Portuguese Moorish Chicken

In my search to find a new medieval chicken recipe with locally accessible ingredients, I stumbled upon a redaction of a Moorish Chicken recipe in David Friedman’s book How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg and Armor a Turnip. The recipe source is the late-medieval Portuguese cookery text called Um tratado da cozinha portuguesa do seculo XV (A treatise on Portuguese cuisine in the 15th century). I haven’t dabbled much in early Spanish or Portuguese cuisine for a couple reasons, one being that many recipes call for murri, a fermented condiment that no longer exists.

I honestly couldn’t find anything substantial about the original 15th-century manuscript other than it was compiled and published in 1963 by Antonio Gomes Filho. I think that the book is a facsimile reproduction of a cookery manuscript called Livro de cozinha, MS. I-E-33 housed in the National Library of Naples. Filho’s full Portuguese transcription is in the Miguel de Cervantes Digital Library.

It turns out that Friedman’s English translation is so far off (no original Portuguese text was included for comparison) that I wondered if he just mistakenly sourced the wrong manuscript. Extensive research yielded absolutely no other 15th-century Portuguese cookery manuscripts, but I did find a similar recipe in the Arte de Cozina, pasteleria, vizcocheria y conserueria, a 1611 Spanish cookbook by Francisco Martínez Montiño. This is why it’s so important to hunt down the original sources! Not all redactions can be trusted.

For the purposes of successfully creating something edible in only one attempt, I took some measurement and spice cues from David Friedman’s redaction, which appears to be a combination of the 15th-Century Portuguese and 16th-Century Spanish recipes. Mine is slightly different, however, and I’ve included instructions that follow the original Portuguese recipe a bit more closely.


The Recipe

It would be impossible to illustrate the significance of this recipe without providing some context and historical background. I’ve added a few bits of food history within the recipe directions, but a more detailed overview can be found at the end of this post. I hope you take some time to read through it to learn more about medieval Portuguese history, the Moors and the impact that centuries of foreign conquests and colonization had on Portuguese cuisine.

Galinha Mourisca: Moorish Chicken

Tome uma galinha crua e faça-a em pedaços. Em seguida prepara-se um refogado com duas colheres de manteiga e uma pequena fatia de toucinho. Deita-se dentro a galinha e deixa-a corar. Cubra-se a galinha com água suficiente para cozê-la, pois não se há de deitar-lhe outra. Estando a galinha quase cozida, tome-se cebola verde, salsa, coentro e hortelã, pica-se tudo bem miudinho e deita-se na panela, com um pouco de caldo de limão. Acabe de cozinhar a galinha muito bem. Tome então fatias de pão e disponha-as no fundo de uma terrina, e derrame sobre elas a galinha. Cubra com gemas escalfadas e polvilhe com canela.

English Translation by Google Translate, cross-checked with another one by Fernanda Gomes:

Take a raw chicken and cut it into pieces. Then prepare a stew with two spoons of butter and a small slice of bacon. The chicken is laid inside and allowed to blush [brown]. Cover the chicken with enough water to cook it, as there is no need to add more. When the chicken is almost cooked, take green onions, parsley, coriander [cilantro] and mint, chop everything very fine and lie in the pan with a little lemon juice. Finish cooking the chicken very well. Then take slices of bread and place them in the bottom of a tureen, and pour the chicken over them. Cover with poached egg yolks and sprinkle with cinnamon

Francisco Martinez Montiño’s “Gallina a la Morisca (1611). Translation by me and Google Translate:

You take a couple of capon, or four chickens, and roast them, and then cut them into quarters, and fry a little onion with a little diced bacon, and smother [the chicken] very well: and then add broth and season with all spices,  except cloves and cook little by little: add a little vinegar that is very sour, and if you had a little fresh cow butter, pour it inside, and you could fry a little flour in this butter, [so that it is thickened?], because this dish must not have eggs: and if you want to add a little bit of chopped vegetables, you could, This dish should come out a little yellow.

