Some Mesopotamian Ingredients Revealed

Following is the lastest update of the Mesopotamian Food Lexicon. I have only included words that have a minimal level of resolution associated with the type of food. Thus I have included words that begin to specify the type of bird (i.e. ostrich, heron, duck etc) but excluded words that have been resolved only to the level of “Type of Bird”, or “Type of Fish”. It is a work in progress and thus very incomplete at this time. Entries for words beginning with “A” and “B” have been updated 11/2012. Words beginning with other letters have not been recently updated and may have errors. As incomplete as it is, the picture of a rich and extremely varied diet is emerging from liguistic sources alone.



Ab = Cow (OAk,OB; Ak. arhu; littu) (ref 2).

Abga = Milk; female sucking calf (OB) (ref 2).

Absuhur = Type of carp (OB) (ref 2).

Abulillum = Boxthorn berries (Lycium europaeum) (S; Ak. bulīlu) (ref 2).

Abzaza = Zebu (OB; Ak. apsasû) (ref 2).

Adkin = Preserved meat (salted?) (S; Ak. kirrētu; muddulu) (Maaijer, R and B. Jagersma, 2003-2004 AfO 50 352).

Agargara = Type of fish (agargara-eshub = carp) (OB, many from Nippur) (ref 2).

Aĝeštinak = Vinegar (OA,OB; Ak. tābātu) (Ak ref. Powell, M, 1995, Origins and Ancient History of Wine 104).

Agud = Ox (OB) (Stol, M, 1995 BSA 8 197-201).

Alim = Bison (OB; Ak. ditānu; kabtu; kusarikku) (Steinkeller, P, 1995, BiOr 52 697; P. Steinkeller, P, 2004, ZA 94; Mittermayer, C, 2005, Tierkopfzeichen 45-49).

Allanum = Oak, acorn (S; Ak. allānu) (Powell, M, 1987, BSA 3 148; Civil, M, 1987, Organization of Power 52 wn7).

Allub = Crab (OB; Ak. alluttu) (ref 2).

Alum = Long-fleeced sheep (S,EOB,OB; Ak. aslu; pasillu) (Ak. refs: Waetzoldt H, 1972, UNT 3-4; 8; Steinkeller, P, 1995, BSA 8 52).

Alusa = Sauce (OB) (ref 2).

Alusa-kud = Fish sauce (OB) (ref 2).

Am = Wild bull (EOB,OB; Ak. rīmu) (ref 2).

Amsikurak = camel (S; Ak. Ibilu; OB. amsiharran) (Ak, OB refs: Maaijer, R, 2003-2004;Jagersma,B, AfO 50 355.).

Andahšum = Wild tulip bulb (OB,Ak; As. andahšu) Multiple references to spring root vegetable and some statements about commonness in the north (Anatolia and Assyria) but uncommonness in the south. Not sure of the species of tulip that this refers to, but many are edible and have a distinct mildly bitter flavor. (Undefined in Textes Culinaire Mesopotamien (TCM) and The Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW))(Refs 1 2, analysis by LMK).

Anše = donkey (OAk,EOB,OB; Ak. imēru) (Ak. refs: Zarins, J, 1978 JCS 30 3-4; Maekawa, K, 1979, ASJ 1 35-62; Maekawa, K, 1980, ASJ 2 113-114 n1; Sigrist,M, 1992, Drehem 30-31; Cavigneaux, A and F. Alrawi, 1993 Iraq 55 1000; Steinkeller, P, 2004, ZA 94; Mittermayer, C, 2005, Tierkopfzeichen 28-35).

Anše’edenak = Onager, Asiatic wild ass (S;Ak. serrēmu) (Ak refs: Maekawa, K, 1979, ASJ 1 48; 45; 37; Sigrist, M, 1992, Drehem 30-31).

Arabu = Edible waterfowl (OB; Ak. arabû; usābu) (Ak refs: Owen, D 1981, ZA 71 34-35; Veldhuis, N, 2004, Nanše 215-216.)

