Category Archives: Western Asia

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 1: Mersu by Sasha Martin

Sasha’s Mersu – View 1

The first entry in our Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from friend in the blogosphere, Sasha Martin over at Global Table Adventure.  As fate would have it, she was cooking the food of Iraq the same week that I announced the Cookoff and instantly noted the connections between the Mesopotamian mersu recipe and a confection on the modern Iraqi table.  Using only the dates and pistachio nuts in the original recipe, Sasha came up with the glorious treats pictured here.  For some of the mersu, she added a coconut* topping as a variation that adds visual interest in the presentation and tastes delicious as well.  For further information on the use of pistachio nuts, see the Mesopotamian Lexicon on this site.
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Mersu
As envisioned by Sasha, mersu combines the natural, unaltered and unenhanced flavors of the dates and pistachio nuts in delicious ways.  The dates are ground, mixed with minced pistachio nuts and then rolled into bite-size confections.  Delicious as is, Sasha took this an extra step and rolled the date-nut balls in ground pistachio nuts and ground coconut,and arranged them as pictured above.

Ingredients
1 cup pistachios
1 cup pitted dates
1/8-1/4 cup pistachios, ground for rolling and/or
1/8-1/4 cup shredded coconut for rolling (optional)
(Makes 12)

Method
Blend dates into a paste by pulsing in a food processor.  If you prefer the authentic, Mesopotamian preparation techniques, pound and rolling the dates will produce the same results – but take a lot longer and leave your arms sore unless you are accustomed to making bread.

Then add the minced pistachios and pulse or pound again until integrated and smooth.

Form into small balls. Sasha leveled the mixture in a tablespoon to make sure they all came out the same, then she rolled them in her hands. About half way through, she washed her hands and the spoon to reduce stickiness. This made a dozen.

As a finishing touch, roll the date balls in ground pistachios or shredded coconut. The pistachios coating is more traditional, although the coconut is fun.  (Make ground pistachios by pulsing a 1/4 cup in a coffee grinder or food processor.)  To see this recipe constructed step by step and to catch Sasha’s food and time travel vibe – click here.

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Mesopotamia – 2nd Millenia BCE

The original description for mersu comes from one of the many thousands of tablets recovered from the ancient city of Mari by French archaeologists in the 1930s. Most of the tablets have been dated to 1800-1750 BCE, a time slightly before the Yale Babylonian Culinary tablets and more than 1000 years before the Lamb and Licorice “recipe” from Erech.  The original description mentions only pounded dates, and ground “flour” for a coating (ARM 11, 13: l and 124: 4) and a sort of nut that I think are pistachios (ARM 11, 13: 2) (not terebinth as has been suggested).  Now, the “flour” coating could be semolina (samidu), or it could be a sort of ground nut as Sasha envisioned, because many types were enjoyed in the ancient Near East, including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pinenuts, and pistachios.

In a reference I just pulled last night by Marcel Sigrist (JCS 29, 1977) on the creation of food offerings for celebrations at the Temple of Nusku (light/fire) in Nippur, the author cites tablets that suggest alternate (not additional) ingredients for mersu**.  Other ingredients that could be used in place of dates include figs and raisins and another unspecified type of date.  Other ingredients that could be used in the place of the minced nuts in the body of the confection are minced apples.  Other ingredients listed as potential reference include fat, cheese, wine and oil from oilseeds.

Sasha’s Mersu – View 2

At first these may seem incongruous to the concept of mersu as we have considered so far – that of a dessert or sweet appetizer. But consider for a moment a savory mersu. Even considering only the mode described by Sasha, fat could be used to make a smoother pounded fruit center, the cheese could be a hard variety, minced and used in the body of the dish or grated and used as a coating as the pistachios were used by Sasha.  If a soft cheese were used, it could become a creamy center to the fruit body.  Another variation could be a dried kashk-like substance to coat the dates. The seed oil (probably sesame) could be used the same way as the fat, or alternatively, the analysis could be a bit off and the table is only suggesting that ‘the seeds that produce oil’ can be used. If this is the case, the seeds could be used in the body or as a coating for Sasha’s variety or both.  Dates with a sesame coating – yum!

The ingredient wine is, I admit, a bit puzzling. There is chemical evidence for wine inside jars that suggest that wine was probably already being enjoyed by at least the upper classes by ca. 3500-3100 BCE, but how would this translate into the mersu recipe?  Well, wine could be used as liquid to moisten the dates just a bit, or the wine-must could be made into a syrup added to the dates to moisten them or used to coat them.  Additionally, the must syrup could be dried completely and powdered for a coating not unlike the ground pistachios in Sasha’s creation.  Additionally, something could be done with the pomace.  Seeds removed, this could be used as stuffing for the mersu or mixed in like the minced pistachios.  Likewise it could be dried and powdered as the suggestion for must syrup above.

