Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 6: A Roman Roast Lamb Chop

My husband was drawn into the spirit of the cook-off again and prepared an elegant and delicious Roman roast lamb chop for us. He based his recipe on Apicius 8.6.8: The Raw Kid or Lamb: Haedus Sive Agnus Crudus. The original directions are about as simple as simple can be and read: “Is rubbed with oil and pepper and sprinkled with plenty of clean salt and coriander seed, placed in the oven and served roast”. He made one addition to the recipe. He sprinkled some garum on the just roasted chop just after taking them out of the oven to rest before serving to add some of the garum magic to the roast lamb.

Roman Roast Lamb Chops

4 large bone-in lamb chops
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
11/2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons coriander seed
1-2 teaspoons garum (if available)

Grind the peppercorns by hand in a mortar. I usually prefer a coarse ground to a fine one. When ground to the desired degree, mix the ground pepper with the olive oil in a small bowl and let the pepper infuse the oil while you grind the coriander seed. When the coriander seed is done, mix it with the salt and set aside.

Pierce the chops several times with the tines of a fork and then thoroughly rub the oil and pepper mixture on both sides. Let sit for at least 20-30 minutes. Then rub on the mixture of salt and ground coriander seed on one side of the chops and place this side face down on the broiler rack. Rub the side facing up with the remaining mix and let sit for an additional 20-30 minutes. Preheat the broiler to high while the meat is being seasoned.

Place under broiler at least several inches from the flame and cook 4-5 minutes a side; adjust cooking times to size and thickness of the chop. When done, remove from broiler and sprinkle garum over the chops. Let rest at least 5 minutes before serving.


Steve writes: Back when Laura started her garum experiment, I got interested in some of the things that she was cooking. I’ve always liked historical cooking and so decided to try some things on my own. However finding a recipe that would not take me all day to cook AND that could feed our kids as well as ourselves was a challenge. I came across a version of this recipe for roast lamb and it seemed simple and would not require a lot of unusual ingredients, but would allow me to experiment with the garum as an addition. As we found with other recipes, the garum does not give the food a fish flavor, but instead enhances the flavors that are present in the dish. Even our kids, who are notoriously finicky, enjoyed it and didn’t notice the garum at all. (Words by Stephen and Laura Kelley. Photo of A Roman Roast Lamb Chop by Laura Kelley).

Variation in Roman Cooking: The Tale of the Cucumber and the Melon

This post recounts the results of an experiment that took place recently between me and my husband.  In the Apician cookbook there are two recipes very close together that can be used for either cucumbers or melons:


Ingredients are listed, but no amounts are offered. My husband, who is also a good cook, wanted to join me in the cookoff.  So I proposed using our different takes on the cucumber-melon Apician recipe to demonstrate the role of variation in Roman cooking.  We cooked our dishes separately, and did not compare notes until after the experiment was over. Interestingly, we came up with radically different dishes based on the same ancient recipe.  The results follow:


Apician Cucumbers by Laura Kelley
This is a slightly sour starter salad or condiment in a large meal that has the unusual flavor of red wine must and vinegar as the main flavors.  The pennyroyal sweetens the mixture just a bit and the asafetida adds a bit of depth.  The garum of course is the umami factor for this unusual combination of flavors.

1-2 large western cucumbers (or multiple smaller Asian ones)

3 teaspoons dried, shredded pennyroyal
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
2 tablespoons beef broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3-4 teaspoons reduced red wine *
4 teaspoons garum
1-2 pinches asafetida (optional)

Apician Cucumbers by Laura Kelley


Prepare the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together in a shallow bowl or cup.  If you are sensitive to textures, you may wish to grind the pennyroyal into a powder.  Peel, deseed and cut the cucumbers crosswise.   Pour dressing over the cucumbers and mix well.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  When about to serve, add the asafetida if desired, and mix well.  Serve cool, not cold or at room temperature.

* Reduced wine or must is very simple to make.  For reduced wine, simply heat wine to a near boil, then turn down the flame to low or medium low and cook very gently – stirring often – until light syrup is formed.  For reduced must, use procedure above on commercially available 100% grape juice – unless you live near a vineyard and can get a large amount of fresh must.  Best if prepared at least one day before cooking and allowed to fully cool before using.  Stores for months if refrigerated in a sterilized, sealed glass jar. 1.5 liters of wine makes about ¼ to 1/3 cup of must.  (Reduced wine and must carry a wallop of sweet and sour flavor and should be used cautiously, or they will easily overpower and recipe.)


Apician Melons by Stephen Kelley
This melon recipe is surprisingly sweet given the addition of so much white vinegar.  It provides a delicious and remarkable dessert or sweet snack of melons flavored in an unusual way – with sweet pennyroyal and lots of black pepper.  Best when served cool or room temperature – but not cold.

½ honeydew melon
½ cantaloupe

3 teaspoons dried, shredded pennyroyal
2½ teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
6 teaspoons white vinegar
6 teaspoons reduced white wine
4 teaspoons garum

Apician Melons by Stephen Kelley

Prepare the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together in a shallow bowl or cup.  If you are sensitive to textures, you may wish to grind the pennyroyal into a powder.  Peel, deseed and dice the melons and mix them together.   Pour dressing over the melons and mix well.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  Serve cool, not cold or at room temperature.


First off, let me say that both dishes were delicious. We were both surprised to see what different dishes we made from the same list of ingredients. As you can see, to some degree, our preconceived notions about what to do with the main ingredient greatly influenced our choices.  Working with the cucumber, I went for a more sour, salad-like dish, and my husband went the dessert route becasue he was working with melons.

We both used reduced wine instead of reduced must (which would usually be slightly sweeter) or honey because that is what we had on hand.

We were also impressed by the absence of any fish flavor on the vegetables and fruits despite a fair amount of garum added to each dressing. I am not a big fan of dishes with a strong flavor of alcohol in them and particulary dislike rum cakes and tipsy parsons. That said, however, the rich flavor of reduced wine on the cucumbers and melons was fantastic and I urge you to try it.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I pay a lot of attention to variation in Asian “recipes” many of which are offered as rudimentary lists of ingredients, just as the Roman recipe above. To sum up some of the posts I’ve written on variation, which are available here and here, I’d note that most of the rest of the world doesn’t care about the uniformity that so many in the west desire.

