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).


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.


26 thoughts on “Cookoff Challenge #1 – Ancient Mesopotamian Cuisine

  1. What an excellent idea! I wish you great success! Will there be a gathering and or tasting at a conference or meeting? That would be grand, enjoyable, and most educational.

    • Hi James:

      Thanks for visiting the site! If you like to cook – I hope you can join us in the challenge.

      The outcome, other than posts on this site, will depend on the number and quality of responses.

      I cooked a Lamb and Carob Stew for family dinner last night that was based on the recipe in Yale recipe XIX and it was delicious!

      Your idea for a tasting at a meeting is a great one – I will keep it in mind as the challenge progresses.

      Many thanks for visiting! Please check out some of the entries as they roll in. Keep cool down there at Milsaps.


      • I’m most thankful for your blog and recipes, as are my students! I am teaching a course on Women in the Ancient World, and we spent last week on food in Mesopotamia and the Levant. My students picked 5 recipes, we all went shopping together at a local food co-op that had all the ingredients we needed, and the next class we cooked and ate together. Everything turned out deliciously, we had much fun and learned a lot too. We made:
        Catherine McLean’s Date and Pistachio Sweetmeats and
        Her Pistachio, Honey, and Date Macaroons (a big hit!)
        Laura Kelley’s Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf and
        Her Pigeon (cornish game hens) with Herbs and
        The ancient Ninda-gal Bread

        Thanks so much for facilitating such a wonderful and delicious experience!


        • Hi James (and students!)

          I’m glad you had such a wonderful experience cooking from these re-analyzed recipes. There will be more to come, because I will be taking a look at food used in rituals (as the ninda-gal was) to try to illuminate the ancient Mesopotamian diet.

          Check back from time to time to see if there are more recipes to try!


  2. Brilliant idea, Laura. I’m all over Recipe #1 – it already happened to be on the list for my Iraqi meal this week (which is funny, because most recipes out there use dates and walnuts, but I wanted to try a recipe with the less common pistachio because pistachios are my favorite). In any case, it was wonderful. I’ll send you something once I pull it all together.

    • Hi Sasha:

      I’m so glad you can join us!

      And I’m very much looking forward to your mersu creation!

      I’m curious to know when mersu might have been eaten in a meal. in the west, these days, we assume that a date and nut confection would be a dessert – but that is an unfortunate assumption.

      Lots of cultures, including some in Central Asia eat little sweets before meals to bring the appetite up or in between course of a large meal to clear the palate. Interesting!

      Can’t wait for your entry!


  3. I am really excited. I was just thinking about it today while sipping a liquorice tea – I brought over some from Calabria, where it is produced in large quantities, and I wondered how it would taste in a savoury recipe. I’ll start experimenting soon, hopefully I’ll manage to make something edible 🙂

    • It’s great that you will be joining us on this quest for ancient flavors!

      I wonder if the Calabrian licorice is the same species as wild licorice? (I think it is but it may be worth checking). Even if it is a different species, I don’t think it precludes you from using it in the cookoff – you would just have to caveat that it was a different but related species of licorice that may require different amounts and preparation etc.

      The species the Mesopotamians likely used is commonly available in Indian grocery stores as mulethi or malethi and is available a health-food groceries and online retailers as well.

      Yours is another entry I cannot wait for!


  4. The other thing I wanted to mention is that there is some association of hypertension with long-term, high-dose use of wild licorice. You may notice this in the ether as you research the recipes. As a scientist, I just wanted to clarify what that “association” seems to be. No one enjoying a savory dish or two flavored with wild licorice need worry about it causing or making worse anyone’s hypertension – so everyone, relax.

    The National Library of Medicine-Supplements Collection says:

    “Licorice is LIKELY SAFE for most people when consumed in amounts found in foods. It is POSSIBLY SAFE when consumed in larger amounts use as medicine, short-term. However, it is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when used in large amounts for more than four weeks. Consuming 30 grams or more of licorice daily for several weeks can cause severe side effects including high blood pressure, low potassium in the blood and weakness, in otherwise healthy people. In people who eat a lot of salt or have heart disease, kidney disease, or high blood pressure, as little as 5 grams per day can cause these problems.”

