As a historian I’ve worked with all kinds of archives: the chilly repositories of colonial bureaucracies, cozy campus libraries that preserve the curricula of women’s colleges, dusty bound notebooks with handwritten estate records of people who died a hundred years ago. But what does the archive of a recipe look like?
About a year ago I made my way to Tetouan, hoping the northern Moroccan city might yield a more complete archive for bastila, an iconic pastry whose origins I had been researching for some time. By that point I’d spent nearly three years living in Morocco, off and on. But Tetouan, with its unfamiliar dialect, Spanish architecture, and streets redolent with the scent of freshly ground coffee, was new to me.
In the few months I spent there, I learned a lot about the history of bastila. But my time in Tetouan also helped me think through a number of broader questions: what it means to live in a place whose history you’re studying, the entanglement of archival and ethnographic work, the myth of single authorship, and the shortcomings of scholarly citations.
Lately, long overdue attention has been given to the hidden labor of women in the production of scholarship and the layers of privilege that determine who gets to conduct certain kinds of research. As I begin to pick up the pieces of my dissertation to rework them into a book, I’ve been reflecting on the people whose intellectual, social, and culinary labor supports my work. While the writing that flows out of the time I spent in Tetouan will bear my name when it is published, much of the credit is due elsewhere. This essay tells the story of what I learned last fall, but it also explains how I learned it––and to whom I am indebted as a result.
Tetouan: White Dove, Daughter of Granada
Founded by Abu al-Hasan ʿAli al-Manzari in the fifteenth century just before the fall of Granada and designated the capital of the Spanish zone during the colonial period, Tetouan was understudied in English-language scholarship for a long time. Recent work by Eric Calderwood and David Stenner has begun to remedy this. But Tetouan, also referred to as the “White Dove” for the way its whitewashed buildings spread like wings up the sides of two adjacent mountains, also has its own historiographical tradition––written mostly in Arabic, by historians who are from there.
Within Morocco, Tetouan is also popularly known for its sophisticated cuisine. Because it was largely populated by Muslims and Jews fleeing Iberia after 1492, it is one of a handful of Moroccan cities whose foods are said to bear the traces of the legendary cuisine of al-Andalus. Bastila is one dish that is often said to descend from this heritage.
“Bastila is a sweet and savory pie stuffed with pigeon or chicken, eggs, fresh herbs, and almonds, flavored with saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and sugar…”
Bastila is a sweet and savory pie stuffed with pigeon or chicken, eggs, fresh herbs, and almonds, flavored with saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and sugar––although in the Tetouani version sugar is swapped out for lemon––and wrapped in buttered layers of paper-thin pastry, or ouarka (meaning “paper” or “sheet”). Seeking evidence of its origins, I sifted through two thirteenth-century Andalusi cookbooks, looking for something like it. I found a few recipes that bore a strong resemblance to the stuffing that goes inside modern-day bastila, but nothing about the fine layers of phyllo-like pastry that enclose it––and no reference to a dish by that name.
“In an illustration of the way the colonial gaze focuses more on certain kinds of bodies than others, the book includes few physical descriptions of her aristocratic hosts but many descriptions of the women who cooked in their kitchens and the vendors and artisans that supplied them.”
The only other hint I had came from a 1957 cookbook by a French settler named Zette Guinaudeau. Her quasi-ethnographic collection of recipes includes descriptions of kitchen scenes that both explain and exoticize the wealthy Fassi households into which she ingratiated herself. In an illustration of the way the colonial gaze focuses more on certain kinds of bodies than others, the book includes few physical descriptions of her aristocratic hosts but many descriptions of the women who cooked in their kitchens and the vendors and artisans that supplied them. In writing about the dadas, the expert cooks whose labor produced the famed cuisine of Fes, she writes that these women “come, according to tradition since the Algerian exodus, from Tetouan, from whence emerge the most highly esteemed cooks.”
I often think about the similarities between myself and Zette Guinaudeau: we are both white settler-outsiders whose understanding of Moroccan cuisine hinges on our affective ties to locals and their families. That imagined affinity did nothing to clarify the references to Tetouan and Algeria, which I had always found puzzling. But whatever their origin, I was certain that the cooks Guinaudeau described were either descended from enslaved women or enslaved themselves.
Morocco’s centuries-old slave trade meant that by the early twentieth century the domestic servants in many wealthy (and even middling) Moroccan households were women of West African descent. As elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, this means that blackness and enslavement or servitude were, and still are, often conflated. Guinaudeau’s passages about the dadas are racialized along these lines: though silent on the complexions of her hosts, she describes their cooks’ faces as “ebony or bronze.” Their legal status and the precise nature of their relationship to Tetouan are never explained.
“I have speculated that the development of bastila as we know it today––its transformation from an Andalusi stew to a delicate Maghribi pastry––took place at the hands of women such as these, enslaved or otherwise compelled into domestic servitude, sometime between the early modern period and the twentieth century. But it was in Tetouan that I began to discern a link between bastila’s obscured past and its present.”
