Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

15 April 2024

A Gastronomic Feast

During the past few months we have all been struggling to maintain some kind of service as a result of last year’s cyber-attack, but our Loans Department, especially, has been working overtime to fulfil our exhibition commitments. A major landmark for us in Asian and African Collections was the opening on December 17th of Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Dining with the Sultan, gallery viewDining with the Sultan, room in a house
'Dining with the Sultan' at LACMA. Photo credit, Morgan Wadsworth-Boyle

Dining with the Sultan is the first exhibition to present Islamic art in the context of its associated culinary and gastronomic traditions and includes some 250 works of art related to the sourcing, preparation, serving, and consumption of food, from 30 public and private collections worldwide.

Asian and African Studies contributed altogether five manuscripts to the exhibition which date from the late 13th to the 16th centuries, representing culinary traditions from Ottoman Turkey across to Mughal India.

Ibn Butlan’s Almanac of Health

Title page of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah (Almanac of Health)
Title page of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah (Almanac of Health). Syria or Iraq, dated Jumada II, 610 (Oct/Nov 1213). BL Or 1347, f. 1r. Public domain

Food and diet played an essential role in medieval Islam. Pharmacological treatises such as the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah by Ibn Butlan ( 1068), a Christian physician and theologian of Baghdad, listed foods and drinks essential for a healthy life in addition to prescribing exercise and leisure activities. This elaborately decorated manuscript was a presentation copy for Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-Zahir (d. 1216), King of Aleppo. The title page shown here gives the title and author in the upper frame and the dedication to the patron in the lower frame.

Assemblies of al-Hariri 

Revellers drinking. Syria, 13th–14th century. BL Add Ms 22114, f. 30r
Revellers drinking. Syria, 13th–14th century. BL Add Ms 22114, f. 30r. Public domain 

The Maqāmāt (Assemblies) of al-Hariri of Basra (1054-1122) are a collection of 50 tales describing the adventures of the fictional character Abu Zayd. This copy, from Syria, dates from the late 13th or early 14th century, and is illustrated with 84 vivid paintings depicting Abu Zayd on his travels. Here revellers are seen drinking in a tavern setting, entertained by musicians. In the background colourful ceramic storage jars are displayed alongside glass flasks, beakers and a bowl of fruit, giving some idea of how vessels such as these were used in 13th century Syria. 

A Baghdad Cookery Book 

Heading of Or 5099  f1v
The opening of Kitāb al-ṭabīkh (Book of Dishes) by Muhammad ibn al-Karim. Ottoman Turkey, 15th or 16th century. BL Or 5099, f. 2v. Public domain

The Kitāb al-ṭabīkh is a manual on cookery composed by Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Karīm, known as the Scribe of Baghdad (al-Kātib al-Baghdādī) in 623/1226. The text contains 160 recipes organised into ten chapters, each concerned with different gastronomic and culinary categories such as sour, plain, fried and dry dishes, oven-cooked dishes, fish, pickles, puddings, sweets, and dough-based sweet dishes. This copy was commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46; 1451-81) and the fine illumination and calligraphy testify to its importance as a status symbol rather than a day-to-day manual.

Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems)

Preparing for a feast. Add Ms 25900  f4r Khusraw and Shirin. Add Ms 25900  f4r
Two leaves repositioned as a frontispiece to Nizami’s Khamsah (Five poems) copied in Herat around 846/1442. BL Add Ms 25900, f. 4r (left) and Add Ms 25900, f. 3v (right). Public domain

The Khamsah of the 12th century poet Nizami remains one of the best-loved of Persian poetical works. These two paintings together form an illustrated frontispiece for a deluxe volume copied in Herat around 846/1442 but with paintings from several different sources added later. The left-hand side (f. 4r) shows preparations for a feast and probably dates from the 1490s. Cooking cauldrons are depicted alongside a gold pestle and mortar while above a sheep is being slaughtered. The right-hand illustration has been identified[1] as a misplaced folio from the story of Khusraw and Shirin showing an out of doors entertainment with wine served from Chinese porcelain and other flasks.

