Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 5 – Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

Another vision of the Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries recipe comes from designer and brilliant historical cook, Deana Sidney from the site Lost Past Remembered. Deana used the ingredients from Yale Tablet 25 – Recipe XX (water, fat and licorice root, salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander, garlic, leeks and yogurt or sour cream) to create the beautiful and delicious lamb roast pictured below.

Deana writes, “When Laura mentioned interpreting the oldest recipes in the world, I loved the idea. I had already made a Lamb with Mint and Barley inspired by the tablets and loved the flavors. The other recipe that caught my eye was for mutton with licorice and juniper. I thought the flavors would be really interesting. I can’t guarantee it is the same dish that the ancients ate, but it is delicious and their flavors inspired the final product.

I didn’t have mutton at hand but did have gorgeous lamb steak so used that. The licorice root was pretty easy to find… it comes in tea bags at Whole Foods!

Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

Some of the licorice flavor comes off on the lamb and would of course be more pervasive if you used something like stew meat and cooked it for a long time, I decided not to. Should you want to do it that way, proceed by cubing the lamb or mutton and then cook it in the broth over very low heat till tender after browning.

The licorice and juniper soaked into the cous cous in a lovely way and I liked that it complimented the more mildly flavored lamb. The broth and the yogurt really give the cous cous an herby creaminess that I liked. Another one of the recipes used wild watercress with a licorice lamb… I really like the idea of a spicy herb with the dish so used wild arugula that I had found and loved the combination.”

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Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

Ingredients
1 pound lamb steak from leg
1teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon smoked salt
2 shallots, sliced
1 tablespoon oil

6 cups lamb stock, beef stock or water
4 licorice tea bags
1 tablespoon crushed juniper
1 pinch asafoetida
2 strips lemon zest or tablespoon citron zest

1 clove garlic
1 leek, white part only or 4 scallions
2 teaspoons oil
1/4 cup of your stock
1 cup yogurt

1 cup whole wheat couscous
watercress or arugula

Method
Coat the lamb with the cumin, coriander and salt after trimming fat bits from the steak. Brown in the oil with the shallots and remove the steak, leaving the trimmings.

Simmer the stock/water and licorice root and juniper for 1/2 hour. Strain broth and add to the pan you browned the lamb in with the trimmings, asafoetida and lemon/citron. Reduce about 1/2 an hour till rich and flavorful… there should be about 1 3/4 cup.

Saute the garlic and leek in oil and add the stock. Simmer till tender and add the yogurt. Put the lamb back in the pan and warm. Add the yogurt mixture and add the couscous. Stir gently till the couscous is cooked. Slice the lamb and serve on top of the couscous with the greens.

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Thanks Deana for another remarkable dish based on the Yale Culinary Tablets.  Clearly these dishes are so much more than “broths” as suggested by Bottero.  Not meaning to take another swipe a Bottero’s assumptions, but he has written on several occaisions that before the Yale Tablets, only two Mesopotamian recipes were known.  I’ve been mulling this over for some time and find that it is simply incorrect.  There is a wealth of literature on offering food – that is food prepared  to honor, propitiate and yes, feed gods.  Many modern cultures that feed gods (and their attendant priests or other servants) often partake of the meal with the god and priests, or dine after the god is deemed to have taken his or her share.

Nippur-Nusku Tablet (CBS 8550 Obverse)

I discussed the matter briefly with a scholar specializing in the ancient Near East and he agreed.  He said that certainly the Mesopotamian elite would have dined at the table with the gods and he encouraged me to start mining that liteature for recipes and recreate them for modern kitchens.

The two first up in that group come from Marcel Sigrist’s paper on preparation of offerings to Nusku at Nippur. The first “recipe” is just a list of added ingredients for Mersu that will lead to some savory dishes and the second is a Bread with Onion Seeds, Sumac and Saffron.  Both recipes and several new ones from the Yale Tablets for fowl dishes, a vegetable and a barley pilaf can be found on the original page that announced the Mesopotamian Cookoff back in July.

After this post featuring Deana’s interpretation of Recipe XX, I have only one more entry (other than my own) to post.  I hope that more people will cook, photograph and send in recipes before the end of September.  This is going well, but there are “new” recipes out there that bring to life to the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and teach us how their knowledge and habits continue to resonate today.  (Words by Laura Kelley and Deana Sidney; Photo and Recipe for Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney).