For example, many recipes in Central or Western Asia are given with the ingredient, “greens”. Most of the time this could be cilantro, parsley, tarragon, dill or even one of the savories – the varying balance of which could drastically change the flavor of a dish. A modern western version of such a recipe would, on the other hand, report the exact amounts of the herbs needed and the form in which to add them. This would lead to a single taste for the recipe, instead of a range of variation. A loss, indeed.

When Asians without formal culinary training are queried about how much of an herb is needed in a recipe, most don’t even understand the question. They shrug and say something like, “however much you wish”.

I find it interesting that many Roman recipes work like many modern Asian ones. We found out in the Mesopotamian cookoff that some dishes – like mersu – could take on many different forms by mixing and matching ingredients according to the diners likes and dislikes, wishes of the cook, their skills, and what they had on hand. Both ancient and modern recipes are part of the legacy of the Silk Road which still influences our world today. (Words by Laura Kelley; Recipes by Stephen and Laura Kelley as noted, and Photographs of the Apician Cucumbers and Melons by Laura Kelley).

Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 2: Two Sauces for Fowl and a Patina of Asparagus and Grouse by Deana Sidney

Patina of Asparagus and Grouse by Deana Sidney

Friend of Silk Road Gourmet, Ms. Deana Sidney, of Lost Past Remembered has cooked several recipes with the garum I sent her.
From her magical kitchen come two sauces for chicken or fowl and a cold patina of asparagus and grouse (or figpecker, should you have one on hand) that use the garum I produced in the backyard last year.

Please check out her post, recipes and stories about one of Rome’s baddest Emperors – Heliogabalus. Deana writes, “the green sauces for the chicken are not unlike a more complex pesto that would become ubiquitous in Italian cuisine a millennium or so later. The Romans loved sauces and I loved the many recipes for the sauces so much, I just couldn’t stop at one so made two, both are fabulous.”

The patina which is made with eggs and not sheets or dough or “noodles” like those used in lasagna is a lot like a modern quiche.  The eggs are flavored with a mixture of wine and garum called oenogarum – with delicious results.

Also, be in awe of Deana’s beautifully composed photos like the one above – with fresh azalea blossoms strewn across the spring table.  And lastly, look forward to more dishes using garum in the Roman cookoff in the days and weeks ahead. Deana writes: “The green sauces for the chicken are not unlike a more complex pesto that would become ubiquitous in Italian cuisine a milennium or so later. The Romans loved sauces and I loved the many recipes for the sauces so much, I just couldn’t stop at one so made 2, both are fabulous.  Although I could only guess at the proportions, one turned out slightly sweet and the other slightly tangy. They are delicious with salmon.

The asparagus ‘quiche’ is brilliantly flavored and accessorized with meat ( I did take the liberty of substituting grouse meat for ‘figpeckers’ but duck breast would work well as would chicken tenders if you wanted a milder flavor) and reminded me of the subtle beauty of the Japanese custard dish, chawan mushi (that I wrote about HERE).

Just a note for ingredients.  As you may have surmised, herbs like lovage and rue are not on supermarket shelves.  I sent for mine (and they arrived in 4 days) from a wonderful resource I found last year when I needed hyssop and pennyroyal for medieval recipes.   The Grower’s Exchange in Virginia has a remarkable selection of unusual herbs and beautiful plants.  The arrive in perfect condition and after 3 deliveries I can say that with confidence.   Hyssop is one of my favorite discoveries and tastes like many sweet herbs all in one plant, pennyroyal is an incredibly sweet mint that is wonderful and lovage is a good-sized perennial that looks like giant parsley and tastes like celery… you only need a bit to flavor a dish. Rue is interesting, bitter and bad for you in large quantities (like pennyroyal).  It has been used for thousands of years in cooking and as a medicine for everything from insect repellant to eye wash.

The recipes (written in capitals) that follow are taken verbatim from Apicius.  After that are my versions.

Sauce for Fowl 1


1 date, seeded
3 T broth
½ t pepper
2 t chopped lovage
2 t chopped rue
2 T toasted pine nuts
½ t powdered mustard
2 t honey
1 T garum or fish sauce
½ t celery seed
¼ c chopped parsley
3 T vinegar
1 to 2 T oil to taste

Warm the broth and soak the date in it till softened. Puree in a blender with the stock.  Add the herbs and nuts and spices, puree. Add the vinegar and oil and blend.

Sauce for Fowl 2


1 t pepper
2 t lovage
¼ c parsley
2 t mint
½ t fennel pollen
2 T wine
1 T garum or  fish sauce
¼ c roasted hazelnuts
1 t honey
2 T vinegar
2 T broth
2 T oil
½ t celery seed
1 t catmint or catnip or pennyroyal, chopped

Put first 8 ingredients into a blender and blend ingredients including the hazelnuts, then toss in the rest and grind.

Roast Chicken with Apician Sauce for Fowl

Perfect Simple Roast Chicken 1-4 pound chicken, trussed
1 T garum or fish sauce
1 t pepper
1 -2 t salt (Thomas Keller recommends liberal salting for a crisp skin… it works)

Preheat oven to 450º.  Rinse the chicken and pat dry.  Leave on a rack in the fridge for 1 hour, uncovered.  Remove then rub the chicken with garum and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Place on the rack in a pan and fill pan ½” full with stock or water (use the drippings for a lovely gravy on the side).  Cook for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.

Allow to rest 15 minutes before carving for crisp skinned but very juicy chicken.

Another Cold Asparagus Dish


Asparagus Custard with Grouse Breast

8 Asparagus cut into stalks and tips
2 T stock
2 T wine
2 T oil + 2 t oil
1 t pepper
4 eggs
1 T garum
Breasts from 1 grouse (you can get Scottish Grouse from D’Artagnan), or a D’Artagnan duck breast  or even chicken breast

Steam the asparagus tips for 5 minutes and the stalks for 8.  Chop the stalks and puree with 2 T stock.

Warm the oven to 375º.  In an ovenproof skillet, warm the pepper, oil, wine and stock for a few minutes. Whisk 4 eggs with the asparagus puree and the garum

Pour into the skillet and heat on the stovetop over medium heat for a few minutes until the eggs are slightly set on the bottom.  Put in the oven for 10 minutes.

