Saturday, July 16, 2011

Onions, Onions, Everywhere . . .

Please welcome Laura Kelly from the beautiful site The Silk Road Gourmet.  Not only does she have a wonderful blog, she has also written a cookbook, the eponymous, The Silk Road Gourmet nicely described HERE.  Since I was running around England she graciously consented to visit here and share her erudition ... I learn alot whenever I visit her site.  I was familiar with the tablets she describes but she took the sloppy but accepted translations and added a new voice to the recipes.  She made them sound quite delicious and not unlike the Persian recipes I have made from many centuries later.  It seems whenever the former translator didn't know what an ingredient was inserted onions... making for a rather dull cuisine!  I know I am looking forward to trying some of these combinations, like lamb with barley and mint and you will enjoy reading her words as much as I do!!

Here's Laura:

Imagine for a moment you are at a royal banquet.  It is an Assyrian royal
banquet in the seventh century BCE.  It is a large dining hall in the
palace at Nineveh draped with fabric and decorated for the celebration.
Smoke and incense perfume the room.  Music fills the air. Quiet pieces
have harps, lyres or lutes and perhaps pipes accompanying singers or poets
and in louder pieces, trumpet blaze and drums pound to rile the blood
while dancers leap.  Beer and (by this time) wine from grapes and other
fruits flows freely.

Presiding over the feast is Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, a learned man and
to his peoples, a benevolent ruler.  An example of what some swarthy,
southern seafarer would someday call a philosopher king.  On military and
diplomatic missions he has men collect plants, seeds, animals, or anything
unusual from the foreign lands they pass through.  Upon returning they are
placed in palace gardens, zoos and rooms filled with curiosities that
predate the Tradescantium by more than two-thousand years.  In this
manner, he honors his ancestor Assurnasirpal II and his palace garden at

Ashurbanipal is a man of letters who can read and speak several modern and
ancient languages.  He is a sponsor of the arts and sciences who has teams
of artists, astronomers and mathematicians as part of his court.  He has
also rebuild and restored temples and buildings weakened by war or the
simple ravages of time.  But by far his greatest achievement is the
systematic gathering of knowledge and the cataloging of it in the first
organized, modern library in the western world.  The library is a royal
archive but also contains treatises on medicine and science, divination,
as well as folktales, and some favorite recipes.  He doesn’t know it yet,
but it is because of him that the tales of Gilgamesh and a great deal of
knowledge about his world survived.

He is a great king and tonight’s banquet is a special meal to celebrate
ascension of Assyrian appointed Egyptian ruler, Necho I, a native
administrator who pledged his peace and tribute to Nineveh.  As you
reflect on the greatness of the king, the woman next to you stirs
anxiously and her dark red linen tunic crinkles slightly against her fine
cotton shawl and her gold earrings softly jingle as she moves.  She is
hungry and so are you. Just in time, drums roll and Assurbanipal stands
flanked by his priests and asks the favor of Ellil and Ishtar in both his
celebration and Egyptian campaign.  When the gods’ blessings have been
received, teams of servants sweep in and place food on the tables.  One by
one the dishes you have waited all afternoon for are revealed: mutton
broth with onions, vegetable broth with garlic and leeks, a broth of made
with wildfowl, roasted onions, onion porridge and flatbread.  Hmmm . . .
Not a feast fit for a king.

That is the food that the Yale Babylonian Recipe Tablets suggest were
eaten at royal banquets – at least according to the translations of Jean
Bottero.  Writing in Textes Culinaires Mesopotamien (TCM) and the English language Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW), Bottero translates recipes for 21 meat broths and four vegetable broths from the first of the three tablets – Tablet A.  Tablets B and C are recipes for different types of
fowl for both culinary use and for use as religious offerings.

My own ongoing research available on the Silk Road Gourmet website
suggests that many of Bottero’s translations were wrong or rather that the
analysis of the evidence from the Yale tablets and supporting sources led
him to misdefine or leave undefined many ingredients.  His other errors
include disagreeing without explanation or ignoring existing scholarship
on plants and animals that would have allowed him to fill in his
untranslatable words; and analyzing the ingredients and dishes though a
French haute-cuisine lens instead of a modern regional one.  Above all,
onions rule the culinary pantheon, at least according to Bottero.