 

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 4: Three Mersu Recipes by Catherine McLean

The fourth entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff comes to us all the way from Australia.  Catherine McLean has pulled out the stops and created three new different dishes based on the Mersu recipe from Mari.  The first is a stuffed dates dish, the second is a Date and Pistachio “Sweetmeat” and the third is a Pistachio, Honey and Date Macaron  – and they all look absolutely delicious!

Three Mersus

Catherine writes, “I got as far as the first recipe, Mersu (ingredients: dates and pistachios), and pretty much stopped there. I mean, I live just about at the hub of Middle Eastern food stores in Melbourne, so getting really good quality pistachios and dates (not to mention many, many other ancient Near-Eastern ingredients) is easy. For another thing, it’s dessert!  And for a third thing, I had about five recipes in my head before I even finished reading the sentence.

The sum of the Mersu recipe was “Ingredients: dates and pistachios”.  The rule is that one couldn’t go too far beyond the ingredients listed, and should stick to ingredients found in the Near East in ancient times.  My personal rule was that the first two recipes I thought of were too easy and so I had to make something really insane for the third one.  Hence, we have dates stuffed with saffron and honey pistachios, date sweetmeats with pistachio and coriander seed, and something I’m going to call a pistachio and honey macaron with date curd.  But I’m lying a bit about the macaron part, because I’m pretty sure you can’t make a proper macaron without using sugar (not commonly available in ancient times), so the biscuit part has a texture and flavour somewhere between  meringue and nougat. Nothing to dislike there.  Though if I weren’t doing a Mersu challenge, I would probably have made a dried cherry filling rather than a date one.

Stuffed Dates

I couldn’t resist making a platter of three possible Mersus -one which might well have been made in ancient times, one which might be made in the Middle East today, and one which nobody in their right mind would make in any time – a sort of pistachio and honey macaron with date curd.”

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Three Mersu Recipes by Catherine McLean

Stuffed Dates (inspired by modern Middle-Eastern cuisine)

Ingredients
18 large dates,preferably mejdool (about 500 g)
150 g pistachios
60 g honey
60 g water
a few strands of saffron
1/2 tsp orange flower water or rosewater (optional)

Method
Carefully slit the dates and remove the stones.

Put pistachios, honey, water and saffron in a saucepan and cook briefly, until the pistachios have absorbed most of the moisture. Pound or blend them to a coarse paste with the orange flower or rose water. For a smoother paste, add a little more water or a little more honey.

Stuff the dates with the pistachio paste, and serve.

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Date “Sweetmeats”

Date and Pistachio Sweetmeats (inspired by ancient Roman cookery and in particular the wonderful cookbook by Mark Grant)

Ingredients
200g dates, preferably mejdool (about 8 large dates)
1-2 tbsp ground coriander seed
about 12 pistachios

Method
Remove the stones from the dates, and pulverise in a food processor (or mortar and pestle, if you are completely loony) until they form a sticky purée. This is much more of a pain than you might think. With wet hands, collect the purée into a ball and roll into a cylinder using clingwrap.

Sprinkle ground coriander onto a plate. Slice the date purée into about 12 thick ‘coins’ about the size of a fat 10 cent piece (they will squish when you slice them, but you can use wet hands to re-shape them). Coat the  discs with the coriander, then toss from hand to hand so that the thinnest possible dusting of coriander remains on the  sweetmeat. Press a pistachio into the centre of each coin, and serve.

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Pistachio, Honey and Date Macarons (inspired by my own fevered imagination)

Mersu as Macarons

Ingedients
1 egg yolk + 2 egg whites
40 g + 150 g honey
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup dates, finely chopped (about 3 large dates)
1/4 tsp cinnamon,optional
10 g flour
25 g pistachios

Method
To make the filling, heat the milk with the dates and cinnamon, if using, slowly until almost boiling. Beat the yolk, 40g honey and flour together until smooth, then pour the milk into the yolk mix, whisking madly as you do. A  Mesopotamian cook would not use the microwave to make this curd, but I draw the line at a bain marie over an open fire. Set the microwave to 50% and cook for about 3 minutes, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until very thick. Let cool in the fridge.

For the meringue Pour boiling water over the pistachios and leave for five minutes, then drain the pistachios and slide them out of their skin. Grind the pistachios coarsely.