So there are many more potential variations to even Sasha’s confection to be had by switching out ingredients – a fabulous and varied cuisine is beginning to rise from the embers of history.  I’m hoping others will create different mersu for us to enjoy over the course of the next couple of months. Remember you can use modern dishes Ma’moul or Ranginak as guidelines, or make your own confection based on the ingredients listed. There are other ways to combine these ingredients – I’m sure of it – give it a try! For these and other savory recipes to try see the Mesopotamian Cookoff announcement – entries are accepted through September 30, 2011.

Summary of additional ingredients from the Sigrist paper are: figs, raisins, another type of date, apples, fat, oil from oilseeds (or oil seeds (possibly sesame seeds) themselves), cheese and wine (or must or pomace). If anyone wants to have a go with these additional ingredients – I’d love to add a savory mersu to the list! (Words by Laura Kelley, Recipe and Method for this form of Mersu by Sasha Martin.  Photo of Mersu 1 and Mersu 2 by Sasha Martin; Photo of Mesopotamia in the Second Millenia BCE from Wikimedia.)

*(Coconut might have been known by the neo-Assyrian period, but was probably not used at the time the original recipe was recorded.)

**(Sigrist makes the connection between “ninda-i-de-a” and mersu.  However, as Bottero assumed mersu was a “cake”; Sigrist assumes it is a type of bread.  Sigrist also writes that all of the ingredients are included in the bread, not that it is a list of possible ingredients to be used in combinations according to the cook’s need or desire.)

Cookoff Challenge #1 – Ancient Mesopotamian Cuisine

Calling all historians, linguists, anthropologists, foodies and anyone curious about the food of the Ancient Near East!  Come to the Ancient Mesopotamian Cuisine Cookoff Challenge!  Think of it like Iron Chef – Mesopotamian Style!  But instead of a theme ingredient, you have a list of ingredients without amounts or directions attached to them.  The only thing between you and a finished dish is your own culinary creativity.

There are two goals to the challenge: 1). Create dishes that could have been eaten in the ancient Near East or, 2.) create dishes for today that are inspired by ancient dishes.

Since amounts and specific types of ingredients are not specified, all but the mersu recipe (recipe 1) could produce soups, stews, braised dishes or roasts or other manner of culinary creation – you decide.

Based on the lists of ingredients posted below, which derive from the Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablets or from a couple of other sources, make a dish, photograph and describe it and give us the recipe and directions you used to create your dish.  The challenge runs from August 1st through September 30th and is open to any cook, amateur or professional who wants to try their hand at interpreting ancient food.  I will post all complete entries with full credit to the authors and cooks on a rolling basis. Multiple entries across the two month period are allowed and encouraged.

If you have questions about ingredients or recipes, please e-mail me at laurakelley AT silkroadgourmet DOT com.

Additions to recipes are allowed, but ought to be common ingredients – like salt or honey, or items that might have been available in the ancient Near East.  It is fine and encouraged to draw connections between ancient food and the food of related modern cuisines.  Please keep additions to the recipes to a minimum (not more than 4 or 5, less if possible).

The directions or methods for recipes are usually brief or absent in most Mesopotamian recipes, so feel free to improvise.

Recipe 1.  Mersu: ingredients – dates and pistachio nuts.  See this post for ideas or let your creativity run wild. Update: Additional ingredients from other “recipes” from Nippur to be used in a mix-and-match fashion include flour (nut, wheat or other) figs, raisins, minced apples, minced garlic, oil or butter, cheese (soft or hard), and wine (must syrup or pomace)

Recipe 2. Meat with Wild Licorice: ingredients – wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress), cumin, zest of citron, and water.  The recipe states to boil six liters of water with wild licorice and cook for a long time. Then it reads that the citron zest should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked. (Notes 1 & 2)

Recipe 3. (Yale Babylonian Collection (YBC) 4464 – recipe XIX). Meat with Carob: Ingredients and method – Prepare water with fat, salt, shallots and semolina.  Mash garlic and leeks with yogurt or sour cream. Crush carob seeds.  Assemble ingredients in a pot. (Notes 3 – 5).

Recipe 4. (YBC 4464 – recipe XX). Mutton with Wild Licorice and Juniper: Ingredients and methods – Prepare water, fat and licorice root.  Add salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander.  Mash the garlic and leeks with yogurt or sour cream. (Note 3)

Recipe 5. (YBC 4464 – recipe XXII). Lamb with Rye or Wheatberries: Ingredients and method – Prepare water and fat. Add salt, beer, shallots, arugula, coriander, semolina, cumin and cracked rye or wheatberries. Add mashed leeks and garlic. Finish with coriander and carrot or parsnip. (Note 6).

