Publication Date

August 2, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • Middle East


Food & Foodways

On a recent trip to the United States, I listened to my German-born-and-raised emigrant aunt complain about the—in her view—atrocious quality of American cheese and the deceitfulness of manufacturers. “If it doesn’t say ‘natural cheese’ on the packaging,” she explained, “it means it doesn’t have to contain actual cheese!”

A spoonful of tomato alphabet soup, containing the letters F A K E.

If a food is labeled as fake, does that make it real? Alan Levine/Flickr/Public Domain

Analogue, fake, and substitute food and drink products have been gaining ground in recent years. Between 2021 and 2023, the US sales volume for plant-based milk alternatives, for example, rose from $2.8 billion to $3.1 billion. Nondairy milk and simulated food in general are not, however, a recent phenomenon.

People around the globe have been making alternatives for diverse food and drink items for centuries, for different reasons and with varying transparency, although “fake” foodstuffs were not always thought of as substitutes for something else. Often, they were also considered foods or drinks in their own right, as with coconut milk in premodern India and Southeast Asia, today a popular dairy milk substitute in the United States. In our era of government-regulated food and drink labels, such analogues have to be (more or less) clearly identified as what they are—almost, but not quite the real deal.

“Fake” foodstuffs were not always thought of as substitutes for something else.

Things were not always so clear-cut.

In the 13th century, Arab litterateur Jamāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Jawbarī (d. after 1248 CE) compiled a Book Containing a Selection Concerning the Exposure of Secrets (Kitāb al-Mukhtār fī kashf al-asrār). In it, al-Jawbarī “exposes” the secret tricks and frauds of various groups of professional beggars and charlatans of his time, providing “a sketch of the social reality of the professions of begging and swindling, making The Book of Charlatans one of the most important literary representations of underworld customs in medieval Islamic civilization.” Among the many tricks described are several recipes for faking foodstuffs, and as with modern-day industrially produced meat or dairy alternatives, we can be reasonably certain that the motive for producing these fakes was money. Covering imitation honey, “artificial clarified butter” (heads up, R&D team at I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!), fake vinegar, and counterfeit seed oils, the chapter of recipes for fake foods ends with an intriguing instruction for making “‘udder-free’ sour-milk”:

This is a rare art: Only the truly well versed are capable of making an artificial version of it. To make artificial “udder-free” milk, they take some coconut, thoroughly peel away the black outer shell, mince it, and place it in a container or bottles, then put water on it and mash it well by hand. When they taste it, they get the flavor of sour milk. They then squeeze it thoroughly, add the liquid that emerges to the water it was sitting in, and pour it out; it now comes out clotted and rich. They put this in a vessel. Next, they cover it long enough to turn sour, as one does with the real thing. It makes an excellent sour milk. (Translation by Humphrey Davis)

From the Babylonian Talmud, we know that coconuts were common in Mesopotamia since before the Islamic conquest, most likely imported along the trading routes of the Indian Ocean world. For the concoction to have been profitable, coconuts, known in Arabic as jawz hindī (Indian nut) or nārjīl, must have been cheaper and/or easier to obtain than cow’s milk—or perhaps simply easier to steal than a cow. As al-Jawbarī declared in his stated role of “exposer of secrets,” the recipe makes an “excellent sour milk.” This assertion seems to at least partially excuse the deceit, since customers at any rate got a high-quality fake. In fact, it only underlines his warning against the tricks of swindlers and charlatans: the dupe is genuinely so good that it is hard to tell from the original. Then again, this still leads me to ask: If it smells like sour milk and tastes like sour milk, should I even be mad if it isn’t actual sour milk?

Modern companies like Beyond Meat or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! have taken this very idea and turned it around—intentionally advertising their products as tasting almost like the real deal and drawing in customers who choose these products due to intolerances, for health reasons, or out of environmental and animal welfare concern. Noble intentions aside, we can safely assume that the brands selling such “open fakes” are not (or not mainly) doing so for ethical reasons but have instead recognized the large economic potential of providing customers with a clear conscience without forcing them to give up favorite foods or drinks.

Providing the recipes is perhaps counterproductive, if the goal was to warn his compatriots against them.

The difference, of course, is that where today’s customers generally make a conscious, well-informed choice to buy dairy or meat analogues, the victims of al-Jawbarī’s tricksters are kept in the dark about the true nature of their purchase. Indeed, al-Jawbarī’s main problem with these fakes does not seem to be the fakes themselves, as he consistently describes them as fine, superior-tasting products. He even provides the precise recipes to more than half a dozen fake foodstuffs—perhaps counterproductive, if the goal was merely to warn his compatriots against buying them, as they could theoretically be recreated by his readers.

Ultimately, both modern-day food alternatives and medieval Arabic counterfeit foodstuffs share the financial motivation to fabricate a final product that comes as close as possible to the real thing. In both cases, consumers need to be satisfied with the simulation. And even though we are today protected by laws that stipulate what has to go on food and drink labels, just like with al-Jawbarī’s audience, it still often takes a “reader of intelligence and insight” to actually make any sense of these labels.

Leonie Rau is an incoming PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, working on pre- and early modern Arabic recipe collections. She tweets @Leonie_Rau_.

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