Salt and pepper the breasts and sauté in 2 t oil for a few moments on each side and remove. Let rest for a few moments.  Slice into 3 or 4 slices each and reserve.

After the first 10 minutes, remove the skillet from the oven and lay the reserved asparagus tips and meat into the eggs which should be nearly set.  Put back in the over for 5 more minutes or until set.  Serve hot or cold.”

(Words except where indicated by Laura Kelley; adapted Roman recipe and photograph of Patina with Asparagus and Grouse and Chicken with Apician Sauce by Deana Sidney).

Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 1: Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry

First up in our Ancient Roman cookoff is an entry by noted scholar, author and food writer, Charles Perry.  Charles chose to prepare Pullus Frontonianus which is chicken prepared with a selection of delicious herbs, including dill, leeks, savory and cilantro.  To this a touch of garum is added and when cooking is complete, the dish is dressed with grape syrup (defrutum) and black pepper for a savory and sweet treat from the past.   Here’s Charles:

The recipe for Pullus Frontonianus (recipe 12, section IX of book 6), reads: “Stiffen [that is, brown], the chicken, add a mixture of liquamen and oil into which you put a bundle of dill, leek, savory and green coriander, and cook. When it is done, take it out, put it on a serving dish, sprinkle generously with defrutum and serve.”

Charles Perry

I was puzzled by a few things here. I would have added at least some oil to the pan before searing the chicken, and I got no clear idea how much liquamen to add. I understand that garum and the liquamen called for by the recipe were not identical, but Laura’s garum is much more flavorful than the Southeast Asian fish sauces I’ve used. When making this recipe in the past, I have used three tablespoons of nam pla, but here I thought one tablespoon would make the dish just about as fishy as I could possibly want. So I browned the chicken in the oil and added the liquamen afterward, and I also covered the pan while the chicken cooked to prevent burning. In fact, I also added a tablespoon of water, which had the effect of deglazing the pan.

Since I don’t have access to grape must, for the defrutum I used the Lebanese product dibs ‘inab, also known as grape molasses or mélasse de raisins. In fact I suspect defrutum was quite similar to dibs ‘inab, because recipes don’t say to boil must down fresh, so it must have had the sugar concentration of a molasses (or treacle) to prevent spoilage. Dibs ‘inab has the cooked flavor of a molasses with a pleasant note of ripe grapes.

The resulting dish had a fairly strong fish aroma, but I also thought the effect of the garum similar to that of the chicken or veal stock a modern European chef might add to a sauté. The herbs provided a piquant counterpoint, and the defrutum gave the dish an oddly archaic flavor.


As for the name, in their edition of Apicius, Barbara Flower and Elizabeth Rosenbaum suggested that the Fronto in question was an obscure author of agricultural writings. This seems rather unlikely to me, since there was a much more famous Fronto to hand: the great orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto, whom the Romans considered second only to Cicero.

He was deadly serious about rhetoric, which, as the vehicle of great public issues, was self-evidently the only subject in the universe that truly mattered. When his pupil, the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, started studying philosophy, Fronto sent him a scolding letter: “You seem to me to have, in the fashion of the young, deserted the pursuit of eloquence and to have turned aside to philosophy, in which there is no introductory section to be elaborated and no account of the facts, bringing them together with concision, clarity and skill.”

Philosophy is a trivial pursuit, he informed young Marcus (who is of course mostly remembered today for his philosophical meditations). After a philosophical discussion, Fronto pointed out, you “go away carefree, with nothing to think over, or to write up at night, nothing to recite to your master, nothing to say by heart, no search for words, no adorning of a single synonym, no translation from Greek into our language.” Well, gosh, when you put it that way . . .


Pullus Frontonianus
Prepared by Charles Perry

1 (4 ½-pound) chicken
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon garum
1 leek, cleaned and sliced crosswise
5-6 sprigs dill, minced
2-3 sprigs fresh savory, minced
4-5 sprigs green coriander, minced
4-6 tablespoons defrutum or dibs ‘inab
Freshly ground pepper

Cut chicken into joints and pat dry. Put the oil in a pan and heat until quite hot, then add the chicken pieces without crowding the pan, and fry, turning often, until browned. Do in several batches if necessary.

Reduce the heat, add the garum, leek, dill, savory and green coriander, cover tightly and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Check around 15 minutes to make sure the liquid has not all boiled away.

To serve, arrange on a dish and sprinkle with defrutum and pepper to taste.    Serves 3-4.

Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry


The original recipe from my version of Apicius (translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling) reads:


You can see that Charles was faithful to the original recipe without much adaptation, so for those of you who think that most historical dishes are difficult to prepare, this is one to sink your teeth into.  There is also a suckling pig à la Fronto, which I have prepared using pork tenderloin and it is also delicious.

As to Fronto, as Charles points out he was a famous orator who was important enough to scold a future Roman Emperor about his studies.  But he was also a wealthy citizen who after coming to Rome during the reign of Hadrian amassed a large fortune, erected magnificent buildings and purchased the famous Gardens of Maecenas with its terraces and libraries near the Palatine Hil.

So, he is another famous person from the past exploited for advertising the cookbook named after Apicius.  As a wealthy man, Fronto undoubtedly held lavish dinners and banquets and using his name on a couple of dishes in a book written several centuries later helped gain audience and increase interest.  Sort of like someone today calling a dish William Jennings Bryan Chicken or Lamb à la Lincoln without historical sources to verify the links.

In regards to the garum, there are three observations that Charles makes that I find interesting, 1.) Garum is much more flavorful than the nam pla he usually uses to prepare the dish, and 2.) There was a strong fish aroma to the dish, but not a strong fish flavor, and 3.) The effect of the garum was to make the dish richer and add depth, sort of like the addition of lamb or veal stock by a modern chef might be.