Recipe 6. (YBC 4464 – recipe XXIII). Lamb with Wheat (Couscous) and Mint: Ingredients and method:  Prepare water, add fat and couscous. Add semolina, coriander, cumin and yogurt or sour cream.  Assemble in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed garlic.  Then blend in carrots or parsnips and mint.

Recipe 7. (YBC 4464 – recipe XXV). Turnips (or Roasted Barley) with herbs Ingredients and method: Prepare water, add fat, turnips (or roasted barley). Add a chopped mix of shallots, arugula, and coriander that have been mixed with semolina or other flour and moistened with blood. Cook until done. Add mashed leeks and garlic. (Notes 7-8)

Recipe 8. (YBC 8958 – recipe 1) Wild-Fowl Pie: Ingredients and method: Wild-fowl,
water, milk, salt fat, cinnamon, mustard greens, shallots, semolina, leeks, garlic, rye flour (or a mix), brine, roasted dill seeds, mint, wild tulip bulbs. (Method is for a store-bought bird. If a whole fresh or wild bird is used, see notes.) Salt birds inside and out and place in pot where water and milk has been warmed. When it comes to a boil add a mash of shallots, semolina, leeks, garlic and enough water to moisten the mash. Cook until the meat is soft enough to easily debone. When meat is done, remove from pot and let cool enough to handle. Lightly pan or oven roast some dill seeds. When done, remove from flame and set aside.

As bird is cooking, soak rye flour in enough milk to moisten and form into a ball. After the flour is formed into a ball, add some brine and knead dough until pliant. Divide dough in two and add roasted dill seed to one half and set aside. Take the part without the dill seed and form a lower crust that is several inches larger than the plate. Oil a pie plate or shallow casserole dish and line it with the lower crust. Add a layer of mint leaves.

Tear or shred meat from bones and add it over the layer of mint, mounding it towards the center. Add more mashed leek, garlic and wild tulip in a layer over the fowl. Add some more mint and roasted dill seed. Use top crust to cover meat and greens and seal tightly. (There are no instructions to prick the top crust, but I might do this). Butter or oil the top crust and cook in oven till done. Serve with bowls of broth the wild fowl cooked in. (Notes 9-12)

Recipe 9: (YBC 8958 – recipe 2) Pigeon with Herbs. Ingredients and method: Pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream (see note 3), and “greens”. (Method is for a store-bought bird. If a whole fresh or wild bird is used, see note 6.) Salt the birds inside and out and place in a pot where water has been warmed along with some fat. Pound together leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, semolina and yogurt or sour cream and as the water cooks down, add the pounded mixture to the pot.

When the bird is nearly cooked, remove from the pot and set aside.  When it is cool enough to touch outside and in, brush or sprinkle more vinegar on the bird, then rub it with garlic and greens.  Roast the bird over a very hot flame until done.  Carve birds and serve with sauce from the pot. (Notes 13 & 14)

Recipe 10: (YBC 8958 – recipe 7) Francolin Pot-Pie  Ingredients and method: Francolin or other wild fowl, vinegar, salt, mint, water, fat, cinnamon soaked in beer, mustard leaves, shallots, leeks, garlic, semolina, lightly drained yogurt or sour cream (see Note 3), rye flour, brine (optional ingredient to mix with the flour include ground pistachios) butter, kishk, beer (used to soak cinnamon from above), and honey (Method is for a store-bought bird. If a whole fresh or wild bird is used, see note 6.)  Sprinkle or brush the fowl liberally with vinegar. Then rub thoroughly inside and out with mixture of chopped mint and salt. Heat water in a pot and add salt and vinegar.  After it heats, add cinnamon and mustard leaves and prepared fowl. Cook until fowl is soft enough to be deboned easily.  Pound together the shallots, leeks, garlic semolina and lightly drained yogurt or sour cream.  As water cooks down, add the pounded vegetable and yogurt mixture.

As the francolin cooks, moisten the rye flour (and pistachios if using) with water and after it comes together into a ball add a little brine and knead until pliant.  Divide dough into two pieces. Make a thin layer of one piece of dough and line a bowl (asallu) with  it.  Bake in the oven until the dough bowl is cooked.  Shred meat from the bones of the francolin and set aside.