Beat the egg whites until foamy, add 150 g of honey, and continue beating until peaks form and are stiff enough that when you lift the beaters they remain peaky. Fold in the pistachios and pipe little 20 cent piece-sized meringues onto baking paper on a baking sheet. Bake at 120°C for an hour, or until they are a little beige. They will be strangely rubbery and sticky on top when you take them out, but will crisp up as they cool (which they do very  fast), and have a texture like nougat. They will also start melting after a couple of hours, and become nougat-flavoured marshmallows by the next day, so make them at the last possible minute before you plan to serve them.

Assemble the macarons by putting about 1/4 teaspoon of filling onto the base of one meringue and topping with another. Frankly, I gave up on authenticity at this point, and put them on a bed of powdered sugar to counteract the stickiness.

Makes more than you can eat before they start melting.

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Aerial view of Mari

The city that the mersu “recipe” comes from is the ancient Syrian city of Mari that was discovered in the early 1930s when Bedouin tribesmen dug into a mound to construct a grave for a fallen tribesman and found a finely worked, headless statue. Archaeologists descended upon the site and recovered more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian that covered laws, administrative process and many other topics of everyday life in ancient Syria. The recipe most often discussed by Bottero is from around 1800 – 1750 BCE.

There is evidence for another recipe that is far older than the one recovered from Mari, however. Tablets from Nippur dated more than 1000 years earlier discuss the construction of “ninda-i-de-a” for a religious ritual, which some scholars equate with mersu. The ingredients for the older mersu are both sweet and savory and are discussed at the end of the post on the first mersu dish cooked by Sasha Martin.  Whatever mersu was to the ancient Mesopotamians, the possibilities are not limited to a cake as envisioned by Bottero or a bread as envisioned Sigrist.  Stay tuned for more Mesopotamian dishes in the weeks to come.  (Words by Catherine McLean and Laura Kelley; Recipes and Food photos by Catherine McLean; Illustration of Aerial view of Mari by Balage Balogh)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 3: Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Miles Collins

Pharaohs, prophets, warriors and peasants alike; all have valued licorice as a flavoring for food and drinks and as a medicine. To many ancients, licorice also tasted like love, for many sweet love potions from Sumer to Luxor to Vedic India were flavored with the root. Licorice was amongst the grave goods in Tutankhamen’s tomb and Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher and scientist called it the “Scythian root” and noted that it was useful for quenching thirst, curing coughs and soothing throats. Today, what do we make of such an important plant? Tea and jelly beans. How the mighty have fallen.

Luckily, culinary creative genius and friend of The Silk Road Gourmet, Chef Miles Collins has helped us resurrect the flavor of licorice in a savory recipe, at least as envisioned by the Babylonians who liked the flavor so much, that they recorded it on a clay tablet that now resides in the Yale Babylonian Collection. Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry # 3, Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Miles Collins, uses the ingredients from recipe XX on Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25: water, fat and licorice root, salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander, garlic, leeks and yogurt or sour cream. Miles was even generous enough to create TWO dishes to show how wonderfully flexible these “recipes” really are.

Lamb, Licorice and Juniper Version 1

Miles writes, “I must admit that in all the years I have been cooking professionally the food of ancient Mesopotamia has been poorly represented on my menus!  Looking at Laura’s recipe guidelines was an interesting insight into food from that period and so I decided to cook two dishes from one recipe.

The first would be a straightforward combination of ingredients put together in the manner it might have been back then.  I used couscous as the base ingredient and cooked it with the stock of the meat I was cooking.  After cooking it I wondered if this would have been a main dish in its own right or would it have been served as a ‘shared table’?

The main ingredient was the meat; I used lamb in place of mutton and cooked it with the flavourings specified by Laura.  What intrigued me the most was how the wild liquorice would work as it is an ingredient I have rarely used.  The combination of juniper and cumin was a new one on me; I could see the coriander and juniper working together and was pleasantly surprised by the overall balance when the stock was cooked.”

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Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries
I decided to cook two dishes using the same ingredients from one piece of meat, a poached lamb dish with a dish of couscous using the poaching ingredients as the flavour base. I used a carrot as an addition as I imagined vegetables being added to a cooking broth to help ‘bulk up’ the dish.

