Some Mesopotamian Ingredients Revealed

I had a few stray hours last night and was reading Jean Bottero’s Textes Culinaire Mesopotamien and was struck by the number of ingredients that were unknown in the Mesopotamian recipes. How were modern cooks supposed to give these recipes an authentic try if so many of the ingedients were basically up for grabs? Loving a mystery, I jumped online to do some research. I set out to decipher samidu, suhutimmu and zurumu. The first two, Bottero assumed were members of the allium family like shallots or leeks and the zurumu he claimed not to have enough information to venture a guess.

First, I was struck by the number of websites that simply repeat Bottero’s opinions on the ingredients these likely represent, then I was amazed at the number of random inserts people used in recipes in place of these ingredients. Some some cooks used spices that were unknown in Asia and entered global trade only after the Europeans began to exploit the New World’s rich resources.
Although I speak and read several languages, I am no linguist. What I am however is a really good and relentless researcher who is skilled and/or lucky at finding information online.
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This post is now updated on a semi-regular basis. Currently the words undefined or in my opinion incorrectly defined by Bottero include:
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Andahsu = Wild tulip bulb. Multiple references to spring root vegetable and some statements about commonness in the north (Anatolia and Assyria) but uncommonness in the south. Not sure of the species of tulip that this refers to, but many are edible and have a distinct mildly bitter flavor. Possible also that it could refer to a wild crocus or lily bulb (Ref 1).

Baru = Dates. In Early Old Babylonian, the word “barUD” means dates. According to Bottero in Textes Culinaire Mesopotamien (TCM), the tablet reads, “Clean some baru and add it”. This could be referring to pitting the date or removing the stone before it is added to a dish. (ref 2).

Butumtu = Pistachio Nuts or Flour. Buttutu is Assyrian for Pistachio nuts. Butumtu is synonymous. In TCM, Bottero called these green or unripened wheat or barley, in The Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW) he calls these husked lentils (ref 1).

Halazzu = Carob Seeds. Halla: Refers to a plant that resembles the dung of birds in Assyrian. Zu or ze refers to the dung, but is also used in a prefix to denote plants or seeds. In old scholarly writings on the subject, there is a lot of reference to the “dove’s dung” mentioned in the Bible. It is possible also that the “ingredient” is a carob syrup or carob powder given Bottero’s statement about pressing or squeezing the unknown plant. However, this could also be his interpretation of the Akkadian word halasu which mean to crush or extract and is often found in reference to the making of seed-oil. Carob is widely enjoyed across Western Asia, Levant and Eastern Mediterranean today and imparts a sweet chocolate-like flavor to dishes (refs 1&2).

Hirsu = A cut slice sliver, piece, portion. Akkadian. In TCM Bottero gives no definition for this. He states that it appears before words designating “leg and mutton?” – so it is possible that it refers to the shank. Lamb or sheep shanks, at least in that context (ref 2).
Kamaamtu = Rhus coriaria or sumac. It is a word borrowed from Sumerian.

Kamunu = Cumin.

Kanasu = Emmer Wheat. (Kunasu in Akkadian). Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), also known as farro in Italian. Emmer a proto-wheat or awned-wheat that was one of the first domesticated crops. Emmer is one of the ancestors of spelt (Triticum spelta). The use of it in Mesopotamian recipes probably refers to wheat flour, but possibly to wheat berries. In TCM Bottero gives no definition for this (ref 1).

Kasu = Wild Licorice (formerly thought to be cinnamon). From Sumerian gazi (kasu) wild licorice (Steinkeller, AOS 68, 92; Heimpel, CUSAS 5, 214). Roots probably used to flavor soups and stews with sweet anise-like flavor. Bottero called this “dodder” like the parasitic weed in TCM.

Kisiburru = Coriander (kisibirritu + other vowel shifts) (from OB). (ref 1)

Kisimmu = Sour Cream or Yogurt. Undefined in OCM. Called a sort of cheese in TCM. Clearly defined as a sour milk product in multiple sources in reference 1. Unclear whether it would have been moist like yogurt, partially dried like chaka or fully dried like dry kishk.

