Mesopotamia, Ancient (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
MESOPOTAMIA, ANCIENT. Cuneiform clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (mostly present-day Iraq), preserve a few kitchen recipes dating from the eighteenth to the seventeenth centuries B.C.E. Except for these texts, the oldest recipes known, our information about food supplies and their processing is indirect: on the one hand, dictionarylike lists of foodstuffs and, on the other, administrative texts recording the acquisition and expenditures of raw staples and kitchen supplies. A few proverbs and literary passages occasionally give additional details. Although an enormous number of names of edible plants, animals, condiments, and the like is known, in too many cases their exact identification is not possible. In contrast with Egypt, food remains of ancient Mesopotamia, other than bones and seeds, are extremely rare (Ellison et al.). In Mesopotamia, cooking was considered to mark, alongside clothing, the beginning of civilization. To quote an ancient Sumerian poem ("The Debate between the Ewe and the Barley," Alster and Vanstiphout) describing prehistoric times:
The men of those remote days
did not have bread to eat,
did not have clothes to wear.
People went around with naked limbs,
ate grass with their mouths, like sheep,
drank water from the gullies.
The onset of historical time is metonymically described as "when bread was eaten in the shrines of the land, when the ovens of the light were burning" ("Gilgamesh and Enkidu," George).
Extensive word lists covering the botany, zoology, and material culture of southern Mesopotamia are a typical element of cuneiform literature. Among the oldest intelligible tablets (c. 2900 B.C.E.) there are lists of cereal and dry meat products, vegetables and alliaceous plants, fish, and birds. These lists were expanded through the centuries, culminating after the fourteenth century B.C.E. in long classical lists that were in use until the second century B.C.E. In an encyclopedic compilation of twenty-four tablets, of an average length of three hundred lines each, there is one dedicated to domestic animals (XIIIth tablet), one to wild ones (XIV), one to meat cuts (XV), one to plants (XVII), one to birds and fish (XVIII), and two to foods and drink in general (XXIIIXIV). In detail, Tablet XXIII has three long sections:
- beer and brewery products
- flours and bread
Tablet XXIV is more varied:
- syrups and honey (12 entries)
- oils and fats (53)
- spices (11, also treated elsewhere in other tablets)
- seeds (12, also treated elsewhere)
- dairy products (34)
- pulses (8)
- emmer and wheat (10)
- barley (67)
- straws (10)
- fruits: figs, raisins, pomegranates (10), dates (at least 38).
- salt and condiments (12)
- melons and cucumbers (8)
These lists are Sumero-Akkadian bilinguals (Mesopotamian culture was bilingual from its earliest days). Sumerian is an isolated language, but Akkadian is Semitic, a sister language of Hebrew and Arabic, and thus it is helpful in the identification of some food names, although too many uncertainties still remain. For instance, the names of the two condiments more often mentioned, after salt, in the texts of the end of the third millennium, are gazi and zahili. Neither of them is unambiguously identified.
A meticulous and detailed accounting system is another typical feature of Mesopotamian civilization. Administrative
Locally grown cereals, mostly barley and relatively small amounts of emmer wheat and wheat, constituted the nutritional base in ancient Mesopotamia. Cereals were consumed in the form of bread, soups, and beer.
Bread. Bread (Sumerian, ninda; Akkadian, akalu) must have been made, at least in some cases, from leavened dough. There are no direct descriptions, but allusions to its bulky size and to leaving the dough overnight to rest seem to be indications of fermentation. One may assume, however, that in most cases the bread was made from unleavened dough shaped into flat, round loaves, similar to the present-day Near Eastern khubuz. This bread was baked in a peculiar, ubiquitous type of oven called an öurin (Sumerian) or tinûru (Akkadian). It was a clay implement of cylindrical shape, tapering to a conical form in its upper part and with a side opening at its base. The whole was between 3 and 4 feet high. Once the oven was sufficiently heated, the flat, unleavened loaves were plastered to the side for baking. Salaries of the workers were often paid in bread. Roasted barley was sold in the streets and at the marketplace.
