Ancient Grains: Mesopotamia
Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization in the West, Mesopotamia is defined more geographically then culturally, being actually made up of a diverse collection peoples and kingdoms; Sumer and the Akkadian, as well as the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The indigenous Sumerians and Akkadians (including Assyrians and Babylonians) dominated Mesopotamia from the beginning of written history (c. 3100 BC) to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC.
Comprising the eastern part of the “fertile crescent’ agriculture arrived in Mesopotamia about 5000 B.C. With the development of irrigation, the food supply in Mesopotamia was quite rich. Most of the Mesopotamian diet was made up of flood plain farmed of crops such as barley, onions, grapes, turnips, and apples. Mesopotamians were also some of the first people to make beer. Beer was the drink of choice for most people with the average person consuming up to 5L per day.
Date palms were also a very important food source to the Mesopotamians. These palms grew in the south by the river marshes and supplied fibers, fodder, wood, and rich food. Dates were the main source of sugar in Mesopotamia and were added to a great many dishes and drinks.
Meat was eaten rarely and reserved for the rich and feast days, fish was a much more common source of protein. Dairy products such as cheese and butter were eaten but fresh milk was rarely drunk by adults as preservation in the heat made it unfeasible.
To give you an idea of the contents of a large feast:
“In 879 B.C.E., the Assyrian king Assurnasirapli II boasts, on an inscription on a stele (Grayson, pp. 28893), of having given a gigantic banquet, on the occasion of the inauguration of his new palace, for no fewer than 69,574 guests, from workers to dignitaries, local and foreign. The supplies for this banquet give an idea of the requirements of the Assyrian gourmet, leaving aside the question of the historical precision of the round numbers: 1,000 oxen, 1,000 calves, 14,000 sheep, 1,000 lambs, 500 deers, 500 gazelles, 1,000 large birds, 500 geese, 500 cranes, 1,000 mesukku-birds, 1,000 qaribu-birds, 10,000 pigeons, 10,000 turtle doves, 10,000 smaller birds, 10,000 fish, 10,000 akbiru (a small rodent), 10,000 eggs, 10,000 containers of beer, 10,000 goatskins of wine, 10,000 jars of a hot condiment, 1,000 boxes of fresh vegetables, and large quantities of honey, pistachios, roasted grain, pomegranates, dates, cheeses, olives, and all kinds of spices. These are the highlights of a list thirty-six lines long on the stele.” 1
Most “recipes” from cuneiform tablets are like the laundry list above, giving rough quantities and ingredients but very little instructions as to HOW. The recipe used for Peter’s dish was cobbled together from a series of soup “recipes” given in the book “The Oldest Cuisine In The World” by Jean Bottero.
RECIPE for STEWED BEEF
Most of the ingredients were fairly easy to find save one, Hop Free Beer. Beer was a major component of Mesopotamian Cooking and Feasting and I couldn’t find a single recipe where it didn’t come up. We ended up tracking down one that had mostly period appropriate ingredients (except for Cocoa). I also ended up adding Pine Nuts without looking into them, while they weren’t entirely appropriate for the period or the area they would have been available and were tasty. Other than that all of the ingredients used I was able to find in your standard grocery store.
Was the Recipe Clear?
Not remotely, I had to interpret a recipe from multiple sources as there weren’t any actual historical “recipes” to be found. On top of that the recipes I did find called for incredibly massive amounts of ingredients as well as long periods of time, neither of which would have been practical for the modern cook.
Were the Cooking Methods Easy to Replicate?
Mesopotamian Cooking was quite simple on the whole so not a lot of strange or specialized ingredients were required, though I did make use of their modern equivalents. I boiled the broth in a modern wok and utilized a slow cooker to make the meat itself. I also purchased the bread outright rather than making it, to duplicate the consumption style of the food if not the methods themselves. I also tried to add some “blood” to the broth by squeezing the roast but most modern meats are fairly well drained, so this didn’t really come across well.
Did you make any mistakes? Do anything different next time?
I probably should have used a flat bottomed pan to make the broth and a large stock pot to boil the roast, it would make it more accurate if nothing else. I’d also want to try adding some blood to the broth just to see how a more authentic flavor would taste.
How did it look when you were done?
Fairly simple actually, there weren’t any instructions on how to present the food really so I just ended up with meat on a plate. However it did look and smell quite appetizing.
How did it taste?
The Roast Meat and Yoghurt/Date/Honey desert were very tasty. The Dates added into the Meat Broth were a last minute addition but overall essential to the delicious flavour of the dish. I added Naan Bread to the dish to represent unleavened bread that would have been consumed in the period. While not entirely accurate it’s the best we could do on short notice and it tasted delicious when fried in butter and eaten with the sauce from the roast. Similarly we also used the remaining broth in the slow cooker as a sauce and it tasted exceptionally good on the bread. The meat had a slightly “fruity” flavor thanks to the dates and was quite savory and flavorful. I also made some “small beer” using the Hop Free Beer mixed with some Water as Beer was the staple beverage of Mesopotamia due to the large grain supply, it would have been “watered” down or brewed weaker than the modern stuff as it was utilized for every day consumption rather than recreational use as it is now a-days. However despite watering it down the Hop-Free Beer was very, very bitter and very very strong tasting, especially prior to watering it down. The best way to describe the flavor is sort of a burnt, malty taste, somewhat akin to German Dunkelweisens but even stronger. The Yoghurt/Date/Honey desert was excellent, not too sweet and very flavourful with the dates and greek style yoghurt adding a lot to the flavor.
Would you make it again?
Absolutely, though I might cheat and use much more modern methods. I probably wouldn’t drink the beer much under normal circumstances due to its strong flavor and even in cooking it made the broth very bitter.
I’m very glad the Mesopotamians had a pretty good understanding of flavour so I was able to use taste staples like Onions and Salt and as I was attempting to make a “feast” dish rather than a peasant or poormans dish I could use as much of the rarer or more valuable ingredients (like salt) to my hearts content.
The Oldest Cuisine In The World by Jean Bottero