Arak = Type of bird, stork (OB; Ak. laqlaqqu) (ref 2).

Arkab = Bat (poss. type of bird) (OB; Ak. argabu) Many modern cultures eat bats even though there are taboos against doing so. (ref 2).

Arzana = Groats (wheatberries, ryeberries etc.) (S,OA,EOB,OB; Ak. arsānu) (ref 2).

Arzig = Millet (S; Ak. arsikku) (ref 2).

Ay-alum = Deer or stag (OB) (ref 2).

Az = Bear (S; Ak. asu) (ref 2).

Azugna = Vegetable, poss. saffron (OB; Ak. azupīru) (ref 2).


Babbarhi = Herb, poss purslane or related portulaca species (OB; Ak. parparhû) (ref Hallo, W, 1985, JCS 37 124).

Balgi = Type of turtle or tortoise (EOB; Ak. raqqu)(Owen, D, 1981, ZA 71 43).

Bappir = Ingredient in beer (S; Ak. bappiru) (Civil, M, 1964 Studies Oppenheim 76-78; Stol, M, 1987-1990, RlA 7 325-326; Powell, M, 1994, Drinking in Ancient Societies 94; 96-99; 104, analysis by LMK). There is some agreement amongst scholrs that “bappir” is translated as beer-bread and is an ingredient in beermaking. I think that it is probably a “mother” culture of wild yeast from sourdough breadmaking that was used to introduce yeast into beer to kick off the fermentation process.

Bazbaz = Type of duck; bazbazniga = fattened duck (OB; Ak. paspasu) (Veldhuis, N, 2004, Nanše 223-224).

Bil = To be sour (S; Ak. emşu) (Powell, M, 1987, BSA 3 148).

Bil = To roast or burn (OB; Ak. qalû) (Attinger, P, 2001, ZA 91 136 n10).

Billum = mandrake (S; Ak. pilû) (ref 2).

Binum = tamarisk (S; Ak. bīnu) (ref 2). Tamarisk has many culinary uses. Its bark can be boiled to make tea, or burnt to gather the sulphate of soda in its ashes that is then used to make bread. Additionally, it has small, seasonal bitter fruits.

Bir = locust (OB; Ak. erbu) (ref 2). Although we don’t think of eating locusts in the west today, large grasshoppers and locusts are still enjoyed in many places in eastern Asia. Additionally locusts are depicted as food items in period representational art.

Birgun = cheese (S; (Ak. pinnāru) (Stol, M, 1993-1997, RlA 8 198).

Bizaza = frog (OAk,OB; Ak. muşa’irānu) (ref 2).

bubu’i = wild date palm (S; Ak. alamittu) (ref 2).

Buru = Type of small bird, sparrow (OB; Ak. işşūru) (Cavigneaux, A and F. Alrawi, 1995 ZA 85 32; Cavigneaux, A and F. Alrawi, 2002 ZA 92 44-50; Veldhuis, N, 2004, Nanše 229-231.)

Buruhabrudak = Type of bird, partridge (OB) (Veldhuis, N, 2004, Nanše 231-233).

Butumtu = Pistachio Nuts or Flour. (As; S. budnu) (refs 1, 2 analysis by LMK)  I think that pistachio makes a great deal more culinary sense  in the context that “butumtu” or “bututu” is used.  Also, pistachio is still used in modern Western Asian and Levantine regional cuisines in the same ways as defined in the Mari and Nippur tablets. That said, there is a recent trend amongst some scholars to go back to an archaic definition of this word as meaning ‘terebinth’. (In TCM, Bottero called these green or unripened wheat or barley, in OCW he calls these husked lentils).


Gugu-la = Chickpeas. There seems to be a fair amount of concurrence that this word means chickpeas. However it is often translated as bean, large bean or simply legumes. Molina and Such-Gutiérrez, Neo-Sumerian Administrative Texts 56, 2005; Powell, RlA 10 21-22, 2003; . Maekawa, BSA 2, 1985. Stol, BSA 2 127-130; 133, 1985.

