Banned Identity: A history of couscous during the Spanish Inquisition | EATEN Magazine

The Alhambra by night as seen from the Albaycín

For EATEN Magazine No. 7, I wrote about the history of couscous during the Spanish Inquisition — from noble dish to a symbol of a banned identity.

“Talk to me about kuskusu, it is a noble and distinguished dish,” wrote the 15th-century magistrate of Granada, Abū Abd Allah bin al-Azrak, in a poem. Seven-hundred years earlier, in the spring of 711, an Arab-Berber army from North Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and went on to rapidly conquer most of the Iberian Peninsula, what is today comprised of the countries of Portugal and Spain. The Moors, as they were collectively called, brought an end to the Visigothic Kingdom that ruled Hispania from the 5th to 8th centuries, a former province of the Roman Empire that stretched from the modern-day southwest of France across Iberia. Under Moorish rule, the land they now called Al-Andalus became a center of a new Islamic golden age rich with philosophers, scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, poets, and musicians.

One of the Moors most enduring legacies in Iberia was the wealth of crops they introduced over time from the Middle East and North Africa – aubergine, artichokes, spinach, chickpeas, rice, lemons, oranges, almonds, watermelon, and saffron, to name a few – which flourished in their fertile new setting. They also brought their cuisine, and in the caliph’s kitchens, a highly refined gastronomy emerged, renowned for its complexity of flavours, sophistication of dishes, and elaborate seven-course banquets. Among their most revered dishes: couscous.

The invention of couscous – tiny granules of semolina crushed from hard wheat, which are bound by water, and prepared by steaming – is often attributed to Northern Africa’s indigenous inhabitants, the Berbers or Amazigh, though other evidence suggests it was invented before the 10th century in West Africa. Either way, by the 13th century, the dish was frequently found in the area that is today’s Tunisia, and from North Africa it took little time to reach Al-Andalus. One of the earliest written references to couscous is in fact made in the anonymous 13th-century Hispano-Muslim cookery book, Kitab al tabikh fi al-Maghrib wa’l-Andalus. Compiled by a Muslim scribe from Valencia, the book details the art of food mixing, gives strict recommendations on the order of dishes, and includes nearly 500 recipes from Syria, Egypt, Sicily, and beyond, many of which call for the use of couscous.

For centuries, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived side-by-side in Al-Andalus, leading to a comingling of foodways. Throughout Moorish territory, the three faiths influenced each other’s cuisines and enjoyed the same foods, including couscous, rice, aubergine, and squash. By the late 15th century, however, this culinary harmony began to fracture.

Over its eight-century existence, the border of Al-Andalus ebbed and waned as Christian kingdoms pushed south in their campaign against the Muslim rulers – an effort known as the “Reconquista” – to reclaim land and political power. By the mid-13th century, the Reconquista had reduced the Moors’ territory to the emirate of Granada, which they held on to for over two hundred years. Around the same time, attitudes towards Spanish Jews shifted as militant Catholicism spread to Iberia and the anti-Semitism long present elsewhere in medieval Europe took hold. Pogroms in 1391 killed thousands, and in the coming decades 300,000 Jews converted to Christianity to try and avoid further persecution.

In 1492, the Moors suffered their fateful defeat to the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, bringing an end to nearly nine centuries of Muslim rule in Iberia. The same year, in their push for religious unity and fearing the influence of Jews on the Christian population, the Catholic crown ordered all Jews in their territory to convert to Christianity or leave within three months and 40 days. The figures are difficult to know but some suggest upwards of 50,000 converted and between 100,000 and 150,000 more chose exile to keep their faith. Up to then, Jews had lived in Iberia for 1,700 years, their community among the largest and most prosperous in the world. Their expulsion scattered the Sephardic diaspora south and east across the Mediterranean, from North Africa to Italy and the vast lands of the Ottoman Empire.

A steady flow of Muslims also left for North Africa in the wake of 1492 although more than half a million remained on Iberian soil. Under the 1491 Treaty of Granada, the agreement that relinquished the last Muslim emirate to the Catholic monarchs, Muslims were granted the right to continue practicing their faith under Catholic rule. By 1499, however, the agreement was breeched for reasons not fully understood but attributed to the influence of the “grand inquisitor,” cardinal Francisco Jiménez Cisneros. As with the Jews, the Muslims too faced conversion or exile. The convivencia of Al-Andalus – the fabled and often-idealized notion of the three faiths coexisting in harmony – was gone.