Ingredients
1.6 kilogram lamb or mutton shank
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
8 juniper berries, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 red onions
1 celery stick
1 carrot
1 leek
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves

Method
Marinade the lamb shanks with all of the dry seasonings overnight. Brown in a hot pan with the onion and halved celery stick. When nicely browned strain off excess oil.

Cover with water, add three liquorice sticks snapped in half and bring to the boil. Simmer for three to four hours until the meat falls from the bone.  Remove the shank from the broth and keep warm. Chop the carrot into equal pieces. Strain the broth through a fine sieve, rinse the liquorice and add two sticks to the broth. Return to the boil and reduce the liquid by half. Reserve the vegetables.

Take half of the meat, season with salt and pepper and reserve.  Lay out two sheets of cling film and lay the rest of the meat in a line. Roll the cling film to form a tight cylindrical shape. Leave to cool and refrigerate for three hours.

As the broth reduces add the carrots, leek, garlic and four or five peeled shallots, cook until just done.  Keep the broth warm or chill and reheat later.

Take a cup of couscous, season with pepper and cover with a ladle of hot broth,stir with a fork until fluffy. Season and fold in the poached celery, onion and reserved lamb. Add chopped coriander and serve.

When the lamb has set cut into equal sized pieces and reheat in the reduced broth. Cut the leeks into equal lengths and season. Crush the garlic and stir in a tablespoon of yoghurt, fold the leeks through the yoghurt.

Arrange the leeks in a pile, place a piece of lamb alongside and spoon the carrots and shallots around. Taste the broth and pour over.

Note: I found that the liquorice only started to come through once the broth had reduced, it makes an excellent flavour base for the couscous.
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Lamb, Licorice and Juniper – Version 2

Miles continues, “If anything the spices accentuated the flavour of the lamb rather than stand out, perhaps it was the quantities I used but I did find that only when I significantly reduced the stock with the addition of a little extra liquorice did the flavour become more interesting.

I purposely left the cookery methods and flavourings as basic and close to the original as I could; I wanted my chefs to taste food which by modern day standards is quite bland. Were I to serve this in one of the restaurants then I would have done more to the broth, herbs would have been added to compliment the juniper but saying that the couscous tasted fine.

If I were to do it again then I would have increased the amount of liquorice and perhaps infused the dried grains with a stock prior to cooking. I also think it would have made an excellent sop/broth with some root vegetables and a dumpling or two.

A very interesting experiment and thanks to Laura for inspiring me to do it.”

No, thank you, Miles for showing us some of the possibile dishes that could be cooked from recipe XX, and helping me with my 100th blog post. Clearly, the idea of a “broth” as envisioned by Bottero is not the only possible dish cookable from recipe XX. Hopefully, other cooks or chefs will add even more dishes as the Cookoff continues.

The interesting thing to me is, in addition to the use of licorice, is the use of juniper berries. Juniper is a common ingredient used today to flavor game dishes such as venison and wild boar. Like the carob we saw in entry #2, this is an ingredient that persists to the present day (today, cooks use chocolate to flavor game dishes and make them more savory) In these ways at least, the lineage of flavor persists from the ancient Near East to today. (Words by Laura Kelley and Chef, Miles Collins and all photos by Miles Collins.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 2: Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley

Old Carob Tree

A carob tree and a wellspring of water have been called miracles that have sustained sages and prophets alike. The slow maturation and flowering of the carob tree also teaches one to invest in the future even when it is arduous and promises no immediate gains. The carob is staple that provides sutenance, the promise of the next generation, and is incredibly tasty when cooked in a stew with lamb.

Carob Seeds

The second entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff is from yours truly, Webmistress, Laura Kelley. It is a Lamb and Carob Stew based on the “recipe” XIX on Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25 (4464).  The original called for meat, fat, salt, shallots and semolina, carob and water.  The tablet also calls for the addition of leeks and garlic mashed with a milk product (probably yogurt or sour cream) as well.  I added cumin, coriander seeds and a bit of salt – all of which would have been available in the ancient Near East.  The dish that resulted is pictured below, and I can personally attest that it is absolutely delicious, savory, earthy without any carob or chocolate-flavor to mar the flavor of the meat and spices.