Mersu = A confection with dates. It could also be simply a layer of pounded dates rolled into a sheet which is then covered with nuts, then rolled and sliced, or pounded dates rolled into balls and covered with chopped nuts. If one adds flour, it could possibly be something like the modern Iranian Ranginak in which dates stuffed with nuts are enclosed within a thin dough sandwich and sliced, or the Lebanese Ma’moul in which pounded date cores are rolled in a layer of semolina which is then covered with chopped nuts. Bottero called this a cake. (Likely to be another culinary confusion on Bottero’s part.) (ref 1).

Ninu=Mint.

Nuhurtu = Asafoetida. This is one undefined ingredient in Bottero’s work that really will impart a complex onion-like flavor to a dish. The principal reference is Thompson DAB, but his opinion is supported by many references to the medicinal use of the plant’s roots and resin (ref 1). It is also listed in the catalog of “trees” in Assurnasipal II royal garden at Kalhu. Since asafoetida plants grow quite large it is understandable that it was thought to be a tree.

Qaiiatu = rolled oats or pounded oats or oat flour. Used roasted and added to the stews, soups and pilafs represented in the Yale Babylonian culinary tablets. (ref 1).

Salahu = Cress or Cress seed.

Šamaškillu = Fennel (possibly)

Samidu = Semolina. Assyrian samidu, Syrian semida “fine meal”, Greek semidalis “the finest flour”. A fine flour called semida in the Talmud (Pesachim 74b, Shabbat 110b, Moed Katan 28a). Semida is the Targum Yonatan translation for solet – also meaning “fine flour”. Probably used in broths, soups and stews to thicken the liquid (much as corn starch is commonly used today), or could be used to form small “dumplings” as is done in Central Asian cooking today.

Sebtu-rolls = Roasted Dill Seed. Dill (Anethum graveolens) was called sibetum in Assyrian (ref 1). Bottero states that these were probably grain rolls (small pieces of bread) eaten as a staple with meals. Several recipes state that these are roasted in an oven and scattered about the dish just before presentation. Both the etymology and the use make it unlikely that these were rolls of grain. I believe the confusion comes from the translation of the word “roll” which I take to mean seed (as opposed to dill weed). In Tablet B and C of the Yale collection Bottero mentions using dough to make sebtu rolls and bake them in the oven. My interpretation of this is that roasted dill seed is added to the dough for flavor.

Šambaliltu = Fenugreek (ref 1)

Sibburattu=Mustard. Bottero calls this rue, which makes some culinary sense. My research shows that this plant is aromatic, both leaves and seeds are used, and it is a common ingredient in medicinal poultices and for treatment of urinary infections. Mustard is a much better fit for this description than rue.

Siqqu = Salted Fish or other salted meat. Bottero defines this as garum like the Carthaginian fish sauce often associated with the Romans. There is nothing that I can find that defines Siqqu as a sauce. References only point to fish and salt as the principal ingredients. Additionally, one reference records a person complaining that the siqqu they bought is not moist. How can liquid not be moist? Siqqu may have been eaten with a selection of fruits like dates and date-plums and splashes of fruit vinegar.

Suhutinnu = A root vegetable. Possibly a parsnip, turnip or carrot. Sahutinnu in Assyrian (Begins with letter “shin”). In the Babylonian tablets translated by Bottero, it is always used “raw”. Ref 1 states that it is an alliaceous plant, but there is no evidence to support that it is anything other than a root vegetable. Tablets simply report that they are “dug up”.

