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
3 shallots, peeled
1 handful of baby arugula
2 teaspoons semolina
2 teaspoons blood (if available)
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.
(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Drawing of Grain Goddess and Her Supplicants © Stephane Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLV, #533; Photo of Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf by Richard Semik@Dreamstime)*
*(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.)