Mix kishk and beer that cinnamon had been soaked in.  Add francolin meat and leeks and garlic and mix well. Pour into the baked-dough bowl (still lining asallu). Top with butter and honey.  Make thin top crust and seal.  Cook in oven until done. (Notes 15 – 17)

Recipe 11: (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3): Ninda-gal, Bread with Onion Seeds, Sumac and Saffron:
Ingredients and method: Spelt flour; semolina, a coarse mixture of onion seeds, sumac and saffron and salt. No directions for water or milk are included, but obviously moisture is needed. Many different shapes of bread are possible.  If it were a flatbread, it could be a large, injera-type bread on which other food items are placed. Sigrist does specify that it is a “large bread”. Alternatively, it could be a cured sourdough, allowed to rise, akin to a large modern loaf.  (Notes 18 & 19)

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Regular visitors to this site know that I disagree with many of the published translations and analyses of the food represented in the culinary tablets and have done some research on the issue myself to suggest alternatives to the endless lists of broth and onion dishes offered by langauge scholars (like Bottero) and their derivatives (like Kaufman and others).

For those of you new to this blog, a post on the two recipes known before the Yale Babylonian Tablets (mersu and “court boullion”) can be found here, and a more recent one looking at a few of the Yale recipes can be found over on the beautiful site, Lost Past Remembered.  A growing lexicon of words that either fill in the gaps left in the translations, or, I believe correct some of the linguistic and culinary errors made by earlier authors can be found here.

This challenge will be a lot of fun if a whole bunch of different types of people participate.  If I get time, I’ll post a few more recipes with my interpretations included - so stay tuned, warm up the stove and get the pans out for this cookoff challenge. (Words by Laura Kelley).

Notes

1.) A word about “meat”.  The Mesopotamians had all manner of domesticated and wild meat available to them.  Sheep and goats were consumed when older and their fat harvested, but they were primarily used as milk producers when young.  Other meat came from cattle, bison and oxen as well as from wild game. Wild and domesticated and fowl and fish of many sorts were also enjoyed.  The form or cut of meat is usually not specified in most recipes so, you decide whether it is a roast, a stew, a soup or a braised shank etc.

2.) The zest of citron is the best possibility for the ingredient ukus-hab. It makes descriptive, culinary, cultural and geographical sense and isn’t poisonous like the colocynth or too easily overwhelmed like cucumber – both of which were suggested by Bottero.  It is possible that it is colocynth seed – which is still commonly used in African foods today and is related to the watermelon seed enjoyed in Levantine cuisines.

3.) When yogurt or sour cream is used, it is lightly drained to remove excess water and concentrate the sour flavor of the yogurt – like an Afghan chaka.  One way to drain the yogurt is to filter it though a clean drip-type coffee filter (not an automatic coffee maker).

4.) The type of fat is unspecified but could be rendered animal fat, butter or any number of oils.  When cooking a Lamb and Carob Stew based on Recipe 3, for example I used a light sesame oil called gingelly now commonly used in Indian cuisine.  I like gingelly because of its high burn point, so its good for browning and braising dishes, and because it was known to Mesopotamians as well.

5.) The manner of semolina is not specified, but I used couscous in the Lamb and Carob Stew, and I cooked mine (soaked/steamed) separately.  Feel free to experiment with the type used and the manner or preparation.

6.) Yogurt or sour cream are not listed in this recipe, but are usually mashed with leeks and garlic. Try it with or without.

7.) There are two accepted meanings for laptu – either turnip as Bottero chose or roasted barley – depending upon the context. I wanted to bring the possibility of roasted barley into play because the dish could either be a vegetable or a barley pilaf, depending on which meaning of laptu one chose. I think it might be an interesting recipe with a wide variety of root vegetables known at the time.

8.) I don’t expect the amount of blood used to be very large. Many, modern cultures add the blood of a just slaughtered animal into a dish for “flavor”. it should be just enough to moisten the herbs and flour. Ancient Mesopotamians were omnivores, not vampires.

9.) If a fresh, whole fowl is used, it is plucked and singed. The head and feet are discarded. The innards (gizzard, intestines) are washed well, then cooked in a pot of water to further clean them. Then they are rinsed in cold water until fully clean. Once clean, these can be added to the pie for flavor.

10.) The type of wild fowl is not specified. Anything from quail to pigeon to game hen or anything in between would work. The recipe does specify that the birds are “small”.

11.) Cinnamon is a best choice for “aromatic bark”. Although native to Sri Lanka, it would have been known to the Mesopotamians through contact with Egypt which was major consumer of the spice. I will be continuing to do research on this to see if there are other alternatives, but for now, cinnamon is the best choice.

12.) Bottero called this ingredient “rue” which makes a little culinary sense, but when you research all the uses for sibburattu, mustard is a better fit. It lends a peppery flavor, it can be used to treat the ailments specified and its seed is also used in cooking. Rue seeds are generally not good for you and are mildly hallucinogenic. See lexicon form more info.

13.) The type of bird is specified as an amursanu-pigeon, but any fowl will do nicely.

14.) The type of greens is not specified, so you can experiment.  I might try, cilantro, mint, sage etc. Pick herb flavors that will complement not struggle against the other flavors in the dish.

