Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats.  Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.

The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal.  Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do.  My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.

It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal.   (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.)  In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices.  With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom.  Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes.  So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.

As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.

I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes.  They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes.  That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another.  The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix.  Here’s my favorite blend:

Ingredients
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)

Method
Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
Grind together

A Silk Road Summer Bean Salad in Zester Daily

What summer picnic is complete without a light and refreshing bean salad? These light and refreshing salads complement roast meats and vegetables wonderfully and are easy to prepare and are extremely nutritious as well! What’s not to love? My favorite bean salad is also a Silk Road favorite from Pakistan. Read all about the bean salad, the silk road and Pakistani cuisine HERE!

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Pomegranate Symbolism for Spring

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Read more about pomegranates on Zester Daily – HERE.

Pomegranate Spring

Areni Winemaking – Ancient and Modern

Last year I had the pleasure of visiting the Areni-1 cave in southern Armenia.  Many unique and noteworthy artifacts have been found in the cave, including leather shoes; fine linen fabric, woven reed mats, and pottery vessels of different styles and periods.  In addition, preserved within the cave is also the site of the world’s oldest known winery.  When the archaeologists studying the site announced this in 2012, I knew I just had to see it for myself.

Mouth of cave Areni-1

Mouth of cave Areni-1

The cave is situated overlooking a winding road that slips through a valley along the edge of the Arpa River.  Small cafes and vendors dot the roadside.  We pulled into one of the cafes that had grapevine canopies over tables that straddled side branches of the river.  I thought we were just stopping for lunch, but when I looked up, we were also right at the base of the cliff where the Areni-1 cave was located.

The earthen path to the cave was well worn, but very steep and without steps or rail, so it was a bit of a trudge get to the mouth of the cave.  It was also a hot, late spring day, and the sun, although welcome after several days of clouds and showers, beat down on us as we climbed. As we neared the mouth of the cave, a dog ran by us at breakneck speed, making me wish for a few less years on my own personal pedometer.

The view into the valley from the cave mouth is spectacular.  The hills across the access road are low and one can see for many miles to the north.  Presuming a similar lay of the land in the recent past, the cave would have provided excellent protection for occupants and as well as the ability to see animals or people headed their way at a distance.  It was the ultimate early room with a view.

Areni-1 Main Occupation Area

Areni-1 Main Occupation Area

Just to the left of the cave mouth is the main occupation area. Although the cave was inhabited on and off from the Neolithic to the late Middles Ages, the bulk of the habitation was in the Chalcolithic or Copper Age in the late 5th to early 4th millennium BCE. This area has yielded hearths, grindstones, clay storage bins, and numerous goat and sheep bones (mostly goat). In addition to their provenance, the bones themselves show signs of processing for harvesting meat and marrow as well as cooking, indicating that cave occupants were eating animals on site and probably living in proximity to them as well. Areni’s famous leather shoes were found in this area. Also found here were obsidian and chert tools. The obsidian is interesting because there are no deposits of it in the Arpa valley within 20 kilometers of the cave, indicating that cave inhabitants were either getting it themselves at a greater distance, or trading with others who had ready access to the material.

When I was in college I worked for a summer at the Tautavel caves in southern France.  The material used for some of the tools at that Neanderthal site came from several hundred miles away.  So trade at a distance for Areni’s much more modern inhabitants is no surprise. It is important to remember, however, when considering the flow of information, such as that concerning the domestication of plants or ways of processing them for food and drink, or for the ability to trade wine, say for obsidian, perhaps?

Although the cave has electricity, the day we visited, it was out. In fact, we were told it was on before our climb, but it seemed to fail especially for our visit. I don’t know how many of you are spelunkers, but as you enter a cave, the light falls off rapidly. Just a handful of feet inside the mouth of the cave and we were in near darkness that became pitch as we made our way deeper inside. Someone had a half-dead flashlight with them, and that was the only light we had to guide us. The photos in this post are a credit to my trusty Nikon and its ability capture and amplify light, because it was impossible to see a few inches beyond the weak torchlight with the unaided eye.

