The Almojábana’s journey from Caliphate to Colombia

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Photo: Richard Emblin

The almojábana’s history can be traced to the conquest by Islamic Arabs of Southern Spain in 711. The Moors occupied Al-Andalus whose principal cities were Granada, Sevilla, and Cordoba. Each decade brought more prosperity culminating in what is called the Golden Age, a period ruled by the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty in 998.

This era was marked by religious tolerance, abundance, and flourishing arts and sciences. Islamic conquerors introduced “the long tradition of high cuisine…[including] an extraordinary variety of flat and lightly raised wheat breads and other wheaten products” to their newly conquered land. Once on the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors encountered olives and “cheese took the place of yogurt.”

Breads, a hallmark of the Perso-Islamic diet, composed of flour, eggs, sometimes leavening, were either baked or fried, stuffed or plain. Cheese, olive oil and other newfound foodstuffs added complexity to the already sophisticated cuisine. Conquerors absorbed local food products into their own cuisine creating a new Andalusian cuisine that incorporated the foods native to Spain.

The cuisine of the elite urban Islamic people was extravagant and fed thousands. The cataloguing of etiquette, medicine, science, poetry, and cuisine were found in several manuals including a manuscript titled, Kitab al-tabij fil-Magrib wa-l-Andalus fi ‘asr al-muwahhidin li-mu’allif mayhul [The book of cooking in Magreb and Al-Andalus in the era of the Almohads by an unknown author]. The manuscript will be referred to as “Kitab.”

The first mention of an almojábana or cheese bread is found in the Kitab from the thirteenth century. The compendium of recipes is notable because it had been translated to both Catalan and Spanish in the 13th century, featured several recipes for Jewish or Jewish-style preparations and was voluminous with over 500 different distinct recipes for meats, breads, pastas, and confections. These included five for mujabbanas (in Arabic) or almojábanas, as they are known in the Spanish speaking world.

Cheese-filled dumplings, puffs or pastries can be found in other sections of the Kitab though not expressly named mujabbanas. Interestingly, the author makes a distinction between breads and these other cheese-filled doughs in much the same way that modern day Colombia uses the term amasijos for kneaded doughs other than “bread.”

The recipes in the Kitab does not specify quantities for each ingredient relying instead on the assumed knowledge of the cook. Essentially a combination of flour, milk, and cheese, the method of preparation is intricately described:

Roll it out [to a low loaf] and let it not have the consistency of mushahhada [pancakes] but firmer than that, and lighter than musammana [puff pastry] dough…wet your hand in water and tear off a piece of the dough…first squeeze the cheese with your hand, and the extra liquid leaves and drains from the hand…Put it in the frying pan while the oil boils. Remove it with an iron dipper and put it in a dripper similar to a sieve held above the frying pan, until its oil drips out..”

While the author of Kitab is unknown, the writer of the treatise does close the first of the five mujabbana recipes as follows:

Thus do the people of our land make it in the west of al-Andalus, as in Cordoba and Seville and Jerez, and elsewhere in the land of the al-Maghrib

It is one of a few specific references to place or person found in the manuscript and speaks to the popularity of the cheese bread. The Kitab recipes call for frying and throughout contemporary Spain, a sweetened version of the fried cheese amasijo served with honey and almonds can be found today. The almojábana became typical of the western region of the Mediterranean resulting in a cross-cultural culinary representation that would be replicated throughout Spain, and throughout the Americas.

Almojábanas circulated in Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries. Defined as a dough made of flour and cheese, a reference is found in a treatise from 1492 titled Gramática de la Lengua Castellana or Grammar of the Castilian Language written by Antonio de Nebrija. Additionally, professor and food historian, Carmen Simón Palmer of the Spanish National Research Council, found that almojábanas were served at the royal table of King Philip ll, who ruled Spain from May 1527 to September 1598 (Connor).

Lastly, in the town of Albarracín, Spain, a small medieval village that once belonged to the caliphates ruling al-Andalus, historical references exist that attest to the medieval consumption of almojábanas. Albarracín continues to produce these cheesy breads that have become synonymous with authenticity and place. Almojábanas form part of the tourist attraction or “must try” food item for the village. A conquistador named Juan de Albarracín journeyed with the conquistador Jiménez de Quesada to Colombia which links the almojábana to Spain through al-Andalus and then across the Atlantic and to Colombia.

The New World almojábanas

In 1509, Alonso de Ojeda, a Spanish explorer traveled with Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, to the Gulf of Urabá on the northwestern coast of Colombia and settled in what is now called San Sebastian de Urabá. It was not until 1525 that the Spaniards began colonizing Colombia in earnest lured by the legend of El Dorado (the mythical city constructed of gold). When the Spaniards arrived in Santa Marta, they battled the Tairona peoples, who traded with the Muisca. The Muisca reigned over the central Andean highlands where the capital city of Bogotá sits.