15.) The recipe specifies a francolin, which now persist only in Africa.  I’ve seen quite a few of them in South Africa and they range in size from a pheasant to a female turkey.  A medium-size wild fowl of any type will do.

16.) Kishk is a powdery cereal of bulgur (cracked wheat) fermented with milk and (yoghurt). Milk, yogurt and bulgur are mixed well together and allowed to ferment for nine days. Each morning the mixture is thoroughly kneaded with the hands. When fermentation is complete the kishk is spread on a clean cloth to dry. Finally it is rubbed well between the hands until it is reduced to a powder and then stored in a dry place.  Kishk is commonly used throughout Western Asian, the Levant and Arabian Peninsula and is available at Persian and Levantine markets.

17.) Asallu is a bowl made of metal or stone.  It is deep, unlike the shallow, makaltu pie-plate used in the Pigeon-Pie recipe.  A casserole or similar vessel will do.

18.) Hisiltu has two meanings, coarsely ground flour and a coarsely ground spice mixture. With the use of spelt and semolina, It could be that the spelt is of a more coarse variety.  Alternatively, the word could refer to to the preparation of the spices for the bread.

19.) Kamaamtu is probably Rhus coriaria or sumac. It is a word borrowed from Sumerian. References In French, Russian and English all noted that this was a “vegetable”. An old German text equated it with Rhus coraria.

Mesopotamian Dining

Lamb and Barley with Mint – by Deana Sidney

I recently guest posted about Mesopotamian Dining at Deana’s Lost Past Remembered site.  The post is entitled, “Onions, Onions Everywhere,” and is about an ancient Assyrian banquet and what might have been served – a la Bottero and a la Laura Kelley.  The dishes are based upon differing translations of the Yale Babylonian Collection of Cuilinary Tablets.  The properly translated flavors are intriguing and offer recipes from soups to pilafs.  Flavors include, Lamb and Carob, Mutton with Wild Licorice and Juniper.  Deana even cooked a version of one of the recipes herself – Lamb with Barley and Mint –  and took the gorgeous photo posted here.  Deana’s site is beautiful and a rich source of information about food history.  Come and take a look!

Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  - this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Pakistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cloves
4 tablespoons cumin seeds
Seeds from 6 black cardamom pods
Afghanistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon seeds from black cardamom pods
Iran½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon dried Persian lime powder
Armenia2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons whole allspice

East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Nepal2 teaspoons black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole cloves
1 ½ tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black cardamom seeds
Sri Lanka1 teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon whole cloves
⅛ cup cumin seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Tibet2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cloves
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 Tablespoons cinnamon stick
¼ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 Tablespoons bay leaves
Khirgizstan1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

Mongolia2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons broken cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons fennel seed
6 whole star anise corms
Southern China2 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
36 whole cloves
5, 2-inch sticks of cinnamon, crushed
2 tablespoons fennel seed
12 star anise corms
Vietnam2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
8 star anise corms
Indonesia1½ tablespoons black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
2½ tablespoons coriander seeds

A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).

Chef Miles Collins Cooks from The Silk Road

Chef Miles Collins has just cooked and reviewed one of the recipes – Lamb and Rhubarb Stew – from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One over on his site. Miles is a talented professional chef, and a brilliant photographer who focuses on subjects from life and work in gourmet kitchens to the nature and wildlife of his native Lincolnshire, England. All in all – a polymath, and a very nice guy. Check out his site for a beautiful and informative look at Beyond the Kitchen: A Fresh Look at Food, Photography, Nature and Culture. (Click here for the recipe).

The Real Sinbad the Sailor

A post about the real Sibad the Sailor – A Persian named Soleiman Siraf

The Voyages of Sinbad tell of giant, magical creatures: whales the size of islands, snakes so large that they could swallow elephants, and rukh (roc) birds so large that they could carry a caravan of men on their backs. Tales of these creatures repeated across cultures and through the ages have made most readers assume that they were simply pigments of a colorful imagination – works of fiction. But what if these creatures were real? What if the fictionalized accounts were based on the observations of early travelers that were tainted by mysticism and embellished over time by the repetition of stories in an oral tradition? Remember, maps in the medieval world portrayed demons and the edge of the world was thought to be a very real place.

Soleiman Siraf – Production Still from Film

In part at least, the Voyages of Sinbad are based on the voyages of Soleiman Siraf – the first western Asian man to navigate the seas from his home in Siraf, Persia, to Western India, around the Malabar coast and across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, Thailand and eventually to Southern China through the Straits of Mallaca. He sailed around 775 and his voyages were recorded almost 70 years later by Abu Zaid al Hassan in his Siraf & Soleiman the Merchant in 851 ACE.