A Roman Banquet

I do have one interpretation that differs from Charles, and with respect, I’d like to discuss it a bit here.  I think that there are no instructions for making defrutum in the Apician recipe, because it is just something that most Roman kitchens made in bulk and would have on hand.  Defrutum and must of other juices and wines was a fairly common ingredient in many Roman dishes.  If you don’t have access to a Persian or Mediterranean market of any flavor, you can make your own defrutum fairly easily.  It is easy, but time consuming.  Simply heat juice or wine to a near boil and then reduce to a low flame and cook gently until reduced to a syrup – stirring occasionally.  One simply has to be careful not to burn or scorch to juice, or this flavor will carry through to the syrup or molasses.  This is best done when working with 100 percent unsweetened juice or wine, and you need a lot of juice to make a small amount of syrup.  For example, one large bottle of unsweetened pomegranate juice makes about 1/3 cup of pomegranate syrup.  It keeps for a long time once refrigerated.

Well, thanks for Charles for his fantastic kickoff to our Ancient Roman cookoff!  A great meal to be enjoyed anytime or for a bit of extra authenticity, crack a volume of Graves or watch I Claudius reruns while cooking and preparing the table.

I am eagerly looking forward to the dishes and presentations by the other participants as well, including a Roman patina by Sally Grainger.  With Easter coming up, I am cooking a leg-of-lamb marinated in yogurt and spices Saudi style and an rice dish for tomorrow.  Then I am on the road to Kashgar and other places in NW China for a couple of weeks.  I will cook my entry for the cookoff when I return.  (Words and recipe by Charles Perry; fore-and after matter by Laura Kelley. Photo of Charles Perry borrowed from LA Weekly Blogs; Photo of Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 10 – Mersu with Cheese, Please! – by Laura Kelley

Mersu are not just for dessert, anymore.

The addition of some combinations of Nippur – Nusku tablet ingredients – cheese, wine, raisins, figs, apples yields delicious savory treats – that could serve as appetizers, or main parts of a light meal.

It is unknown exactly what sort of cheese the Mesopotamians had, but most cultures have at least one variety (usually more) of  soft cheese, hard cheese and a blue or molded cheese.  I thought that a yogurt cheese like labneh would be a good approximation for a soft cheese; parmesan, asiago or romano could serve as a hard cheese; and gorgonzola could serve as a stand in for their blue cheese.

Mersu with Cheese

Mersu as Medjool Dates Stuffed with Cheese are the simplest of the savory mersu to make.  Just slice the dates, remove the pit and stuff with the cheese or cheese based mixture of your choice.  I think that the extra-large medjool dates are the best for this.  They also have a robust flavor that stands up to cheese well.

I made several varieties:  1.)Dates stuffed with labneh – with or without single spices such as ground coriander or ground cardamom; 2.) dates stuffed with gorgonzola or other blue cheese; and 3.) dates stuffed with garlic and grated parmesan cheese.  This last variety uses a simplified “moretum” – a spread loved by the Romans – to fill the dates.

Without added spice, the dates stuffed with labneh are creamy and sweet with the slight tang of yogurt, with spices they are delicious and full of flavor.  The gorgonzola are really robust, as you might suspect, but the sweetness of the dates tempers the strong flavor of the cheese and makes them delicious.


for Mersu stuffed with soft or blue cheese

1 Medjool date, sliced and pitted
2 teaspoons of labneh
¼ teaspoon of ground coriander or cardamom (or to taste) (optional)
(You can use gorgonzola in the place of the labneh – I didn’t use spice with the gorgonzola because its flavor was quite strong already – feel free to try that as a variation if you so choose)

Spoon the cheese filling into the dates. The amount of filling used will vary with the size of the date. If using a spice, mix it prior to filling.

Ingredients for Mersu stuffed with hard cheese mixture
2 Medjool dates, sliced and pitted
¼ cup grated parmesan, asiago or romano or a mix
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil or grapeseed oil
1/8 – ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Mix the garlic and the cheese and moisten with olive oil to your desired consistency.  If you want a drier filling, use less olive oil. Salt as desired. Stuff dates.  Let sit for a while before serving to allow the garlic to flavor the cheese.  I found that the longer the dates sit (within reason) the better they taste.  Make them the night before, or the morning of a party or special dinner to really enjoy the blend of flavors they offer.

Mersu with Wine (Must Syrup)

Mersu with Wine (Concord Must Syrup) This is what I did for the wine ingredient mentioned in the Nippur tablets – roll the pounded date balls in a syrup of concord grape must.  If you don’t want to crush your own grapes, unsweetened 100% grape juice will reduce to a syrup just fine.  I liked this so much that I made a version with unsweetened pomegranate syrup – it was delicious!  The mild (grape) to severe (pomegranate)tanginess of the syrups played nicely with the naturally sweet dates

2 cups Deglet Noor dates
1 cup unsweetened pomegranate or grape juice (must be 100% juice)
Raisins (for stuffing) (optional)
Ground almonds, pinenuts, hazelnuts or semolina (for light coating) (optional)

In a small saucepan, bring the fruit juice to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to a low simmer and stir well. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the juice reduces to a syrup.  Pour onto a plate and let cool so that you can work with the syrup (or you will burn your fingers).

While the syrup is reducing, make the date balls.  Pulse the dates in a food processor until they are soft.  Bit by bit, roll the pounded dates into small balls. You will have to wet your hands, and wash them several times to keep the dates from sticking to them. My date balls were about 2/3rds of the size of a ping-pong ball, and the two cups made 15 balls.  Chill in the freezer for 5-10 minutes  before rolling in warm syrup, or the balls will begin to disintegrate.  The pomegranate syrup hardened up a lot quicker than the concord grape syrup – so you will have to work more quickly with that. The upside is it is a lot less messy than the concord grape syrup.

Roll the date balls in syrup, or spoon the syrup onto the balls and place on a rack to drain and harden up a bit. If desired, when the first layer is hardened, warm the syrup (in a microwave) and spoon a second layer over the date balls.

If you serve slightly chilled, the syrup coating will be firm enough not to be messy.  However, if you want to serve room temperature or warm, place a light coating of ground nuts – almonds or pinenuts would have the least flavor impact. If you like the flavor of the nuts, lightly pan roasting them prior to coating will emphasize their flavor – but I found that this greatly diminishes the flavor of the syrup.  Alternately, if you cannot eat nuts or don’t like the flavor of the types listed here that the Mesopotamians would have had,  a light dusting of semolina will also coat the date balls rolled in syrup, making them easier to eat.