Areni-1 Wine Production Area

Areni-1 Wine Production Area

To the left, in the darkness of the cave, was the main wine processing area. This area has a shallow clay tub, the center of which is occupied by the mouth of a large jar. Archaeologists think that this basin was for the pressing of grapes or berries, and that the pressed juice flowed into the mouth of the large jar. This interpretation is bolstered by the discovery of desiccated grapes, grape seeds and skins still attached to pedicels, and even grape stems in close proximity to these jars. Morphological examination of the Copper-Age grape remains found here suggest that they are an intermediary between wild and domestic fruits, so it is possible that grape domestication was in process at Areni-1. The presence of large storage jars around the pressing installation may even indicate that secondary fermentation took place there. Plastering of jar mouths would have created an airlock, protecting the wine from oxidation. Carbon-14 dating of the grapes in this area places them between 4223 – 3790 BCE, making this the oldest wine-producing assemblage yet discovered. There are older jars with sediments that have been identified as wine known from Georgia and Iran, which indicates the consumption of wine in those places, but Armenia has the claim as oldest site for wine making.

In addition to grapes, the remains of many other fruits, drupes, and nuts were found in the cave, including plums, pears, hackberries, silverberries, almonds and walnuts. These could have been for consumption as food items, or some of them (notably plums and pears) could have been used in the production of mixed-fruit wines. The presence of the walnuts are also notable because there is very little data on when humans started to domesticate (purposely plant and harvest nuts) from these trees. Areni-1 offers remains and a firm range of dates when inhabitants were eating these in the Caucasus. Charred grains such as emmer, early wheat (Triticum cf. aestivum), naked and hulled barley, lentils, and grass peas were also found in the cave.

Areni-1 One of the areas where human remains were recovered.

Areni-1 One of the areas where human remains were recovered.

We trudged on slowly towards the rear of the cave, feeling more than seeing our way forward towards an area where the skulls of three sub-adult human skulls were found sealed into large pottery jars. One of the skulls had well preserved brain tissue within. Also around this area, several adult leg and arm bones with evidence of carnivore chewing (probably a dog) were also found. All of the human remains predate the winemaking by several hundred years. Beyond the fact that their heads were severed from their bodies, archaeologists do not know how to interpret these remains. They are being called, “burials,” but it is not clear whether these tweens and teens were sacrificed, or whether they died from natural causes and their heads interred in ritual remembrance. The largest skull has evidence of new bone formation on the inside of the skull, but no evidence of fracture or deliberate penetration into the cranial cavity. This suggests an inflammatory response to an infection as can occur in the encephalidities, meningitis, and osteomyelitis. However, because the adult long bones were chewed by a dog, and some of them were found sealed in pots, I suspect that these kids may have been victims of rabies. We know that rabies was a problem in the Old Babylonian Period of ancient Mesopotamia because they had spells to try to counteract it  Although Areni-1 is much older than the earliest known evidence of rabies in Mesopotamia, It is not too far flung to imagine that these kids died after an infectious bite from a rabid animal.  Whatever the cause of death, my money is on ritual remembrance of these children, not sacrifice or ritual cannibalism as some have suggested.

Tasting Table at the Areni Wine Factory

Tasting Table at the Areni Wine Factory

As we made our way out of the cave, the return of the light felt like emerging from the world of the past represented in the artifacts and assemblages.  I imagined the sounds of people chatting while they worked, animals bleating, some meat cooking on the hearth, and people making and tasting the old Areni-1 vintages.  Imagination is a powerful thing, because not two minutes by Jeep from the base of the cave is the Areni Wine Factory.  Despite its Soviet-sounding name, the wines they make are good and the people who make it are knowledgeable about their wines and wine culture beyond their borders.  That day, they were tasting some mixed fruit wines.  I sampled the grape-cherry and grape pomegranate both of which were very good.  A quick tour of the cellar ended the day and we got back in the Jeep to find some beds for the night.  As we drove, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the coincidence of modern winery so near to the world’s oldest known winery, and wondered how similar (or how different) the people of the Arap Valley are to those who lived in Areni-1.

(Words and photographs by Laura Kelley.  Recording of rabies Incantation borrowed from the London SOAS website).

No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.

To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

Ingredients
1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala

Method
1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.

Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:

Origin of Ingredients for Indian Curry

Origin of Ingredients for Indian Curry

The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.

From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.

Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.

All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.

To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.

Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).