Siraf sought to open a route to China for western trade so that Persia was not simply the recipient of goods from the east and subject to the inflationary markup of the many merchants the goods had to pass through. Great Chinese ships carrying goods to Indonesia, India and beyond to Arabia and the Persian Gulf were already seen at the larger, deeper ports capable of hosting large ships. These ships carried, silks, pearls and other precious stones, porcelain, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon indicating that Chinese merchants made many stops along their way to the western seas. But until Siraf, no western trader had ever navigated his way back to China to trade directly with the Chinese and the other countries along the way. In sailing and travelling all the way to China and back, Siraf was opening the doors to two-way trade on the Maritime Silk Road.

Sinbad by Paul Klee

Sailing almost 500 years before Marco Polo and his family departed Italy for China, Siraf’s voyages have gained little attention in the west outside of academic circles – until now. An Iranian film by director Mohammad Bozorgnia that just opened at the Kish film festival celebrates the life and travels of Siraf and his companions. The film is told through the eyes of a fictionalized young man who participates in the voyage and records its details in a Watson to Holmes sort of relationship. Since the film is racking up awards in Iran, I hope that it will released internationally, at least on DVD – I would love to see it.

Building on the extensive knowledge of Arab and Persian geographers of the time – who had already described Southern Europe and Asia, Northwest and eastern Africa to Madagascar, and the Malabar coast – Siraf first navigated across the northern Arabian Sea to around the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) and then down to Kollam. Given the importance of trade to the merchants of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of Chinese traders in Kollam was fairly common, but sizeable permanent settlements of Chinese on India’s western coast didn’t begin until the Yuan Dynasty several hundred years later – and indication of how trade grew with the opening of a two-way maritime route.

Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks

As to the stories themselves, the origins of the Voyages of Sinbad are more or less contemporaneous with the publication of the account of Soleiman Siraf’s travels in the middle of the 9th Century ACE. Early Arabic manuscripts of One Thousand and One Nights do not include the Sinbad stories as part of Scheherazade’s tales. Rather, the Sinbad stories, which are legitimate regional folktales were added in the 18th Century by French traveller and translator Antoine Galland. Still, the stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries.

Whether as early accounts of a fantastic and dangerous world that can provide riches for those who dare depart familiar shores, or in the painting of Sinbad as a romantic a swashbuckling adventurer, or as stories for children to fuel their imaginations, the tales continue to be told. From Galland to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks, Voyages of Sinbad have endured for more than 1000 years. And, in part, at least, they were inspired by a very real Persian man – Soleiman Siraf – who changed the face of maritime trade on the early Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of The Maritime Silk Road Production Still, Sinbad by Paul Klee and Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks to Dreamworks from Google images.)

Global Table Adventure: Georgia

Sasha Martin has just completed a week of cooking some of my favorite dishes from Georgia adapted from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One. For a look at her meal review, beautiful photos of the preparation and recipies check out her Global Table Adventure Website. Its a great project: 195 countries, 195 meals, 195 weeks. The site is informative, interesting and full of personal insight and great food!

The Changing Landscape of Mesopotamian Flavors

Mersu Option One – A Date Nut Roll

I’m at it again – questioning the assumptions and conclusions about Mesopotamian flavors that Jean Bottero made when examining the Old Babylonian culinary tablets from Yale University. Is it some manic spirit that grabs me each Spring and forces me back into the ancient Near East or is it just that it is an activity that grabs my attention from time to time? Whatever the cause, those of you who have been following the blog for a while may remember last year about this time a post on Mesopotamian ingredients that were either undefined in Bottero’s work or, in my humble opinion, defined incorrectly or made little sense from a culinary point of view.

Well, I am once again actively engaged in reconstructing ingredients and recipes that I think the good professor erred on. Carob, wheatberries, licorice and pistachio nuts – all are flavors that I think were included in the Mesopotamian diet that Bottero left undefined or defined as other types of ingredients – all too often onions or other plants in the allium family.

Before the Yale tablets, Bottero notes that there were only two recipes. The first one is for “Mersu”, which Bottero defined as a “cake” with dates and pistachio nuts as ingredients. It turns out that the tablet – transcribed in Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW) – only states that dates and pistachios were received for the making of mersu for the king, not that mersu was a cake or how to make it. The assumption that those were ingredients for a cake was made entirely by Bottero, because mersu/mirsu is simply an Old Babylonian word for a “confection” made of dates. He also makes the entymological link with the verb “marasu” one meaning of which is to stir into a liquid. He neglects to note that a secondary meaning for the verb is to squeeze or crush (although I admit, that this is not generally used in connection with food or offering words.)

Mersu Option Two – Date Balls Covered with Nuts and other Toppings

Could mersu be a cake? Sure. But there are many other types of things that it could be as well. A look at modern Western Asian and Levantine cuisines shows that mersu could easily have been a date-nut roll or a beautiful date “candy” as pictured here. Both sweets are based on pounded dates and chopped nuts or other fruit or nut toppings.

