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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Cuneiform Cuisine: Culinary History Reborn at Brown University

Babylonian food has come a long way since Jean Bottéro, doyen of the cuneiform recipe tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection, pronounced it fit for only his worst enemies. This year at Brown University, one hundred twenty-two ravenous diners grazed on fare cooked from these recipes with exclamations of amazement and satisfaction. What's more, for many of them, this event was not their first Mesopotamian culinary experience, as this academic year marked the eighth annual Cuneiform Cuisine party at Brown. What had originally been conceived of as a reception for the devoted students of my ever-popular Akkadian courses had now grown to include other members across the Brown community as well as other skeptical guests eager for a blast of gastronomic originality.

Such epicurean results would not have been possible without my initial source of inspiration, Bottéro's Textes culinaires Mésopotamiens. This book, of course, was meant to be a scholarly tome, and, to be sure, it contains his painstaking and meticulous transcriptions and translations of the difficult and cryptic clay cooking tablets inscribed in Akkadian. Still, it turns out to be so much more. The reader is treated to a rich commentary on the enigmatic recipes, their cooking methods, and the requisite utensils and equipment. As if this were not enough, there is an elegant discussion of the preparation and presentation of the finished dishes, as well as a dictionary of Akkadian culinary terms and recipe ingredients. It is enough to make any wanabe cook dizzy. And truthfully, even in my first reading, as I thoroughly appreciated the volume as a veritable primer of Mesopotamian cookery, a work fully capable of stamping the marvels of the world's oldest cuisine on the memory for years, I above all else recognized the promise it held of recreating such ancient food in today's kitchen. I was hooked. I had to take it on.

I can still remember, though, as I stared down the stove at the printed page, that instant realization that the cooking was not to be easy. Dreams of success would have to yield to practical realities. While some might call the translated passages "recipes," working recipes they were not. Neither cooking times nor quantities of ingredients are given. Cooking procedures are either not instructional or not precise. To complicate matters further, many of the dishes call for ingredients that are either still completely unknown to us or, although identified, have passed from modern use. It truly is impossible to appreciate what they are and what substitutions can be made. Compounding these problems, the tablets have several large breaks and damaged passages; they are written in a colloquial, sometimes obscure Akkadian; they include unknown vocabulary; and they contain unfamiliar technical language. This project, I realized, was not going to be dirt simple. Still, visions of glory danced in my head. I knew that I would have to take a more positive stance. That's when it occurred to me that all the unknowns, and especially the lack of specificity, provided welcome leeway. I was a veteran cook, after all, and where there is room for interpretation, there is hope.

Armed with Bottéro's book as a lifeline, I decided that there was nothing else to do but dig in and put the recipes to the test with a trial-and-error approach to the translated lines of text. This, it turned out, was a good starting point, and recipes soon turned into finished dishes. Even more profitable was direct correspondence with the master himself. (This was in the days before Email, and we wrote back and forth, by hand, he in French, I in English.) We cooked, we traded hints, we tweaked the recipes, and little by little we brought our results truer to the spirit of the recipes' contents. I suggested using Guiness Stout when animal blood was called for. He loved that, tried it, and pronounced it a good substitution (as well as a dainty solution for a squeamish chef). For his part, he recommended browning the meat and onion-vegetables together rather than in stages and in vegetable oil instead of slabs of animal fat. I countered with the idea of using nuoc nam for the pickled fish-based siqqu sauce and pasta flour for the ground semolina called sasku. And so it went on like that, and our rendition of Babylonian food evolved into a distinct cuisine before our eyes.

This would not have been possible without the benefit of Bottéro's initial and keen analysis of the underlying technicalities involved in the preparation of the recipes. He observed that all of the dishes had one thing in common. Every item, be it meat, fowl, vegetables, or grain, was cooked in water or some other liquid. As he saw it, this was an enormous culinary innovation, a vast departure from the more ancient methods of baking, roasting, grilling, and broiling. What's more, not only was boiling or simmering meat and vegetables in liquid a revolutionary change in methodology but it opened up brand new opportunities to create richer, more succulent flavors than afforded by the simpler cooking of the past. The sophisticated refinements it introduced added a whole new dimension to the practice of cooking and brought Mesopotamian cuisine across the fine food frontier.

Bottéro went even further, saying that it was not only the invention of this new cooking technique that qualified the recipes to rise to the level of a national grand cuisine but also the complexity of the preparation process and the use of a surprising number of ingredients: meat, fowl, vegetables (especially members of onion family), grain, legumes, condiments, spices, garnishes, and liquid additives. The condiments and spices in subtle and varied combinations were dry-rubbed directly onto the food before it was cooked or added later in the simmering process. The meat was sometimes seared in a hot pot before it was added to the water, other times not. On the other hand, without exception, globs of animal fat were added to the water, which resulted in more taste and fortified nutrition as well as a tenderizing higher cooking temperature. Then, the flavor of the stock was modulated by the addition of other ingredients in all kinds of medleys. There were at least 36 of these components, and even these were not simple: some were used whole and intact; some grated, crumbled, mashed, or ground,; others steeped in milk or beer. Some spices were universally paired, especially salt and mint, to achieve some distinctive flavor only made possible in harmonious combination. In the last stage of cooking, according to Bottéro's culinary logic, the cooks boiled down the liquid over high heat reducing it to a consistency of thick gravy. Finally, when the dish was presented, it was accompanied by a finishing flourish of garnishes (fresh greens, garlic, salt, chicken gizzards, bird feathers, flour dough, pastry crusts, grain and vegetable porridges, and vinegar), which blended the flavors even more.