Traveling the Roads of Arabia

Ha’il Stelae, ca.3500 BCE

For the past forty years, archaeologists on the Saudi peninsula have been piecing together a pre-Islamic past featuring great city-states that had cultural and commercial connections with the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These ancient trade cities are one of the foci of a new exhibit at the Sackler in Washington, DC, called Roads of Arabia. The other set of “roads” treated in the exhibit are the later Islamic-era pilgrimage roads to Mecca and the influence of the people traveling those roads on the Arab world. With 320 objects spanning more than one-million years, from Paleolithic petroglyphs to the rise of the modern Saudi state, the exhibit is a showcase of treasures never seen in the United States until now.

The exhibit is laid out chronologically and begins with three rock stelae with individual faces carved on them recovered from Found near Ha’il in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia. They date to around 3500 BCE, and starkly lit, the stelae glow against a black background, and invite you to approach and ponder the people who made them. Other early objects are those from Tarut, an island on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that was the center of the Dilmun civilization that was later to move to the island now known as Bahrain.

Singing Man, ca. 2500 BCE

Objects from this era include black, gray and white stone jars, cups, and bowls that may have originated in SE Iran or may have been made on Tarut. Items of similar design and manufacture have been found in Syria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan, indicating the extent of the trade network that the people of Tarut were part of in antiquity.

Another statue of definitive Tarut manufacture is of a man singing a prayer that shows evidence of Near Eastern influence. It is a large, limestone piece, slightly over 3-feet in length. His rounded head, right hand clasping his left to his chest, as well as his triple-banded belt are all found in Mesopotamian statuary from a similar period around 2500 BCE.

Gold Death Mask

Although I preferred the earlier items on display because of the evidence they provided of connections with other ancient cultures, there are some stunning things to see in the later part of the exhibit as well. One such item is a gold funerary mask from the tomb of a young girl from Thaj that is around 2000 years old. The mask is serene and beautiful and reminds me of the “Mask of Agamemnon” found at Troy that dates to 1500 BCE. Also in the tomb was a large amount of gold jewelry with semiprecious stones such as amethysts, carnelian and pearls that would have adorned the girl in the afterlife. The design of the mask and the jewelry both show contact with Greco-Roman civilization, and are evidence of the wealth that trading brought to ancient Arabia.

From the period of about the 4th Century BCE to the 16th century, there are fine examples of molded and blown glass that have somehow survived the passage of time. Some of these are locally made, and others are of foreign manufacture – all are beautiful and of a variety of colors and iridesence. One of my favorites was a small medicine bottle shaped and colored like a date.

From the second part of the exhibit depicting the roads to Mecca, there is a breathtaking display of tombstones of pilgrims who died at Mecca or on the way and were laid to rest there. The stones are carved from local basalt that often has its natural shape. The Arabic calligraphy that adorns the stones is highly designed to fit the shape of the stones and the space allowed for the epitaths. This section of the exhibit is both beautiful, sad and very human and reminds us that people and their stories lay behind each and every object.

Tombstones of the Faithful

There is also an unspoken message of the exhibition to western ears that I “can’t not” mention, and that is that the Saudis and other Muslims embrace their pre-Islamic history. The deplorable crimes against history and humanity that have been committed in Bamiyan and in many other places are not based in Islam or the Koran and are product of unfortunate, closed minds.

So, in closing, the exhibit does a good job telling us how ancient Arabs traded indigenous goods such as incense and aromatic spices, but it doesn’t show us how Arabs were global dealers in goods from many shores. Arabs dealt in timbers from Africa and South Asia and spices from India and Indonesia and brought these items to the far reaches of the world. Without Arab merchants, the Silk Road might not have been the engine of globalization that it was. I hope that future archaeological finds help tell this missing part of the story and further fill in the past of these great peoples.

The exhibit runs through February 24th in Washington and then travels to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and venues in Chicago and Boston through early 2015. If you are near any of these venues or will be passing through, make time to see this exhibit. You will learn a lot and see many, “wondrous things.” (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ha’il Stelae, Gold Death Mask and Gravestones of the Faithful from exhibition website; photo of Singing Man from Tarut from pamphlet, Tarut Island by Murtadha Al-Ruwaie.)

Click on the YouTube video below for the official teaser-trailer of the exhibition (its great)!

