Many of our everyday practices have surprising origins. For example, the idea of serving a three-course meal — soup, main dish & dessert — is actually credited to a Muslim Persian (some say African or Kurd) known to history as Ziryab
We take a look at the history of Ziryab & the three course meal…
Ziryab came from Iraq to Cordoba in the 9th century & is responsible for introducing Islamic Spain to dining etiquette & decor. He remains little known in European history, yet is significant in Islamic culture - not just because he was the Martha Stewart of medieval Europe.
Ziryab revolutionized everything from fashion, to dining, to music, to hairstyles, to hygiene. He was one of the greatest cultural icons of the Middle Ages and the impact he had is still felt in the world today.
In music, Ziryab was the first to introduce the lute (Al-U'd) to Spain & Europe in general. He is credited with the addition of the fifth bass string to it which later paved the way for the development of the guitar. He also established the first conservatory in the world.
Ziryab's full name is Abu l-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi, he was educated in many subjects. His accomplishments include laying the groundwork for traditional Spanish music, inventing a popular toothpaste, introducing the idea of seasonal fashions & developing the first deodorant.
Ziryab's biggest contribution was perhaps in dining. He rejected food piled on one plate in favour of separate dishes. He invented the traditional three-course meal – soup, followed by fish or meat, then a sweet dessert at the end which might include fruit & nuts.
Ziryab’s concept of the three-course meal was an innovation unknown even in sophisticated Baghdad. It eventually spread to the rest of Europe, and is the forerunner of our modern multi-course meals.
To Ziryab, the presentation of food was an essential part of the aesthetic experience. He invented the tablecloth by placing leather covers over wooden, hard-to-clean tables. Fine food was then served on decorated tables covered with exquisite cloths.
Heavy gold or silver goblets for drink were replaced by delicate glassware which glinted and exposed the colour of its content. To ensure this, Ziryab saw to it that a glass factory was built in Córdoba, the fame of which soon spread far and wide.
He refined dishes by adding ingredients, like asparagus, which at that time were considered weeds. He even brought etiquette and polite conversation to what we would consider the chaotic meals of the time.
Ziryab quickly made a name for himself, supposedly earning such a high salary that Córdoba’s leader had to pay him from his private funds, according to The Literature of Al-Andalus. It’s no surprise, then, that Ziryab acquired luxurious tastes.
He may not have been the only person to promote high culture, but he was popular and emulated by many, according to Arabist and historian Robert Lebling. Ziryab was “very imaginative, very persuasive as a speaker and quite influential in royal circles.
Although Ziryab’s impact eventually spread to Europe, people “had no idea who had sparked the changes in culture, customs and manners,” Lebling points out. All they knew was that somehow soap was important and good food even more so.
Historians differ over whether Ziryab was Black African, Persian or Kurdish. According to Ibn Hayyan, ‘Ali Ibn Nafi’ was called Blackbird because of the clarity of his voice and “the sweetness of his character.”
So why haven’t many people heard of Ziryab? Perhaps it’s because his deeds were in Islamic culture. As significant as they were, and despite the major impact he had on Europe, there was never room for him in Western history books.