The cucumber used to be more than it is today. Oh, there are still cucumber lovers out there (myself among them), but in the ancient world, this was more than just a favorite salad topping. The cucumber was considered the pinnacle of refreshment, its crisp, crunchy, watery bite being the ultimate tasty oasis in the hot climates of the near east, the way we might think of a cold glass of lemonade today. No wonder cucumbers were used to flavor water and combined with yogurt, two other pillars of refreshment
Here is an original recipe that celebrates the cucumber as its feature. I came up with it using ancient Persian ingredients and trying to imagine ancient Persian tastes. Quick and simple, the resulting dish is sweet and peppery, with its combination of pomegranates, dates, and black mustard seeds. And of course, it wouldn’t be right if this cucumber salad was not also packed with fresh herbs.
It’s Christmas time! The true meaning of the holiday is complicated, and always has been, thanks to its mix and match ancient origins (yes, before the birth of Jesus).
Even though that famous nativity scene is the official reason for the holiday, many of the activities and traditions we practice at Christmastime come from much older customs celebrating the winter solstice. Decorated trees, gift giving, holly, mistletoe, caroling, and much more all have ancient, B.C. origins, and were later folded into the Christian celebration.
No ancient holiday influenced Christmas more than the Roman Saturnalia. The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but in the 4th Century A.D., Pope Julius I declared it to officially be December 25th. Many speculate that this was to Christianize Saturnalia, a holiday that many in Medieval Europe still celebrated despite the fading out of Rome.
Saturnalia was known for gift giving, charity, and above all, feasting and merriment! So to celebrate, I dug into Apicius for some dulcia, or sweets recipes, to make a dessert plate worthy of both a festive Roman noble, and a chef and amateur historian thousands of years later.
In an effort to please their gods, the ancient Sumerians, first people to build urban civilization, invented professional cooking and high cuisine. Cities’ patron deities were literally fed four lavish meals with multiple courses every day.
It’s not clear if they yet had a concept of “dessert” as its own special part of a meal, but fruit, nuts, pastries, confections, and other items sweetened with “honey” (what the Sumerians called date syrup) were definitely consumed at least as part of the overall meal.
As we’ve mentioned before, cane sugar was unheard of in the old world. That means these desserts, while still rich and satisfying for a sweet tooth’s craiving, derive all that sweetness from fruit, particularly dates. That means this entire plate has ZERO ADDED SUGAR, and is as healthy a dessert as you can get, short of just eating plain fruit.
So that’s what we’re doing today. This recipe post is actually several recipes in one, as we attempt to construct an authentic Sumerian sweets table, fit for a god or goddess. We’ll be making Mersu (date and pistachio bites), Sesame date buns, Palace Cake, Date and Barley porridge, and a Yogurt Lassi to wash it all down.
Our first real recipe from history. . . why not for a beverage?
The discovery of beer goes far back into Neolithic times. It’s reasonable to assume that the first beers were made by accident, when porridge or mash from grain malted for other purposes was left too long for whatever reason, and fermented.
Thus by the 2000sBC and the rise of Mesopotamian civilization, people were already proficient brewers. Sumerian texts mention eight barley beers, eight emmer beers and three mixed beers (one of which we’ll be making today) This special beverage was made from the same grains which the Sumerians were well aware how important it was to their civilization. As such, brewing was sacred, serious business.
The Hymn to the goddess of brewing Ninkasi, from around 1800BC at the peak of Sumerian culture, not only shows the peoples’ reverence and awe at this fermented beverage, but also contains a recipe for how to make the stuff! Modern brewers have taken the instructions and recreated this ancient recipe for barley and wheat beer, which Cathy K. Kaufman handily publishes in her great book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.
The basic method is to malt some wheat berries, then soak them with water, yeast, date-syrup, and a par cooked, fermented loaf of barley dough. The whole process takes about a week and yields a mild, pale brew that’s only 2% alcohol and doesn’t quite taste like what you’re used to in modern beers.
But it’s not unpleasant! And it does the job. I would compare the flavor more to cider than to beer. Barley cider if you will, but this is a close approximation of the kind of draught which helped build a civilization. Continue reading “Sumerian Beer”
“Mustard is a plant. Mustard is an herb. Mustard is a condiment. Mustard is a sauce. Mustard is a green leafy vegetable. Mustard is a natural medicine.” —via foodtimeline.org, Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999
Mustard is not only my favorite condiment, in all its forms. It is the original condiment. Ground wild mustard seed paste goes back far into prehistory. We can’t even say who or when it was invented.
This is my version of a sweet and spicy ancient honey mustard, using dates and their syrup as the sweetener and nothing else but mustard seeds and vinegar. But you can use any combination of seeds, greens, other spices, herbs, or milk can make your own favorite mustard.
For Pickled Mustard Seeds: 1/2 cup mixed mustard seeds 2 cups vinegar, boiled
Pour the boiling vinegar over the mustard seeds and let sit and room temperature for 24 hours.