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.
No peasant fare today. This bread is for deities or royalty only.
We know the Sumerians, original urban culture of the world, were obsessed with many types of onions, especially leeks. We also know that temple priests took great care to prepare special food for their resident god or goddess. Most people used flour that was pretty coarse compared to modern ones, but it’s likely that the finest, and most finely ground, sieved, and combed through flour would go into bread made for Enlil or Inanna, presented by priests at four lavish meals per day, every day.
This recipe, which is a modern invention, simulates a bread that was fit for the gods by incorporating all-purpose, wheat, and barley flours together with cooked leeks and green onions. The technique is similar to how Chinese style scallion pancakes are made, but this bread uses a leavened dough and is cooked in pork fat, as the Sumerians loved to do.
(Makes 6 flatbreads) 1.5 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup barley flour 1/2 cup whole wheat flour 1/2 tablespoon (or 1 packet) of yeast 2 teaspoons salt 1.5 cups warm water 1 bunch leeks, sliced 2 bunches spring onions or scallions, sliced 4 tbsp. butter 3-6 thinly sliced strips pork belly (or bacon)
Start by making the dough. Add the yeast to the warm water and let activate for 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix your flours and salt, then combine into a loose dough. Turn onto a surface coated with flour and knead for 10 minutes, until smooth and stretchable.
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”
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.
When times were tough in the ancient world, those dependent on their primitive farms might have come up short on their preferred grains for bread and would have been forced to add other flours to the mix. For the vast swath of commoners across ancient Mesopotamia, from modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Mediterranean coast, this hearty multi-grain bread was actually healthier, though nobody knew it at the time.
This bread is made from grains that could be found all over the middle east in 5000 BC. The cultivated wheat and barley, with lentils and chickpeas from the garden, and spelt and rye foraged in the wilderness around the village.
To accompany the Mesoamerican section of episode 3 of the History of Food, we’re making authentic ancient tamales in the earth oven, just like would have been done in pre-urban Mexico and Guatemala.
These tamales are a little plain, and lack the fat and leavening agents that help make modern tamales so delicious. We’re making ours with only the ingredients the ancient Mesoamericans had, that is with corn, lime, and water.
But that’s okay, we’ve got some other authentic ingredients to help the flavor along. Black beans for filling, and chili sauce for garnish, and roasted squash as a side are going to give us flavor and depth, even if the tamale itself is bare bones.
Sweetcorn or Popcorn won’t work. You need plain field corn for this, which in some areas can be hard to come by. You can find it in many Mexican markets, almost any tortilleria, or if you’re truly lucky, a farmer.
For the tamales:
400g Plain Field corn (NOT sweet or popcorn)
6g Cal (pickling lime)
5 cups water
Dried corn husks for wrapping the tamales
For the Black bean filling:
3/4 cup dry black beans 5 cups water 1 fresh chile 1 medium onion
For the Chili sauce: 6-7 fresh chiles Seeds from 1 squash or pumpkin water
Lentil soup has become a punchline, a shorthand meat eaters use to make fun of how boring the vegetarian diet supposedly is. But this is WRONG! Lentils are amazing, and lentil soup can be one of the most simple and transcendent things you ever cook if you do it right.
The ancients of the Near East sure knew how to use lentils, and other pulses similar to it. For most of antiquity, lentils were considered a poor man’s food. Common folk could not usually afford meat, but lentils and chickpeas would have been a great protein substitute.
This supposed peasant food is nutritious, satisfying, and quite packs a lot of flavor with a few simple ingredients. Using modern versions of the ingredients available since the Neolithic on is enough to make a creamy, hearty, and healthy soup.
1 cup red lentils (But you can substitute other colors too) 4-5 cups water 1 large onion, diced 1 fat carrot, diced 3-5 cloves fresh garlic, mashed 1/2 cup Tahini water (see recipe) Crushed coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds (or just use Garam Masala spice) 1 cup Yogurt (leave out for vegan version) 1/2 bunch Coriander (cilantro) or Parsley leaves chopped
(Makes 3-4 bowls)
Coat the bottom of a stockpot with sesame oil (or butter) over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot. Season with salt and the ground spices. Saute until the onion is starting to soften, but not fully cooked.
To make tahini water, take an empty Jar of tahini and fill with quarter cup of water, closing and shaking vigorously to clean the jar and make a liquid. (Or simply whisk the water into 2 tablespoons of tahini in a bowl.)
Add the lentils and lightly toast for about 2 minutes. Then add water plus tahini water. Turn up the head to high and bring to a boil. When boiling, immediately turn down to a simmer.
Simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring the bottom occasionally. Use the back of your spoon to mash some of the fully cooked lentils against the side of the pot for a creamy consistency. Add water if desired to adjust consistency.
Mix the chopped herbs and Yogurt together. Add half to the soup and stir in, and reserve the other half for garnish at the end. Ladle the soup into bowls and then add a dollop of the herb yogurt to serve.