The History Thread Cooks the Mesopotamian Way

Mesopotamia, the region roughly occupying modern Iraq, is one of the oldest inhabited areas of the Earth. It’s been settled, conquered and fought over for millennia, being the seat of many empires and the graveyard of others. But until relatively recently, its traditional cuisine had been something of a mystery.

Much of what we know about Mesopotamia’s culinary habits originate from a collection of four stone tablets, three of them dating back to 1730 BCE and the fourth a millennia younger. Yale archaeologists first uncovered them in 1911, but struggled for years to translate the ancient Akkadian cuneiform into English. Early archaeologists assumed, based on the layout of the tablets and what they could translate, that it described recipes for medicine or other concoctions. Surely if it were preserved, the writing must be of some great import.

French historian Jean Bottero finally cracked the code in the 1980s. Bottero was able to translate enough fo the tablets to discover that the explanation was even simpler; written on the tablets were dozens of recipes. Although some of the ingredients couldn’t be translated to modern languages (Bottero, and teams of archaeologists and botanists, have failed to identify the herb named shuhutinnu), Bottero rendered enough into French to piece together some routine meals in a Mesopotamian household during the early Babylonian Empire. He compiled his work in a 1995 paper entitled ““The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia,” later translated into English and expanded into a book.

Many of the recipes Bottero found were remarkably simple. Consider this savory stew: “Meat broth. Take some meat. Get the water ready. Add some fat. Some … [illegible], leek and garlic pounded together, and plain shuhutinnu.” Other recipes are more complicated, like this hearty lamb stew:

  • 1 pound of diced leg of mutton or lamb
  • 1/2 cup of rendered sheep fat
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup of beer
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 cup of chopped arugula
  • 1 cup of Persian shallots or spring onions
  • 1/2 cup of chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1 pound of fresh red beets, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup of chopped leek
  • 2 cloves of garlic

For the garnish:

  • 2 teaspoons of dry coriander seed
  • 1/2 cup of finely chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 cup of finely chopped kurrat or ramps/wild leek

As in modern Iraq, and indeed most of the Middle East, dishes making use of lamb, goat and poultry were commonplace. Another lamb recipe appears to be an early form of kebab, served over rice and reproduced to delicious effect by recent culinary historians.

Other recipes make heavy use of fish, both freshwater fish from the Tigris and Euphrates and saltwater species from the Persian Gulf. According to Iraqi scholar Nawal Nasrallah, “fish [in Mesopotamia] was consumed fresh and smoked. The roes were preserved separately and eaten as a delicacy. They were the caviar of the Sumerians. From fish they made the fermented sauce ‘siqqu’ for both kitchen and table use, similar to the oriental fish sauce.” Modern Iraqis still catch and consume these fish, particularly the binni, which Marsh Arabs consider a delicacy (and whose population was depleted when Saddam Hussein drained those marshes in the ’70s and ’80s), and Masgouf, a grilled carp which is considered one of Iraq’s national dishes.

Lapis lazuli fish

Food scholar Laura Kelly expanded upon Bottero’s research, working with Middle Eastern writers to create a more precise translation of the tablets and other Mesopotamian sources. She found that these “depict bountiful harvests at home; vibrant foreign trade and the flow of people in and out of the empire brought additional ingredients and culinary knowledge.” Not only meat but vegetables like carrots, beets and leaks; fruit like dates, apples and pears. Semolina and other fine grains were used as flour for bread and other baked goods.

Kelly’s work uncovered a variety of errors or misinterpretations in Bottero’s book. For instance, Bottero assumed that an herb called kasû referred to a species of bitter weed. In fact, Kelly discovered a paper by Piotr Steinkeller identifying it as a kind of wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) commonly used to season meats, as a dessert ingredients and to ferment beer and liquor. There were also tasty deserts like mersu, baked balls of dates, pistachios and butter, which resembles a modern Iranian dish known as ranginak.

Mersu

In many regards, these Mesopotamian meals aren’t drastically different from modern Iraqi and Iranian cuisine. Reviewing a list of translated recipes, Nassrallah comments on the “similarities to what is being used in Iraq nowadays.” Their main difference appears to be a difference in seasoning: salt and other spices were not readily available in ancient times, while garlic and similar herbs were used, perhaps to excess by some palates. I would not advise trying to incorporate their culinary tradition, just as it stands, into our own,” Bottero warns.

Others, of course, have forged ahead anyway and recreated the dishes themselves. Atlas Obscura recently provided a tutorial on some of the simpler recipes, while Kelly maintains a blog discussing Mesopotamian meals. In 2018, Professor Nassrallah oversaw a cooking challenge at Harvard where graduate students attempted to recreate the tablet’s recipes. The results, by all accounts, were quite delicious; though perhaps not for all tastes.