Ingredients

  • 3 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs
  • 2 T. butter
  • 4-6 slices of bacon
  • 1/3 c. cilantro, chopped
  • pinch or two of parsley, chopped
  • 5-6 leaves or approx. 1/2 T. mint, finely chopped
  • Bunch green onions OR 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1/8 t. and a pinch cloves
  • Generous pinch of saffron strands, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2 egg yolks (optional)
  • Plain toast- enough to cover bottom of casserole or other deep serving dish
  • Optional: Poached eggs

Step ONE: Brown the Meat

Take a raw chicken and cut it into pieces. Then prepare a stew with two spoons of butter and a small slice of [diced?] bacon. The chicken is laid inside and allowed to blush [brown].

Melt the butter in a pan and fry the bacon for a few minutes. I used full strips without dicing (I didn’t know any better at the time) but it ended up being really good. If you’re using a yellow onion, add it now.

Put your chicken pieces in the pot to brown. Using a frying pan is an option here, though I didn’t have one that was big enough so I transferred everything to a deep pot. Add salt and cook for about 10 minutes uncovered and 15 minutes covered. Depending on your cuts of chicken this could take longer.

Important Historical Note: The presence of bacon is distinctly not Moorish. Muslim Moors and Jews would not have eaten bacon! However, at the time of this recipe the Moors were gradually being run out of Portugal, and only Christians would have eaten bacon. Under the circumstances, adding bacon to the dish may have been a social signal that the person was not Muslim or Jewish.

Step TWO: Add the Herbs and Spices

Cover the chicken with enough water to cook it, as there is no need to add more. When the chicken is almost cooked, take green onions, parsley, coriander [cilantro] and mint, chop everything very fine and lie in the pan with a little lemon juice. Finish cooking the chicken very well.

Spanish version: Season with all spices [black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, saffron- these are spices suggested by Spanish food historian Carolyn Nadeau]. 

Add water, herbs, spices and vinegar/lemon juice and bring to a boil. Cook until chicken is completely done, approximately 30-45 minutes.

Note: Coriander and Cilantro are the same plant! Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander leaves. If you’re a North American wondering exactly what the dried coriander in your pantry is, it’s the coriander plant seeds.

Step THREE: The Eggs

Cover with poached egg yolks and sprinkle with cinnamon

This is where the dish can go in a few different directions. The Spanish version does not include eggs and is served with a thickened gravy, but the Portuguese version was served and topped with poached eggs. Friedman’s version simply breaks the egg yolks in the pot, stirring briefly just before serving.

Once my chicken was cooked I wasn’t left with nearly enough broth or room in the pot to poach eggs, nor would I want to just throw yolks in and go. I could have poached the eggs separately and used them to garnish (you’re welcome to do this) but that’s not what I ended up doing because – I’m embarrassed to admit- I’ve never poached an egg.

My family was anxiously waiting on dinner so I decided to thicken the remaining broth a with the eggs to make a sort of gravy.

I’ve thickened enough sauces with eggs at this point that I know breaking them in the hot broth and stirring them around the chicken would just end up scrambling or curdling them. So instead, I beat the yolks a bit then added about 1/2 cup or so of the hot broth then slowly added it back to the pot to cook and thicken. Tempering eggs is a thing I can do.

Step FOUR: Garnish and Serve

Then take slices of bread and place them in the bottom of a tureen, and pour the chicken over them.

Line a casserole or other serving dish with enough toast to cover the bottom. Pour in the chicken and garnish.

You may go true Portuguese-Moor style and garnish with poached eggs and a sprinkle of cinnamon or Spanish-style and serve as is or garnished with some parsley.

Note: The bread was -probably- there to soak up the extra liquid, much like the bread trenchers used elsewhere. It’s unlikely they would have lined a clay tureen with freshly-baked bread, so toasting it first is probably more accurate.


The Verdict

This recipe is fantastic! I absolutely loved everything about it, as did the whole family (child included).