Adding only some type of flour, mersu could be something like the modern Iranian dessert Ranginak which consists of dates stuffed with pistachios enclosed in a thin crust of dough, or it could be like the modern Lebanese Ma’moul which has a pounded date center covered in a layer of semolina that is then covered in a layer of chopped pistachios.

My point, if it is not evident, is that there is no need to use secondary or teritary sources to conjure additional ingredients beyond those listed to have a dish fit for an ancient king and his court. A secondary point is that all too often, I believe, Bottero interpreted the ingredients and dishes on the tablets from a French haute-cuisine perspective, instead of a modern regional one that would perhaps be more illuminating and appropriate for understanding Mesopotamian cuisine.

The second recipe known before the Yale tablets is one that Bottero calls “court boullion”. The ingredients listed are nuhurtu, sahlu, kasu, kamu, cucumber (?), and the meat of a slaughtered animal. Bottero translates these as fennel, watercress, dodder (Cuscuta), cumin and cucumber (all of which he states he is uncertain of). My own research suggests that the ingredients are asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress) wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and cumin. The characters or transliteration for the ingredient thought to be cucumber is not included in OCW, so I cannot research or comment on it liguistically, but I can say that with a flavor lineup including asafoetida, cress, licorice, and cumin that cucumber makes little culinary sense as it would be overwhelmed in the quantities required (15 grams). (Note:  See additional entry below for a better suggested translation of “cucumber”)

Braised Lamb Shank

The recipe states to boil six liters of water with kasu and cook for a long time – I presume this to be until it is reduced by at least half or two-thirds. Then it reads that the cucumber (?) should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked. I assume that the other ingredients are added when the cucumber (?) is added, but no specific instructions are given, they could be added when the meat is added, or even before the broth is strained.

Even a modest amount of meat – a pound or two – added to a liter of water and cooked is not going to produce a boullion (for there are no further instructions to strain the liquid again) but rather a stew. A licorice and lamb stew – what an interesting idea! Of course it could have been a braised cut of meat as well – a licorice braised lamb. The point is, it could be many things other than court boullion.

So, my point here is that many of the ingredients listed by Bottero may not be correct, and many make little or no culinary sense. I’ve been told by a real Assyrian language scholar recently that the whole field of plant name identification is, “diabolically slippery”. What bothers me, however, is that there seem to be a good deal of scholarship about plants and ingredients that existed at the time of his writing that Bottero either ignored or rejected without argument. As I said in the first post on this subject, I may not be right about the ingredients, but I am transparently referenced. (See post on Mesopotamian ingredients for the growing list of terms I have examined and the references I’ve used to inform my point of view).

I’ve adopted this as an ongoing project and am interested to see where it leads, I may even try to reconstruct the licorice and lamb stew and give it a taste, but will have to get my hands on a copy of the original reference for the “court boullion” recipe to check the translation and interpretation of the “cucumber” before I do. If I do, I’ll let you know, so we can breathe new life to an ancient Silk Road dish.

(Words and research by Laura Kelley; Confections and Photographs of Date Nut Roll and Date Balls by Kajal of Aaplemint, where many of Kajal’s recipes for her confections can be found. Photograph of Braised lamb Shank by Becky Luigart-Stayner, borrowed from Google images.)

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Additional:

The missing ingredient has been found!  Ukus-hab, is not cucumber or colocynthe, but rather citron!  At least that’s what I think.  See the lexicon link to see the reasons and reference.

A Menu for a Caucasus Celebration

We had friends over again, and as usual, I spent a couple of days in the kitchen preparing for their visit. This time I whipped up a regional tasting menu of Caucasus Celebration specialties from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As they ate and in between the “yummy sounds” my friends kept on commenting that there were, “so many flavors on the plate”.

Many thanks to my decorator, line chef, historian and cyber-guy husband for making everything possible. All dishes were enjoyed with Georgian Tvishi or Kindzmarauli wines.

The Menu

Appetizers
Georgian Dolmas
Pomegranate Pickled Garlic
Armenian Red Pepper
Yogurt and Cucumber Dip
Naan

Main Courses
Grilled Chicken Garo
Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce
Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce
Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce
Sesame and Almond Pilaf

Dessert
Ravane
Saffron Ice Cream
Dried Figs and Apricots

All recipes are, of course, from Volume One of The Silk Road Gourmet.

Georgian Dolmas

Georgian Dolmas: Stuffed Grape leaves, dolmas or dolmades are eaten from Eastern Mediterranean Greece and Turkey clear across Central Asia and in several Eastern Asia countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Georgian variety I served stuffed the leaves with lamb and rice mixture with the strong flavors of dill, lemon and walnuts. Delicious!

