Although we have no recipes definitively attributable to the ancient Phoenicians, and little information about the foods and dishes they ate, we do know from their material culture that they dined in style. The platter below is a beautiful example of Phoenician craftsmanship from the 8th Century BCE.
In the center of the platter, a man stabs a raging lion. The pair are surrounded by a ring of flying ducks and prancing stallions. In the next ring, archers on foot and mounted spearmen advance among trees behind chariots. The design, which may represent a hunting expedition, is encircled by a serpent with delicately patterned skin. One of the most stunning things about the platter is that the musculature of the animals and people is produced by repoussé, or hammering from the reverse side to raise the metal. And speaking as a former anatomist – it is gloriously correct in the highlightling of the stallion’s haunches and the leg muscles of the hunters.
The Silk Roadiness of the object is evident in the use of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian styling. The clothing and hairstyle of the figures is Egyptian while the subject matter of the central scene is a common Mesopotamian theme of combat between man and beast. Phoenician artists frequently worked in the styles of neighboring cultures, in part because they had so much contact with them as a major trading hub between the civilizations in Western Asian and Northern Africa. I just wish we knew what filled the platters!
(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Phoenician Platter from Walters Museum by Laura Kelley)
For the past forty years, archaeologists on the Saudi peninsula have been piecing together a pre-Islamic past featuring great city-states that had cultural and commercial connections with the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These ancient trade cities are one of the foci of a new exhibit at the Sackler in Washington, DC, called Roads of Arabia. The other set of “roads” treated in the exhibit are the later Islamic-era pilgrimage roads to Mecca and the influence of the people traveling those roads on the Arab world. With 320 objects spanning more than one-million years, from Paleolithic petroglyphs to the rise of the modern Saudi state, the exhibit is a showcase of treasures never seen in the United States until now.
The exhibit is laid out chronologically and begins with three rock stelae with individual faces carved on them recovered from Found near Ha’il in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia. They date to around 3500 BCE, and starkly lit, the stelae glow against a black background, and invite you to approach and ponder the people who made them. Other early objects are those from Tarut, an island on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that was the center of the Dilmun civilization that was later to move to the island now known as Bahrain.
Objects from this era include black, gray and white stone jars, cups, and bowls that may have originated in SE Iran or may have been made on Tarut. Items of similar design and manufacture have been found in Syria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan, indicating the extent of the trade network that the people of Tarut were part of in antiquity.
Another statue of definitive Tarut manufacture is of a man singing a prayer that shows evidence of Near Eastern influence. It is a large, limestone piece, slightly over 3-feet in length. His rounded head, right hand clasping his left to his chest, as well as his triple-banded belt are all found in Mesopotamian statuary from a similar period around 2500 BCE.
Although I preferred the earlier items on display because of the evidence they provided of connections with other ancient cultures, there are some stunning things to see in the later part of the exhibit as well. One such item is a gold funerary mask from the tomb of a young girl from Thaj that is around 2000 years old. The mask is serene and beautiful and reminds me of the “Mask of Agamemnon” found at Troy that dates to 1500 BCE. Also in the tomb was a large amount of gold jewelry with semiprecious stones such as amethysts, carnelian and pearls that would have adorned the girl in the afterlife. The design of the mask and the jewelry both show contact with Greco-Roman civilization, and are evidence of the wealth that trading brought to ancient Arabia.
From the period of about the 4th Century BCE to the 16th century, there are fine examples of molded and blown glass that have somehow survived the passage of time. Some of these are locally made, and others are of foreign manufacture – all are beautiful and of a variety of colors and iridesence. One of my favorites was a small medicine bottle shaped and colored like a date.
From the second part of the exhibit depicting the roads to Mecca, there is a breathtaking display of tombstones of pilgrims who died at Mecca or on the way and were laid to rest there. The stones are carved from local basalt that often has its natural shape. The Arabic calligraphy that adorns the stones is highly designed to fit the shape of the stones and the space allowed for the epitaths. This section of the exhibit is both beautiful, sad and very human and reminds us that people and their stories lay behind each and every object.
There is also an unspoken message of the exhibition to western ears that I “can’t not” mention, and that is that the Saudis and other Muslims embrace their pre-Islamic history. The deplorable crimes against history and humanity that have been committed in Bamiyan and in many other places are not based in Islam or the Koran and are product of unfortunate, closed minds.
