Recipe for A Dish of Gourd Resembling Fish, with which you may deceive the invalid who desires fish and the like
This is a modern redaction and preparation of an Andalusian vegetable dish of the 1200s. Although it appears to be a subtlety - that is, a dish which is something other than it appears to be - it is actually intended to be a meal given to an ailing person and not to be a grand presentation at a feast.
Peel the gourd and clean it inside, then cut lengthwise for the width of two fingers or so; then boil and form a head and tail in the shape of a fish and leave for the water to drain away; then take a large dish and throw in it what eggs you need; add white flour, cinnamon, and coriander seed and beat with the eggs; then place in the skillet on the fire with fresh oil, and when it is boiling, take the fish-shaped gourd and fry; then immerse in those eggs beaten with flour and spices and return to the pan; then go back and immerse in the eggs beaten with flour also. When you see that the eggs set, return them several times until cloaked with egg and no trace of the gourd can be seen. Then turn out on the platter and sprinkle with vinegar and a little murri or juice of fresh coriander or other things.
(An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century, English translation by Charles Perry, 1992, p. A-52)
1 large butternut squash
3 small eggs
1-2 cups flour
oil for frying
murri or cilantro leaves
Peel and slice the squash into 1/2"-1" thick slabs. Steam or boil until just soft. Drain and cool. Form the squash into a fish shape or cut it with fish-shaped cookie cutters. Mix the flour, egg, and seasonings together and dredge the slices. Deep fry them and drain them. Re-dredge in the egg mixture and refry. Sprinkle the "fish" with vinegar and murri, or juice expressed from the cilantro, before serving.
In her book, To The King’s Taste, Lorna Sass quotes the 17th Century herbalist John Gerard’s list of "divers" gourds available during the Middle Ages. These Old World varieties appear to be unavailable today. (page 42) I unfortunately was forced to use a New World variety of squash, the butternut.
According to several sources, the eggs used in Medieval dishes were much smaller than the large eggs we commonly use now in America; the quails, plovers, gulls, and other birds kept for eggs production back then produced smaller eggs, and modern commercial eggs are now genetically engineered to be larger. (Seven Centuries of English Cooking, Maxime de la Falaise, p. 15) So, I used small eggs in this recipe to more closely approximate the original proportions.
I used soft-white, low-gluten flour (as opposed the hard-red, high-gluten flour commonly used in America) to approximate Medieval European flour. (English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David, p. vii)
Medieval Europeans extracted salt by boiling down briny wellwater or by burning seawater-soaked peat, or by collecting sea salt. (Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast, p. 161) I ground up coarse Kosher salt in a mortar and pestle, reasoning that medieval salt did not contain added iodine and Kosher salt was the only pure salt I could easily obtain. Salt is not specified in the original recipe, but various sources have led me to believe that this ingredient was often assumed but not written. When I tried the recipe without some salt, it tasted flat. However, the murri may very well have been intended to alleviate this flat taste...
As it would have been done in Medieval times, I ground the coriander seeds in a mortar in pestle. (Pleyn Delit, Constance B. Hieatt, p. xx) However, to avoid the scullery boy’s nightmare, I used a food processor to grind my cassia chunks into powdered cinnamon.
The oils available to Medieval Europeans included olive oil, nut oils, and poppy oil. (To The King’s Taste, Sass, p. 81) Due to monetary constraints and a desire to use a good, high-burning-point frying oil, I used peanut oil. If possible, I would use olive oil.
When I first redacted this recipe, I followed Duke Sir Cariadoc’s redaction (A Miscellany, p. 8) for murri... and found the vinegar-like substance to be extremely foul tasting to my palate. So, I have not included here in this presentation. I could not find any cilantro (the leafy part of the coriander plant) in any supermarkets at this time of year, so I was unable to sprinkle the recipe’s other specified seasoning on the dish.
Ms. Sass says the most common variety of vinegar must have been wine vinegar; (p. 81) Ms. Henisch refers both to wine vinegar and cider vinegar as the varieties most commonly available during Medieval times. (Fast and Feast, p. 120)
As for the shape of the fish, I tried to follow the drawings for fish dishes in Robert May’s 1678 book, The Accomplisht Cook.
Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina
©2000 Chris P. Adler