotes sparingly, "with a view to making the recipes clear and perhaps usable in the kitchen" (p. xxix), and often provides measurements in metric units.
The book also offers a comprehensive glossary that includes every term potentially unfamiliar to any reader (down to "Aleppo"). Explanations given are enlightening, providing Latin names of plants, defining expressions that do...