So, in closing, the exhibit does a good job telling us how ancient Arabs traded indigenous goods such as incense and aromatic spices, but it doesn’t show us how Arabs were global dealers in goods from many shores. Arabs dealt in timbers from Africa and South Asia and spices from India and Indonesia and brought these items to the far reaches of the world. Without Arab merchants, the Silk Road might not have been the engine of globalization that it was. I hope that future archaeological finds help tell this missing part of the story and further fill in the past of these great peoples.
The exhibit runs through February 24th in Washington and then travels to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and venues in Chicago and Boston through early 2015. If you are near any of these venues or will be passing through, make time to see this exhibit. You will learn a lot and see many, “wondrous things.” (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ha’il Stelae, Gold Death Mask and Gravestones of the Faithful from exhibition website; photo of Singing Man from Tarut from pamphlet, Tarut Island by Murtadha Al-Ruwaie.)
Click on the YouTube video below for the official teaser-trailer of the exhibition (its great)!
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!
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)
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).
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).
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:
There is a chill in the air and early mornings before the sun are best spent wrapped in a blanket, so it is time to welcome Autumn in once again. Sort of like a migratory bird taking its cues from the failing sun, I’ve realized that it is time for my annual exploration of Mesopotamian Cuisine. I have long wanted to try some of the complex fowl recipes on the Yale Babylonian Collection tablet 8958 and decided to try recipe 1 for Wildfowl Pie.
My review of the finished dish is below, but I can say that preparing it was fascinating. Specifically, what I am in awe about is that such an ancient recipe (from around 1700 BCE) produced a dish that seems so . . . familiar. Surely, cooking gives us insight into their world, but it also shows us how so many ancient traditions and elements of material culture continue to resonate today.
The original ingredients on the tablet are: Fowl, water, milk, salt, fat, cinnamon, mustard greens, shallots, semolina, leeks, garlic, flour, brine, roasted dill seeds, mint, wild tulip bulbs. From these basics, the ingredients below were drawn with some substitution, either for convenience in cooking or because of disagreement with the original translation. I used Cornish game hen instead of wildfowl largely because I had several on hand. The original recipe does not specify what type of bird should be used; it says only “small” birds. If you choose to try the recipe with quail or other bird, you will need a lot more than 2 and you will need to adjust the cooking time.
I used mustard greens instead of rue, largely because I wasn’t convinced that Bottero had identified the plant correctly. Sibburatu is a highly aromatic plant of which both the leaves AND the seeds are used. Rue leaves are used in cooking, but to my knowledge, the seeds are not. On the other hand, mustard does offer a sharp flavor and both the leaves and seeds are used. Additional evidence that Sibburatu may be mustard instead of rue is that it was extensively used for poultices – especially on the eyes – and to treat a variety of internal ailments, particularly urinary tract infections. You may have a different sense of pain than I, but I would not want a poultice of rue on my eyes or on any other part of my body given the pain and blisters in is known to cause.
The “aromatic wood” specified by Bottero is not kasu (licorice) so my first best guess is that it is cinnamon which would have been known at the time of the tablets either by direct contact with Sri Lanka or indirect via Egypt which was the single largest purchaser of cinnamon from the Southern Asian island paradise. As to sebetu, Bottero thought these were small rolls made out of grain, which doesn’t make a great deal of culinary sense. I however think that they are dill seeds because sibetum is dill in Assyrian, and the vowel shift is inconsequential (in this case). I think that sebetu-rolls as specified by Bottero are roasted dill seed that is used to flavor both the crust and the pie. I added ground cilantro and cumin seeds because both spices were known by the Mesopotamians, and such variation was not only well within the expected use of such a “recipe”, but it was indeed expected that cooks would personalize them.
I chose to make the crust from a mix of rye and white flour. Rye would have been known to the ancient Mesopotamians and I thought it would work well with a savory pie. However I used white flour instead of spelt or emmer for convenience. I have spelt on hand, but wanted a dough with a consistency and flavor that would work with rye. The amount of dough made with the recipe is more than ample to fill a large pie dish and cover. If desired, you can make rye crackers or something else with the remainder.
The layered assembly of the pie is written in the tablet, which specifies a layer of mint on the bottom of the pie followed by a layer of chicken. Based on this recipe, the Babylonians were layering dishes a few millenia before the Persians – who are usually given credit for the technique – started doing it. Thus, layering is another culinary technique with deep regional roots that is still found today and one that has spread widely from its point of origin.