Out of this background, Brown's annual Cuneiform Cuisine was born, and a sampling menu was created to express the tastes of Babylonian cooking and its artful style of presentation: Meat Assyrian Style composed of beef stewed in onions, garlic, leeks, stout, and water; Garden-Variety Turnips, flavored with onions, leeks, garlic, arugula, and coriander; Spiced Crust, a pastry crust made with semolina flour rolled out on minced onion, garlic, leek, and chives, baked until brown, and served under the meat; Barley and Legumes: pearl barley and dried beans cooked in broth; Beets, Peas, and Onions: a vegetable mélange; Garnishes: shredded lettuce, chopped chives, sliced scallions, arugula clippings, sprigs of mint, leaves of coriander; and Dried Dates, an important staple of the Mesopotamian diet.

I have to admit, before I go telling everybody that my blockbuster Cuneiform Cuisine events come off with flying colors year after year, that I didn't know from Mesopotamian food until Bottéro showed me the light. The achievement of resurrecting those ancient culinary secrets from the problematic clay documents riddled with holes, gaps, and modern patches is entirely his. Lest anyone forget this, I always, with a showman's wink, point to the prominently displayed tableside photographs of the daunting Yale cuneiform tablets from which the dishes came. Oversized, they pop out with a kind of three-dimensional zip emphasizing Bottéro's victory over lost, incomplete, or unintelligible lines of text on cracked and deteriorating clay tablets.

Only three such tablets, YBC 4644, YBC 8958, and YBC 4648, have been discovered so far. Although found together, and all provisionally dated to southern Babylonia in about 1600 BCE in the middle of the Old Babylonian period, their provenience is unknown, and they bear little resemblance to each other in general physical appearance or script. Tablet by tablet, the organization and style vary from cursory listings of dishes or ingredients to flowing, running, step-by-step instructions ranging from ingredients and cooking procedures to utensils and kitchen equipment. Each tablet contains a separate and independent recipe collection, some 40 recipes in all. We find nothing about the scribes who wrote the tablets, the cooks who used the recipes, or even where they cooked. The scribes alone, and certainly not the cooks, were capable of writing or reading the texts. At most, only the kitchens of the royal family, the elite, and cultic personnel (there are three dishes for use in religious rites) could have had on hand the lavish variety of the raw materials called for and the necessary equipment. On the other hand, possibly the texts were not meant to be recipes at all, but, rather, a record preserved in writing of effective cooking techniques and cookery. In any case, they are easily the world's most ancient recipe collection, as they antedate by two millennia the next-oldest preserved cookbook, The Roman Cookery of Apicius, De Re Coquinaria, from the late-fourth or early-fifth century CE.

On the premise that Brown's cuneiform cuisine is now ready for prime time, I offer my constructionist interpretation of the recipe with the title ashshuriâtum shirum, " Meat Assyrian Style," for those readers who would like to create their own footnote of history. I give Bottéro's transliterated Akkadian first, then his translation, and finally my own working recipe. Certainly not meant to be the last word, it is merely my understanding of the text. How close it is to the real thing is uncertain. There is the question of how the raw ingredients of today match their ancient counterparts as well as what is lost or incomprehensible. It helps to look at it this way: even faux Babylonian food is better than no Babylonian food.

MEAT ASSYRIAN STYLE

Akkadian:

me-e shirim shi-rum iz-za-az me-e tu-ka-an li-pi-a-am ta-na-ad-di [break in tablet] karsum ha-za-nu-um te-te-er-ri me-eh-rum shuhut innu i-sha-ru-tum ash-shu-ri-a-tum shi-rum iz-za-az me-e tu-ka-an li-pi-a-am ta-na-di [break in tablet] ha-za-nu-um zu-ru-mu da-ma sha du-qa-tim tu-ma-la kar-shum ha-za-nu-um te-te-er-ri me-he-er na-ag-la-bi

English Translation:
Meat (cooked in) Water.
Meat is used. Prepare water; add fat, [break in tablet], mashed leek and garlic, and a corresponding amount of raw shuhutinnû. Assyrian style. Meat is used. Prepare water; add fat [break in tablet], garlic and zurumu with [break in tablet], blood, and mashed leek and garlic. Carve and serve.

Working Recipe:
Chop/slice/dice: (many) onions, shallots, garlic, chives, leeks, scallions. Fry in oil until soft. Brown all sides of an eye round pot roast in this mixture, add salt to meat and onion mixture. Turn down heat, and simmer until done in a small amount of water to which a quarter to a half bottle of Guiness stout has been added, turning once or twice during cooking. Remove meat. Boil down onion-beer mixtures until it is reduced to a thick vegetable-rich gravy. Carve and serve.

Alice L. Slotsky, Yale University

References
Bottéro, Jean. Textes culinaires Mésopotamiens. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1995.

---.The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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Citation: Alice L. Slotsky, " Cuneiform Cuisine: Culinary History Reborn at Brown University," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=703

 
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