I have speculated that the development of bastila as we know it today––its transformation from an Andalusi stew to a delicate Maghribi pastry––took place at the hands of women such as these, enslaved or otherwise compelled into domestic servitude, sometime between the early modern period and the twentieth century. But it was in Tetouan that I began to discern a link between bastila’s obscured past and its present.
Cafés, Pastries, and the Algerian Exodus
Shortly after arriving in the city, I met Dr. Karim Bejjit, a professor at Abdelmalek Essaâdi University, at a local café overlooking a statue of a huge white dove. A mutual friend had introduced us and Dr. Bejjit had generously offered to connect me with people and resources for my research. He introduced me to Soukaina El Alaoui, a local graduate student who generously let me tag along in her social and family circles during my months in Tetouan.
Soukaina took me to El Mofadal, a café and patisserie known for its traditional renditions of classic Tetouani sweets. Sitting outside on a sunny autumn day, we ordered one of everything and nibbled our way through plates of pastry as Soukaina patiently explained each confection. There was milūza, a delicate almond-based cookie dusted with powdered sugar, and kaʿb al-ghazāl, exquisite crescents of short pastry dough encasing almond paste scented with orange flower water. Naturally we tried El Mofadal’s bastila, prepared Fassi style with sweetened chicken and almonds. And we sampled panadilla, a savory pastry like an empanada with a kick of tangy chopped olives.
I was especially interested in Tetouani baqlawa, a pastry typically associated with the eastern Mediterranean, not the west. The baqlawa we sampled was shaped in a spiral, unlike the diamond-shaped version I was more familiar with from Levantine food. But its texture and flavors––thin buttered layers of crisp papery pastry that crunch around sweet fillings with honeyed nuts––were unmistakable. Instead of the pistachios common in eastern baqlawa, El Mofaddal’s version was topped with toasted slivered almonds. Was baqlawa the vehicle that had introduced phyllo dough to Morocco?
There is a strong argument for the Turkic origin of phyllo pastry, and the technique of shaping buttered layers of it around sweet and nut-based fillings was likely developed in the imperial kitchens of Istanbul. So my next step was to find a likely trajectory that phyllo dough might have taken from Ottoman lands to the kitchens of northern Morocco.
It so happened that one of Dr. Bejjit’s colleagues, historian Idriss Bouhlila, had recently published a book about the migration of Algerians to Tetouan in the nineteenth/thirteenth century. His work explains how waves of Algerians migrated to Tetouan fleeing the violence of the 1830 French invasion. It includes a chapter that traces the influences of Ottoman Algerians on the city’s cultural and social life. Turkish language and culture infused northern Morocco with new words, sartorial items, and consumption habits––including the custom of drinking coffee and a number of foods, especially sweets like baqlawa. While Bouhlila acknowledges that most Tetouanis consider bastila to be Andalusi, he suggests that the word itself is of Turkish origin and arrived with the Algerians.
“Bouhlila’s study corroborated the theory that the paper-thin ouarka used to make bastila, as well as the name of the dish itself, were introduced to Morocco by way of Tetouani cuisine sometime after 1830. But who was doing the cooking?”
This, I suspect, was what Zette Guinaudeau was referring to when she referenced the “Algerian exodus” and the well-regarded cooks of Tetouan. Bouhlila’s study corroborated the theory that the paper-thin ouarka used to make bastila, as well as the name of the dish itself, were introduced to Morocco by way of Tetouani cuisine sometime after 1830. But who was doing the cooking?
Archival traces, embodied knowledge
Dr. Bejjit had also introduced me to M’hammad Benaboud, a leading local historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tetouan and its histories. He pointed me in the direction of a number of Arabic sources speaking to Tetouan’s culinary history that I never would have found otherwise––not because they were inaccessible, but because I didn’t know where to look. Perhaps the most important was an article by the nationalist historian Muhammad al-Manuni, cryptically titled “Silkworms and Other Industries in Nineteenth-Century Tetouan.” It had been published in a conference volume in 1992 and was available on Archive.org.
The article works its way around to Tetouan’s wondrous variety of sweets and other foods in its final paragraphs. Al-Manuni cites an 1889 document from the royal archives of Sultan Hassan I, which “reveals the names of four enslaved women from the royal palace, who were sent to Tetouan in order for them to learn how to make [the city’s sweets and cooked dishes].”
The article includes an appendix with a transcription of the document, which lists over fifty dishes the women mastered in Tetouan––including three types of bastila and nearly every confection Soukaina and I had eaten at El Mofadal. Even more remarkably, it records the names of the four palace cooks: Saʿada, Mabruka, Zayda, and Sayla.
“This documentary glimpse into the royal past confirms what the embodied nature of culinary knowledge and the historical realities of Moroccan social structures had long implied: that the most celebrated recipes of high Moroccan cuisine had been perfected and conveyed through the hands, bodies, and expertise of enslaved cooks for much of its modern history.”