Without much further ado, the ingredients and method:
Mesopotamian Wildfowl Pie
Hens for Pie
2 Cornish game hens
2 teaspoons of sea salt
8 cups of water
6 cups of whole milk
2 tablespoons of butter
2 large (4-5 inch) Sri Lankan cinnamon sticks
6-10 mustard leaves, well rinsed and chopped
1 tablespoon of dried mint
2 tablespoons garlic diced
6 medium shallots, peeled and chopped
2 leeks, thoroughly cleaned and chopped
2 tablespoons of semolina
1.5 cups of rye flour
1.5 cups of white flour (plus extra for flouring kneading and rolling surfaces)
½ cup butter, cut up into small pieces
½ -¾ cup of whole milk
¼ – 1/3 cup brine (3 cups water to ¼ cup sea salt), chilled
¼ cup dill seeds lightly roasted in a pan or oven
Salt the hens liberally inside and out and set aside. In a saucepan large enough to hold the hens submerged in liquid, heat water and milk. Add butter, cinnamon sticks, mustard greens and mint and stir. When it just approaches a boil remove from flame and stir. It will be necessary to watch the pot, as the milk will make it froth and boil over as it comes to a boil. Let for about 10 minutes and pulse the shallots, leeks and garlic in a food processor until they are blended but still have form.
Place hens in the pot and return to flame. Cook partially covered over medium heat until the liquid approaches a boil. Stir, reduce flame and add chopped vegetables along with semolina and stir again. Cook partially covered over medium-low heat (gas-mark 4) for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. About halfway through cooking flip the hens. The hens will be done when you can easily push a spoon through the back. When done remove and set aside to cool until the hens can be deboned by hand. Continue to cook the broth the milk and water mixture over low flame until it is reduced by at least half. Stir occasionally. If the mixture starts to curdle up, stop cooking and remove from heat.
While waiting for the hens to cool, mix flour and butter with a pastry cutter until it begins to come together like cornmeal. Then add milk one tablespoon at a time until moist enough to form a ball. Then add brined water until the flour comes together into a dough and you are able to knead the dough. (Please note that the moisture needed to form the dough depends upon the quality, grind and hydration of the flour and the climate. Please use the measurements above as recommendations, and use less or more depending upon your local requirements.) Knead for 5 full minutes until dough is uniform, soft and nicely pliable. If it starts to stick to your hands as you knead, simply add a bit more flour to the surface until the dough integrity is restored. When you are done kneading the dough, form it into a ball and then divide the ball into two pieces for the bottom and top crusts. Add about half of the dill seeds to the dough for the top crust and work through thoroughly. Then let the dough rest for a while. Refrigerate for about half an hour to cool the butter a bit.
Leaves from 10-12 mint sprigs, rinsed and dried (a heap of mint leaves)
Shredded meat from game hens cooked in part one
2 teaspoons salt
Mustard greens, rinsed and torn
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
2 leeks, rinsed well and chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro seeds, ground
2 teaspoons cumin seed, ground
Remaining roasted dill seed from part one
4 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Liberally flour your rolling surface, flatten the ball of dough that will form the bottom crust and lightly flour both sides. From the center of the dough, roll out bottom crust to be a couple of inches larger than the pie dish you are using. The dough may be very elastic and a bit sticky given the mixture of flours. If the dough gets sticky, just dust it with a bit of flour and continue rolling. Spray or butter the dish and fold the rolled out dough into quarters before lining the pie dish with it. Fit the dough into the crust by easing it into the curves rather than stretching the dough.
Layer the bottom of the crust with half of the mint leaves. Over them place about half of the shredded chicken mixed with have of the chopped shallots, leeks and garlic. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the salt over chicken and vegetables and then place a layer of mustard leaves over this. Mound the chicken and greens towards the center as you would apples in an apple pie. Sprinkle the cinnamon over the mustard greens and add 1 teaspoon of the ground cilantro and cumin seeds.
Now place the remaining chicken mixed with the remaining chopped shallots, leeks, and garlic over the mustard greens. Add the remaining salt over the mixed meat and vegetables. Add the remaining mint, roasted dill leaves and ground cilantro and cumin onto the final layer. Slice half the butter and place on top of the last layer.
