I have been reading through a large and interesting 10th century middles eastern cookbook
. Unlike most medieval European cookbooks, it gives, for many recipes, precise quantities of ingredients. Reading it, it occurred to me that cooking may have been the first experimental science and perhaps a stepping stone towards other sciences.
The experiments get done daily, in the process of feeding people. It's natural enough for a cook to try different herbs, different spices, a hotter or cooler oven, a shorter or longer baking time, frying or boiling instead of baking, any of a wide range of variants, in the process of trying to produce something better.
In medieval Islam, and presumably other places, tasty food was a luxury valued by the rich—which meant that their cooks had both the resources and incentive to try to make it still tastier. And while some of what such experiments reveal consists of subtle differences, some is quite striking. Start with a basic bread recipe—flour, water, and some source of yeast. Add a significant amount of fat—butter or oil—and instead of bread you have pastry crust. Brown flour in fat, stir in liquid, and you have just invented a new way of thickening your dish. Separate eggs, beat the whites thoroughly, and the result is almost magical. Experienced cooks can think of other examples.
Labels: history, Islamic cooking, science