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!
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.)
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.)