One cup of juice made enough syrup to roll about 5 date balls in two layers of syrup.  I coated the leftover five balls in two things – grated parmesan cheese and roasted hazelnuts.  Both were amazing!

Variation:  Tuck a raisin inside the date ball before rolling in syrup.


The tablets speak on occasion of a woman with special skill in making mersu.  With all of the variation possible with the tremendous lot of ingredients assigned to mersu (and we have only touched upon a few in this cookoff) I wonder if a genius for variation isn’t the special skill that the mersu cooks had.  Not a secret only passed on from one cook to her apprentice, but a natural creativity for combinations resulting in delicious food.

All I know is that whether prepared as a savory appetizer or as a sweet appetizer or dessert, mersu are really delicious – consider serving for the upcoming holidays, and give your family and friends a flavorful ancient treat. (Words by Laura Kelley; photographs of Mersu with Cheese an Mersu with Wine (Must Syrup) also by Laura Kelley.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 9 – Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Stephen Kelley

Today’s entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from my dear husband, Stephen, who has put up with me and my wild ideas and projects (like Silk Road Gourmet) for many years. For years I’ve asked him to join me in some of these escapades – help me write this story (screenplay, paper etc, you name it) – and much to my chagrin, he never has. He usually just rolls his eyes and smiles and offers an alibi like, “I can’t write fiction”, or “I’m a crummy dancer”, or some other excuse.  This time however, something different happened.  He said yes.  He has thrown his hat in the ring and cooked a dish for us, and done the write up and recipe etc.  I am happily amazed at his participation and hope that it turns out to be a trend.

Stephen writes, “Since Laura tests all of her recipes on me as she is working with them, I’ve put on some weight since she started writing the Silk Road Gourmet books and web posts. But there is something you ought to know. Although she is the cookbook author, I was the first in our family to dabble in historical cookery. I’ve always had an interest in history, including the cultures (and cuisines) of the past. Most of my interest has been in early American and European cooking, but I’ve also long been interested in ancient cuisines. In fact, I first made Laura a Mesopotamian feast over a year ago. So, perhaps in some small way, I’m responsible for the Mesopotamian Cookoff, since it was after that dinner that she started showing such interest in the ancient recipes.

It should then come as no surprise that she has been trying to dragoon me into participating in the Cookoff. Having read the posts from others who have tried their hands at the ancient recipes, I had no expectation that anything I could do could compare with the delicious and beautifully presented results posted so far, but being a strong believer in propitiating the goddess of domestic harmony, I agreed to try.

I decided to try the Turnip with Herbs, partly because there had been no attempts at vegetable dishes so far and, I must admit, because it did not seem to require the multiple, complicated steps some of the meat dishes did (game bird pie, for instance). From the very limited description translated from the ancient tablet, the original dish appeared to be a simple boiled turnip with an unusual herb sauce.

Mashed Turnips with Herbs

(Yale Tablet 25-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.

I however decided to go a different route than that, and mash the turnips and herbs. I assumed the Sumerians, Akkadians, and other Mesopotamians could mash vegetables if they wanted to, so what the heck. It also meant I wouldn’t have to use the blood or semolina.


Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Stephen Kelley

6 medium turnips
1 leek
4 large shallots
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh cilantro
3 ounces arugula
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 teaspoons sea salt
3 tablespoons butter, warm
1 cup milk, warm

Peal and cube the turnips. Boil the turnips with 1 ounce of the arugula and 1 teaspoon of salt until the turnips are fully cooked but not too soft. Remove the arugula (as much as you can) and strain the turnips. Add the butter and milk and mash the turnips. Set aside.

Roughly chop and rinse the cilantro, leek, shallots, and remaining arugula. Add the garlic, coriander, cumin and remaining salt with the chopped herbs. Pulse the herbs in a food processor until finely chopped.

Fold the chopped herbs into the mashed turnips and mash until it is evenly distributed. Reheat and serve.


I had expected the mashed turnips and herbs to have a very strong flavor, given the cilantro and leek. Surprisingly, they had a very mild flavor, with occasional hints of cilantro or leeks. It made a simple, tasty side dish to either an ancient or a modern meat dish.

There was one problem, however. Six turnips make a lot of food for two. So we had lots of leftovers. Looking for something to do with mashed turnips that would be consistent with cooking styles of 3,000 years ago, Laura suggested making something akin to potato pancakes. I liked the idea, so here is how we did that:


Turnip with Herb Pancakes by Stephen and Laura Kelley

2-2 1/4 cups leftover turnips with herbs
2 eggs (beaten)
1 cup rye flour
1 cup vegetable oil (for frying)
Kefir Labneh (yogurt cheese) (for condiment)
Chopped herbs (for condiment)

Place mashed turnips in a mixing bowl and combine with the beaten eggs. Turn in a cup of rye flour (we used rye flower, which the Mesopotamians had, but you could use the semolina or spelt mentioned in the original tablet).

Heat the oil on high in a frying pan.

Form turnips mixed with eggs and flour into patties and slide the patties into the hot oil. Fry on med-high until the outer edges of the patties begin to brown. Lower flame and continue frying until the interior is hot. Flip and cook until desired color is achieved. Drain on a rack or paper towels. Serve with kefir labneh yogurt cheese (or sour cream) and herbs.

Turnip with Herb Pancakes

I actually liked the turnip “latkes” better than the original mashed turnips (so Laura gets credit for that, but I’ve always known she’s a much better cook than me–she’s the one with cook book, after all). The mild cilantro and leek flavor, topped with the yogurt, made for a very satisfying breakfast.”  (Words by Stephen Kelley. Photo of Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Laura Kelley (with new macro lens); Photo of Turnip with Herb Pancakes by Stephen Kelley.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 8 – Pork Tenderloin with Licorice by Cafettiera

God bless the Italians! An odd way to open a post about anceint Mesopotamian cuisine, I know, but so many ancient foods are still in use in the regional cuisines of Italy that it makes me want to praise them. That and today’s Mesopotamian Cookoff creation comes from the wonderful Italian cook and food blogger, Cafettiera Rosa, who concocted a terrific Pork Tenderloin with Licorice from one of the world’s oldest recipes from Uruk found in the Archives of Erech. The recipe calls for wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress), cumin, zest of citron, and water, and states that the cook 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. Cafettiera filled in the gaps with her culinary expertise to create the beautiful dish shown below.