So, if not onions, then what?

First of all, the “onion” described in the texts is flavorwise probably
more like a mild shallot than the bitter, mass produced bulbs we call
onions today.  My research has shown that suhutinnu is probably a carrot
or possibly a parsnip; andahsu is likely a wild tulip or wild crocus or
lily bulb, and samidu isn’t an onion or even another sort of vegetable at
all, but rather semolina.  Pistachio nuts, carob seeds, roasted dill seed,
wild licorice, juniper berries and date-plums are other ingredients that I
believe Bottero got wrong or left undefined in the face of existing
scholarship.  Lastly, siqqu isn’t a fish sauce (garum) like the
Carthaginians and later the Romans produced, it is rather salted fish or
other salted meat, probably consumed with a splash of fruit vinegar and
some sweet fruits like dates or date-plums.

In addition to scholarly arguments about translating a few cuneiform
tablets, linguistic sources and representational art shows a rich
Mesopotamian culinary culture.  Fruits ranged from pomegranates and dates
to apricots, apples, pears and in the neo-Assyrian period possibly
bananas.  In addition to those already mentioned, vegetables included
radish, beets and lettuce. Sheep and goats were consumed when older and
their fat harvested, but they were primarily used as milk producers when
young.  Other meat came from cattle, bison and oxen as well as from wild
game.  Wild and domesticated and fowl and fish of many sorts were enjoyed
and a wide variety of milk products, from butter and cheese to yogurt and
sour cream were also eaten.  Furthermore, the kingdom waxed and waned over
the centuries but at different times included the area from Anatolia and
Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the west and south and into parts of Iran to
the east and south.  A bountiful harvest was to be had both at home and
from abroad through trade of ingredients and culinary knowledge as well as
the flow of people throughout the empire.

Is broth all there is?

I don’t think that any of the recipes translated by Bottero are broths.
Rather, they are general guidelines for the flavors of dishes that range
from koreshes, curries and soups to braised meats and dry pilafs – it all
depends on the relative proportions of liquid and solid ingredients.
Amounts of ingredients are almost always absent, so the exact dish
prepared is left up to the cook.

In the west, many cooks are more than a little uncomfortable with this
amount of variation in a “recipe”, but a great deal of the rest of the
world still cooks with this amount of flexibility.  Take for example,
Kishk, the wheat and fermented milk/yogurt preparation enjoyed throughout
western Asia, the Levant and parts of North Africa.  The basic kishk is
either “green” in the form of a moist, kneadable ball, or dry in the form
of flour, or somewhere in between.  Additionally, it can be made into a
dessert with the addition of milk, sugar and nuts, or a cheese like
preparation flavored with herbs and preserved in olive oil in Lebanon, or
a stew in Egypt with onions, garlic, meat and yogurt.  Interestingly, this
final combination is a commonly used in the Yale Babylonian (shallots and
garlic or leeks pounded with kishk) recipes to form a rich and flavorful
ground for the meat and other ingredients.

So, what do the tablets say?

O.K., O.K.  I’m getting to it. . . Some of the flavors represented are
incredibly exotic and intriguing.  In addition to the Lamb and Wild
Licorice Stew I identified in a previous post on the subject of
Mesopotamian food on my site, the flavors on Tablet A in the Yale
Babylonian culinary collection include:

Recipe XIX: Lamb or Beef with Carob – Prepare water with fat, salt,
shallots and semolina.  Mash garlic and leeks with yogurt or sour cream.
Crush carob seeds.  Assemble ingredients in a pot.

(In this and other recipes, the type of fat is unknown, it could be
butter, or some type of animal fat or even a vegetable or nut oil.  Also,
the disposition of the dairy product is unknown.  They could be moist like
a yogurt or sour cream or partially dried like a chaka or even completely
dried like kashk.)

Recipe XX: Mutton with Wild Licorice and Juniper – (Mutton shank is used).
Prepare water, fat and licorice root.  Add salt, juniper, shallots,
semolina, cumin and coriander.  Mash the garlic and leeks with yogurt or
sour cream.

