New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes

Saudi Aramco World Cover 11/12-12

I am pleased to share with you my new article on ancient Mesopotamian cuisine entitled, New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes” in the November-December issue of Saudi Aramco World.

Click the link above to read the article on the publisher’s website and peruse the other articles in the issue.  I really like the magazine, because its stated objective is to build understanding between peoples by increasing reader’s knowledge of the Muslim world and its peoples and their connections to the west.

Thanks to the editors of the magazine for publishing the article, and thanks to the friends of Silk Road Gourmet who allowed me to submit their photos to illustrate these delicious, ancient dishes.  I hope you enjoy the article as well as the magazine!

Name That Silk Road Ingredient #1: Pistachios

I saw these in the market the other day and I couldn’t resist a few handfuls.  This is an unusual presentation for them, so I’m wondering if you know which Silk Road Ingredient they are.  Hint:  They are soft and slightly sweet when eaten or used at this stage. (Contest closed as of 11/1/2012 – 9 AM EST)

Fresh Pistachio Nuts

I’ll leave it up for a few days and then change the caption and add a comment and more information about the mystery ingredient. Earliest correct answer gets a copy of The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One. (Words and Photo of Fresh Pistachio Nuts by Laura Kelley, Photo of Pistachio Nuts Ripening on the Tree by Stan Shubs, and Pistachios with Skins Removed from Wikimedia).

Additional:

Pistachios Ripening on Tree

As many who entered correctly guessed, the Silk Road Ingredient in the photograph is fresh pistachio nuts. But the truth of the matter is that pistachios along with almonds and others things we call nuts are not nuts at all – they are drupes – which is sort of fruit with a hard endocarp and enclosed seed.  To attempt to close the gap between correct biological classification and common usage of the term, “nut”, the category “culinary nut” was created that includes true nuts (like hazelnuts and chestnuts), drupes (like pistachios, almonds and sometimes walnuts), gymnosperm seeds (like pine nuts and ginko nuts) and angiosperm seeds (like soybeans and macadamia nuts).

Pistachios with Skins Removed

The usual presentation of pistachio nuts is with the yellow and blush-colored skin removed to reveal a hard “shell” with the edible “nut” inside the shell as pictured here.  However, the mystery picture is how pistachios come off the tree and are dried or processed for oil or pistachio paste.  Our local Persian market had a big box of them so I scored a few for my family and for readers of the blog.

Raw pistachios taste very different from commercial nuts.  They are soft and very subtly flavored with just a touch of sweetness.  The strong flavor we generally identify with them comes largely from the salt or sugar we add to them post processing.

Pistachio nuts or Pistacia vera, was first grown and cultivated in the ancient Near East (Iraq, Syria and Iran) with evidence of their use as a food item going back to 6750 BCE in Jarmo, Iraq.  They are also noted as an ingredient in the mersu recipe from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari from about 1800 – 1750 BCE, so our use of them in the kitchen is indeed ancient and ongoing.  For some ancient recipes to use them with, see the mersu post from the Mesopotamian cookoff.  For modern recipes for pistachios, see the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One, which includes recipes for the Iranian, omelet-like Kuku with Green Peas and Pistachios and the Azeri confection Pakhlava   Pistachios are also important ingredients in the Armenian Sweet Orange-Saffron Sauce, and are used along with other ingredients to fill pastries, flavor stews and garnish many other Silk Road dishes with a bit of extra flavor.

For more on nuts and drupes and things like them check out my earlier post:

From Fruits to Nuts

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 4: Three Mersu Recipes by Catherine McLean

The fourth entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff comes to us all the way from Australia.  Catherine McLean has pulled out the stops and created three new different dishes based on the Mersu recipe from Mari.  The first is a stuffed dates dish, the second is a Date and Pistachio “Sweetmeat” and the third is a Pistachio, Honey and Date Macaron  – and they all look absolutely delicious!

Three Mersus

Catherine writes, “I got as far as the first recipe, Mersu (ingredients: dates and pistachios), and pretty much stopped there. I mean, I live just about at the hub of Middle Eastern food stores in Melbourne, so getting really good quality pistachios and dates (not to mention many, many other ancient Near-Eastern ingredients) is easy. For another thing, it’s dessert!  And for a third thing, I had about five recipes in my head before I even finished reading the sentence.

The sum of the Mersu recipe was “Ingredients: dates and pistachios”.  The rule is that one couldn’t go too far beyond the ingredients listed, and should stick to ingredients found in the Near East in ancient times.  My personal rule was that the first two recipes I thought of were too easy and so I had to make something really insane for the third one.  Hence, we have dates stuffed with saffron and honey pistachios, date sweetmeats with pistachio and coriander seed, and something I’m going to call a pistachio and honey macaron with date curd.  But I’m lying a bit about the macaron part, because I’m pretty sure you can’t make a proper macaron without using sugar (not commonly available in ancient times), so the biscuit part has a texture and flavour somewhere between  meringue and nougat. Nothing to dislike there.  Though if I weren’t doing a Mersu challenge, I would probably have made a dried cherry filling rather than a date one.