She writes, “There is something utterly fascinating in cooking one of the oldest recipes in history. The food we eat and the ingredients we use are shaped by our history and by what is available to us, be it a result of nature or human intervention . . .

Pork Tenderloin with Licorice

. . . When I think about remote places, both in time and in space, I often find I can get some grasp when thinking about ingredients: food reminds me that those people, so far away from my daily experience, were human beings and no matter how different our lives, they still shared with me the challenge of making food taste better.

When reading the selection of recipes from the Yale tablets [and elsewhere], I could not help but being drawn to a recipe calling for liquorice and citron.  Both plants are heirloom productions in Calabria, the tip of the Italian toe where my partner comes from, and where I spend most of my holidays. Calabria is one of the major licorice producers in Italy: the plant has been cultivated on industrial scale for more than three hundred years. Citrons are one of the three naturally occurring types of citrus, not created by human intervention, from which the huge variety of modern citruses originates; in Calabria, like in the rest of Italy, citrons brighten up winter days, sold in tall piles at every street corner. Both ingredients are quite out of fashion in modern cooking now, but to an Italian, they are familiar. Candied citron peel features in almost all traditional sweet recipes, and licorice sticks were one of my favourite treats as a child. At some point my sister suffered of low pressure and the doctor suggested she tried chewing licorice wood. I don’t think she ever touched one, but I for sure munched often on the bitter, and yet incredibly sweet, wood. Licorice contains a potent sweet component, several times sweeter than sugar, and a set of complex aromatics, making it a surprisingly versatile ingredient to work with. Citrons are traditionally candied, but my favourite option is to eat them raw, sliced and dressed either with sugar or with salt, pepper and olive oil. Sometimes the pulp, tart and similar to lemon, is removed; the interesting part is actually the rest: below the zest, rich of aromatic oils like all citrus fruits, there is a white part, which in other citruses is bitter and definitely inedible. In citron it is sweet and crunchy, the taste of sunny winters to me.

Ferula foetida (asafoetida) “Tree” in Iran

I am way less familiar with asafoetida, which I’ve bought for the first time a few months ago. A fascinating powder, tasting of onion and garlic, probably one of the most intensely flavoured spices. A pinch is a generous amount; use too much and the recipe will turn out inedible. It does require culinary savviness to use asafoetida; it is definitely not a spice you taste and put straight in your food without a second thought. Cumin is not traditionally used in Italy, an omission I cannot understand. It is probably the spice I use more often in cooking, after black pepper.

The recipe I chose contemplated no addition of something hot like pepper or chili. I thought I would miss the kick, and did not expect the garden cress to be able to provide the necessary pungency, however in this particular recipe it managed to deliver it.

I had the freedom to choose what meat I wanted to use with this set of ingredients. My attention was immediately drawn to pork and duck; these meats are often paired with licorice in Chinese cooking. In the end I went for pork because I had trouble finding duck, and because somehow it reminded me of the ‘Calabrian’ theme of the other ingredients (there are very few dishes in Calabria that don’t use pork, in one form or the other). As for the cut and the cooking time, I used a technique I am quite familiar with. It may sound too ‘modern’, but the reality is that we have no clue of what this recipe was supposed to be. I’m sure the flavour mixture will work with other cuts and techniques as well and I will experiment again. I cooked the meat in butter because this is what I usually do with tenderloin and because it was a reasonable choice from an historical point of view. The result was an intriguing plate, that tastes like nothing I’ve tasted so far. It is quite appealing to the modern palate and I would not worry about guests or family not liking it; the mixture of sweet licorice, fresh citrus, pungent cress and earthy cumin was slightly bitter on its own but worked perfectly as a sauce for the meat.

I now live in Germany, so I had to play with the ingredients I can find here. I tried to find citron in every shop of my town. I couldn’t. August is probably the worst time of the year to get citruses, at least from Italy, so I was not too surprised. I substituted the zest with a mixture of fresh lime and dried orange peel, but I will try to use the real thing this winter, when I go to Calabria. I already promised several of my family members they will taste one of the most ancient recipes in the world.


Pork Tenderloin with Licorice by Cafettiera

the thick end of a pork tenderloin, about 400 gr
5 licorice wood sticks, about 10 cm long
zest of a lime (see note below)
1 teaspoon dried orange powder
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon butter
a small bunch of garden cress (see note below)

optional: pistachios, for garnish

Note 1: I substituted citron zest with a mixture of lime and dried orange zest; probably lemon would work as well. Citron zest is a little less intense, so I’d increase the quantity if I can find it.

Note 2: in Germany the only type of cress commercially available is sold in the form of tiny sprouts (see picture). I like the pungency of water cress and would have bought a small bunch of it, had I found it, to add to the sauce. Still, the garden cress was quite pungent and a crucial addition to the balance of the dish. Don’t leave it out.

Note 3: I served the dish with an arugula salad and some barley couscous. Both were available ingredients to Ancient Mesopotamia, so they are not too much of a stretch.

Start by making the licorice extract. Boil four licorice sticks in two liters of water until the water is reduced to about 1/2 liter. This took me almost an hour.

In a heavy bottomed pan dry roast the cumin seeds. Put most of them in a mortar (keep a pinch on the side for later) together with a licorice stick. Pestle until the licorice and cumin are reduced to a powder. Mix in the dried orange zest, the grated zest of a quarter of a lime, and a generous pinch of salt. Use this mixture to rub the meat using your hands. Cover with cling film and leave to rest for at least two hours, or overnight in the fridge (I left it about four hours, two in the fridge and two outside).

When the water is reduced to about a quarter of the original volume, add in the zest of half lime and a pinch of orange zest. Leave to boil for another 10-15 minutes, then leave to cool and strain. You’ll end up with 300-400 ml of licorice extract. It should taste bitter and sweet at the same time, with a fresh note from the citrus.

