Sassanid Sandwich, Bazmāward, بزمآورد

mini-feast-330It is a longstanding tradition among food connoisseurs to argue about origins of various dishes. Although the significance of these disagreements might be lost to an outsider, these are serious discussions that hardly ever result in a universally accepted version of the food’s origin regardless of how convincing each party’s evidence might seem to them. In the context of Persian cuisine, one such hotly debated subject is the origin of sandwich.  Of course, the concept of a filling nutritious portable food, to be taken along on journeys, war campaigns or even to the field by farmers and shepherds has been around almost from the beginning of time. I intend to make the case for the Persian version of the sandwich and leave it to readers to judge where it might fall within its history.

The story dates back to the days of the Sassanid kings, before the Arab invasion of the country. And since the bread in that part of the world has always been flat, the result would have been more of a wrap than a sandwich. In his book on the Sassanids[1]era (224-651 AD) Professor Christensen refers to bazmāward as the dish served at the court in times of hardship.  The source is presumably a Pahlavi text, Aa’in-nāmak, written about court customs in particular those relating to food in pre-Islamic times.  There it is mentioned that in spite of the lavish tradition of court receptions and provision of sumptuous dishes, at times of war the king would only dine with a few high ranking courtiers and the food would be limited to water, salt, vinegar and a plate of bazmāward .  The court cook would bring a tray piled with sandwiches which would quickly be cleared to make way for the serious matters at hand.

Written as ‘bažmâwurt’ in Pahlavi, bazmāward was the Sassanid version of today’s humble sandwich. ‘Bazm’ is the word for feast and ‘award’ means brought. Daryaee in his book on Iran under the Sassanid kings[2] goes deeper and suggests the word  ‘bazm’ might have originated from an Armenian word for the divans used to recline on. Charles Perry in his translation of The Description of Familiar Foods (Kitāb wasf al-at’ma al-mu’tāda)[3] seems to agree that the word is indeed Persian.  In both languages the meaning is related to banquets and feasting. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the dish was also served in receptions.  Nawal Nasrallah[4] in his excellent article on sandwich puts forward an Arabic alternative, a combination of ‘bazm’ meaning tightly wrapped and ‘warid’ from ‘wird’ signifying long and log-shaped. All prejudices aside, the fact that the Persian usage (both the word and the food) and explanation predate the Arabic makes a convincing case for Sandwich’s Persian roots.

Pahlavi texts do not provide us with details of the dish but we have more from Arabic sources talking about ‘bazmāward’ under the Abbasid Caliphs. It is also referred to as ‘zamāward’ and ‘wast’ or ‘awsat’ in Arabic but the meaning remains the same.  For recipes we are limited to Arabic sources and cook books. ‘Kitab al-Tabikh’ written by Muhammad bin al-Hasan bin Muhammad bin al-Karim, the scribe of Baghdad and translated by Charles Perry[5]  offers one recipe whereas an earlier book by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq[6] has five. Of the five, three are specifically referred to as ‘bazmāward’, one as ‘wast’ and one as an open sandwich. I have included these at the end.

It is said that Al-Mustakfi , one of the Abbasid caliphs, 944-946 AD, used to ask his courtiers to recite poems about their favourite foods[7]. One offered a poem about bazmāward by Baghdad Ibn al-Rumi which pleased the Caliph immensely. It is an apt observation on a dish which, if well prepared, takes time and patience to make. However, once made, it takes minutes to eat.

You, seeker of delicious food, take a couple of fine breads, round and thick (jardaq), the likes of which no one has seen. Slice off the top crusts, so that you make them thin.
Spread on one, finely minced young chicken and birds of judhaba, delectable and delicate, which a mere puff would melt.
On this arrange lines of almond intersected with lines of walnut.Let its dots be cheese and olive, and its vowels mint and tarragon,
So that it looks divided as if by stripes, white as milk and multi-coloured silks of Yemen (washi) resembles.
Now take boiled brown eggs, and with their dirhams[8] [egg white] and dinars[9] [egg yolk] the wast[10] adorn.
Give your lines a dusting of salt, but not much, just what it needs.And inspect it with your eyes for a second or two, for the eyes have a share in it, too.
Look at it appreciatively until your eyes have their fill, then cover it with the other bread and eat it with joy.
Sink your teeth into it and earnestly bite, thus you hastily demolish what you have compiled.