Flatten the dough with the roasted dill seeds in it into a disk and lightly flour each side. Starting from the center, roll the dough out into the top crust. Make sure that it is at least a couple of inches larger than the dish. Fold the dough into quarters and place it on top of the pie and unfold. Pinch the top and bottom crusts together firm with your fingers and trim the excess crust with a sharp knife. If desired, press the crusts with the tines of a fork to seal them.
Pierce the top crust in several places and slice the remaining butter and place evenly around the crust. Place on the top shelf of your preheated oven towards the rear and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes – just enough for the crusts to cook.
When done, remove from the oven and let sit for at least 15-20 minutes before serving. Serve with the reduced broth that the chicken cooked in presented in small bowls. The broth can be spooned onto the pie or sipped separately.
So how was it? It was savory and delicious. The flavor of the rye and the roasted dill in the crust was fabulous and my husband really liked the taste of the layer of mustard leaves inside the pie and the flavor that it offered. The principal flavors of the filling are, in addition to hen and shallots are mint and dill. The cilantro and the cumin seeds (particularly the cumin seeds) add body and depth to these light and airy flavors. I found the interplay of the onions and mint very interesting. This is again another flavor combination that persists in Iranian food today, most strongly evident in their wonderful pickled onion and mint condiments. We both like the broth that was served to accompany the pie. My husband spooned it over the pie and enjoyed it like that and I sipped the broth in between bites.
There is one thing that puzzled me about the pie. Most of the time when the triad of shallots, garlic and leeks are pounded together, there is a binding element, like kissimu (drained yogurt) or occasionally blood. Frankly, the pie could have used a little kissimu in it to bind and moisten it. At some point, I will try this again with the kissimu and if it is a good addition, I will post the amendment to the recipe in this post.
One word of warning, the pie is a fair amount of work. When and if you attempt it, it is best to have most of the day available to prepare it and then give yourself a bit of a rest before tucking in. If you try this or any other of the recipes from the Yale tablets, please let me know – I’d love to hear about your experiences. More original recipes are available on the site as well as some of my revised translations of food words. You may also look at the results of our 2011 Mesopotamian Cookoff for some recipes developed by accomplished international cooks and chefs like Tenderloin with Licorice, Lamb and Carob Stew, Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf as well as Sweet Mersu and Savory Mersu. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of YBC 8958 from Wikimedia, Photos of Mesopotamian Pie Assembled, ready for the oven and sliced by Laura Kelley.)
Something wonderful and unexpected happened yesterday. After a long day of tromping around historical archaeology sites in St. Mary’s City with the family, I arrived home to find a long-expected, but immediately unanticipated e-mail from a fellow food lover in England. Cid is a purveyor of fine foods and an expert breadmaker. Some time ago, I asked her to help me solve a historical food puzzle that has been vexing me for some time. Namely, did the Mesopotamians enjoy leavened as well as unleavened bread?
Because we are lacking explicit evidence for the use of yeast to leaven bread in Mesopotamia and many other ancient cultures, modern cooks reconstructing the cuisines of these cultures have assumed that all of the bread in these cultures was flat and dense like hardtack. An unfortunate assumption.
What Cid has beautifully demonstrated is that spelt, which is not too dissimilar to the emmer wheat used by Mesopotamians, makes a great big loaf of sourdough bread using a starter based only on wild yeast from the environment.
For those of you new to the “starter” concept, it is simply that a grain providing a carbohydrate source is mixed with water and allowed to attract microorganisms from the environment. As the microorganisms consume the food given them by the flour (carbohydrate and sugar) they reproduce and must be “fed” with the addition of new flour (and sometimes water). Sometimes an additional sugar source is added by soaking macerated fruit in the water to be mixed with the flour to start the starter culture more rapidly. This process continues until a stable community of yeast and bacteria is established in the liquid or semi-solid “starter”. This starter is added to flour, water and other ingredients, kneaded, folded, proofed and baked and sourdough bread results.
The importance of Cid’s demonstration is that even if the ancients didin’t explicitly know and write about yeast as an ingredient, they might have known how to use the wild type organism. Cid’s talents as a baker show that wild-yeast leavened breads were possible in the ancient world. She writes:
“For the past few weeks I’ve been feeding a spelt ferment starter with organic spelt flour every day. Next to my other ‘white’ ferments the spelt had a different smell and didn’t bubble up as quickly.