Even the little snafu with the eggs turned out to be a good thing, as it made the broth less watery. I will teach myself how to poach an egg and try it again that way to compare for true authenticity, but I really enjoyed Moorish Chicken the way I made it.

While I typically don’t like combining multiple period recipes into some kind of historical hybrid, the result still gives us an accurate idea of what a medieval Moor-inspired chicken dish might have tasted like. And at the end of the day it’s delicious, which is always a win!

Moorish Chicken

  • Servings: 6
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 3 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs
  • 2 T. butter
  • 4-6 slices of bacon
  • 1/3 c. cilantro, chopped
  • pinch or two of parsley, chopped
  • 5-6 leaves or approx. 1/2 T. mint, finely chopped
  • Bunch green onions OR 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1/8 t. and a pinch cloves
  • Generous pinch of saffron strands, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2 egg yolks (optional)
  • Plain toast- enough to cover bottom of casserole or other deep serving dish
  • Optional: Poached eggs

Melt butter and fry bacon for a few minutes. Add chicken, salt and onion. Brown the chicken, cooking approx. 10 minutes uncovered and 15 minutes covered. Add water, herbs, spices and vinegar and bring to a boil. Cook until done, approximately 45 minutes. When chicken is thoroughly cooked through you may choose to thicken the gravy with tempered egg yolks. Line a casserole or other dish with toast and pour the chicken into it. If desired, garnish with poached eggs, parsley and/or a sprinkle of cinnamon.


A Brief History of Portugal

Medieval Portugal was an incredibly diverse place, arguably even more so than it is today. Its fascinating history includes Roman conquests, Muslim Caliphates, Christian kingdoms, Viking raids, advanced libraries and universities, African scholars and expats, and unrivaled trading centers. Of course, Portugal’s past also has a dark side that includes chattel slavery, extensive global colonization and religious oppression.

Soon after the fall of Rome, Germanic Visigoths took over Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula. The Visigoths controlled nearly everything from France to “Hispania” and there was a lot of in-fighting between Visigoth nobles, Byzantines, Vandals and Basques. During this time there were also a number of well-established Jewish communities, who were heavily persecuted. Visigothic food traditions and customs were different but similar to those of the Romans.

Eventually, the Umayyad Berbers of North Africa swept through the area and took over nearly the entire Iberian peninsula, with the exception of the northern-most kingdoms including parts of Galicia, Asturia (later called Leon), Castile and Aragon.

Berbers

Berbers are an ethnic group from North Africa, once known by the ancient Greeks as “Libyans.” The name berber was the Roman word for “barbarian,” referred to as such because of their distinctly non-Egyptian, nomadic lifestyle. In the 6th-century, Arab invaders took over North Africa and the people living there were ultimately influenced by the Arab culture, language and adopted Islam. Modern Berbers of Morocco prefer to be known as Imazighen and self-identify as Arabs.

Moorish and Berber Rule

In 711, while Roderic, the Visigothic king of Hispania, was off fighting the Basques in the north, Tariq ibn Ziyad led around 7,000 Berber men into Spain, captured Toledo and gained control of the area. Thus, the area that would later become Portugal and Spain was under Muslim rule and would be contested territory for centuries.

During this time, the Umayyad Dynasty’s rule covered a very large territory and Hispania was broken up into states or caliphates. This new territory was called al-Andalus (Andalusia) and Cordoba became the capital of the Spanish Umayyad emirate.

Many of the remaining Visigothic Christians adopted Arab customs, intermarried with Muslims and became known as Mozarabs. Other Christians converted to Islam, becoming Muladi. Thousands of Slavic and Christian slaves were brought in from Eastern Europe, as well as non-Muslims from Africa, bringing customs of their own. Most of the inhabitants of al-Andalus were now Muslim, though any free Christians and Sephardic Jews were allowed to remain, but with stipulations. This arrangement was relatively peaceful, but it was also common practice for non-Muslims to be at risk of harm or even enslavement if they weren’t protected by the jizya tax.