New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes

Saudi Aramco World Cover 11/12-12

I am pleased to share with you my new article on ancient Mesopotamian cuisine entitled, New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes” in the November-December issue of Saudi Aramco World.

Click the link above to read the article on the publisher’s website and peruse the other articles in the issue.  I really like the magazine, because its stated objective is to build understanding between peoples by increasing reader’s knowledge of the Muslim world and its peoples and their connections to the west.

Thanks to the editors of the magazine for publishing the article, and thanks to the friends of Silk Road Gourmet who allowed me to submit their photos to illustrate these delicious, ancient dishes.  I hope you enjoy the article as well as the magazine!

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie

There is a chill in the air and early mornings before the sun are best spent wrapped in a blanket, so it is time to welcome Autumn in once again.  Sort of like a migratory bird taking its cues from the failing sun, I’ve realized that it is time for my annual exploration of Mesopotamian Cuisine.  I have long wanted to try some of the complex fowl recipes on the Yale Babylonian Collection tablet 8958 and decided to try recipe 1 for Wildfowl Pie.

My review of the finished dish is below, but I can say that preparing it was fascinating. Specifically, what I am in awe about is that such an ancient recipe (from around 1700 BCE) produced a dish that seems so . . . familiar.  Surely, cooking gives us insight into their world, but it also shows us how so many ancient traditions and elements of material culture continue to resonate today.

The original ingredients on the tablet are: Fowl, water, milk, salt, fat, cinnamon, mustard greens, shallots, semolina, leeks, garlic, flour, brine, roasted dill seeds, mint, wild tulip bulbs.  From these basics, the ingredients below were drawn with some substitution, either for convenience in cooking or because of disagreement with the original translation. I used Cornish game hen instead of wildfowl largely because I had several on hand. The original recipe does not specify what type of bird should be used; it says only “small” birds. If you choose to try the recipe with quail or other bird, you will need a lot more than 2 and you will need to adjust the cooking time.

Tablet YBC 8958

I used mustard greens instead of rue, largely because I wasn’t convinced that Bottero had identified the plant correctly. Sibburatu is a highly aromatic plant of which both the leaves AND the seeds are used. Rue leaves are used in cooking, but to my knowledge, the seeds are not. On the other hand, mustard does offer a sharp flavor and both the leaves and seeds are used. Additional evidence that Sibburatu may be mustard instead of rue is that it was extensively used for poultices – especially on the eyes – and to treat a variety of internal ailments, particularly urinary tract infections. You may have a different sense of pain than I, but I would not want a poultice of rue on my eyes or on any other part of my body given the pain and blisters in is known to cause.

The “aromatic wood” specified by Bottero is not kasu (licorice) so my first best guess is that it is cinnamon which would have been known at the time of the tablets either by direct contact with Sri Lanka or indirect via Egypt which was the single largest purchaser of cinnamon from the Southern Asian island paradise. As to sebetu, Bottero thought these were small rolls made out of grain, which doesn’t make a great deal of culinary sense. I however think that they are dill seeds because sibetum is dill in Assyrian, and the vowel shift is inconsequential (in this case). I think that sebetu-rolls as specified by Bottero are roasted dill seed that is used to flavor both the crust and the pie. I added ground cilantro and cumin seeds because both spices were known by the Mesopotamians, and such variation was not only well within the expected use of such a “recipe”, but it was indeed expected that cooks would personalize them.

I chose to make the crust from a mix of rye and white flour. Rye would have been known to the ancient Mesopotamians and I thought it would work well with a savory pie. However I used white flour instead of spelt or emmer for convenience. I have spelt on hand, but wanted a dough with a consistency and flavor that would work with rye. The amount of dough made with the recipe is more than ample to fill a large pie dish and cover. If desired, you can make rye crackers or something else with the remainder.

The layered assembly of the pie is written in the tablet, which specifies a layer of mint on the bottom of the pie followed by a layer of chicken. Based on this recipe, the Babylonians were layering dishes a few millenia before the Persians – who are usually given credit for the technique – started doing it. Thus, layering is another culinary technique with deep regional roots that is still found today and one that has spread widely from its point of origin.

