en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 39, Number 2March/April 1988

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Mesopotamian Menus

"Carefully lay out the fowls on a platter; spread over them the chopped pieces of gizzard and pluck, as well as the small sêpêtu breads which have been backed in the oven; sprinkle the whole with sauce, cover with the prepared crust and send to the table."

Pie à la Paris, 1988? No!

Baking à la Babylon, 1700 BC.

Written by John Lawton
Photographs courtesy of The British Museum
Additional photographs courtesy of Yale University Babylonian Collection and André Martin

This 3,700-year-old recipe is for a meat pie baked in an unleavened crust, as pictured at left. Stirred into the dough were various condiments and aromatic ingredients that enhanced the taste. The pie's filling was composed of small fowls - we don't know whether they were wild or domestic fowl, land-, water-or seabirds - cooked in a spicy sauce with their own gizzards and pluck, or livers, hearts and lungs. The result must have been a little like giblet gravy. And when the dish was served, it was garnished with small flat bread loaves that were also specially flavored - not too different from the bread stuffing we eat with fowl

A dish like that, though not necessarily to everyone's taste today, was certainly no mere mess of pottage. Indeed, the Mesopotamians, according to ancient art and texts, had a large and gastronomically advanced menu. The land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, today part of Iraq, was apparently the birthplace of haute cuisine as well as a cradle of civilization.

One text that has come down to us is a Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual dictionary, recorded in cuneiform script on 24 stone tablets about 1900 BC. It lists terms in the two ancient Mesopotamian languages for over 800 different items of  food and drink. Included are 20 different kinds of cheese, over 100 varieties of soup and 300 types of bread - each with different ingredients, filling, shape or size.

Other archaeological evidence suggests that a complete shopping list of available Mesopotamian foodstuffs would be at least twice as long: A stone bas-relief discovered at Nineveh, for example, shows servants carrying choice delicacies - among them grasshoppers en brochette - to the royal table, while a satirical text about meat-filled intestine casings indicates that the Mesopotamians made, and presumably ate, the world's first known sausage.

Records of deliveries to the royal kitchens at Ur include suckling pigs, wood-pigeons, ducks, lambs and geese. Other texts list many kinds of fresh- and saltwater fish, the preferred kinds being those raised in the reservoirs which were part of Mesopotamia's intricate irrigation system.

Mesopotamia was much more fertile in ancient times than it is today. Chickpeas and lentils - still important crops in today's Syria, Iraq and Jordan - head on Sumerian listing of foods that grew there. But the cornerstone of the Mesopotamian diet appears to have been the onion far - including leeks, shallots and garlic. Sumerians also ate lettuce and cucumber and apples, pears, grapes, figs, pistachios and pomegranates were widely grown.

The Sumerians also used a wide range of spices and herbs, including coriander cumin and watercress, says Belgian scholar Henri Limet. That indicates, he says that at least the upper classes enjoyed cuisine that was not only varied in its ingredients but refined in its preparation.

Nonetheless, the actual dishes the Mesopotamian peoples ate, and how they cooked them, remained a mystery until recently. Although Sumerian lexicographical lists and economic records indicate that a wide range of foodstuffs was consumed, not a single recipe existed from this early Mesopotamia period.

Indeed, the earliest cookbook we knew about - and it is more of a menu reference list than a step-by-step guide - is De Re Coquinaria, a Roman work probably compiled in the fourth century, a good 20 centuries after the Mesopotamian kingdoms flourished. Lacking information, scholars had depicted the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia as consumers of nothing more interesting than sorry mushes.

That was the case until eminent French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro, himself an accomplished chef, succeeded in deciphering three cracked, caramel-colored clay tablets written in Akkadian around 1700 BC. Though his predecessors had thought they contained pharmaceutical formulas, the tablets in fact recorded the world's oldest extant recipes, revealing a varied Mesopotamian cuisine of striking richness, sophistication and artistry.

The hand-size tablets include recipes for spicy meat and vegetable stews (See box, page nine) of gazelle, kid, pigeon, partridge and turnip, as well as for pies and garnishes that suggest, says Bottéro, "so much refinement in dealing with matters of the palate" that we must now accept that the Mesopotamians had a "scientifically-based, learned cuisine."

The best preserved of the tablets measures a little more than 12 by 16 centimeters (4 ¾ by 6 ½ in.), and features 21 meat-based and four vegetable-based stews, identified very much as dishes are today by their main ingredient ("stew of stag"), their appearance ("glistening" or "crumbly") or their place of origin: An "Assyrian stew" comes from the northern part of the country, while an "Elamite stew" is borrowed from neighbors in what is now the southwestern corner of Iran.

Telegraphic and concise, these recipes are not for the culinary amateur. Often just a few lines long, they summarize essential steps and ingredients, laconically ignoring quantities and cooking times, which their users were apparently expected to know from experience. A far cry from the cookbooks of today, they were not meant to guide the housewife, Bottéro believes, but mainly to standardize and even ritualize cooking procedures. In 1700 BC, after all, writing - and therefore also reading - was a professional rather than a general skill.

