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 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).


Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 3: Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Miles Collins

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
1 carrot
1 leek
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.)