Without much further ado, the ingredients and method:

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie

Hens for Pie
2 Cornish game hens
2 teaspoons of sea salt
8 cups of water
6 cups of whole milk
2 tablespoons of butter
2 large (4-5 inch) Sri Lankan cinnamon sticks
6-10 mustard leaves, well rinsed and chopped
1 tablespoon of dried mint
2 tablespoons garlic diced
6 medium shallots, peeled and chopped
2 leeks, thoroughly cleaned and chopped
2 tablespoons of semolina

Crust
1.5 cups of rye flour
1.5 cups of white flour (plus extra for flouring kneading and rolling surfaces)
½ cup butter, cut up into small pieces
½ -¾ cup of whole milk
¼ – 1/3 cup brine (3 cups water to ¼ cup sea salt), chilled
¼ cup dill seeds lightly roasted in a pan or oven

Salt the hens liberally inside and out and set aside.  In a saucepan large enough to hold the hens submerged in liquid, heat water and milk.  Add butter, cinnamon sticks, mustard greens and mint and stir.  When it just approaches a boil remove from flame and stir.  It will be necessary to watch the pot, as the milk will make it froth and boil over as it comes to a boil.  Let for about 10 minutes and pulse the shallots, leeks and garlic in a food processor until they are blended but still have form.

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie – Assembled

Place hens in the pot and return to flame.  Cook partially covered over medium heat until the liquid approaches a boil.  Stir, reduce flame and add chopped vegetables along with semolina and stir again.  Cook partially covered over medium-low heat (gas-mark 4) for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. About halfway through cooking flip the hens.  The hens will be done when you can easily push a spoon through the back.  When done remove and set aside to cool until the hens can be deboned by hand.  Continue to cook the broth the milk and water mixture over low flame until it is reduced by at least half. Stir occasionally. If the mixture starts to curdle up, stop cooking and remove from heat.

While waiting for the hens to cool, mix flour and butter with a pastry cutter until it begins to come together like cornmeal.  Then add milk one tablespoon at a time until moist enough to form a ball.  Then add brined water until the flour comes together into a dough and you are able to knead the dough.  (Please note that the moisture needed to form the dough depends upon the quality, grind and hydration of the flour and the climate.  Please use the measurements above as recommendations, and use less or more depending upon your local requirements.)  Knead for 5 full minutes until dough is uniform, soft and nicely pliable.  If it starts to stick to your hands as you knead, simply add a bit more flour to the surface until the dough integrity is restored.  When you are done kneading the dough, form it into a ball and then divide the ball into two pieces for the bottom and top crusts.  Add about half of the dill seeds to the dough for the top crust and work through thoroughly. Then let the dough rest for a while. Refrigerate for about half an hour to cool the butter a bit.

Pie
Leaves from 10-12 mint sprigs, rinsed and dried (a heap of mint leaves)
Shredded meat from game hens cooked in part one
2 teaspoons salt
Mustard greens, rinsed and torn
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
8-10 shallots
2 leeks, rinsed well and chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro seeds, ground
2 teaspoons cumin seed, ground
Remaining roasted dill seed from part one
4 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Liberally flour your rolling surface, flatten the ball of dough that will form the bottom crust and lightly flour both sides.  From the center of the dough, roll out bottom crust to be a couple of inches larger than the pie dish you are using.  The dough may be very elastic and a bit sticky given the mixture of flours.  If the dough gets sticky, just dust it with a bit of flour and continue rolling.  Spray or butter the dish and fold the rolled out dough into quarters before lining the pie dish with it.  Fit the dough into the crust by easing it into the curves rather than stretching the dough.

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie Ready for the Oven

Layer the bottom of the crust with half of the mint leaves. Over them place about half of the shredded chicken mixed with have of the chopped shallots, leeks and garlic. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the salt over chicken and vegetables and then place a layer of mustard leaves over this.  Mound the chicken and greens towards the center as you would apples in an apple pie.  Sprinkle the cinnamon over the mustard greens and add 1 teaspoon of the ground cilantro and cumin seeds.

Now place the remaining chicken mixed with the remaining chopped shallots, leeks, and garlic over the mustard greens.  Add the remaining salt over the mixed meat and vegetables.  Add the remaining mint, roasted dill leaves and ground cilantro and cumin onto the final layer. Slice half the butter and place on top of the last layer.

