Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie

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

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

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

Tablet YBC 8958

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

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

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

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

Without much further ado, the ingredients and method:

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie

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

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

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

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie – Assembled

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

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

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

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

Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie Ready for the Oven

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

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

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

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

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

A Slice of Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie

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

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

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

The Color of Pomegranates

Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Yeast Spelt Starter

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

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

Unbaked Spelt Sourdough

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

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

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

Wild Yeast Spelt Loaf

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

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

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

Old Baghdad and Fragrant Lamb Meatballs with Sour Sauce

Thief of Baghdad 1

Today we are treated to another guest post by the brilliant Deana Sidney from the site Lost Past Remembered.  Deana is a professional designer by day and an avid food historian and accomplished cook all the time.  She writes:

Whenever I see the word Baghdad, a small door in my brain opens to a storybook world where perfumed silks billow over marble floors, scimitars flash and veiled woman have black-lined eyes and perfect beauty.

I guess it’s pretty obvious the visuals for the stories in One Thousand and One Nights made a big impression on me as a child when I saw them in Maxfield Parrish’s illustrations for Arabian Nights and in Michael Powell’s Technicolor masterpiece, The Thief of Baghdad –– the images enchant all these years later.  The idea of Baghdad is still tremendously alluring. Now it has a flavor too!

Thief of Baghdad 2

I know –– the truth of Baghdad today is a world of different.  But I am going to go back in time to the golden age of Baghdad.  The one thing that hasn’t changed is food … it is and was spectacular.

Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Dishes) was written by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi in 1226, at the end of the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate (an end brought about by the Mongol hoards that destroyed Baghdad in 1258).  The Abbasid were incredibly sophisticated and inclusive of many other cultures, including Chinese as well as Persian and Turkish.  The Caliphate reached the height of its powers in the 9th century when it stretched all through the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea.  Math, science and literature flourished. One of my favorite books, One Thousand and One Nights, was written during this time … combining tales of many cultures and giving us Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba.  There really was a world like the one in my imagination –– once upon a time.

Illustration from 1001 Nights

The cookbook was a huge hit and became famous, especially in Turkey where a copy ended up … remarkable since all copies were written by hand. There were originally 160 recipes that were expanded to 260 through the centuries.

I found the book quite by accident, intrigued by an online recipe about the addictive salted sauce called murri that came from a translation of a recipe by Charles Perry (I wrote about murri HERE).  That discovery compelled me to get a copy of A Baghdad Cookery Book.   Once I opened it, I began cooking my way through it.

Book of Dishes

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Perry at the Oxford Food Symposium. He has translated many manuscripts in many languages in addition to being a former LA Times food critic and Rolling Stone writer… what an interesting life he’s led!  He was accessible and terribly nice.

When I went out to LA for the Lambapalooza dinner (that I wrote about HERE), I couldn’t think of a better companion for the meal than Mr. Perry since I made his recipe for Rutabiyya as my offering for the feast.  He walked me through preparation of the classic murri and with his help I made another version by rotting barley for weeks!  I shared samples of ambergris and manna that I had procured for the dinner with him as a small thank you for his help.

Fat-tailed sheep

The recipe I am sharing today is called Mudaqqaqat Hamida (which means sour meatballs).  I have been on a meatball roll lately (so to speak)… they are all the rage in NYC this year and perfect food for a cold winters night. This recipe is slightly exotic, but easy to make.  They are like proto-Swedish meatballs since they are sweet and sour from the natural sweetness of the reduced stock and the lemon, sumac and pomegranate molasses.

One ingredient that I do not use is something called tail fat.  It comes from the fat-tailed sheep that I read makes up an astounding 25% of the world’s sheep population. I hear it may be available in the US but would be very difficult to come by. Almost every recipe in the book calls for using it.  Absent tail fat, I would say using an animal fat like lard or duck fat would be similar to add extra flavor.  A vegetable oil will be fine if you are squeamish about animal fat.

Stone bowl from Uruk

I know that mastic is not on every pantry shelf –– it is available online and in most Middle-Eastern markets and looks like a rough yellow diamond (it is a dried resin).   You need very little.  I learned that the hard way the first time I used it.  The amount for the dish wasn’t really listed so I put in too much because I love the way it smelled –– it’s best when it is delicately used, then it’s lovely and haunting.  Honestly, there is nothing that remotely tastes like it so I couldn’t think of making a substitution.  The closest thing would be a splash of Retsina… but that wouldn’t be quite right. Sumac is also unusual, but is also available in those markets and online –– use extra lemon if you don’t have it.  The meat has a wonderful sweetness to it and contrasts beautifully with the sour sauce.  As with most dishes that have lots of warm spices, it perfumes your mouth when you eat it and is deeply satisfying. Serve with any flatbread or whole-wheat couscous.

Mudaqqaqat Hamida (sour meatballs) serves 4

1 pound ground lamb
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground pepper
1 t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground mastic (use a mortar and pestle, or roll it between foil with a rolling pin)
2/3 c chickpeas, mashed (I tried both frozen green chickpeas from WF and canned… I don’t know which is more authentic but I loved the taste of the green… both are delicious in the lamb)
2 small onions chopped
2 t salt or to taste
oil to brown meat (I used leftover fat from cooking a pheasant for added flavor but duck fat, lard or olive oil is fine)
juice of 1 lemon
1 t sumac (optional)
½ t saffron threads
3 T pomegranate molasses
¼ to ½ cup chopped fresh mint (to your taste)
3 cups unsalted stock
1 – 2 drops Aftelier Rose Chef’s Essence  or 2-3 T rosewater – to taste
Seeds from 1 pomegranate

Combine the lamb and spices and chickpeas and 1 onion.  Roll into balls… small golf ball size is good.  Brown in the fat with the rest of the onion and pour off any excess fat.

Add stock or water and lemon juice, sumac, saffron and cook the meatballs till they are done over a medium flame.

Reduce the liquid till it thickens somewhat. Add pomegranate molasses and rose essence/rosewater to taste and cook for another few minutes.  The natural sweetness of the reduced stock is perfect with the sour additions.  If you don’t reduce the sauce the sourness is unbalanced.  Toss in some of the chopped mint and stir.  Serve with Pomegranate seeds and fresh mint sprinkled on top.

Mudaqqaqat Hamida

Original recipe:

“Cut red meat into thin slices, then mince fine, adding seasonings, coriander, pepper, cinnamon and mastic together with chickpeas and a little onion.  Made into cabobs, smaller than oranges.  Melt fresh tail [fat], and throw in the cabobs, stirring until browned then cover with water.  Cut up two or three onions and add.  When cooked, removed the oils and sprinkle on top a little lemon or grape-juice, or a mixture of both, or sumach-juice, or pomegranate-juice.  Rub over the saucepan some sprigs of dry mint, and throw in a little mastic, pepper and cinnamon.  If desired, sprinkle in a little wine-vinegar, and color with saffron.  Spray the saucepan with a little rose-water, and wipe the sides with a clean rag.  Leave over the fire and hour: then remove.”


Thanks Deana for another amazing historical food adventure! (Words and photograph of Mudaqqaqat Hamida by Deana Sidney.  Illustration of The Thief of Baghdad 1 & 2 by Maxfield Parrish from Wikipedia; illustration from 1429 edition of 1001 Nights from; Book of Dishes from the Yale Library; photo of fat-tailed sheep from Wikipedia; and photo of stone bowl from Uruk from FAO.