When almost ready to eat, melt half of the butter in a wide pan together with the reserved pinch of roasted cumin. When it is hot and foamy add the pork tenderloin and let it brown on one side for 3-4 minutes. When it is well browned turn it and repeat, until browned all over. Add about 250 ml of licorice broth, cover and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Add half of the cress and a dusting of lime zest, cover and let cook for another 2-3 minutes. Take off the meat and wrap it in foil. Turn the heat to high and let the sauce reduce, adding the remaining butter to it and scraping the bottom of the pan. Slice the meat, top with a few tablespoons of the sauce (thin it with a bit of licorice extract if it is too thick), a sprinkle of garden cress and a bit of lime zest. Sprinkle with toasted pistachios, if using, and serve straight away.”


Uruk, the city that the original recipe comes from, was essentially one of the first cities in the world.  In myth and literature, Uruk was famous as the capital city of Gilgamesh, and it transformed human communities from collections of agricultural villages to a city with centralized authority, a full-time bureaucracy, a military, class stratification and trade specialization.

Artist’s Reconstruction of Uruk

From its formation in around 5000 – 4800 BCE, Uruk began to amass a comparatively large population in Southern Mesopotamia, owing perhaps to its placement just inland of the marshes near the head of the Persian Gulf.  The environment allowed for a concentration of fisherman, farmers, gardeners, hunters and herdsman, all of whom were able to specialize their professions and increase productivity in Uruk’s sophisticated urban environment.  The downside (perhaps) of this specialization is that individual families became less self-sufficient.

Through the gradual and eventual domestication of native grains from the Zagros foothills and extensive irrigation techniques, enabled Uruk’s growth into the largest Sumerian settlement, in both population and area, with relative ease.  By 3400 BCE the monumental buildings as pictured in the artist’s reconstruction were built, and by 3100 BCE the earliest cuneiform writing emerged.

What we have in this recipe is nothing less than a dish from the dawn of Western Civilization (though the recipe is from a later date in Uruk’s history) that is still delicious today. (Words by Caffettiera Rosa and Laura Kelley. Photo of Pork Tenderloin with Licorice by Caffettiera Rosa; Photo of Ferula foetida “tree” in Iran by M.Rejzek; Illustration of Uruk by Balage.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 7 – Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of barley for the Mesopotamians.  It was quite simply, the mainstay of their existence, and was used to make bread, cakes and beer and feed animals (especially pigs to make them “clean” enough to eat), and it was integral to the barter system used to trade goods in many societies. They offered it to their Gods to feed and supplicate them. They also ate it in savory dishes as we saw in the Lamb with Barley and Mint and as we will see in a moment – possibly as a pilaf mixed with herbs and chopped vegetables.

All of the entries in the Mesopotamian Cookoff so far have been for meat dishes, so for this post, I wanted to feature a vegetable, cereal or bread. Here is the delicious Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf from Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25, recipe XXV.  The center of this dish is an ingredient called laptu, which seems to have two meanings depending on context. In his Textes Culinaire Mesopotamien (TCM), Bottero chose to make the dish only with turnips, which is one of the meanings of the word laptu.  I chose to use the other meaning of laptu – that of roasted barley to explore what might have been a grain dish for the Babylonians of this period.

The ingredients are very straightforward: water, fat, roasted barley, mix of chopped shallots, arugula, and coriander semolina, blood, mashed leeks and garlic. How these are put together, however, are up to the cook. There likely were cultural standards for dishes in ancient times as there are today.  But leaving the entire method up to the cook allows for a level of variation, creativity on the part of the chef and diner’s desire that is all but gone in the west these days.

I cooked this at as I was preparing the Fowl with Herbs for the previous post, so I used a cup of the stock I boiled the hens in to make the barley along with some water.  I wanted the nuttiness of the roasted barley to shine, so I kept the spicing minimal, using only ground coriander for some airiness and asafetida for some depth.  The pulsed vegetables added towards the end of cooking add a bit of texture, spice and crunch to the pilaf as well.  My husband in particular loved the flavor of garlic that the pilaf had – so don’t skimp on that, unless you know you don’t care for that flavor.


Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf by Laura Kelley

1 cup whole barley, cleaned
2 cups water
1 cup prepared stock
2 teaspoons of butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon asafetida
1 teaspoon ground coriander

3 shallots, peeled
1 handful of baby arugula
2 teaspoons semolina
2 teaspoons blood (if available)

1 leek, white and green parts well cleaned
4 garlic cloves, peeled

Preheat broiler until its good and hot. Spread the cleaned barley on a baking sheet to form a single layer of grain. Place barley under broiler flame and leave for a few minutes until it starts to smoke and color. Stir lightly and turn pan if necessary until most barley is tan in color. Be careful not to burn the grain. Properly roasted barley will taste nutty. Burnt barley will just taste burnt. When done remove from flame and let cool.

Add water and prepared stock to a medium saucepan. You may season the stock anyway you wish, or use the cooking stock from another recipe (I used the stock from the pigeon recipe). Add butter, salt, asafetida and ground coriander and continue to heat.

In a food processor, pulse shallots and arugula once or twice. Then add the semolina and blood and pulse one or two more times. Add this mixture to the heating water and stir. When just short of a boil, add the barley and stir well. Bring back to a boil. Then reduce heat, cover and cook over a medium-low flame until about ¾ done – 20-30 minutes.

As the barley is cooking, pulse leeks and garlic two to four times until minced but not mushy. Add this to the barley and stir once or twice (not too much or barley will be soggy). Partially recover saucepan and continue to cook, checking frequently. It should be done or nearly done within 10 minutes.


Whether her name were Ninlil, Nisaba, Ezina, Ashnan or my favorite, Ninbarshegunu whose name means something like, “lady whose body is dappled with barley,” [wow!] the cultures of Mesopotamia had many grain goddesses who ensured the harvests, protected the farmers, and filled the pots with food. They were respected, worshipped, fed and treated as subjects of representational or functional art as in the cylinder seal below from 2350-2150 BCE which shows a grain goddess and her supplicant gods receiving stalks of barley or other grain from her.  Interesting point made by this depiction is that the grain goddess is the one that the other gods come to to ensure their fields and harvests.