It’s not clear whether the ancient bakers used a ‘poolish’ method for their bread, which is basically an amount of starter ferment mixed with water and flour left to further ferment over night before adding more flour the next day. It seemed like a reasonable idea so that’s what I did. It bubbled well enough to make me believe it would produce a good loaf. So at breakfast the following day I mixed in enough spelt flour and two teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.
The feel of the dough was very different to the normal sourdoughs I make on a weekly basis. Despite kneading and resting, the dough never felt elastic and rose only slightly. You see, the gluten in modern wheat flour produces stretchy dough that rises well and if ‘folded’ at regular intervals rather than kneaded, will give the crumb its familiar large holes and crackling crust.
As I got the dough properly formed up into a loaf, I fired up my oven to 240°C with baking stone in place.
As you can see the baked loaf is rather flat and dark looking. It’s consistency is much more like a scone than modern day brown bread and it has a sour tang. The texture is too heavy for my taste and the ferment too sour. A portion of this type of bread would be very filling and full of natural fibre.
A lighter texture could possibly have been achieved by mixing the spelt with other grains known to Mesopotamians, such as rye, oats or the numerous wild grasses they incorporated into their diets. Sieving the milled grain would have given a whiter, presumably lighter weight end result as well.”
Wonderful work, Cid! Your demonstration is not only proof of concept that these ancients could have enjoyed leavened wild-yeast sourdough breads, but it is also significant for understanding ancient beermaking and winemaking as well. Many of the people and companies who have tried to reconstruct these recipes have been left wondering how to ferment the grain and malt mixtures that have been described on the ancient tablets. Your wild yeast spelt starter gives them an excellent way to introduce yeast into the alcohol mixture. The ancients may not have known what yeast was, but I’m betting they knew how to cultivate and use it for bread and alcohol production. (To beer makers out there – lets talk about that aromatic “wort” a bit – I may have some ideas on that score as well.)
Another thing that is important to the flavor of bread, beer and wine is that wild yeast starters are complex cultures of local yeasts not the uniform commercial cultures of Sacccharomyces cerviseae one can buy in the market. Additionally, these starters all have complex communities of local bacteria in them. The difference between species and community diversity in commercial versus wild starters affects proofing time, texture and flavor of the products made.
If any of you start experimenting with spelt (or farro which is emmer wheat used by the Mesopotamians), I suggest you consider flavoring your loaves with spices to balance the strong flavor of the spelt or farro. Some spices that are authentic to Mesopotamian bread can be found in the Ninda-gal recipe (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3) are onion seeds, sumac and saffron. You could also troll some of the Mesopotamian recipes on Silk Road Gourmet for some other spice combinations as well. (Words by Laura Kelley and Cid, and Photographs of Wild Yeast Spelt Starter, Unbaked Sourdough and Leavened Spelt Loaf by Cid).
The addition of some combinations of Nippur – Nusku tablet ingredients – cheese, wine, raisins, figs, apples yields delicious savory treats – that could serve as appetizers, or main parts of a light meal.
It is unknown exactly what sort of cheese the Mesopotamians had, but most cultures have at least one variety (usually more) of soft cheese, hard cheese and a blue or molded cheese. I thought that a yogurt cheese like labneh would be a good approximation for a soft cheese; parmesan, asiago or romano could serve as a hard cheese; and gorgonzola could serve as a stand in for their blue cheese.
Mersu as Medjool Dates Stuffed with Cheese are the simplest of the savory mersu to make. Just slice the dates, remove the pit and stuff with the cheese or cheese based mixture of your choice. I think that the extra-large medjool dates are the best for this. They also have a robust flavor that stands up to cheese well.
I made several varieties: 1.)Dates stuffed with labneh – with or without single spices such as ground coriander or ground cardamom; 2.) dates stuffed with gorgonzola or other blue cheese; and 3.) dates stuffed with garlic and grated parmesan cheese. This last variety uses a simplified “moretum” – a spread loved by the Romans – to fill the dates.