Lamb and Carob Stew

What the carob does do is make a savory stew even more savory, and in the case of my creation, it blanketed the sharp edges of the added cumin and coriander seed. I feel justified in adding the cumin and coriander because in most of the modern world, recipes still don’t list each and everything that goes into the pot – that is a sort of rigor and precision that is uniquely a western European and American expectation. All over the world, ingredients are left unspecified to allow for creativity of individual cooks or just to use what they have on hand. If your interested in this concept of culinary variation, check out my post Viva Variation. For justification of the use of carob and semolina, see my growing lexicon of Mesopotamian food terms. But I digress. . .

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Lamb and Carob Stew
Buttery-soft and delectable halal lamb fresh from the farm is spiced with ground coriander and cumin seeds and sauteed in light sesame oil.  The shallots are added and lightly caramelized.  The stew is then given an incredible depth of flavor by the addition of ground carob powder.  Then it is lifted by the addition of leeks and garlic mashed with whole milk yogurt and served on a bed of semolina couscous cooked and steamed over homespun lamb stock.  As superb today as it was almost 4,000 years ago.

Ingredients
1-1.3 pound lamb roast, cut into bitesize pieces
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, freshly ground
3 teaspoons cumin seed, freshly ground
2-3 tablespoons light sesame oil (gingelly)
6 medium shallots, peeled and sliced
2 -3 cups of water
2-3 generous tablespoons of carob powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 leek (both white and green parts), carefully cleaned and rinsed
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 cup of yogurt

Serve over couscous – cooked separately as desired.

Method
Flavor lamb with half of the ground coriander seeds and about 1 teaspoon of ground cumin seeds. Massage the spices around and into the meat as possible. Let stand for several hours or overnight to really flavor the meat.

Heat light sesame oil in a large saucepan and sear the seasoned lamb until opaque and just beginning to color around the edges. Reduce heat, remove meat from pan and set aside. Add sliced shallots and cook over low heat until the start to caramelize. Caramelization will happen more quickly if you don’t stir or otherwise disturb the shallots too much.

When shallots are done to your liking, add the remainder of the ground coriander and cumin seed and cook to warm the spices, 3-5 minutes. When spices are warm and aromatic, add water. (Start with 2 cups and add more if needed or desired after meat is added.) Cook to warm water. When water is hot, add meat and stir. Cover and cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes to bring meat up to temperature. Add carob powder and salt and stir well. if the carob clumps, break it up. Recover and cook over medium or medium-low heat until lamb is soft, stirring occaisionally. The exact amount of time will depend on how large you cubed the lamb, but should be about 40 minutes or so. Watch the heat so that the lamb doesn’t burn, lower heat if necessary.

Prepare couscous as desired while the lamb is cooking.

When lamb has almost softened, uncover and cook for about 5- 10 minutes. In a food processor, pulse the leek and garlic until a diced vegetable is achieved. Add yogurt and pulse once or twice more to mix. Don’t blend until mush, the crunch of the vegetable is desired.

Add to the stew and stir well. Cook uncovered stirring occaisionally until stew is hot once again. Serve over couscous and garnish with fresh cilantro.

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Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25 (4464)

A word or two about my choices. I chose lamb, simply becasue I like it, but almost any meat will work with this recipe. I chose a stew, but many other options are available – a braised dish, a cooked shank, or even a roast that is first boiled. I also flavored the meat with the dry spice rub to increase the impact of the coriander and cumin flavor on the stew. In the first test run of this recipe, I added the spices only to the stew and they were not as prominent as when added to the meat before cooking and in the stew.

For the form of semolina, I chose couscous – simply because it was a form of semolina and would be tasty with the lamb stew. Other options could include a ground and lightly roasted semolina to thicken and add flavor to the stew (much as roasted rice is used in SE Asian dishes today), or coating the meat prior to searing with a semolina and spice mixture – sort of like spiced breadcrumbs might be used today.

I chose to integrate the yogurt, leek and garlic mixture into the stew, much as one would add yogurt to an Indian curry. However, other choices could include as a condiment for diners to add at will to the stew, or even a dip for breads that accompany the meal. Adding the blend into the stew adds great texture with the crunch of the vegetables as well as little blasts of additional flavor when diners bite into them.

Other dishes and combinations are doable and I hope will be done by others. This is only one possibility for the nineteenth “recipe” listed on the Yale Babylonian Tablets – there are many other culinary creations to make, but clearly this is much more than just another meat broth as envisioned by Bottero. (Words and recipe for Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Carob Tree by Ivlys; Photo of Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley; and other photos borrowed from google images.)

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)

__________

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: Five-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.)