Syrup of Sekanjabin

Several people have asked me – repeatedly, in fact – how sekanjabin, the mint and vinegar drink I supply at events, is made. Herewith a brief discourse on sekanjabin and its ilk, together with a recipe or two.

Sekanjabin is a medieval Arabic version of oxymel, which is a general term for medicinal drinks combining vinegar with sugar syrup or honey. It is probably first mentioned by the ancient Greek medical writer Hippocrates, who prescribes it extensively and comments that, among other things, “it promotes expectoration and freedom of breathing.” (Hippocrates, On Regimen in Acute Diseases, tr. Francis Adams). The Anglo-Saxons also knew it: an old Anglo-Saxon leechbook mentions oxymel as “a southern acid drink” (Cockayne vol II p. 153), and suggests betony in oxymel as a relief “if a man is tired by a long journey” (p.152). Later the writer gives the recipe for oxymel, together with the injunction to drink it for “the half dead disease” (p. 285), or for epilepsy. Platina, a 15th-century Italian writer, mentions honey/vinegar oxymel several times, suggesting it as a remedy for the harmful effects of melons (Milham p. 127). Andalusian Sekanjabin likewise has a medicinal slant, since it is described as being “beneficial for fevers of jaundice, and calms jaundice and cuts the thirst” (see recipe below). Like most Arabic syrups, it was intended to be drunk with hot water as a medicinal draught, although they were probably also drunk cold for refreshment.

The concept of using a basic oxymel infused with herbal flavour of some sort is fairly universal; the Anglo-Saxon leechbook suggests infusing it with radish as well as betony, and Hippocrates speaks of infusing oxymel with asafoetida and carrot, or opoponax and southernwood (whatever those are). Cariadoc’s mint version doesn’t seem to be much of a leap, particularly given the modern sekanjabins he notes in ethnic restaurants and the parallel Andalusian recipe for mint syrup (see below).

The Arabic minted version I make is the recipe from Cariadoc’s Miscellany, which I have reproduced directly from the Miscellany, together with the medieval Sekanjabin recipe from the Manuscrito Anonimo.

Oxymel

From an Anglo-Saxon Leechbook, Cockayne p. 285

Take of vinegar, one part; of honey, well cleansed, two parts; of water, the fourth part; then seethe down to the third or fourth part of the liquid, and skim the foam and the refuse off continually, until the mixture be fully sodden.

Cariadoc’s Sekanjabin recipe

Dissolve 4 cups sugar in 2 1/2 cups of water; when it comes to a boil add 1 cup wine vinegar. Simmer 1/2 hour. Add a handful of mint, remove from fire, let cool. Dilute the resulting syrup to taste with ice water (5 to 10 parts water to 1 part syrup). The syrup stores without refrigeration.

Note: This is the only recipe in the Miscellany that is based on a modern source: A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden. Sekanjabin is a period drink; it is mentioned in the Fihrist of al-Nadim, which was written in the tenth century. The only period recipe I have found for it (in the Andalusian cookbook) is called “Sekanjabin Simple” and omits the mint. It is one of a large variety of similar drinks described in that cookbook – flavored syrups intended to be diluted in either hot or cold water before drinking.

Syrup of Sekanjabin Simple

An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century, tr. Charles Perry.

Take a ratl of strong vinegar and mix it with two ratls of sugar, and cook all this until it takes the form of a syrup. Drink an ûqiya of this with three of hot water when fasting: it is beneficial for fevers of jaundice, and calms jaundice and cuts the thirst, since sikanjabîn syrup is beneficial in phlegmatic fevers: make it with six ûqiyas of sour vinegar for a ratl of honey and it is admirable.

(The same collection gives a recipe for a syrup of mint, made with mint and other herbs, sugar and water).

Bibliography

Cariadoc’s Miscellany, © David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992
http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/food.html

Rev. Thomas Oswald Cockayne Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, (1961) London: Holland Press

Hippocrates, On Regimen in Acute Diseases, tr. Francis Adams
http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/acutedis.mb.txt

Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health, tr. Mary Ella Milham (1998) Tempe: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies

Jehanne de Huguenin