This documentary glimpse into the royal past confirms what the embodied nature of culinary knowledge and the historical realities of Moroccan social structures had long implied: that the most celebrated recipes of high Moroccan cuisine had been perfected and conveyed through the hands, bodies, and expertise of enslaved cooks for much of its modern history. The sultan did not send for written recipes; he dispatched a group of expert women. That I learned about this document through a series of in-person conversations was a parallel that did not escape me.
In one sense it is a marvel to have these womens’ names printed, to be able to write them into the history I am constructing. But is naming them sufficient? Their names render these cooks not quite anonymous, but not exactly citable either. Regardless of all the ways that culinary knowledge persists and thrives beyond textual practice, conventionally formatted footnotes to my history of bastila reference an archival document likely written by a man, from the records of a male monarch’s reign, discussed in an article written by a male historian. Sara Ahmed describes how citation within the academy functions as “as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” Her point is especially apposite in this case, because these four women’s bodies were the vessels of their expertise––and yet all the conventional citational practices elide them once again. So how does one credit the source of a recipe that was never written down amidst all this recording, transmission, and research? Is it enough to simply hold space for these women with what little evidence I have of their existence? Is a mention, an acknowledgement, or a footnote enough?
“…these four women’s bodies were the vessels of their expertise––and yet all the conventional citational practices elide them once again. So how does one credit the source of a recipe that was never written down amidst all this recording, transmission, and research? Is it enough to simply hold space for these women with what little evidence I have of their existence? Is a mention, an acknowledgement, or a footnote enough?”
Historical spaces, silences, placeholders
On the recommendation of the librarian of the Tetouan branch of the Instituto Cervantes I paid a visit to Dar El Oddi, a restored home in the old city of Tetouan. Because the house was built relatively recently, it had always boasted certain modern features, like a mechanical water pump and electric lights. But like all traditional medina homes in Morocco, the kitchen was anchored by a hearth in the form of an enormous vented raised stove fueled by wood or coal. Its architecture also bore the traces of the kinship structures of the wealthy urban households of the past––in which recipes were passed not from a mother to her biological children but from the women who did the cooking, many of them bound in servitude, down to the daughters of the house.
Until the expansion of state education for Moroccan girls starting in the 1930s and 40s, the abolishment of slavery, and the rise of the single-family house, these were the structures, familial and architectural, that had produced dishes like bastila before the recipes were transplanted into the ahistorical myth of the modern nuclear family. It was easy to read in the house’s design: a plain, steep set of stairs led upwards from a corner of the kitchen to the quarters where the women who did the household’s cooking and domestic labor once lived. The difference between these quarters and the rest of the upper floors, accessed by an open central staircase, was striking, if unsurprising. The quarters above the kitchen were dark and stifling, with smaller windows and shorter ceilings than the spacious, light-filled, brightly tiled salons elsewhere in the house. Up and down the women bound to this household must have moved, their trajectories limited to a specific axis in space between the kitchen and their quarters. I stood there and imagined how bastila was perfected in spaces like these. But that story is written in spaces and speculation, not in authoritative texts or government records.
“In Tetouan I had found a rich set of sources for the history of bastila. But what new kinds of footnotes are demanded by the stories that they tell? What is the proper citational format for the contributions of university professors like Drs. Bejjit, Bouhlila, and Benaboud?”
In Tetouan I had found a rich set of sources for the history of bastila. But what new kinds of footnotes are demanded by the stories that they tell? What is the proper citational format for the contributions of university professors like Drs. Bejjit, Bouhlila, and Benaboud? For Soukaina and the bakers at El Mofadal? For the colonial ethnographers like Zette Guinaudeau, with whom I share my own uneasy form of fictive kinship? And above and before them all, for Saʿada, Mabruka, Zayda, and Sayla? What kinds of footnotes can repay our debts to them?
Dr. Anny Gaul is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. She is writing a book about North African food history.
*All images are courtesy of Dr. Gaul.
 One of these books is available in an Arabic critical edition; the other I accessed in Charles Perry’s translation online. Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, Faḍālat al-khiwān fī ṭayyibāt al-ṭaʻām wa-al-alwān: Ṣurat min fann al-ṭabkh fī al-Andalus wa-al-Maghrib fī bidāyat ʻaṣr Banī Marīn, ed. Muhammad B.A. Benchekroun (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1984).
 For a historical account of enslavement in Morocco, see Chouki El Hamel’s book Black Morocco. For an imagined literary account, see the opening chapters of Abdelkrim Ghallab’s 1966 novel We Have Buried the Past.
 Charles Perry, “The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava,” in A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, ed. Sami Zubaida & Richard Tapper. New York: Tauris Parke, 2000. 87–91.
 Muhammad al-Manuni. “Dūdat al-ḥarīr wa-ṣināʿāt ukhrā bi-Tiṭwān al-qarn al-tāsiʿ ʿashar.” In Tiṭwān qabl al-ḥimāya (1860-1912), 21–30. Tetouan: Matbaʿa al-Hidaya, 1994. The episode in question is discussed on pp. 23–4; the appendix is pp. 24–31. The term used to refer to these women is imā’, singular ama, a term which refers to female servants and usually connotes enslaved status.