(The biggest uncertainties here are whether the cumin should be seeds or
ground, or whether the coriander should be seeds, ground or the herb

Recipe XXII: Lamb with Beets and Bran – Prepare water and fat.  Add salt,
beer, shallots, arugula, coriander, semolina, cumin and the peeled beets.
Add mashed leeks and garlic.  Finish with coriander and carrot or parsnip.

(In this recipe, bran may actually be bulgur wheat.  My best guess is that
the most likely finish is cilantro and finely sliced or shredded carrots.
If bulgur is tried, I think that this could be a delicious pilaf.)

Recipe XXIII: Lamb with Barley with Mint – (Lamb shank is used).  Prepare
water, add fat and barley. Add semolina, coriander, cumin and yogurt or
sour cream.  Assemble in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed
garlic.  Then blend in carrots or parsnips and mint.

(I think the garlic is probably diced or minced, not crushed - unless
“sprinkle” is not quite the right verb.)

I have yet to cook these recipes, but hope to soon.  If you are the
adventurous sort and wish to experiment around with them, please do!  If
you do, please also let me know how your cooking (and tasting) experience
went.   As to the recipes on Tablets B and C a couple of them look very
interesting and seem to include a fowl pie – or birds enclosed in a crust;
and perhaps a stew on a large flatbread – sort of like the presentation
used with Ethiopia’s injera.  I need to research these a bit more and will
blog about them back at my own site at some future time.

Now, if I were a guest at Ashurbanipal’s banquet – I’d tuck into the Lamb
or Beef with Carob first.  Maybe I’d make that the Mutton with Licorice
and Juniper, or the Lamb with Beets and Bran . . . For dessert, if I had
room, I’d pop a few mersu (pounded dates rolled in pistachio nuts and
sliced into bite-size confections) for dessert with another sip of fruit
wine before bidding my companions farewell for the evening.

Now over, that banquet was one of many in his kingdom made wealthy by
tribute from afar.  But his peace and prosperity was not to last, for
Assurbanipal was the last great king to rule Assyria before it was
conquered first by Babylon and then a few hundred years later by a tiny
but fierce upstart from Macedonia.  (Words and analysis by Laura Kelley.
Special thanks to Deana for inviting me to guest post!)

Deana's note:  I made this delicious dish as soon as I got back, taking some liberties with the 4000 year old recipe.  You can stick to the original if you would like, but I gotta say... this is really good!

Lamb with Barley and Mint, XXXIII (this is Deana's version of the dish -- serves 4)

2 boneless lamb steaks (about 1 pound), trimmed,  retaining the trimmings
1 T soy sauce (preferably shoyu - I used murri sauce which I brewed from a 1000 year old recipe that I will share with you soon... it is THAT GOOD)
1 T olive oil (although many old recipes use sesame oil--- not the roasted kind)
1 t ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1/4 t black pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 cup barley
4 c stock (lamb, beef or chicken)
1 c yogurt ( I used the cream on top kind and used the cream layer)
4 carrots
1/2 c chopped mint

4 carrots, cut into ribbons with a vegetable peeler

Marinate the lamb in the soy sauce for 1/2 an hour. Saute the lamb in the oil.  Remove the large pieces and leave the trimmings in the pot.  Stir the barley into the oil and toast for a few moments.  Add the spices, garlic.  Simmer for 30 minutes until the barley is cooked.  Place the lamb steaks in the pan and warm... cooking to desired degree of doneness (I like mine RARE so I only put them in for 5 mintues). 

Add the carrots for 5 minutes, sprinkled over the top.  There should be a lovely sauce.  Remove the lamb (leave the trimmings out of the dish) and let rest for 5 minutes, then slice.

Place the carrots in the dish, spoon the barley over carrots, add the sliced lamb and sprinkle with mint.


Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Deana dear,

YOU and your world are just stunning examples of the variety and BEAUTIFUL and ENDLESS possibilities in creativity and skill. You unearth and present FORGOTTEN cultures and treasures that are in themselves, MAGIC and a fairytale for our times. But what you do with it is that you present this to us in our daily lives by FOOD....the nourishment of our bodies with the nourishment of our minds and dreams. Oh exquisite it this.....