The references I have found in Persian sources are limited to short descriptions included in old dictionaries. Borhan-e Qate’[11], considered an authoritative source, offers a typically Persian variation to the theme:

mini-with-tiles-330With واو and rhyming with ‘tanhagard’, it is cooked meat, chives and omelette wrapped tightly in thin bread and shaped into a morsel. It is cut with a knife into pieces and eaten.

The Pahlavi version of the word is given as ‘bazhmâwort’ in the footnotes. Farhang-e Mo’in[12], another venerable dictionary begins its definition with the English transliteration followed by a transliteration from Pahlavi as ‘bažmâwurt’. It gives the recipe as: cooked meat, herbs and boiled eggs wrapped in bread which is cut into pieces with a knife and eaten.  After repeating the definition from Borhan-e Qate’, it adds a more recent name given to the dish which is ‘Loqmato-l  Qazi’ which roughly translates as judge’s bite or morsel. Najaf Daryabandary in his amazing book on world cookery, ‘Ketab-e Mostatab-e Aashpazi, Az Sir ta Piyaz’[13] does refer to ‘Loqmeh Qazi’ and provides the explanation that judges spent their days at the court and hardly had the time to eat. Thus their food was brought to them in the shape of a sandwich, a wrap, to be consumed while he studied cases or passed judgement. While ‘qazi’ is a judge in Persian, ‘ghazi’, the same pronunciation but different spelling, means goose shaped. I have often wondered whether the reference might be to the similarity of ‘bazmāward’ to the shape of a goose’s neck.

Whatever the case maybe, the concept is universal and the means of delivery adapted to the regional variations of bread and fillings. Long may it last to satisfy the pangs of hunger of school children, farmers, shepherds and travellers alike.

Recipes for ‘bazmāward’ >


[1] Prof. Christensen
ایران در زمان ساسلنیان
پروفسور کریستن سن
ترجمه رشید یاسمی
1377 دنیای کتاب  تهران

[2] Sasanian, Iran (224-651 CE)
Portrait of a Late Antique Empire
By Touraj Daryaee
Mazda Publishers Inc.
Costa Mesa, California 2008

[3] Medieval Arab Cookery
Essays and Translations by Maxime Rodinson, A.J. Arberry & Charles Perry
Prospect Books 2006

[4] Mediaeval Arabs Ate Sandwiches, Too: Bazmāward  and Awsat for the Record
Studia Orientalia 114 (2013),pp 373 – 392

[5] A Baghdad Cookery Book
The Book of Dishes (Kitab al-Tabikh)
Petits Propos Culinaires 79
Prospect Books November 2005

[6] Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens
Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi cookbook
English Translation with Introduction and Glossary by Nawal Nasrallah
Brill, Leiden and Boston 2010

[7] Medieval Arabs Ate Sandwiches Too p376, quoting from al-Mas’udi’s ‘Muruj al-Dhahab’

[8] A silver coin

[9] A gold coin

[10] Another Arabic word for Bazmāward

[11] Borhan-e Qate’, برهان قاطع
by Mohammad ben Khalaf Tabrizi, Borhan, 1062 lunar
Ed Dr Mohammad Mo’in
Entesharat Amir Kabir,
Tehran 1357 solar

[12] Farhang-Farsi فرهنگ فارسی Mohammad Mo’in
Chapkhaneh Sepehr
Teharn 1360

[13] کتاب مستطاب آشپزی از سیر تا پیاز
نجف دریابندری با همکاری فهیمه رستگار
کارنامه تهران 1379