Gugu-tar = Lentils. Sumerian. There seems to be a fair amount of concurrence that this word means lentils. However it is often translated as bean, small bean or simply legumes. Sometimes denoted as Gutur. In Akkadian, the word for lentil seems to be Kakku. Molina and Such-Gutiérrez, Neo-Sumerian Administrative Texts 56, 2005; Powell, RlA 10 21-22, 2003; . Maekawa, BSA 2, 1985. Stol, BSA 2 129-130; 133, 1985.


Halazzu = Carob Seeds.  Halla: Refers to a plant that resembles the dung of birds in Assyrian. Zu or ze refers to the dung, but is also used in a prefix to denote plants or seeds. So, one has: “seeds that look like the dung of birds”.  Looking at the bible, (The word used in most Hebrew Bibles is מּינויירח, chari-yonim) there are several references to eating “dove’s dung” which has long been identified as the seeds of the carob tree Ceratonia siliqua (Robinson, Joseph (1976). The Second Book of Kings. Cambridge University Press. pp. 65–66.).

It turns out that earlier Assyriologists also identify Halazzu as Carob:  This was first recognized by R. Campbell Thompson, Dictionary of Assyrian Botany (London, 1949), 186; and independently by A. L. Oppenheim, JQR 37 (1946-47), 175-76. See also the extensive treatment by M. Held, Studies…Landsberger, AS 16 (1965), 395-98.

Carob is widely enjoyed across Western Asia, Levant and Eastern Mediterranean today and imparts a sweet chocolate-like flavor to dishes. This seems to depart from the commonly used word for carob. (refs 1& as cited).

Hirsu = A cut slice sliver, piece, portion. Akkadian. In TCM Bottero gives no definition for this. He states that it appears before words designating “leg and mutton?” – so it is possible that it refers to the shank. Lamb or sheep shanks, at least in that context. Alternately, as we see with some fowl recipes from the Yale Tablets the cook is told to add some meat. This may be a small portion of meat from a hooved creature to bolster the flavor of the fowl recipe that would be like the equivalent of cooking something in a meat stock instead of water. (ref 2) (LK).

Hisiltu = A coarsely ground flour or a coarsely ground spice mixture. (ref 1)


Kanasu = Emmer Wheat. (Kunasu in Akkadian). Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), also known as farro in Italian. Emmer a proto-wheat or awned-wheat that was one of the first domesticated crops. Emmer is one of the ancestors of spelt (Triticum spelta). The use of it in Mesopotamian recipes probably refers to wheat flour. In TCM Bottero gives no definition for this (ref 1).

Kasu = Wild Licorice (formerly thought to be cinnamon). From Sumerian gazi (kasu) wild licorice (Steinkeller, AOS 68, 92; Heimpel, CUSAS 5, 214). Roots used to flavor many food from soups and stews to cheese and beer with sweet anise-like flavor. Bottero called this “dodder” like the parasitic weed in TCM.

Kisimmu = Sour Cream or Yogurt. Undefined in OCM. Called a sort of cheese in TCM. Clearly defined as a sour milk product in multiple sources in reference 1. Unclear whether it would have been moist like yogurt, drained like Afghan chaka or fully dried like dry kishk. If I had to pick one of the three, I would choose to drain it like chaka becasue of its use in modern regional cuisines in that form.

Kamaamtu(m) = Rhus coriaria or sumac. It is a word borrowed from Sumerian. I think I found this in Meissner but I cannot find my notes – will check.


Laptu = turnip or roasted barley The accepted definition of this word depends on the context at this time.