Flatten the dough with the roasted dill seeds in it into a disk and lightly flour each side.  Starting from the center, roll the dough out into the top crust.  Make sure that it is at least a couple of inches larger than the dish.  Fold the dough into quarters and place it on top of the pie and unfold.  Pinch the top and bottom crusts together firm with your fingers and trim the excess crust with a sharp knife.  If desired, press the crusts with the tines of a fork to seal them.

Pierce the top crust in several places and slice the remaining butter and place evenly around the crust.  Place on the top shelf of your preheated oven towards the rear and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes – just enough for the crusts to cook.

When done, remove from the oven and let sit for at least 15-20 minutes before serving. Serve with the reduced broth that the chicken cooked in presented in small bowls.  The broth can be spooned onto the pie or sipped separately.

A Slice of Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie

So how was it?  It was savory and delicious. The flavor of the rye and the roasted dill in the crust was fabulous and my husband really liked the taste of the layer of mustard leaves inside the pie and the flavor that it offered. The principal flavors of the filling are, in addition to hen and shallots are mint and dill. The cilantro and the cumin seeds (particularly the cumin seeds) add body and depth to these light and airy flavors. I found the interplay of the onions and mint very interesting. This is again another flavor combination that persists in Iranian food today, most strongly evident in their wonderful pickled onion and mint condiments. We both like the broth that was served to accompany the pie. My husband spooned it over the pie and enjoyed it like that and I sipped the broth in between bites.

There is one thing that puzzled me about the pie. Most of the time when the triad of shallots, garlic and leeks are pounded together, there is a binding element, like kissimu (drained yogurt) or occasionally blood. Frankly, the pie could have used a little kissimu in it to bind and moisten it. At some point, I will try this again with the kissimu and if it is a good addition, I will post the amendment to the recipe in this post.

One word of warning, the pie is a fair amount of work. When and if you attempt it, it is best to have most of the day available to prepare it and then give yourself a bit of a rest before tucking in. If you try this or any other of the recipes from the Yale tablets, please let me know – I’d love to hear about your experiences. More original recipes are available on the site as well as some of my revised translations of food words.  You may also look at the results of our 2011 Mesopotamian Cookoff for some recipes developed by accomplished international cooks and chefs like Tenderloin with Licorice, Lamb and Carob Stew, Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf as well as Sweet Mersu and Savory Mersu. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of YBC 8958 from Wikimedia, Photos of Mesopotamian Pie Assembled, ready for the oven and sliced by Laura Kelley.)

The Color of Pomegranates

Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice

He grabbed a pomegranate from the table next to him and flashed a shy smile my way as I approached. I nodded and a quick flash of steel followed by a skilled twist and the fruit was open. He placed half on the machine, spun the wheel and a few seconds later blood-red juice flowed from it’s silver jaws into my glass. The scent was light but complex and the taste, sweet and tart and almost unbearably delicious. This was nothing like the bottled juice full of citric acid or sugar that one finds in US markets, this was Isfandiyar’s nectar, a wonderful treat!

Domesticated in Mesopotamia by the third millenium BCE (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 BCE), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew. The spread north and eastward was across the ancient network of land and maritime trade routes we have come to call the Silk Road.

As the fruit has been traded and adopted, many cultivars have been selected for that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity, and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white, to yellow, to the familiar shades of pink and red to a dark, to an almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color.

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity and even death and rebirth. They have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Think on that as you anticipate the fruit of this year’s harvest. Above all, when they finally arrive, drink a fresh glass of juice and know the taste of heaven. (Words and photo of a Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice by Laura Kelley).

Culinary History Mystery # 5: A Loaf of Leavened Mesopotamian Bread

Something wonderful and unexpected happened yesterday. After a long day of tromping around historical archaeology sites in St. Mary’s City with the family, I arrived home to find a long-expected, but immediately unanticipated e-mail from a fellow food lover in England. Cid is a purveyor of fine foods and an expert breadmaker. Some time ago, I asked her to help me solve a historical food puzzle that has been vexing me for some time. Namely, did the Mesopotamians enjoy leavened as well as unleavened bread?

Because we are lacking explicit evidence for the use of yeast to leaven bread in Mesopotamia and many other ancient cultures, modern cooks reconstructing the cuisines of these cultures have assumed that all of the bread in these cultures was flat and dense like hardtack. An unfortunate assumption.