Without added spice, the dates stuffed with labneh are creamy and sweet with the slight tang of yogurt, with spices they are delicious and full of flavor. The gorgonzola are really robust, as you might suspect, but the sweetness of the dates tempers the strong flavor of the cheese and makes them delicious.
for Mersu stuffed with soft or blue cheese
1 Medjool date, sliced and pitted
2 teaspoons of labneh
¼ teaspoon of ground coriander or cardamom (or to taste) (optional)
(You can use gorgonzola in the place of the labneh – I didn’t use spice with the gorgonzola because its flavor was quite strong already – feel free to try that as a variation if you so choose)
Spoon the cheese filling into the dates. The amount of filling used will vary with the size of the date. If using a spice, mix it prior to filling.
Ingredients for Mersu stuffed with hard cheese mixture
2 Medjool dates, sliced and pitted
¼ cup grated parmesan, asiago or romano or a mix
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil or grapeseed oil
1/8 – ¼ teaspoon sea salt
Mix the garlic and the cheese and moisten with olive oil to your desired consistency. If you want a drier filling, use less olive oil. Salt as desired. Stuff dates. Let sit for a while before serving to allow the garlic to flavor the cheese. I found that the longer the dates sit (within reason) the better they taste. Make them the night before, or the morning of a party or special dinner to really enjoy the blend of flavors they offer.
Mersu with Wine (Concord Must Syrup) This is what I did for the wine ingredient mentioned in the Nippur tablets – roll the pounded date balls in a syrup of concord grape must. If you don’t want to crush your own grapes, unsweetened 100% grape juice will reduce to a syrup just fine. I liked this so much that I made a version with unsweetened pomegranate syrup – it was delicious! The mild (grape) to severe (pomegranate)tanginess of the syrups played nicely with the naturally sweet dates
2 cups Deglet Noor dates
1 cup unsweetened pomegranate or grape juice (must be 100% juice)
Raisins (for stuffing) (optional)
Ground almonds, pinenuts, hazelnuts or semolina (for light coating) (optional)
In a small saucepan, bring the fruit juice to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to a low simmer and stir well. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the juice reduces to a syrup. Pour onto a plate and let cool so that you can work with the syrup (or you will burn your fingers).
While the syrup is reducing, make the date balls. Pulse the dates in a food processor until they are soft. Bit by bit, roll the pounded dates into small balls. You will have to wet your hands, and wash them several times to keep the dates from sticking to them. My date balls were about 2/3rds of the size of a ping-pong ball, and the two cups made 15 balls. Chill in the freezer for 5-10 minutes before rolling in warm syrup, or the balls will begin to disintegrate. The pomegranate syrup hardened up a lot quicker than the concord grape syrup – so you will have to work more quickly with that. The upside is it is a lot less messy than the concord grape syrup.
Roll the date balls in syrup, or spoon the syrup onto the balls and place on a rack to drain and harden up a bit. If desired, when the first layer is hardened, warm the syrup (in a microwave) and spoon a second layer over the date balls.
If you serve slightly chilled, the syrup coating will be firm enough not to be messy. However, if you want to serve room temperature or warm, place a light coating of ground nuts – almonds or pinenuts would have the least flavor impact. If you like the flavor of the nuts, lightly pan roasting them prior to coating will emphasize their flavor – but I found that this greatly diminishes the flavor of the syrup. Alternately, if you cannot eat nuts or don’t like the flavor of the types listed here that the Mesopotamians would have had, a light dusting of semolina will also coat the date balls rolled in syrup, making them easier to eat.
One cup of juice made enough syrup to roll about 5 date balls in two layers of syrup. I coated the leftover five balls in two things – grated parmesan cheese and roasted hazelnuts. Both were amazing!
Variation: Tuck a raisin inside the date ball before rolling in syrup.
The tablets speak on occasion of a woman with special skill in making mersu. With all of the variation possible with the tremendous lot of ingredients assigned to mersu (and we have only touched upon a few in this cookoff) I wonder if a genius for variation isn’t the special skill that the mersu cooks had. Not a secret only passed on from one cook to her apprentice, but a natural creativity for combinations resulting in delicious food.
All I know is that whether prepared as a savory appetizer or as a sweet appetizer or dessert, mersu are really delicious – consider serving for the upcoming holidays, and give your family and friends a flavorful ancient treat. (Words by Laura Kelley; photographs of Mersu with Cheese an Mersu with Wine (Must Syrup) also by Laura Kelley.)