In 1536, the conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada arrived in the region, flanked by troops as well as priests and missionaries determined on domesticating the indigenous population. Bloody battles ensued and the Spaniards proceeded to dismantle the societal and political structures that permitted the Muisca to rule for over 2000 years.

The Muisca grew diverse foodstuffs and employed sophisticated vertical systems of agriculture which took advantage of different thermic elevations and terrains. Generally, the Muisca consumed deer, guinea pigs, insects, tubers, cereals, fruits, maize, and leaves. The Spaniards abhorred many of the foods eaten by the indigenous and frequently blamed it for illness and disease. The anxiety about cohabitating with the indigenous population was so severe that the settlers felt, “that living in an unfamiliar environment, and among unfamiliar peoples, might alter not only the customs but also the very bodies of settlers.” Food does alter bodies.

Our consumption of certain foods signals to others who we are and what our status is within society. The Muisca, like the Spaniards and the Perso-Islamic civilization, had a social hierarchy characterized by many features including the types of foods consumed. Foods, for example, particularly in bread-like forms, like the arepa made from corn, were served only to the elite members of the Muisca tribe.

The Spaniards relied on the customs and foodways of the Old World as a way of binding themselves to their history and re-enforcing their own identity. There was a clear distinction made by the colonists between themselves and the indigenous. They feared that eating the food of indigenous peoples devalued their bodies. They presumed that consuming these foreign foods would result in illness, disease, and degradation, i.e. that they would be transformed into savages. The foods consumed by the Spaniards from the Old World further delineates that separation. The colonists brought their own foods, seeds, and animals with them to protect their bodies from illness, to provide them with the strength to govern, and to use them to acculturate the Muisca. The Muisca empire ended in 1600, but their people continued to live in the region (a few thousand descendants remain in the highlands today).

Modern Day Colombia

In 2016, then President Juan Manual Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for having negotiated a treaty with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel guerilla group, who was fighting the longest armed war in the Western Hemisphere known as La Guerilla. In many ways, it was an ordinary day for President Santos. His breakfast is typically coffee and almojábanas, cites El Tiempo. In 2011, then Mayor of Bogotá, Clara López Obregón, changed the work schedule of 50,000 employees within the Mayor’s office, to start at 7:00am instead of 9:00am. This was done in the interest of reducing the traffic congestion plaguing the capital city. Their reward for rising early was a breakfast of hot chocolate and almojábanas.

These amasijos can be found in every corner bakery and supermarket in Bogotá and throughout most cities and towns. An industry has developed of ready-made mixes and parbaked almojábanas that can be prepared at home, ideal for busy households that do not have the privilege of domestic help. These are available both at local food markets in Colombia and sold in the United States at Walmart, among other US markets. Su Sabor Latin Taste, La Fe, Banderita are some of the brand names found for sale in the US.

In fact, most stores selling Latin food products in the US stock boxes of mixes to make amasijos like pan de yucas, arepas and almojábanas. These sweet and savory breads form part of a modern-day Colombian’s diet irrespective of social class. The universal affection of a Colombian for almojábanas extends globally. No matter in what part of the world a Colombian bakery is located, a customer will likely encounter either a batch of almojábanas or the mixes needed to make them at home.

The almojábana has become synonymous with hope. Thanks to the Colombian women charged with nurturing domestic spaces and introducing the manners, foods, and customs of the Old World, amasijos have been transformed into a viable economic product that permits women in low socioeconomic classes to earn an income that aids them to modestly sustains themselves and their families. Indeed, almojábanas symbolize cultural identity and connect a Colombian to the rich and difficult history called home.

Recipe from Negra Inés, a purveyor of almojábanas for four generations:

1.5 g de cuajo fresco recién obtenido (fresh curds made from whole milk)

500 g harina de maíz (corn flour)

250 g flour harina de trigo (wheat flour)

Sal/salt

2 huevos (eggs)

Curds are squeezed dry, added to the flours, salt, and eggs, and mixed by hand. Make individual balls and bake 30 to 40 minutes in the oven until golden brown.

This recipe is not that different from the one found in the Kitab.

The following recipe appears in posh coffee table book called Taste of Colombia written by Benjamin Villegas and Antonio Montaña, available in both English and Spanish, and designed to introduce foreigners to Colombia’s gastronomy. This recipe uses only milled corn and does not incorporate wheat:

1 lb. (500 g) of shelled corn

3 lb. (1.5 kg) of fresh cheese

3 egg yolks

4 oz (125g) butter

Soak the corn for three days, changing the water daily. Drain the corn and grind it with the cheese. Add the egg yolks, the butter, and the salt. Knead the mixture until obtaining a smooth and homogeneous dough. Shape into small bowls, place on a tin and put in an oven preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes.

About the author: Claudia Mahedy is a food historian and graduate of NYU’s food studies program. She published edible Queens and edible Idaho magazines.