What Cid has beautifully demonstrated is that spelt, which is not too dissimilar to the emmer wheat used by Mesopotamians, makes a great big loaf of sourdough bread using a starter based only on wild yeast from the environment.

For those of you new to the “starter” concept, it is simply that a grain providing a carbohydrate source is mixed with water and allowed to attract microorganisms from the environment.  As the microorganisms consume the food given them by the flour (carbohydrate and sugar) they reproduce and must be “fed” with the addition of new flour (and sometimes water).  Sometimes an additional sugar source is added by soaking macerated fruit in the water to be mixed with the flour to start the starter culture more rapidly.  This process continues until a stable community of yeast and bacteria is established in the liquid or semi-solid “starter”.  This starter is added to flour, water and other ingredients, kneaded, folded, proofed and baked and sourdough bread results.

The importance of Cid’s demonstration is that even if the ancients didin’t explicitly know and write about yeast as an ingredient, they might have known how to use the wild type organism.  Cid’s talents as a baker show that wild-yeast leavened breads were possible in the ancient world.  She writes:

“For the past few weeks I’ve been feeding a spelt ferment starter with organic spelt flour every day. Next to my other ‘white’ ferments the spelt had a different smell and didn’t bubble up as quickly.

Wild Yeast Spelt Starter

It’s not clear whether the ancient bakers used a ‘poolish’ method for their bread, which is basically an amount of starter ferment mixed with water and flour left to further ferment over night before adding more flour the next day. It seemed like a reasonable idea so that’s what I did. It bubbled well enough to make me believe it would produce a good loaf. So at breakfast the following day I mixed in enough spelt flour and two teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.

The feel of the dough was very different to the normal sourdoughs I make on a weekly basis. Despite kneading and resting, the dough never felt elastic and rose only slightly. You see, the gluten in modern wheat flour produces stretchy dough that rises well and if ‘folded’ at regular intervals rather than kneaded, will give the crumb its familiar large holes and crackling crust.

Unbaked Spelt Sourdough

As I got the dough properly formed up into a loaf, I fired up my oven to 240°C with baking stone in place.

As you can see the baked loaf is rather flat and dark looking. It’s consistency is much more like a scone than modern day brown bread and it has a sour tang. The texture is too heavy for my taste and the ferment too sour. A portion of this type of bread would be very filling and full of natural fibre.

A lighter texture could possibly have been achieved by mixing the spelt with other grains known to Mesopotamians, such as rye, oats or the numerous wild grasses they incorporated into their diets. Sieving the milled grain would have given a whiter, presumably lighter weight end result as well.”

Wild Yeast Spelt Loaf

Wonderful work, Cid! Your demonstration is not only proof of concept that these ancients could have enjoyed leavened wild-yeast sourdough breads, but it is also significant for understanding ancient beermaking and winemaking as well. Many of the people and companies who have tried to reconstruct these recipes have been left wondering how to ferment the grain and malt mixtures that have been described on the ancient tablets. Your wild yeast spelt starter gives them an excellent way to introduce yeast into the alcohol mixture. The ancients may not have known what yeast was, but I’m betting they knew how to cultivate and use it for bread and alcohol production. (To beer makers out there – lets talk about that aromatic “wort” a bit – I may have some ideas on that score as well.)

Another thing that is important to the flavor of bread, beer and wine is that wild yeast starters are complex cultures of local yeasts not the uniform commercial cultures of Sacccharomyces cerviseae one can buy in the market. Additionally, these starters all have complex communities of local bacteria in them. The difference between species and community diversity in commercial versus wild starters affects proofing time, texture and flavor of the products made.

If any of you start experimenting with spelt (or farro which is emmer wheat used by the Mesopotamians), I suggest you consider flavoring your loaves with spices to balance the strong flavor of the spelt or farro. Some spices that are authentic to Mesopotamian bread can be found in the Ninda-gal recipe (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3) are onion seeds, sumac and saffron. You could also troll some of the Mesopotamian recipes on Silk Road Gourmet for some other spice combinations as well. (Words by Laura Kelley and Cid, and Photographs of Wild Yeast Spelt Starter, Unbaked Sourdough and Leavened Spelt Loaf by Cid).