Mersu = A dish based on dates, raisins or figs with other sweet or savory ingredients added. Mersu is the ultimate ‘Iron Chef’ test. It involves picking one from column A: dates, figs or raisins and combining it with at least one from column B: pistachios, apples, cheese, garlic, “wine” (probably must or pomace), and flour (but the flour could be nut flour). It could be simply a layer of pounded dates rolled into a sheet which is then covered with nuts, then rolled and sliced, or pounded dates rolled into balls and covered with chopped nuts. If one adds flour, it could possibly be something like the modern Iranian Ranginak in which dates stuffed with nuts are enclosed within a thin dough sandwich and sliced, or the Lebanese Ma’moul in which pounded date cores are rolled in a layer of semolina which is then covered with chopped nuts. Bottero called this a cake. Sigrist equated this with ninda-i-de-a (JCS 29, 1977). (LK).



Nuhurtu = Asafoetida. This is one undefined ingredient in Bottero’s work that really will impart a complex onion-like flavor to a dish. The principal reference is Thompson DAB, but his opinion is supported by many references to the medicinal use of the plant’s roots and resin (ref 1). It is also listed in the catalog of “trees” in Assurnasipal II royal garden at Kalhu. Since asafoetida plants grow quite large it is understandable that it was thought to be a tree. (LK)


Qaiiatu = rolled oats or pounded oats or oat flour. Used roasted and added to the stews, soups and pilafs represented in the Yale Babylonian culinary tablets. (ref 1) (LK).


Salahu=Cress or Cress seed.

Samidu = Semolina. Assyrian samidu, Syrian semida “fine meal”, Greek semidalis “the finest flour”. A fine flour called semida in the Talmud (Pesachim 74b, Shabbat 110b, Moed Katan 28a). Semida is the Targum Yonatan translation for solet – also meaning “fine flour”. Probably used in broths, soups and stews to thicken the liquid (much as corn starch is commonly used today), or could be used to denote a form of couscous or other form of small dumpling. (LK)

Sebtu-rolls = Dill Seed. Dill (Anethum graveolens) was called sibetum in Assyrian (ref 1). Bottero states that these were probably grain rolls (small pieces of bread) eaten as a staple with meals. Several recipes state that these are roasted in an oven and scattered about the dish just before presentation. Both the etymology and the use make it unlikely that these were rolls of grain. I believe the confusion comes from the translation of the word “roll” which I take to mean seed (as opposed to dill weed). In Tablet B and C of the Yale collection Bottero mentions using dough to make sebtu rolls and bake them in the oven. My interpretation of this is that roasted dill seed is added to the dough for flavor. (ref 1) (LK)

Sibburattu=Mustard. Bottero calls this rue, which makes a little bit of culinary sense. However, my research shows that this plant is aromatic, both leaves and seeds are used, and it is a common ingredient in medicinal poulstices and for treatment of urinary infections. Mustard is a much better fit for this description than rue. (ref 1) (LK)

Siqqu = Salted Fish or other salted meat. Bottero defines this as garum like the Carthaginian fish sauce often associated with the Romans. There is nothing that I can find that defines Siqqu as a sauce. References only point to fish and salt as the principal ingredients. Additionally, one reference records a person complaining that the siqqu they bought is not moist. How can liquid not be moist? Siqqu may have been eaten with a selection of fruits like dates and date-plums and splashes of fruit vinegar. (ref 1) (LK).

Suhutinnu = A root vegetable. Probably a carrot, possibly a parsnip. Sahutinnu in Assyrian. In the Babylonian tablets translated by Bottero, it is always used “raw”. Ref 1 states that it is an alliaceous plant, but there is no evidence to support that it is anything other than a root vegetable. Tablets simply report that they are “dug up”. (LK)

Suluppu = date Akkadian for fruit of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Old Akkadian is zulum.

