Zirbaja: Sweet chicken soup for sick and healthy

Food Contributor
© Elena Veselova | Dreamstime.com

We have been tasting over the past few episodes of my column delicacies of Al Andalus, that part of the Iberian Peninsula, now in Spain and Portugal, where Islamic culture dazzled at its brightest between the 8th and the 15th century. This Islamic rule over half a millennium left a deep impact on all aspects of local culture, including local cuisine. Today we will cook a dish named Zirbaja.

And we will cook Zirbaja following the recipe of an authentic source: Kitab al tabikh fi-l-Maghrib wa-l-Andalus fi asr al-Muwahhidin, li-mu’allif majhul. In English, The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads. Compiled in the 14th century, it provides recipes of the 12th and 13th century Al Andalus. Zirbaja is one such delicacy that can be made with lamb, chicken, pigeon, or dove meat.

Kitab al-Tabikh praises its many medicinal qualities. For example, this dish can be taken to regulate the humor. Again, it has wonderful nutritive. Moreover, according to medieval Islamic doctors, Zirbaja is very good for both the stomach and liver. There is a nice anecdote regarding the medicinal qualities of the dish described in the Book:

Zirbaja as medicine

Hanin ibn Ishaq was a great 9th-century Arab physicianand who had many followers. One of the followers said, “I was accompanying Hanin one day when he met a man to whom he said, ‘Oh! You came to me and you described the case of a sick woman in your house; then I didn’t see you anymore. What has been the cause of your delay, since I have not ceased to worry about you?’

This unnamed man told the follower of Hanin in reply that, he had come to see the great doctor learn about how to cure his mother, who was very ill. And on hearing in detail the symptoms of that lady’s disease, Hanin had prescribed that she be served well prepared Zirbaja. The man went home and followed strictly the recipe of Zirbaja given to him by Hanin. To his great surprise within days his mother was totally cured of the disease. Therefore, said the man to Hanin, he had no reason to return to the doctor.

Hanin said this is a neutral dish. Which meant it did not stimulate any of the four humors in particular, and many called it ‘the apple of the kitchen’, taking which could cause no harm even for normal healthy people.

Basically, Zirbaja is a nutritious and sweet chicken soup. Here follows the recipe of the dish.

Cooking Zirbaja

Take a young hen. Clean it very well, getting rid of all things that are not to be eaten from inside and out. Cut it into large pieces.

Take a large pot. Put 2 litres of water (more may be taken, depending on the size of the hen). Add salt (to taste), 10 Gms of black pepper, 15 Gms of coriander seeds well ground, 5 Gms of cinnamon, 1 Gm saffron, 1 small cup of vinegar (more may be added if you prefer it to be high on sour taste), and 100 Ml of any white oil (but preferably olive oil.)

When the meat is getting tender to take lukewarm water and soak in it 500 Gms of almonds. After about 15 minutes peal them clean and ground them into a smooth paste. Mix with it 7 teaspoons of white sugar, and a little bit of rosewater. Now put the mixture into the bowl in which the hen is cooking.

When the meat is tender your authentic 13th-century Andalusian delicacy is ready. Thicken the gravy to your liking. Serve hot.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)