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Twelve Thousand Cooks and a Muhtasib: Some Remarks on Food Business in Medieval Cairo
By Paulina B. Lewicka
Studia Arabistyczne i Islamistyczne, Vol. 10 (2002)
Introduction: The general aim of this article is to shed some light on the functioning of the industry that was to satisfy the medieval Cairenes’ alimentative needs. As most of the Western travelers who visited Cairo between XIII and XVI centuries observed, the city dwellers generally did not cook at home—they would rather use services offered by cooks in the city streets and bazaars. Indeed, since the majority of the city inhabitants did not have kitchens at their apartments2, the easiest way for them—if not the only one—to get a warm meal was to buy ready-made food. Because of the constant and common demand, the offer of public kitchens was fairly rich and assorted enough to satisfy various tastes and meet various financial capabilities of the customers. The quantity of places where ready-made food was being sold night and day was shocking to foreign visitors: the number of street cooks in the city was said to reach ten, twelve, and even twenty thousand.
The meals offered by street cooks were probably lacking in subtleness and elegancy if compared to the specialties served by the “caliphs’ kitchen” or by the Arabic-Islamic haute cuisine whose recipes were written down in the cookbooks for the elites. The story behind their preparation seems, however, to be no less attractive, if only for the fact that the bazaar gastronomy was one of the most significant factors influencing and conditioning the city’s private, social and economic life.
Obliged to follow special market regulations, the city gastronomers were, in theory, subject to strict control by muhtasibs, the state inspectors. Various aspects of the hisba institution in Egypt, and in Cairo in particular, have already been a subject of research; a number of questions, however, still await answers. One of them is the problem of efficiency of authorities in implementing “the market law”, an issue that will be studied below with reference to the Cairene food industry. While discussing the question, the author will demonstrate that the fraud in the local food production domain was a rather widespread phenomenon.