Surmenu = Juniper Berries. Bottero calls these cypress cones. While Bottero is close, the Juniper is a type of cypress, and the “berries” are actually fleshy cones, the use of juniper berries – especially in game-based stews and curries – makes culinary sense, while cypress cones do not. (Begins with “Shin”; ref 1)

Tiktu = A dairy product. Possibly a type of kashk. In Assyrian – Diktu. Likely to be a product like kashk, because in OCW, it is mixed with beer to create a sauce. In OCW, Bottero does not define this, but uses it to denote a sort of flour. It is possible that the term “tiktu-flour” used by Bottero is a mixture of kashk and cracked wheat as is done in the Levant. The combination is called Kishk and the dried flour is the base for a traditional hearty soup or gravy with meat, onions, and garlic. The sauce or gravy is eaten by scooping out with flat bread (ref 1).

Tuhu = Cracked ryeberries or wheatberries. In TCM Bottero called these beets. However, Tuh’hu is the accepted word for bran in Old Assyrian. I think, however, that instead of denoting “bran” it might be used for a cracked wheat, rye or a wild grass berry. From a culinary point of view, the cracked rye or wheatberries make more sense than bran(ref 1).

Ukus-hab = Citron. In the amounts specified (usually small) this probably refers to minced zest of citron. In TCM, Bottero – referencing early German writings on medicine called this colocynthe or cucumber – both of which make little culinary sense. Colocynthe is a powerful laxative, purgative, abortifacient and in larger doses poison, and cucumber would simply be overwhelmed by the other flavors in the culinary recipes they were mentioned with. It is not out of the question that it is colocynth seed which is still a common food item today, but I think that citron is more logical culinary choice of an ingredient with a similar physical description as colocynthe.

Zamzaganu = Field birds. Sumerian, Old Babylonian. A possible compound noun of zamzam (bird) and ganu (field). No definition given by Bottero in TCM (ref 2).

Zanzar = Date-plum, (fruit of Diospyros lotus, the Caucasian persimmon). Zanzaliqqu is specified as a type of tree bearing fruit (sometimes said to be inedible). When date palms are unripe they are very bitter and inedible as raw fruits. They change significantly as they ripen and dry and lose their tartness. Same word as Zarzar(u). (An alternative reading of zararu as sarsar(u) or sansar(u) (a type of locust) are possible zarzar is separated out as a plant because of its association with the verb ittabsi in ARM 2 107. That said, the concept of using “locusts” to make siqqu is questionable – although locusts were regarded as food items as shown in representative art.)

Zibu = Black Onion Seeds (nigella sativa) (Not black cumin (Carum bulbocastanum) which is from the N. India/Himalayas). “Black onion seeds” or kalonji as they are called in many places on the Indian Subcontinent are not really onion seeds at all, but flower seeds that impart a strong flavor reminiscent to onions by some people. These seeds have been used in Mesopotamian and Egyptian food and are still used widely in Indian, Persian and Turkish foods today. (This is one of Bottero’s ”culinary confusions”).

Zurumu = Small intestine or lining thereof. Surumu as small intestine in Akkadian see Hussey [J. Cuneiform Studies Vol. 2, No. 1 (1948), pp. 21-32)]. Moran specifies that Surumu is Akkadian for “lining” of part of the digestive tract (see Moran JCS Vol. 21, Special Volume Honoring Professor Albrecht Goetze (1967). Used like intestines and lining of digestive organs are used today: ubiquitously in soups and stews, stir fries etc. for flavor and texture. Tripe or Chit’lins. Bottero stated that he didn’t have enough information to even venture a guess.
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Non-culinary Words
Makaltu = Shallow Bowl. Found in dowry lists and in instructions for offerings as well as recipes. Like a pie plate, but usually made of wood (ref 1).

Musukkannu = Sisham Tree (Dalbergia sisso). Stated that it is imported from the east for its wood and used extensively in building. Chosen because it is an “everlasting wood.” Said to reproduce by sending out shoots from the root. Shisham is a good match for this word because its heartwood is known for its durability and hardness. Its current natural range is from Afghanistan to Bhutan but in times past, its range extended west and south into Iran.

(All research and words by Laura Kelley).

Reference 1: University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary
Reference 2: Online Akkadian, Sumerian and Babylonian dictionaries

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