Courtly Feasting in the Sultanate of Malwa  

Sultan Ghiyas al-Din supervising female cooks. IO Islamic 149  f115v
Sultan Ghiyas al-Din supervising female cooks. From the Niʻmatnāmah (Book of Delicacies). India Mandu, ca. 1490s-1500. BL IO Islamic 149 f. 115v. Public domain

Following the sack of Delhi by Timur in 1398, the province of Malwa, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, became an independent state under the Ghurid ruler Dilawar Khan. He was succeeded in 1436 by Mahmud Shah I, founder of the Khalji dynasty, with its capital city Mandu, renamed Shadiyabad (City of Joy). It was here that the Niʻmatnāmah (Book of Delicacies)[2] and also the multilingual dictionary Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) were composed under the patronage of the colourful Ghiyas al-Din Shah (r. 1469–1500) who was reputed to have established a court consisting of 15,000 women who included teachers, musicians, and persons of all professions and trades. The illustration above accompanies recipes for halva and paluda (often called faluda). 

Roasting on a spit from the multi-lingual illustrated dictionary Miftāḥ al-fuz̤alā. Or 3299  f218r
Roasting on a spit from the multi-lingual illustrated dictionary Miftāḥ al-fuz̤alā by Muhammad ibn Muhammad Daʼud Shadiyabadi. Mandu, ca. 1490. BL Or 3299, f. 218r. Public domain

Babur is entertained by his cousin Badiʻ al-Zaman at Herat 

A party at Badiʻ al-Zaman Mirza’s. Or 3714  f260v
A party at Badiʻ al-Zaman Mirza's. From the Persian translation of the Vaqiʻāt-i Bāburī, or Bāburnāmah, by the Mughal statesman Mirza ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i Khanan (1556-1627). Artist, Tiriya. Lahore, ca. 1590-93. BL Or 3714, f. 260v. Public domain

The Mughal emperor Babur’s autobiography was written originally in Chagatai but was translated into Persian at the request of his grandson Akbar by ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i Khanan. The British Library manuscript is one of four imperial copies. Completed between 1590 and 1594, it contains 143 illustrations, mostly by named artists, combining historical events with descriptions of the flora and fauna of India.  

The present scene describes a feast by invitation of Babur’s cousin Badiʻ al-Zaman. In agreement with the text, it illustrates the occasion when Babur was served up a whole roast goose and was at a complete loss as to what to do. When asked if he didn’t care for it, he explained that he had never carved such a creature before — so his host kindly did it for him! Although the painting describes a historical event which took place when Babur visited Herat in 1506-7, the details are set clearly in the time of Akbar almost 100 years later. 

Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting is open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 4, 2024 before travelling to the Detroit Institute of Arts where it will be on view from September 22, 2024 until January 5, 2025. A catalogue of the same title is available, edited by the exhibition curator Linda Komaroff with contributions from 22 experts. 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, Asian and African Collections

Further reading

Linda Komarov, ed. Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2023).
al-Katib al-Baghdadi, Kitāb al-ṭabīkh, translated by Charles Perry, A Baghdad Cookery Book (Blackawton: Prospect Books, 2005).
Barbara Brend, Treasures of Herat: Two Manuscripts of the Khamsah of Nizami in the British Library (London: Ginko, 2022).
Niʻmatnāmah, translated by Norah M. Titley, The Niʻmatnāma Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delight (London and New York: Routledge, 2005)  
Vivek Gupta, “Images for Instruction: A Multilingual Illustrated Dictionary in Fifteenth-Century Sultanate India”, Muqarnas, 38 (2022), pp. 77-112.
Babur, Vaqiʻāt-i Baburī, translated, edited, and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston, The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art; New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).


[1] Barbara Brend, Treasures of Herat, pp. 58-61.
[2] See also Ursula Sims-Williams, pp. 94-96 in the exhibition Catalogue.