Alcoholic drinks. The Mesopotamian brewing process is relatively well known: the fermentation of a mixture of malt and barley bread, with the addition of sugar in the form of dates, produced different types of beer (Sumerian, kaö; Akkadian, öikaru) consumed by drinking with a straw from a communal jar. This beer had a short shelf life due to a certain instability caused, among other factors, by the absence of hops. Only in later periods, after the seventh century B.C.E., are there indications of the addition of an element, perhaps cuscuta, with a function similar to hops. Lists of supplies to brewers give the relative amounts of ingredients for various types of beer, but the absence of any indications about the processing does not allow any evaluation of the final product. The same ingredients can result in products of quite different taste and aspect, depending on the processing. A fermented beverage made of dates was also known. Chemical residues have identified some jars as wine containers in the late Uruk period, c. 3500 B.C.E. (Badler et al.). Wine, nevertheless, is mentioned rarely, and although there were some vineyards in the south, in the Lagash area and
Meat, from sheep, goats, and cattle, seems to have been consumed regularly by the upper classes, only occasionally by the rest (Limet). Salted, dried strips of meat are mentioned already in the oldest texts. The use of meat must have been more extensive than sparse mentions in texts seem to suggest. The consumption of pork, initially frequent, seems to have declined after the beginning of the second millennium. The extreme south of Mesopotamia was an immense estuary with lagoons and marshes where fowl and fish were present in huge quantities. Fish is better documented for the older periods up to 3000 B.C.E. Whether the subsequent decline in fish consumption is real, for reasons of taste or availability, or apparent, due to administrative changes, is hard to say. Semitic populations seem to have held fish in low esteem. Fats for cooking were predominantly of animal origin (lard, tallow, suet); vegetable oils, presumably from sesame, were reserved mostly for cosmetic, ritual, and technical (tanning hides, cloth finishing, etc.) uses. For example, the total production of vegetable oil in the Girsu province in 2047 B.C.E. was some 14,445 liters, but none of it was earmarked for cooking. Dairy products, including clarified butter and various types of cheeses, were very important, but there are no indications about the consumption of fresh milk by adults; its preservation must have been severely limited by climatic conditions. Dairy fats were the only ones used in the confection of pastries. Hunting (enormous flocks of gazelles roamed the desert until a few centuries ago) is often described in royal commemorative texts but has left no trace in bureaucratic records and must have been a sport (lions and boars being a favorite prey) rather than a means to procure subsistence. As for more exotic foods, an Assyrian relief shows a servant carrying locusts impaled on long sticks.
Vegetables and Fruits
If close to a hundred names of green vegetables, as well as their parts and varieties, are known (from Tablet XVII of the compilation listed above), their use is poorly documented, due probably to their perishability, which made them unsuitable to be recorded by the bureaucratic administration. An exception are the alliaceous plants (onions, garlic, leeks), which are less perishable, and evidently much esteemed and consumed in large amounts by all levels of the population. There are detailed accounts of the production of onion beds. Lettuce was particularly appreciated, judging from its mention in literary texts. The names of many spices are known but, as usual, their identification is extremely difficult. The fruits more frequently mentioned are apples, figs, and pomegranates; the first two were often dried, and a ring of dried apples from the royal tombs of Ur (c. 2700 B.C.E.) has been exceptionally preserved (Ellison et al.).
The date palm occupied a place apart. It grew easily in extensive gardens on the southern plain and the tree production was the object of careful bookkeeping. Besides the fruit, which was eaten dried and was a source of a fermented drink, most parts of the palm were useful for making ropes, baskets, and ceiling beams. Date syrup seems to have been the main sweetener; beekeeping is not documented until very late times, and whenever the texts mention "honey," it must be generally assumed that it refers to date syrup. There are isolated allusions to mushrooms, but their consumption seems to have been considered a barbaric custom: the stereotyped ethnic description of the Bedouin nomads has them digging for truffles. Present-day Bedouins are still very fond of the white truffle (Tarfezia leonis) and of a smaller red-brown one, growing in the desert after rain from February to April.
Religious and Social Uses of Food
The sacrifice of cattle and smaller animals was an essential part of many religious rites, generally accompanied
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.
Kitchens and Utensils
Professional cooks (Sumerian, muhaldim; Akkadian, nuhatimmu), assigned to palaces, temples, and other institutions, are known from remote antiquity. The common name for the kitchen was "the cooks' house," or "the cooks' room." The most frequent type of bread oven, often encountered in the ruins, has already been described above. The names of larger ovens, called udun and kir, are also known, but their physical features are difficult to ascertain. Although remains of large ovens and fireplaces of various types have been found in archeological excavations, there is no comprehensive study so far of their characteristics. Cooking and serving utensils, from large kettles to soup bowls, are known by name, but it is not easy to assign these names to the various types of clay and metal containers recovered by the archaeologists.
There was a tradition according to which the kitchen recipes came from Enki, the god of wisdom and knowledge. Thus, one reads in a literary text: "King (?)ulgi will have a banquet in his pleasant palace after large beautiful dates mixed with raisins, butter from the holy sheep-fold, and the sweetest (date) honey have been worked together, and the sweets have been mixed with fine flour, according to the good instructions of god Enki" (unpublished translation). This passage describes the preparation of a very traditional type of cake (Sumerian, ninda-ìdé-a; Akkadian, mirsu). The administrative "shopping lists" give at times the ingredients for a given dish or confection. From them one can infer that this cake required, for instance, the following proportion of ingredients: fine flour: three cups; clarified butter: one-fourth cup; dates: one cup. Small amounts of cheese or raisins were occasionally added. This of course is not really a recipe; it tells what, but not how.
See also Food Archaeology; Greece, Ancient; Middle East.
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