No civilization lasts forever. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle any starts at all. The conditions must be exactly right for people to come together into urban environments. So like an overextended, teetering Jenga tower, it’s not if but when the whole system will fall, as it did again and again across history.
Come listen as we go back to explore the Neolithic, the history of Mesopotamia after Sumer, and finally the Bronze Age, to understand the riddle of why the rise of civilizations is so tied to their collapse.
Theme music by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.
When many think of Greek Food, they think of pita bread. In truth, the Ancient Greeks enjoyed all sorts of breads, both flat and formed, but I thought it would be fun to ancient style pitas.
Just like in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the most common grain grown in Greece was barley. This recipe is almost all barley flour, with a little all purpose thrown in to cheat and make them more appetizing to the modern palate.
You can go all barley to be authentic, but the results aren’t quite as delicious. Remember I’m a chef first and an amateur anthropologist second. I want to make something that I actually want to eat. Even with the cheater’s flour, these pitas are denser and less puffy than their modern counter parts, but when eaten fresh, are still a delicious addition to your deipnon. (that’s Greek for dinner) Continue reading “Barley Pita Bread”
The Egyptians were known to bake their breads into all kinds of shapes, from triangles to the more elaborate. We’re gonna keep it simple today, and use a clean Terracotta flower pot to bake bread.
Did I mention today’s recipe is no knead? No, you don’t need to knead if you have a lot of time to spare. 24 hours in fact. This bread “rises” for a whole day, developing gluten content and a great, sour flavor in a heavily fermented dough.
With a recipe like this, you can understand why the rise of fermented bread goes hand in hand with large scale breweries. To make this loaf, you’re basically making a beer mash, and then baking it instead of brewing it. Beer and bread go hand and hand, and nobody knew that better than the Ancient Egyptians.
Here is yet another invented Egyptian recipe (because the Egyptians left no recipes that we have found). Cassoulet is a much later french dish, variations on a peasant stew with salted meats and legumes. It’s very possible the Ancient Egyptians, of course loving both of those ingredients, would have eaten something similar.
This dish may appear simple, but it’s packed with the deepest flavor you can imagine. It’s hearty and filling too, and goes great with a loaf of Multi-grain Bread.
In early Egyptian history, the presence of meat makes this an elite dish. But wild water fowl like ducks could have occasionally been caught by both rich or poor, and later on, especially during the New Kingdom, pork became more affordable to those not of the upper crust.
Finally, Egyptians grew old world broad beans, particularly a variety called a lupine, which required soaking for several days to make non-toxic. We’re going to substitute Fava Beans, which are indigenous to North Africa.
Here we have a dish that is inspired by Egypt, but is not an actual Egyptian recipe. There are no Egyptian recipes. They either didn’t write any, or we haven’t found them.
But through paintings, textual references, and actual meals left behind for archeologists to discover, we can still infer a lot about Ancient Egyptian cuisine.
River fish, particularly mullet, was probably important for rich and poor alike, and Egyptian morticians/chefs worked together to discover the secrets of pickling both food and corpses. Pickled fish not only allowed for preservation of a natural resource, it was considered quite a delicacy.
This fish is what I’m calling “Quick pickled.” It’s really more of a poached fish, but by doing it in vinegar you can achieve a mild, not too intense pickle flavor that make the fish a nice topper for salads or other cold sides. Continue reading “Quick-Pickled Fish and Chopped Salad”
Sumer was the oldest urban civilization, but not by much. Second place followed quickly, and incredibly was across the ocean in South America.
People on the coast of modern Peru kickstarted a multi-millennium wave of Andean civilization, passing down a legacy of culture, religion, and cuisine all the way down to the Incas, and do so with methods that will turn everything anthropologists thought they knew about civilization on its head.
We’ve neglected the Andeans thus far, but no longer. It’s time to take a closer look.
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.
Sumerians drinking beer through giant straws, via biblicalarchaeology.org
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.
We’ve done it. We’ve finally crossed into the realm of written records and recorded history. Join me on an odyssey going back 6,000 years ago, when the Sumerians of what is today southern Iraq, took a mega-surplus of grain and transformed it directly into wealth and power. In the process, they managed to invent cities, urbanism, and all the trappings modern civilization. (Not to mention the first written recipes and cookbooks)
Theme music by the incredible Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.