Pharaohs, prophets, warriors and peasants alike; all have valued licorice as a flavoring for food and drinks and as a medicine. To many ancients, licorice also tasted like love, for many sweet love potions from Sumer to Luxor to Vedic India were flavored with the root. Licorice was amongst the grave goods in Tutankhamen’s tomb and Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher and scientist called it the “Scythian root” and noted that it was useful for quenching thirst, curing coughs and soothing throats. Today, what do we make of such an important plant? Tea and jelly beans. How the mighty have fallen.
Luckily, culinary creative genius and friend of The Silk Road Gourmet, Chef Miles Collins has helped us resurrect the flavor of licorice in a savory recipe, at least as envisioned by the Babylonians who liked the flavor so much, that they recorded it on a clay tablet that now resides in the Yale Babylonian Collection. Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry # 3, Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Miles Collins, uses the ingredients from recipe XX on Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25: water, fat and licorice root, salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander, garlic, leeks and yogurt or sour cream. Miles was even generous enough to create TWO dishes to show how wonderfully flexible these “recipes” really are.
Lamb, Licorice and Juniper Version 1
Miles writes, “I must admit that in all the years I have been cooking professionally the food of ancient Mesopotamia has been poorly represented on my menus! Looking at Laura’s recipe guidelines was an interesting insight into food from that period and so I decided to cook two dishes from one recipe.
The first would be a straightforward combination of ingredients put together in the manner it might have been back then. I used couscous as the base ingredient and cooked it with the stock of the meat I was cooking. After cooking it I wondered if this would have been a main dish in its own right or would it have been served as a ‘shared table’?
The main ingredient was the meat; I used lamb in place of mutton and cooked it with the flavourings specified by Laura. What intrigued me the most was how the wild liquorice would work as it is an ingredient I have rarely used. The combination of juniper and cumin was a new one on me; I could see the coriander and juniper working together and was pleasantly surprised by the overall balance when the stock was cooked.”
Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries
I decided to cook two dishes using the same ingredients from one piece of meat, a poached lamb dish with a dish of couscous using the poaching ingredients as the flavour base. I used a carrot as an addition as I imagined vegetables being added to a cooking broth to help ‘bulk up’ the dish.
1.6 kilogram lamb or mutton shank
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
8 juniper berries, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 red onions
1 celery stick
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
Marinade the lamb shanks with all of the dry seasonings overnight. Brown in a hot pan with the onion and halved celery stick. When nicely browned strain off excess oil.
Cover with water, add three liquorice sticks snapped in half and bring to the boil. Simmer for three to four hours until the meat falls from the bone. Remove the shank from the broth and keep warm. Chop the carrot into equal pieces. Strain the broth through a fine sieve, rinse the liquorice and add two sticks to the broth. Return to the boil and reduce the liquid by half. Reserve the vegetables.
Take half of the meat, season with salt and pepper and reserve. Lay out two sheets of cling film and lay the rest of the meat in a line. Roll the cling film to form a tight cylindrical shape. Leave to cool and refrigerate for three hours.
As the broth reduces add the carrots, leek, garlic and four or five peeled shallots, cook until just done. Keep the broth warm or chill and reheat later.
Take a cup of couscous, season with pepper and cover with a ladle of hot broth,stir with a fork until fluffy. Season and fold in the poached celery, onion and reserved lamb. Add chopped coriander and serve.
When the lamb has set cut into equal sized pieces and reheat in the reduced broth. Cut the leeks into equal lengths and season. Crush the garlic and stir in a tablespoon of yoghurt, fold the leeks through the yoghurt.
Arrange the leeks in a pile, place a piece of lamb alongside and spoon the carrots and shallots around. Taste the broth and pour over.
Note: I found that the liquorice only started to come through once the broth had reduced, it makes an excellent flavour base for the couscous.
Lamb, Licorice and Juniper – Version 2
Miles continues, “If anything the spices accentuated the flavour of the lamb rather than stand out, perhaps it was the quantities I used but I did find that only when I significantly reduced the stock with the addition of a little extra liquorice did the flavour become more interesting.
I purposely left the cookery methods and flavourings as basic and close to the original as I could; I wanted my chefs to taste food which by modern day standards is quite bland. Were I to serve this in one of the restaurants then I would have done more to the broth, herbs would have been added to compliment the juniper but saying that the couscous tasted fine.
If I were to do it again then I would have increased the amount of liquorice and perhaps infused the dried grains with a stock prior to cooking. I also think it would have made an excellent sop/broth with some root vegetables and a dumpling or two.
A very interesting experiment and thanks to Laura for inspiring me to do it.”
No, thank you, Miles for showing us some of the possibile dishes that could be cooked from recipe XX, and helping me with my 100th blog post. Clearly, the idea of a “broth” as envisioned by Bottero is not the only possible dish cookable from recipe XX. Hopefully, other cooks or chefs will add even more dishes as the Cookoff continues.
The interesting thing to me is, in addition to the use of licorice, is the use of juniper berries. Juniper is a common ingredient used today to flavor game dishes such as venison and wild boar. Like the carob we saw in entry #2, this is an ingredient that persists to the present day (today, cooks use chocolate to flavor game dishes and make them more savory) In these ways at least, the lineage of flavor persists from the ancient Near East to today. (Words by Laura Kelley and Chef, Miles Collins and all photos by Miles Collins.)