The Spanish Inquisition, a system of tribunals established in 1478 when the Reconquista was nearly finished, aimed to consolidate the Catholic monarchs’ power, identify heretics, and establish a homogenous Catholic identity. In this climate of heightened intolerance and oppression, the desire for social and religious conformity reached its zenith. The Catholic monarchs were unable, or unwilling, to separate cultural practices from religious belief. As the late scholar of medieval history Olivia Remie Constable has pointed out, food was an important marker of cultural and religious identity and by the early 16th century, it had become a matter of potentially deadly importance whether one cooked with olive oil, ate couscous, and if one sat on the ground to eat – practices strongly associated with Muslims. In documents of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, eating couscous was noted as proof of religious identity, and inquisitional trials often included questions and testimonials on eating and cooking practices.

Despite their best efforts to find acceptance in this new environment, neither pseudo nor committed Muslim converts, called Moriscos, and Jewish conversos could escape doubt towards the sincerity of their adopted faith. Experiencing unrelenting suspicion and prejudice, they lived in fear of Inquisition officials, who routinely visited homes to investigate for heretical practices, including when, what, and how they ate. By the early 17th century, Muslim foodways served as proof in Christian minds that Moriscos were incompatible with Catholics and that they would never be able to fully assimilate, forming part of the rationale to expel them from Iberia once and for all. Between 1609-1614, at least 300,000 Moriscos were forcibly deported, an event which historian Matthew Carr describes as a historical crime for its parallels with ethnic cleansing.

While the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia is thought to have played a role in Spain’s ensuing intellectual, economic, and political decline in the centuries that followed, it too had a devastating impact on Spain’s gastronomic legacy. As professor Carolyn Nadeau points out, many foods entirely associated with Muslim influences – like eggplant, spinach, and rice – were quickly integrated into Christian cuisine and survived through the centuries to become a part of contemporary Spanish cuisine. Yet couscous, curiously, did not. Constable, among other scholars, has suggested couscous lost its place of prestige because of its deep and enduring connection with Islam and for providing incriminating evidence of a lingering Muslim identity. According to food writer Fiona Dunlop, this once distinguished dish previously enjoyed across ethnic groups came to be understood as a form of “Moorish resistance to assimilation” and as a “symbol of a banned identity.” Nadeau wonders if its disappearance from the cuisine might also be related to the culinary skills required for its somewhat laborious preparation, or whether there was an economic reason that has yet to be identified. “Many food products intimately tied to this religious group make it through no problem,” she explains, “So I started meditating on why this one, and not that one?”

The Moorish influence on Spain can be seen in the architecture, heard in the language – only Latin made a larger contribution than Arabic to the Spanish lexicon – and tasted in the cuisine. In his work Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, Carr notes that among Muslims worldwide, the historical memory of Al-Andalus is often permeated with nostalgia for a lost period of Islamic splendor and achievement, whose contribution to Europe tends, more often than not, to be overlooked. Within contemporary Spanish history, the narrative towards its Islamic past has often struck a different chord: regarded with shame or downplayed as a mere parenthesis of Muslim intrusion in Christian lands.

This sentiment has impacted research on the Arab influences in Spanish cooking, which Spanish scholar Manuela Marín says is a recent development, because “acknowledging Arab influences in Spain’s lifestyle would have contributed to separate the country from the European context to which it had always longed to aspire.” Some of Spain’s most classic dishes have distinct Arab and Jewish origins, like paella, with its base of rice and saffron, and cocido Madrileño, a stew of chickpeas, vegetables, and meat, which some scholars think evolved from adafina, a Sabbath dish made by conversos.

Yet these origins are not widely acknowledged, as Maria Paz Moreno explains in Madrid: A Culinary History. “Most Spaniards today downplay the role of Jewish and Arabic influences in their culture, distancing themselves from a heritage that survives stubbornly,” even though contemporary Spanish cuisine is “greatly indebted to the culinary heritage of the Spanish Jews and Arabs.” Dunlop, who has split her time living in and writing about Spain for decades, picked up on a slight sense of shame surrounding the food heritage among some cooks she interviewed, but says things are starting to change, with this legacy increasingly becoming a source of pride.

Today, many Spaniards still shun couscous in favor of migas – a beloved breadcrumb offshoot that exemplifies the national penchant for frying – although couscous is widely available in supermarkets and increasingly offered at restaurants serving Moroccan, vegetarian, and fusion dishes. Little do many know these tiny granules, with their history of persecution and expulsion, were among the most distinguished dishes in the land once known as Al-Andalus.

This story was published in the No. 7: Carbs issue of EATEN: The Food History Magazine.