The oldest Arabic cookbook, Ketab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cooking), which dates to the 9th century, includes a dish called asfanakheya: spinach, chickpeas and rice stew with meatballs.
The book, written by Ibrahim Ben Mahdy (the younger brother of Haroun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph) from Baghdad, provides a solid grounding for understanding what new plants and foods were being incorporated into local cuisines.
Egypt was at the center of all spice and silk routes and received its fair share of new food items. Spinach became a popular vegetable in the Arab Mediterranean, including Egypt, and arrived in Spain by the latter part of the 12th century.
The first cultivation of spinach (spinacia oleracea) is thought to have taken place to the east and west of Iran and neighboring countries where wild spinach grows. By the 6th century AD, spinach had probably reached Baghdad with a surge in the activities of spice traders transporting spices and many other commodities, such as seeds and fruits as well as fabrics. We know that spinach reached Sicily by the end of the 9th century and was brought in by Arabs.
Spinach is high in iron and calcium, though it is not easily absorbed by the body. 100 grams of spinach supplies 20 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron and 10 percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium. Spinach is also rich in vitamins A, C and K and contains appreciable amounts of vitamins D and E.
In the ingredients below, a bunch refers to the bunches sold at markets and amounts to about half of a kilogram.
Spinach and chickpea stew
- Wash spinach and dill well and cut coarsely. Then, wash again.
- Finely grate onions and fry in hot oil until soft and yellowish.
- Add the grated and sieved tomatoes and stir on low heat until the tomatoes are cooked (sauce separates from oil).
- Add chickpeas.
- Add spinach, dill and chopped garlic. Keep on low heat and stir frequently.
- Gradually add the water as needed, and leave on low heat until cooked.
- Add rice and cover pot. Cook for another 15 minutes until rice is cooked.
- Serve hot with rice and yogurt sauce.
Hala Barakat is a trained botanist. Her interest in cooking combines her passion for vegetarian food with her knowledge of food heritage in Egypt but also in relation to other countries and regions. Hala established Rohana Green, a small-scale vegetarian catering and baking project, to serve her yoga students and friends.
Chicken breasts stuffed with spinach and cheese
- Prepare the chicken breast by cleaning carefully. If you want to be meticulous, soak it in water with salt and vinegar for about 30 minutes to an hour. Then, wash carefully with flour to remove any smell or nasty flavor that can stick to the meat. Pat dry and put aside in a cool place.
- Now the spinach: Sauté the chopped onions in olive oil. Then, add the minced garlic. Add chopped spinach to the pot and mix. Add salt and pepper, in addition to nutmeg if you like the taste. The spinach will release liquid that will eventually evaporate, but don’t let it become completely dry. You can add a splash of water to keep the vegetable moist. Finally, add the coriander leaves and dill. This process should not take more than 15 minutes.
- Slice each chicken breast in the middle to create a pocket, but don’t halve the breast. You can use your fingers to make sure the pocket is deep enough. Now, stuff the pocket with the spinach and shredded cheese. Close the pocket with the toothpicks.
- Heat the coconut oil in a frying pan and brown the surface of the chicken breasts.
- Arrange the browned chicken breasts in an oven dish. Add a splash of water and cover with foil and bake in a preheated oven at 200C for around 30 minutes, or until the breasts are cooked through.
- Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Then, remove from oven.
- You can serve sliced or in halves.
- A note: If there is cheese left, you can create a wonderful dip or side by spreading the remaining spinach in a baking dish. Add the cheese on top. Sprinkle with nutmeg and pop into the oven, leaving it there until it is heated and the cheese melts.
Sally Sami is a home cook with a passion for exploring how to cook locally used ingredients in unconventional ways for Egyptians. Her recipes have a healthy twist, particularly in her use of oils and grains. Sally runs Mingle Catering.
Spinach, cauliflower puree with eggplant and a glazed chicken breast
- Marinate the chicken breast (for a minimum of one hour and up to overnight) in a mixture of ¼ cup cooking cream, three tablespoons light soy sauce, honey and one clove of chopped garlic.
- Once marinated, bake the chicken breast for approximately 45 minutes (depending on the size of the breast), in an oven preheated to 190C. You can baste the chicken with the marinade every 15 minutes to get a glossy rich finish.
As the chicken is cooking, prepare the cauliflower and spinach.
- Boil chopped cauliflower for around 10 minutes on medium heat, or until a fork can easily go through it.
- Once softened put in a bowl with the smoked cheddar cheese (or if you are feeling adventurous you could smoke the cauliflower and add regular cheese). Add unsalted butter and 1/4 cup cooking cream.
- Using a food processor, blend all the ingredients until they become a mashed-potato consistency.
- Fry the diced eggplant and shallots (or if not available, regular onion will do) in sunflower oil until the eggplant is dark golden and the onions are a light golden color.
- Add the pureed cauliflower mixture and put aside
- In a wok or a medium pan, heat 3 cloves of chopped garlic on medium heat.
- As it begins to sizzle lightly, add 3 tablespoons light soy sauce and the brown sugar. Stir for a minute until you get a syrupy consistency.
- Add spinach leaves, stirring them into the sauce until the leaves are deep green and not completely wilted. To finish it off, sprinkle any kind of crumbly goat cheese on top to complement the earthiness of the spinach.
Zeina Aly is interested in food culture and acquiring techniques tied both to heritage and innovation. Her kitchen is too small to motivate her to cook for herself properly so is often in search of hungry people to feed. Zeina has a special love for Asian food.
Information on history of spinach contributed by Hala Barakat.