Food History Friday: The Moorish influence on Spain’s culinary history

Spain has one of the most interesting culinary traditions in the world. Its geography and history have given it an incredibly diverse and distinctive cuisine, with unique combinations of flavors and ingredients not found in any other country. The endless stretches of coastline provide ample seafood, and its fertile farmland produces a wealth of crops and animals (most notably the pigs for Spain’s famous hams). The Greeks and Romans brought the use of olive oil to the nation, and European Christian immigrants brought many breads and cakes used in religious rituals. But the group that had the greatest impact on the food of Spain came from much farther away: the Moors.

Medieval Moorish knights. Image from Wikipedia.

Originally hailing from what is now Morocco and western Algeria, the Moors were Muslims (and later Islamics) who migrated to Spain, Portugal and parts of Italy during the early Medieval period. They were not a single ethnic group – rather, the term “Moor” was used by Europeans to refer to anyone of Arabic descent. They occupied much of Spain during the Middle Ages, first conquering Spanish kingdoms in the 8th century CE. In 1212 CE, a group of Christian kings from the north and east banded together to force the Moors out and reclaim Spain. The movement was called the Reconquista, and lasted for almost three centuries. The Moorish kingdom Granada was the last to fall, finally surrendering in 1492 (yes, the same year the Spanish crown funded Columbus’s trip across the ocean blue – hey, it was a big year for Spain).

But despite being driven out of Spain, the influence of the Moors continued. To this day, their impact can be seen in everything from the medieval architecture to the language (Al-hambra, for example, is a Moorish word). Of course, the strongest impact they left was on Spain’s cuisine.

Dried fruits and spiced nuts on display at a market in Barcelona.

Dried fruits and spiced nuts on display at La Boqueria, a market in Barcelona.

Many of Spain’s most characteristic flavors come directly from the Moor’s northern African palate. Most notably, the Moors brought many spices (the most significant and frequently used being saffron, cumin, cinnamon and coriander), fresh fruits (chief among them was citrus, particularly oranges and lemons), dried fruits, honey and nuts (particularly almonds).  They used fruit in savory dishes, as opposed to the European tradition of reserving them for desserts. Finely ground nuts were substituted for flour, giving baked goods a more complex flavor and denser texture. They also brought new grains, such as couscous and rice, to what had previously been a flour-and-wheat driven cuisine.

Here’s a recipe for kebabs from Spanish Food World. It’s a British website, so you’ll have to do some conversions if you’re used to the American method of cooking, but it looks delicious. Originally a Moorish dish made with spiced lamb, as seen here, this dish was later adapted for pork.

Moorish Lamb Kebabs

Ingredients

500 grams of diced lamb
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
1 teaspoon of paprika
1 teaspoon of turmeric
Half a teaspoon of salt
Half a teaspoon of black pepper

Preparation

Trim the meat into small bite size portions. Combine the oil with flavourings and turn the mixture thoroughly with the meat. Leave in a cool place overnight to allow the flavours to soak into the meat. The next day thread the meat on to the skewers, half a dozen pieces of meat per skewer. Preheat the grill or barbecue. Grill over a high heat, turning the skewers often, until they are wll and truly brown but still juicy. Check one piece of meat to make sure it is cooked through. Serve on the skewers and supply bread so that your friends can remove the meat from the skewers, if they so wish, using the bread.

Want to learn more about Spain’s culinary history? Check out these great sites: Spanish-food.org and FoodTimeline.org.

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One thought on “Food History Friday: The Moorish influence on Spain’s culinary history

  1. Pingback: Spain masterpost | Travel Fare

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