Stuffed Dates

I couldn’t resist making a platter of three possible Mersus -one which might well have been made in ancient times, one which might be made in the Middle East today, and one which nobody in their right mind would make in any time – a sort of pistachio and honey macaron with date curd.”

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Three Mersu Recipes by Catherine McLean

Stuffed Dates (inspired by modern Middle-Eastern cuisine)

Ingredients
18 large dates,preferably mejdool (about 500 g)
150 g pistachios
60 g honey
60 g water
a few strands of saffron
1/2 tsp orange flower water or rosewater (optional)

Method
Carefully slit the dates and remove the stones.

Put pistachios, honey, water and saffron in a saucepan and cook briefly, until the pistachios have absorbed most of the moisture. Pound or blend them to a coarse paste with the orange flower or rose water. For a smoother paste, add a little more water or a little more honey.

Stuff the dates with the pistachio paste, and serve.

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Date “Sweetmeats”

Date and Pistachio Sweetmeats (inspired by ancient Roman cookery and in particular the wonderful cookbook by Mark Grant)

Ingredients
200g dates, preferably mejdool (about 8 large dates)
1-2 tbsp ground coriander seed
about 12 pistachios

Method
Remove the stones from the dates, and pulverise in a food processor (or mortar and pestle, if you are completely loony) until they form a sticky purée. This is much more of a pain than you might think. With wet hands, collect the purée into a ball and roll into a cylinder using clingwrap.

Sprinkle ground coriander onto a plate. Slice the date purée into about 12 thick ‘coins’ about the size of a fat 10 cent piece (they will squish when you slice them, but you can use wet hands to re-shape them). Coat the  discs with the coriander, then toss from hand to hand so that the thinnest possible dusting of coriander remains on the  sweetmeat. Press a pistachio into the centre of each coin, and serve.

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Pistachio, Honey and Date Macarons (inspired by my own fevered imagination)

Mersu as Macarons

Ingedients
1 egg yolk + 2 egg whites
40 g + 150 g honey
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup dates, finely chopped (about 3 large dates)
1/4 tsp cinnamon,optional
10 g flour
25 g pistachios

Method
To make the filling, heat the milk with the dates and cinnamon, if using, slowly until almost boiling. Beat the yolk, 40g honey and flour together until smooth, then pour the milk into the yolk mix, whisking madly as you do. A  Mesopotamian cook would not use the microwave to make this curd, but I draw the line at a bain marie over an open fire. Set the microwave to 50% and cook for about 3 minutes, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until very thick. Let cool in the fridge.

For the meringue Pour boiling water over the pistachios and leave for five minutes, then drain the pistachios and slide them out of their skin. Grind the pistachios coarsely.

Beat the egg whites until foamy, add 150 g of honey, and continue beating until peaks form and are stiff enough that when you lift the beaters they remain peaky. Fold in the pistachios and pipe little 20 cent piece-sized meringues onto baking paper on a baking sheet. Bake at 120°C for an hour, or until they are a little beige. They will be strangely rubbery and sticky on top when you take them out, but will crisp up as they cool (which they do very  fast), and have a texture like nougat. They will also start melting after a couple of hours, and become nougat-flavoured marshmallows by the next day, so make them at the last possible minute before you plan to serve them.

Assemble the macarons by putting about 1/4 teaspoon of filling onto the base of one meringue and topping with another. Frankly, I gave up on authenticity at this point, and put them on a bed of powdered sugar to counteract the stickiness.

Makes more than you can eat before they start melting.

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Aerial view of Mari

The city that the mersu “recipe” comes from is the ancient Syrian city of Mari that was discovered in the early 1930s when Bedouin tribesmen dug into a mound to construct a grave for a fallen tribesman and found a finely worked, headless statue. Archaeologists descended upon the site and recovered more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian that covered laws, administrative process and many other topics of everyday life in ancient Syria. The recipe most often discussed by Bottero is from around 1800 – 1750 BCE.

There is evidence for another recipe that is far older than the one recovered from Mari, however. Tablets from Nippur dated more than 1000 years earlier discuss the construction of “ninda-i-de-a” for a religious ritual, which some scholars equate with mersu. The ingredients for the older mersu are both sweet and savory and are discussed at the end of the post on the first mersu dish cooked by Sasha Martin.  Whatever mersu was to the ancient Mesopotamians, the possibilities are not limited to a cake as envisioned by Bottero or a bread as envisioned Sigrist.  Stay tuned for more Mesopotamian dishes in the weeks to come.  (Words by Catherine McLean and Laura Kelley; Recipes and Food photos by Catherine McLean; Illustration of Aerial view of Mari by Balage Balogh)

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.
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Mersu
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.

Ingredients
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)

Method
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.

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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.)