The Pomegranate Pickled Garlic: I’ve written about this pickle before in the blog and will likely mention it again, because it is one of my Silk Road pickles. This Georgian dish uses unsweetened pomegranate juice with a hint of vinegar and dill and lots of cracked black pepper to flavor the garlic. The longer it pickles, the milder and more fruity the garlic becomes. Enjoy with naan or other flat bread.

Armenian Roasted Red Pepper Salad: This salad offered a sweeter alternative to the appetizer table. Roasted and skinned sweet red peppers marinate in grapeseed oil and white vinegar with a bit of garlic and roasted almonds added.

Yogurt and Cucumber Dip: Once again, yogurt dips are enjoyed from Eastern Europe throughout Western, Central and Southern Asia. Keeping with the Caucasian theme of the dinner, I chose an Armenian version flavored with mint, garlic and black pepper. The yogurt and the cucumbers create a cooling dip to soothe the palate challenged by spicy or fiery foods.

Grilled Chicken Garo: A sensational Georgian way to prepare chicken that will tease and amaze your guests with unfamiliar flavor combinations. The chicken is first marinated for several days in lemon juice and light sesame or peanut oil and generous amounts of the Georgian spice mixture Khmeli-Suneli. Then the chicken is grilled and enjoyed with the cilantro-based Garlic and Walnut sauce with overtones of fenugreek and lemon.

Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce: Lamb with a light crust of freshly grated nutmeg and cracked pepper is baked and sweetened with a sauce of sour cherries, cinnamon and a hint of lemon juice. Together an amazing and unforgettable combination!

Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce: This recipe couples earthy eggplants with a Georgian pomegranate sauce flavored with red onions, sweet basil and a couple of chili peppers.

Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce: One of my favorite vegetable dishes of all times. Green beans sautéed with onions and then joined by a sour tomato sauce made with white vinegar, black pepper and yogurt. Fabulous!

Sesame and Almond Pilaf: A buttery, nutty, Azeri pilaf flavored with roasted sesame seeds and almonds that is related to Gulf and Levantine rice dishes. I like this pilaf because it has a strong enough flavor to be paired with the main meats and vegetables described here, but complements without interfering with those flavors.

Ravane: This cake is once again a regional favorite eaten from Greece through Central Asia. The Georgian version I made is baked with a mix of nut flours and wheat flour and then permeated with a simple syrup flavored with citrus and cinnamon that is allowed to sit overnight before serving. Sweet, but earthy at the same time. Some versions use only wheat flour, while others make the syrup from honey instead of sugar.

Saffron Ice Cream: Just a little something to complement the ravane. A saffron flavored ice cream made with chopped pistachio nuts and rosewater. Semi sweet and a bit nutty – really good!

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Dolmas borrowed from the Food and Wine Blog by Azat Aslanyan).

Silk Road in the News #5: Viva Vitis vinifera – the Earliest Winery

The earliest winery has been uncovered in a cave in the mountains of Armenia.

A vat to press the grapes, fermentation jars and even a cup and drinking bowl dating to about 6,000 years ago were discovered in a cave complex near Areni, Armenia by an international team of researchers.

They also found grape seeds, remains of pressed grapes and dozens of dried vines. The seeds were from the same type of grapes — Vitis vinifera vinifera — still used to make wine.

6,000 Year-old Wine Press from Areni, Armenia

Analyses of pottery sherds and vessels have provided evidence for wine consumption in the region as early as 8,000 years ago in Shulaveri, Georgia and 7,000 years ago in Hajji Firuz Tepe, a Neolithic village in northern Iran. Although significantly later than the Georgian or Iranian sites, the recent Armenian find is hard evidence of a well-developed viticulture.

Materials for winemaking have also been found at Titris Höyük in southeastern Turkey dated to the late third millennium BCE, and grape seeds and spent skins have been found in Greece dating to about 6,500 years ago. The Greek find is particularly intriguing, because figs were found along with the grapes, suggesting perhaps that a mixed fruit wine was being produced.

Wine residue has also been found in Egypt dating to about 5,000 years ago in the tomb of King Scorpion I. Interestingly, however, the wine was found inside imported ceramic jars, indicating perhaps that a broad regional trade in wine was already underway.

Archaeological evidence of winemaking in China is significantly later that that in Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean and comes from the Shang Dynasty about 3,000 year ago. Like the Greeks, however, some of the Chinese finds have the remains from several different types of fruits on site (peach, plum and jujube) suggesting either, mixed fruit wine or wines produced from fruits other than grapes – like the pomegranate or plum wines enjoyed today.

The more we seek, the more we find. Makes me wonder what other wonders await. . .

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo by Gregory Areshian/Associated Press)