The two other tablets, however, are much more detailed and scrupulous in describing the various cooking operations. Unfortunately, they are full of breaks and illegible portions; few of the recipes are complete. They include mainly bird dishes, but also deal in detail with various cereal and vegetable side dishes.

Preparation of these meals was complex, calling in different recipes for operations like mixing, sprinkling, slicing, squeezing, pounding, steeping, shredding, crumbling, straining and marinating. Along with the number of steps involved, this complexity implies the availability of a wide selection of kitchen implements and ample culinary installations - both features more likely to be found in a temple or palace than in a private household.

Heat for cooking was provided primarily by an oven - although grilled and roasted meat were also common. Bread and pastry were baked in the oven and pots were placed over the oven's opening to bring liquids to the boil. Two vessels were invented, or refined, by the Mesopotamians to allow cooking in a liquid medium: the metal cauldron, for quick, pre-cooking steps such as browning, and a closed clay pot for simmering.

"All these details," says Bottéro, writing in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Oriental Society, "show how far the Babylonians had developed the art of cooking, clearly to satisfy refined and gastronomical concerns."

The Mesopotamians, for example, prepared a fermented sauce, which they called siqqu, from fish, shellfish and grasshoppers for both kitchen and table use. They also had knowledge of the lactic fermentation needed to make cream cheese.

In their cooking, spices abound. No recipe contains fewer than three condiments, some contain as many as 10 - all added with care and combined into a blend of often complementary flavors.

"These combinations," says Bottéro, "obviously presume a demanding and refined palate, betraying an authentic preoccupation with the gastronomic arts."

Bottéro spent several years studying the three recipe tablets, which are part of Yale University's 40,000-piece Babylonian Collection, the largest assemblage of Mesopotamian antiquities in the United States. Acquired by Yale in 1933, baked in a kiln to preserve them in 1942, and copied by hand onto paper in 1952, the tablets had not received much attention until recently. Now they are among the collection's most talked-about pieces; just looking at them reported the New Haven Register imaginatively, "you almost can smell a 4,000-year old leg of lamb bubbling in a sauce thick with mysterious Mesopotamian herbs."

The staff of the Frerch magazine Actuel carried imagination into practice recently to cook, photograph and eat the pie whose recipe is on page five. They called it "a real treat," but Bottéro, who has always refused to put the recipes to the test himself, is not impressed.

For one thing, the Assyriologist-chef believes, the Mesopotamians' concept of good food was not only worlds away from ours in time, but also in taste. They liked their food soaked in fats and oils, seemed obsessed with every member of the onion family and may have used much less salt than we do today.

Additionally, says Bottéro, truly recreating the Mesopotamian dishes is practically impossible because of the difficulty in matching the original ingredients precisely, and because of the tantalizing shorthand in which the recipes were written. In fact, he confided in a letter to Jack Sasson, who translated his findings into English, "I would not wish such meals on any save my worst enemies."

But Bottéro is convinced that the Mesopotamians - and not only Mesopotamia royalty - enjoyed them.

"It is my opinion," he wrote in the The Journal of the American Oriental Society, "that in any given culture, imagination and refinement, whether culinary or otherwise, are by themselves easily contagious. We might imagine, therefore, that even small households must have introduced some experimentation into their everyday eating, within the limits of their economic' capabilities.

"In other words, I do not believe that the cuisine of even the most modest of [Mesopotamian] households is necessarily reflected in the sorry mushes and doleful mastications to which we Asyriologists have consigned them so sadistically.

John Lawton is a contributing editor of Aramco World.

A Babylonian Banquet

These three of the World’s oldest known recipes were recorded 3,700 years ago in Akkadian by a scribe who used reed styli to make cuneiform (wedge-shaped) impressions on the clay tablet, shown actual size, at right. In the translations below, amplifications have been added in brakets tom make the fuller meaning of the originals clear.


Singe head, legs and tail over flame [before putting in pot]. Meat [in addition to kid] is needed, [preferably mutton to sharpen the flavor]. Bring water to boil. Throw in fat. Squeeze onion, samîdu [a plant probably of the onion family, and] garlic [to extract juices, add to pot with] blood and soured milk. [Add] an equal amount of raw šuhutinnu [another plant probably of the onion family] and serve.


[Besides the tărru birds, which may have been pigeon, quail or partridge,] meat from a fresh leg of mutton is needed. Boil the water, throw fat in. Dress the tărru [and place in pot]. Add coarse salt as needed. [Add] hulled cake of malt. Squeeze onions, samîdu, leek, garlic [together] and add to pot along with] milk. After [cooking and] cutting up the tărru , plunge them [to braise] in stock [from the pot]. Then place them back in the pot [in order to finish cooking]. To be brought out for carving.


Meat is not needed. Boil water. Throw fat in. [Add] onion, dorsal thorn [name of unknown plant used as seasoning], coriander, cumin and kanašû [a legume]. Squeeze leek and garlic and spread [juice] on dish. Add onion and mint.

This article appeared on pages 4-13 of the March/April 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1988 images.