Grain Goddess and Supplicants








(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Drawing of Grain Goddess and Her Supplicants © Stephane Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLV, #533; Photo of Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf by Richard Semik@Dreamstime)*

*(I am not a good food photographer, and purchased a photo from a stock house that was a reasonable stand-in for the dish I cooked. To see my photograph of the dish, click here and understand why I purchased the photo. I think that my photos may improve with my purchase of a macro lens, but I’m not guaranteeing that – only hoping.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 6 – Pigeon with Herbs by Laura Kelley

Wild and domesticated artiodactyls cows, sheep, deer, gazelle etc. were an important part of the Mesopotamian diet. But based on archaeological assemblages of bones, domestic and wildfowl were perhaps more important than the larger hoofed creatures. At some sites the number of bird bones greatly exceeds the number of medium-sized mammal bones, and are also found with bones from fish, shellfish claws and mollusk shells. So in terms of meat, the Mesopotamian diet was quite varied indeed.

Today’s entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff is a fowl dish based on the ingredients from Yale Culinary Tablet 26 – Recipe 2, a dish that I call, Pigeon with Herbs. The ingredients are: pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens”. But how these are put together and in what quantities – aye, there’s the rub (pun intended).

Fowl with Herbs

I was intrigued with this recipe because of the mint and vinegar combination – which seems to be a fairly common ingredient combination for fowl dishes in the cuisine evident from the Yale culinary tablets. I’ve cooked with these ingredients in a modern Afghan recipe for Spicy Eggplant with Mint available in The Silk Road Gourmet and really like the play of the sour and sweet together. It is interesting to note that this combination is still in play in regional cuisines almost 4,000 years after the recipes were recorded on the tablets.

Straight out the gate, let me confess that I used Cornish hen instead of pigeon or dove because that’s what I had on hand. They are a bit meatier than pigeon, so if you decide to cook pigeon, quail or chicken in this manner, adjustments in cooking time and quantities of ingredients will be necessary.

I also used one of my favorite ingredients in the dish – pomegranate vinegar – because pomegranates were enjoyed in Mesopotamia and the recipe called for vinegar. I get my pomegranate vinegar at a large Asian market near our home. This ingredient makes the dish, and the use of different vinegar would really change the flavor. That said, there are many different types of vinegar out there, so feel free to experiment, but quantities used will have to be adjusted according to type and concentration of vinegar.

I also flavored the water the fowl is boiled in quite a bit. The recipes state that the water is “prepared”. I took this to mean flavored to influence both the flavor of the fowl and the flavor of the sauces or gravy that is produced at the end. Having served and enjoyed the birds at table (they were terrific!), I think that this step is crucial and might be overlooked in the recipe.


Pigeon with Herbs by Laura Kelley

2 Cornish game hens, cleaned and salted inside and out
4 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup pomegranate vinegar
3 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon asafetida
2 teaspoons dried mint
2 tablespoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large Sri Lankan cinnamon stick
1 handful baby arugula, chopped

½ yellow onion
1 leek, white and green parts, well cleaned
6-7 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup lightly drained yogurt

3 handfuls of fresh mint leaves
1 handful of fresh sage
4 garlic cloves, peeled
Water to moisten herbs
More pomegranate vinegar to rinse hens

1-3 teaspoons semolina, to thicken sauce

Clean and dry fowl and salt liberally, inside and out. Set aside. Prepare water, stock and vinegar in a large saucepan or kettle large enough to hold the hens. Add butter, asafetida, mint and arugula, coriander and cumin seeds and cinnamon stick and heat over a high flame, stirring occasionally. When the water has come to a boil, add the hens and return to a boil. Reduce heat a bit and cook uncovered over medium-heat for five minutes. Then reduce heat till stock just bubbles. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so.

In a food processor, pulse together the onion, leek, garlic and lightly drained yogurt until it is a small dice or minced. Be careful not to blend until pasty, some shape and texture of vegetable is desired. When this is done add to the water and chickens and continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes – do not overcook. Total cooking time for hens in the pot is 15-20 minutes. When done, remove birds from the pot and cool until able to handle.

Preheat broiler to highest heat, for grilling hens later. While cooling the hens, take the stock you used to cook the hens and pour it into a clean saucepan. If you are using a cup or two of stock to make couscous, barley or some ground to enjoy with the recipe, do so now and pour off about one-third to one-half of the stock that remains. Heat to a steady low boil, stirring constantly and cook uncovered to reduce, stirring occasionally.

Pulse the mint and sage (or other herbs you choose) a few times in the food processor until nicely minced and add a teaspoon or so of water to moisten them. Divide hens in two, down the spine, by slicing with a large, sharp knife or cleaver. Pour pomegranate vinegar over the hens, inside and out to wash away herbs from cooking and set aside.

Rub both sides of the hens with the mint and sage herb mixture until an even coating is achieved and set aside. Continue to cook stock until it starts to thicken. Add semolina to facilitate this process, stir until dissolved.

Place rib side down on a lightly sprayed baking sheet. Cook under the preheated broiler flame about 4-5 minutes per side. Watch constantly and be careful not to burn the hens. Turn baking sheet as necessary to ensure even cooking. When done, remove from heat and let rest 5-10 minutes while finishing the sauce.

If desired, strain the sauce, but I did not, preferring a more rustic presentation. I served the dish in a shallow bowl adding a layer of Herbed Barley and sauce beneath the hen and a bit of sauce on the fowl. I also served the sauce separately on the table for those that wanted a bit more.


This dish – especially when served with Herbed Barley – was fantastic! Everyone was happy with it and thought that it tasted more like a creative concoction of a skilled modern chef than an ancient recipe. For those skeptical about boiled fowl, the 15 minutes or so these birds were in the pot did them no harm, and the roasting with herbs before serving, made it simply delicious. I can guarantee that it will be like nothing else your family or guests have ever eaten.

The sharp eyed will notice that I used an onion instead of shallots and tulip bulbs. Today’s onions, largely mass-produced in China are much more bitter than ancestral onions. The taste of onions in the ancient world was probably milder – more like a shallot, hence my substitution of one for the other. Since tulip bulbs are said to be bitter, and I haven’t experimented enough with the flavors to recommend a species of tulip, I thought that using a modern onion would be a reasonable substitute – for now. (Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Roasted Chicken with Herbs by James Camp@Dreamstime)*

*(I am not a good food photographer, and purchased a photo from a stock house that was a reasonable stand-in for the dish I cooked. To see my photograph of the dish, click here and understand why I purchased the photo. I think that my photos may improve with my purchase of a macro lens, but I’m not guaranteeing that – only hoping.)

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.”


Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

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

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.


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).