Surmenu = Juniper Berries. Bottero calls these cypress cones. While Bottero is close, the Juniper is a type of cypress, and the “berries” are actually fleshy cones, the use of juniper berries – especially in game-based stews and curries – makes culinary sense, while cypress cones do not. (ref 1)


Tiktu = A dairy product. Possibly a type of kashk. In Assyrian – Diktu. Likely to be a product like kashk, because in TCM, it is mixed with beer to create a sauce. In OCW, Bottero does not define this, but uses it to denote a sort of flour. It is possible that the term “tiktu-flour” used by Bottero is a mixture of kashk and cracked wheat as is done in the Levant and Arabian Peninsula. The combination is called Kishk and the dried flour is the base for a traditional Levantine soup or gravy with meat, onions, and garlic. The sauce or gravy is eaten by scooping out with flat bread (ref 1). (LK)

Tuh’hu = Cracked grain, possibly sprouted grain (Ak,As; S,OAk,EOB, OB. duh) Tuh’hu is the accepted word for bran or draff in Assyrian and Akkadian. However, I think that instead of denoting “bran” it might be used for a cracked grain, or even for sprouted grain, as the references for beer and fodder abound. From a culinary point of view, the cracked or sprouted grain makes a heck of a lot more sense than bran (refs 1,2, Analysis by LMK).


Uihur-sag = Saffron.

Ukus-hab = Citron. In the amounts specified (usually small) this probably refers to minced zest of citron. In TCM, Bottero – referencing early German writings on medicine called this colocynthe or cucumber – both of which make little culinary sense. Colocynthe is a powerful laxative, purgative, abortifacient and in larger doses poison, and cucumber would simply be overwhelmed by the other flavors in the culinary recipes they were mentioned with. It is not out of the question that it is colocynth seed which is still a common food item today, but I think that citron is more logical culinary choice of an ingredient with a similar physical description as colocynthe. (LK)


Zamburu = Thyme

Zamzaganu = Field birds. Sumerian, Old Babylonian. A possible compound noun of zamzam (bird) and ganu (field). No definition given by Bottero in TCM (ref 2) (LK).

Zanzar = Date-plum, (fruit of Diospyros lotus, the Caucasian persimmon). Zanzaliqqu is specified as a type of tree bearing fruit (sometimes said to be inedible). When these fruits are unripe they are very bitter and inedible as raw fruits. They change significantly as they ripen and dry and lose their tartness. Same word as Zarzar(u). (LK)

Zibu = Black Onion Seeds (nigella sativa) (Not black cumin (Carum bulbocastanum) which is from India/Himalayas). “Black onion seeds” or kalonji as they are called in many places on the Indian Subcontinent are not really onion seeds at all, but flower seeds that impart a strong flavor reminiscent to onions by some people. These seeds have been used in Mesopotamian and Egyptian food and are still used widely in Indian, Persian and Turkish foods today. (This is one of Bottero’s ”culinary confusions”). (LK)

Zizna = fish roe Sumerian. Akkadian is binitu.

Zurumu = Small intestine or lining thereof. Surumu as small intestine in Akkadian see Hussey [J. Cuneiform Studies Vol. 2, No. 1 (1948), pp. 21-32)]. Moran specifies that Surumu is Akkadian for “lining” of part of the digestive tract (see Moran JCS Vol. 21, Special Volume Honoring Professor Albrecht Goetze (1967). Used like intestines and lining of digestive organs are used today: ubiquitously in soups and stews, stir fries etc. for flavor and texture. Tripe or Chit’lins. Bottero stated that he didn’t have enough information to even venture a guess. (LK)


Non-culinary Words

Anumun = Esparto Grass (OB). Strong grass possibly used as fiber for basketmaking and rope making (ref 2)

Makaltu = Shallow Bowl. Found in dowry lists and in instructions for offerings as well as recipes. Like a pie plate, but usually made of wood (ref 1).

Musukkannu = Sisham Tree (Dalbergia sisso). Stated that it is imported from the east for its wood and used extensively in building. Chosen because it is an “everlasting wood”. Said to reproduce by sending out shoots from the root. Shisham is a good match for this word because its heartwood is known for its durability and hardness. Its current natural range is from Afghanistan to Bhutan but in times past, its range extended west and south into Iran. (ref 1, analysis by LMK)


Reference 1: UC Assyrian Dictionary

Reference 2: UP Online Sumerian Dictionary

(All research and words by Laura Kelley).