Castle of the Moors
Castle of the Moors/Castelo dos Mouros, Sintra, Portugal. Photo by Weekend Wayfarers via Flickr

The Moors

At first, the Moors and the Berbers were one and the same.  The term “Moor” was loosely applied to mean any North African or Spanish Muslim. Later, after the fall of the Umayyad emirate, any Muslim or African in Europe was considered a Moor.  “Beginning in the Renaissance, “Moor” and “blackamoor” were also used to describe any person with dark skin. (National Geographic). It can be confusing trying to make any kind of distinction here because, in the 15th-century, a “Moor” could have been a Spanish Muslim, an Arab or an African (of any race).

The Medieval Era

The next couple centuries gave rise to the Caliphate of Cordoba and the Golden Age of al-Andalus. Not only was Cordoba a shining cultural and intellectual center, but the extensive trade connections with Europe, Byzantium, the Middle East and Africa brought enormous prosperity and access to all kinds of imported foods and luxuries. Citrus fruits, figs, rice and spices like cinnamon and sugar were introduced to Europe by the Moors. Even saffron, once produced locally by the Greeks before it was lost, was reintroduced and cultivated in Spain and Southern France.

37641954626_1f9b3aadb2_3k
Moorish traders brought cinnamon and sugar to Europe. During the Middle Ages, most spices were imported from the Arab world.  Photo by www.kjokkenutstyr.net

However, civil wars and Berber revolts against the Umayyad rulers eventually weakened the Caliphate and by 1031 it was abolished completely and al-Andalus was broken up into a number of small Muslim principalities called taifas. But after numerous raids back and forth, the independent states eventually were no match for the allied Christian kings slowly gaining ground on the peninsula.  In 1128, the Kingdom of Portugal was established and gained its independence in 1143. By 1249, the southern portion of Portugal was taken from the Moors. But it wasn’t until 1492 with the Granada War that Iberian Islam was officially defeated and they (along with the Jews) were ultimately forcefully expelled during the Spanish Inquisition.

The gradual religious and political shift from Islam to Christianity in the region (reconquista) meant that for centuries, Christians, Muslims and Jews all lived and worked in close proximity. Despite the intense religious animosity between Islam and Christianity in particular, many of the people of Andalusia had actually learned how to coexist, bringing a unique perspective to an otherwise very intolerant and divided world. It was still far from peaceful, however, as constant wars, enslavement, massacres and forced conversions (on both sides) continued to occur. It was a very complex society with a blend of horribly oppressive institutions, economic prosperity and intellectual advancement.

15th-Century Portugal

In the 15th-century, when the Moorish Chicken recipe was written, the kingdom of Portugal had long been independent and many of the Muslim nobles had moved into southern Spain or North Africa. But some remained in the reconquered Christian territory, as did a large number of Moors, Arabs or their descendants. Some of the local Muslim Moors were slaves from previous raids but most were free and for a while were allowed to worship peacefully. This drastically changed in the early 16th-century when forced conversion to Christianity ended up with the Moors and even many converted moriscos being exiled.

49988573596_457f35d37c_k
Well-preserved medieval architecture in Obidos, Portugal. Photo by Eric Huybrechts via Flickr

Beginning in the later half of the century, Portuguese explorers were transporting slaves from West and Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Europe to its new colonies. Meanwhile, Lisbon continued to be a major global center of learning and it was common for members of the upper-classes of Europe, Central Africa and elsewhere to study abroad. It is estimated that by the 16th-century, roughly 10 percent of the city’s population was African. (Freelon).

This is a lot of watered-down history to take in, but the takeaway as it applies specifically to food is that many cultural influences were present in 15th-century Portuguese culture and cuisine. Access to a plethora of new ingredients and spices meant there was an wide variety of flavors, dishes and even cooking methods being shared. Portuguese food traditions were directly influenced and inspired by Islam, Judaism, Moors, Africans and Europeans. And due to Portugal’s extensive colonial reach, they in turn spread many of these borrowed traditions and ingredients around the globe.

Recommended Reading:


Additional Sources:

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