    Just trying to set the record straight.


  5. Hi Laura,
    Glad you mentioned the risk for hypertension with excessive consumption of licorice. I actually conducted scientific research (that’s published in a peer-reviewed journal) on one of the analogs of glycyrrhetinic acid, a while ago.

    People who consume licorice tea, daily, should be careful. Here is a case report:

    • Greetings Aso (ia-zu in Sumerian):

      Glad you could join us, and thnak you for commenting favorably on the hypertension issue.

      I hope you can cook too!


      N.B. Aso is Akkadian word for doctor.

  6. I’m torn between carob and licorice… what to do??? I can’t wait to try another one since the first turned out so remarkably well… it was so delicious.

    Thanks for the inspiring challenge.

    • Hi Deana:

      I’m glad you will cook something for us as well – your dishes are so lovingly thoughtout and prepared and so beautifully photographed – whatever you decide on will fly fast on strong wings.


  7. Laura – I found you totally accidentally in ‘Moroccan Cooking’ today and, being enthralled by the topic, posted it on my fb page. Hope you don’t mind! Now, it is evening here, so mind may not be in gear, but, is it possible to get your pages automatically on email? ie, subscribe?

    • Hi Eha:

      Glad you found the site and I’m happy to have it reposted on Facebook – the more different types of people who participate the the cookoff the more different perspectives we may get on the dishes.

      As to subscribing, right now youy can subscribe to the RSS feed (that orange box with waves on the top right of the screen).

      I used to use feedburner but was not really happy with the results – posts not being sent or sent erratically etc. I’ll look into other subscription services since you asked though.

      Check back in a couple of weeks.


    • Hi Eha:

      Please see the subscription button on the right sidebar. On it, there is a tab to select e-mail subscriptions. Alternatively, you can post to facebook or any number of other types of social media or readers.


  8. Got them! they look great!

    Will construct a post over the weekend for posting early next week!

    Many thanks!


  9. I’ve been inspired by the Mersu to make a few different date and pistachio recipes. Can I still participate if I post them on my blog as well as sending them to you?



  10. Hi Catherine:

    Sure no problem! Your creations look great! Thanks for playing – please send the materials to me at laurakelley AT silkroadgourmet DOT com and I will put together a post for you (possibly subject to some editing). . .


  11. Hi, I’m a new traveler on the Road and am enjoying it immensely – trying to catch up on what (who) has gone before me . . .
    I would ask this question: has there been any discussion of beer as an ingredient in some of the recipes from ancient times? The reason I ask is that I remember reading that hops which impart a lot of the flavor to modern beers were not an ingredient until the early Middle Ages.
    I swear on the head of my favorite racing camel that I will try some of the ancient recipes.
    A great site – thank you!

    • Hi Jim:

      Glad to have you join us. I haven’t posted on beer at all except as an aside on the post on Leavened Mesopotamian Bread. In that post a baker friend of mine demonstrated that a spelt sourdough could be made with only wild yeast blown in from the environment. the relevance to beer, of course is, that wild yeast could also have been used in the beer making process, to ferment the malt.

      It is true that hops may not have been used to make beer even though Humulus lupus was/is native to Western Asia as well as Europe. That said, in Europe many plants were used before hops became favored as a bittering agent (dandelion, burdock, marigold horehound and ground ivy etc). These ingredients were abandoned after hops was added because the hops imparted a flavor that people liked, and it had antimicrobial properties that supressed cultures other than the yeasts used in the malt and thus there was less spoilage of the product.

      Many bitter herbs were known to the Mesopotamians that could have been used in place of hops. There is also talk of the “bitter wort” in the ancient recipes. This has been interpreted to mean the liquid product of the fermented malt. It is possible that this could also refer to a bitter plant or the infusion of a bitter plant(s), used like gruit to flavor the ancient beer.

      There are a few non-hopped beers out there even today. The one that springs to mind is the traditional Finnish sahti flavored with juniper berries.

      There are many possibilities for what the Mesopotamian brew tasted like. I think that the issue would take more research and more trial and error from what has already been tried.

      If you try any of the recipes – please let us know how they came out.


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