Today’s entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from my dear husband, Stephen, who has put up with me and my wild ideas and projects (like Silk Road Gourmet) for many years. For years I’ve asked him to join me in some of these escapades – help me write this story (screenplay, paper etc, you name it) – and much to my chagrin, he never has. He usually just rolls his eyes and smiles and offers an alibi like, “I can’t write fiction”, or “I’m a crummy dancer”, or some other excuse. This time however, something different happened. He said yes. He has thrown his hat in the ring and cooked a dish for us, and done the write up and recipe etc. I am happily amazed at his participation and hope that it turns out to be a trend.
Stephen writes, “Since Laura tests all of her recipes on me as she is working with them, I’ve put on some weight since she started writing the Silk Road Gourmet books and web posts. But there is something you ought to know. Although she is the cookbook author, I was the first in our family to dabble in historical cookery. I’ve always had an interest in history, including the cultures (and cuisines) of the past. Most of my interest has been in early American and European cooking, but I’ve also long been interested in ancient cuisines. In fact, I first made Laura a Mesopotamian feast over a year ago. So, perhaps in some small way, I’m responsible for the Mesopotamian Cookoff, since it was after that dinner that she started showing such interest in the ancient recipes.
It should then come as no surprise that she has been trying to dragoon me into participating in the Cookoff. Having read the posts from others who have tried their hands at the ancient recipes, I had no expectation that anything I could do could compare with the delicious and beautifully presented results posted so far, but being a strong believer in propitiating the goddess of domestic harmony, I agreed to try.
I decided to try the Turnip with Herbs, partly because there had been no attempts at vegetable dishes so far and, I must admit, because it did not seem to require the multiple, complicated steps some of the meat dishes did (game bird pie, for instance). From the very limited description translated from the ancient tablet, the original dish appeared to be a simple boiled turnip with an unusual herb sauce.
(Yale Tablet 25-recipe XXV). Turnips (or roasted barley) with Herbs. Ingredients and method: Prepare water, add fat, turnips (or roasted barley). Add a chopped mix of shallots, arugula, and coriander that have been mixed with semolina or other flour and moistened with blood. Cook until done. Add mashed leeks and garlic.
I however decided to go a different route than that, and mash the turnips and herbs. I assumed the Sumerians, Akkadians, and other Mesopotamians could mash vegetables if they wanted to, so what the heck. It also meant I wouldn’t have to use the blood or semolina.
Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Stephen Kelley
6 medium turnips
4 large shallots
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh cilantro
3 ounces arugula
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 teaspoons sea salt
3 tablespoons butter, warm
1 cup milk, warm
Peal and cube the turnips. Boil the turnips with 1 ounce of the arugula and 1 teaspoon of salt until the turnips are fully cooked but not too soft. Remove the arugula (as much as you can) and strain the turnips. Add the butter and milk and mash the turnips. Set aside.
Roughly chop and rinse the cilantro, leek, shallots, and remaining arugula. Add the garlic, coriander, cumin and remaining salt with the chopped herbs. Pulse the herbs in a food processor until finely chopped.
Fold the chopped herbs into the mashed turnips and mash until it is evenly distributed. Reheat and serve.
I had expected the mashed turnips and herbs to have a very strong flavor, given the cilantro and leek. Surprisingly, they had a very mild flavor, with occasional hints of cilantro or leeks. It made a simple, tasty side dish to either an ancient or a modern meat dish.
There was one problem, however. Six turnips make a lot of food for two. So we had lots of leftovers. Looking for something to do with mashed turnips that would be consistent with cooking styles of 3,000 years ago, Laura suggested making something akin to potato pancakes. I liked the idea, so here is how we did that:
Turnip with Herb Pancakes by Stephen and Laura Kelley
Place mashed turnips in a mixing bowl and combine with the beaten eggs. Turn in a cup of rye flour (we used rye flower, which the Mesopotamians had, but you could use the semolina or spelt mentioned in the original tablet).
Heat the oil on high in a frying pan.
Form turnips mixed with eggs and flour into patties and slide the patties into the hot oil. Fry on med-high until the outer edges of the patties begin to brown. Lower flame and continue frying until the interior is hot. Flip and cook until desired color is achieved. Drain on a rack or paper towels. Serve with kefir labneh yogurt cheese (or sour cream) and herbs.
I actually liked the turnip “latkes” better than the original mashed turnips (so Laura gets credit for that, but I’ve always known she’s a much better cook than me–she’s the one with cook book, after all). The mild cilantro and leek flavor, topped with the yogurt, made for a very satisfying breakfast.” (Words by Stephen Kelley. Photo of Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Laura Kelley (with new macro lens); Photo of Turnip with Herb Pancakes by Stephen Kelley.)
