Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 1: Mersu by Sasha Martin

Sasha’s Mersu – View 1

The first entry in our Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from friend in the blogosphere, Sasha Martin over at Global Table Adventure.  As fate would have it, she was cooking the food of Iraq the same week that I announced the Cookoff and instantly noted the connections between the Mesopotamian mersu recipe and a confection on the modern Iraqi table.  Using only the dates and pistachio nuts in the original recipe, Sasha came up with the glorious treats pictured here.  For some of the mersu, she added a coconut* topping as a variation that adds visual interest in the presentation and tastes delicious as well.  For further information on the use of pistachio nuts, see the Mesopotamian Lexicon on this site.

As envisioned by Sasha, mersu combines the natural, unaltered and unenhanced flavors of the dates and pistachio nuts in delicious ways.  The dates are ground, mixed with minced pistachio nuts and then rolled into bite-size confections.  Delicious as is, Sasha took this an extra step and rolled the date-nut balls in ground pistachio nuts and ground coconut,and arranged them as pictured above.

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

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

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

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

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


Mesopotamia – 2nd Millenia BCE

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

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

Sasha’s Mersu – View 2

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

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

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

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

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

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


10 thoughts on “Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 1: Mersu by Sasha Martin

  1. How remarkable to taste such history and make the scratchings on a tablet into a food of such sweetness and delicacy. I can imagine that it would be a delight to eat and the photos are spectacular! Do we know what they used for dishes???

    Great first entry…. bravo!!!

    • Hi Deana:

      I’ve got four other entires to write up as well! Seems that people like this a lot. They do look delicious – don’t they! Coming next is a lamb and carob stew from yours truly. . .


    • Hi Miaria:

      Welocme to Silk Road Gourmet!

      Thansk for stopping by! According to Sasha they are easy (if not a bit messy) to make as well.


  2. That looks awesome:-) Seeing the clicks i thought the recipe must b looong..But this one is soo simple.I just got dates last week .Cant wait to try it:-)

    • Hi Ramya:

      Welcome to Silk Road Gourmet! If you try the recipe – please let us know if you liked it! If you want to create a mersu of your own, or cook one of the variations with figs or raisins for the body and apples or cheese for the inside etc., you can send it in as an entry as well. We would love to see what you come up with!


  3. what a lovely story behind a simple dish!

    We have a history of this sort in India too – for instance, if we look at the foods that are cooked at funerals and “Shraadh” or “Taddinam” ceremonies ( these are the annual ceremonies to honour our ancestors), we can actually see the history of indigenous foods.

    There are very strict rules, dating back to Vedic India, regarding the food that can be cooked and eaten. No “foreign” foods are allowed, which means all later imports to India – carrots, cruciform vegetables (cabbage family), the entire sunflower family – potatoes, tomatoes, aubergine etc. are forbidden.

    Even the spices and herbs used to flavour these are typically what were available in the India of over 3000 years ago – cumin, pepper, curry leaf, udad dal, tamarind, coconut, sesame seeds and oil.

    Permitted vegetables are colocasia, snake gourd, sweet potato, yam, broad beans, bitter gourd and a few others.

    Thanks for your post..

  4. Hi Anuradha:

    Welcome to the site!

    What you say in general about permitted foods and not permitted foods I understand. But some of the choices seem a bit odd. Eggplant/aubergines are some of the oldest known plants from Indus and Harappan times – I don’t understand why these would be prohibited.

    Likewise, colocasia have a SE Asian/Polynesian origin, sweet potatos are new world vegetables, and broad beans are SW Asian in origin and these are permitted.

    Has modern science refined the origins of these vegetables since the Vedic rules were pronounced? it seems like that might be the case to me. . . don’t know though.


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