Gluttons & Gourmands: Ziryab

June 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

A former slave of unknown origins, Abu al-Hasan “Ali ibn Nafi,” aka Ziryab, was the most visible hipster in the early Islamic world.  After arriving in Córdoba in 822, Ziryab took the court of the Arabic Umayyad dynasty by storm, impressing Abd al-Rahman II with his virtuosic lute-playing and nearly unlimited repertoire of songs, both classic and of his own invention. His musical reputation had preceded him before he arrived at Córdoba from Baghdad, but Ziryab was also a multi-talented renaissance man who changed how Europeans would eat, dress, and appreciate culture.

The ruling Umayyad emirate governed medieval Spain (known then as Al-Andalus) and a large swath of North Africa from Córdoba, which had just begun to develop a reputation for its prosperity and culture. However, Córdoba and the rest of world still lagged behind Baghdad in terms of arts, science, and trade; stories of the opulence and sophistication of Baghdad were famous throughout the world (and continue on in the dusty pages of Arabian Nights). Ziryab was already an acclaimed musician at the court of Baghdad’s Abbasid caliphs, and he studied under the celebrated royal court musician Ishaq al-Mawsili.  He developed many new song styles and, most famously, added a fifth string to the lute, an instrument that would later evolve into the oud and guitar. However, like some ancient tale of tragedy, Ziryab’s talents aroused the anger and jealousy of his mentor, al-Mawsili, and he was forced into exile, never to return to the Round City and its Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). (More information on Ziryab’s fateful performance in front of the legendary Harun al-Rashid can be found here.)

With his guitar slung over his shoulder, Ziryab arrived in Córdoba, at that time perhaps the most populous city in Europe. In addition to his prowess on the lute, Ziryab quickly set about establishing new standards for beauty, style, and food, which would have a lasting effect on not only Islamic Spain but all for Europe for centuries to come. He is credited with, among other things, introducing toothpaste, encouraging the shaving of beards, and popularizing hairstyles like bangs. His courtly manners, breadth of interests and education, and sophisticated conversation made Ziryab the darling of the court and inspired imitation at the court and throughout the land.

But maybe Ziryab’s most lasting achievements came in the culinary arena. The emir turned over the management of the royal kitchens to Ziryab, and he revolutionized the way Europeans would eat. Instead of the rather crude dining style of the time, inherited from the Visigoths and Romans, Ziryab introduced the multi-course meal, starting with a soup or appetizer followed by a main course and sweet dessert dishes, an innovation that not even the gourmands of Baghdad had imagined. Crystal glasses rather than the clunky metal goblets became the norm, and Ziryab is said to have introduced leather cloths to be draped over dinner tables instead of the bare tables preferred in Roman times.

Inspired by the inventive haute cuisine of Baghdad, the musical gourmet popularized new ways to utilize the rich bounty of Spain’s local and seasonal food, and he championed the asparagus, bringing that vegetable into the kitchens of Europe to the continued delight of epicures. Robert Lebling, Jr. writes that some of Ziryab’s delicacies continue to this day. Restaurants in the city of Zaragoza still serve a dessert of walnuts and honey in his name, and in Córdoba, his ancient stomping grounds, Ziryab is memorialized with a dish of roasted and salted broad beans called ziriabí, which was a dish he created for an Umayyad emir according to legend.

Though he mainly circulated in the rarefied world of the Umayyad court, Ziryab’s innovations spread across different religious groups and trickled down to the merchant and artisan classes before reaching even the peasantry. While the era of Islamic rule in Spain ended long ago, Ziryab lives on from the delicious expanse of the dinner table.

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