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 . . .
. . . 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.
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.
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.)
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of barley for the Mesopotamians. It was quite simply, the mainstay of their existence, and was used to make bread, cakes and beer and feed animals (especially pigs to make them “clean” enough to eat), and it was integral to the barter system used to trade goods in many societies. They offered it to their Gods to feed and supplicate them. They also ate it in savory dishes as we saw in the Lamb with Barley and Mint and as we will see in a moment – possibly as a pilaf mixed with herbs and chopped vegetables.
All of the entries in the Mesopotamian Cookoff so far have been for meat dishes, so for this post, I wanted to feature a vegetable, cereal or bread. Here is the delicious Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf from Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25, recipe XXV. The center of this dish is an ingredient called laptu, which seems to have two meanings depending on context. In his Textes Culinaire Mesopotamien (TCM), Bottero chose to make the dish only with turnips, which is one of the meanings of the word laptu. I chose to use the other meaning of laptu – that of roasted barley to explore what might have been a grain dish for the Babylonians of this period.
The ingredients are very straightforward: water, fat, roasted barley, mix of chopped shallots, arugula, and coriander semolina, blood, mashed leeks and garlic. How these are put together, however, are up to the cook. There likely were cultural standards for dishes in ancient times as there are today. But leaving the entire method up to the cook allows for a level of variation, creativity on the part of the chef and diner’s desire that is all but gone in the west these days.
I cooked this at as I was preparing the Fowl with Herbs for the previous post, so I used a cup of the stock I boiled the hens in to make the barley along with some water. I wanted the nuttiness of the roasted barley to shine, so I kept the spicing minimal, using only ground coriander for some airiness and asafetida for some depth. The pulsed vegetables added towards the end of cooking add a bit of texture, spice and crunch to the pilaf as well. My husband in particular loved the flavor of garlic that the pilaf had – so don’t skimp on that, unless you know you don’t care for that flavor.
Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf by Laura Kelley
1 cup whole barley, cleaned
2 cups water
1 cup prepared stock
2 teaspoons of butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon asafetida
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 leek, white and green parts well cleaned
4 garlic cloves, peeled
Preheat broiler until its good and hot. Spread the cleaned barley on a baking sheet to form a single layer of grain. Place barley under broiler flame and leave for a few minutes until it starts to smoke and color. Stir lightly and turn pan if necessary until most barley is tan in color. Be careful not to burn the grain. Properly roasted barley will taste nutty. Burnt barley will just taste burnt. When done remove from flame and let cool.
Add water and prepared stock to a medium saucepan. You may season the stock anyway you wish, or use the cooking stock from another recipe (I used the stock from the pigeon recipe). Add butter, salt, asafetida and ground coriander and continue to heat.
In a food processor, pulse shallots and arugula once or twice. Then add the semolina and blood and pulse one or two more times. Add this mixture to the heating water and stir. When just short of a boil, add the barley and stir well. Bring back to a boil. Then reduce heat, cover and cook over a medium-low flame until about ¾ done – 20-30 minutes.
As the barley is cooking, pulse leeks and garlic two to four times until minced but not mushy. Add this to the barley and stir once or twice (not too much or barley will be soggy). Partially recover saucepan and continue to cook, checking frequently. It should be done or nearly done within 10 minutes.
Whether her name were Ninlil, Nisaba, Ezina, Ashnan or my favorite, Ninbarshegunu whose name means something like, “lady whose body is dappled with barley,” [wow!] the cultures of Mesopotamia had many grain goddesses who ensured the harvests, protected the farmers, and filled the pots with food. They were respected, worshipped, fed and treated as subjects of representational or functional art as in the cylinder seal below from 2350-2150 BCE which shows a grain goddess and her supplicant gods receiving stalks of barley or other grain from her. Interesting point made by this depiction is that the grain goddess is the one that the other gods come to to ensure their fields and harvests.
*(I am not a good food photographer, and purchased a photo from a stock house that was a reasonable stand-in for the dish I cooked. To see my photograph of the dish, click here and understand why I purchased the photo. I think that my photos may improve with my purchase of a macro lens, but I’m not guaranteeing that – only hoping.)