AND your trip to England. I my. I so wish I could HEAR your voice, telling of the nooks and crannies, the old AND the new, and the descriptions of these marvelous people that you met in the countryside who came to your aid. What a world it would be if EVERYONE was as kind....being lost is the only way to be found.....and to find that which is true.

My fondest and warmest regards, Anita

Unknown said...

Gosh, all of those meat dishes sound stunning. I love the idea of combining liquorice with meat. I don't think I've ever seen liquorice root though (maybe at a health food store?).
Carobs I remember well from my childhood because at school they used to give it to us, telling us it was just as good as chocolate... IT WASN'T!!! It has a weird aftertaste. In a stew, I'm sure it would be divine though.
At the banquet, I think I'll try one of each daaaaaahling, and the dessert. You'd be surprised how much food I can stuff into my belly! I'm kind of gifted like that. Now the only question is: "whatever should I wear???"
*kisses* HH

Barbara said...

It's plain to see why you and Laura are simpatico, Deana. You both love the history of food and meals. I thank you for the introduction to her book AND her blog. No doubt between you both my culinary education will continue apace....
Lovely post today. Now if I could just have a taste of each.

Sacha said...

What a beautiful and informative post!
My English is too simple to understand properly the whole text I went through a translator, not wanting to lose this beautiful and informative post, thanks to you I learned a lot, my mind traveled back in time and c 'was very nice, I will be one day soon tempted by a dish with liquorice ageau I always liked cooking but never licorice have associated with a meat dish, thank you for also discover the Blog your friend
Happy week
A + + Sacha

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Fascinating! The earliest of "cookbooks!" How did you feel communing with royalty from the distant past?

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I adore onions-well eating them at least. Preparing them is always full of drama. I must get myself some of those onion goggles and I'm sure I'd be fine :D

Faith said...

I am an onion lover through and through and it has always fascinated me to know that it is one vegetable that has been revered throughout the ages. Working with such old recipes is incredible, isn't it? Your lamb with barley and mint is stunning, I know my hubby would go crazy for it.

Laura@SilkRoadGourmet said...

Thanks all for stopping by the site and reading the post even though it wasn't written by your favorite webmistress, Deana. She did do the cooking and the photography, though, which saved the day. Many thanks.

Now to individual comments and questions:

Dear HH: Good evening, darling! You will, I'm sure, be divine company at the banquet, regardless of how you are dressed. Couture for the neo-Assyrians would have included finely woven cotton - a relatively new fabric for the time.

As to wild licorice root, the species used by the Mesopotamians is the same one available in most of the larger South Asian groceries. Here in the US, I tend to find it in Indian-run stores as opposed to Pakistani or Nepali run stores, but all three ethnicities use it. You have to clean and cut or peel the roots well before boiling for a long time in lots of water to get the flavor to the proper intensity for the stew. Best of luck!

Hi Barbara: Thanks for the kind comments about the post. I’m glad you like the look and feel of my site and book and hope that you will come to know both better. I hope to be hosting a Mesopotamian Cookoff on my site soon – hope to see you there.

Bonjour Sacha: Merci pour vos mots amiables. Votre site c’est beau aussi.

Hi TW : I like working with the tablets whether from photos and drawings or from transliterations. It’s a lot of fun, and sure beats the spirits I have to commune with from 9-5. Thanks for commenting.

Hi Lorraine: I love onions too. One of the secrets is to wet them before slicing and dicing this allows the sulphur compounds released by the onions to bind with the water ON the onions to make sulphuric acid instead of the water component in your tears. That and cutting in accord with the form of the onion makes it easy. I rarely have problems with onions when doing these things – except maybe when LOADS of them need to be cut – say for a Senegalese Yassa.

Hi Faith: I do love working with the old recipes. And BTW I love grilled zucchini as your recently featured on your site – I will often make it for breakfast and have it with the lightest splash of balsamic vinegar. My husband loves it too!

Lazaro Cooks said...

Where would cuisine be without onions. Cannot do without. Lovely lamb dish. Cumin, coriander and yogurt. How awesome is coriander? Fantastic.

"I used murri, which I brewed from a 1000 yr old recipe" of course you did. You are amazing.

Be well

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

I loved reading this-- it transported me!! And how truly fascinating... to think how food has changed since and in some ways stayed the same. Thanks Laura and Deana!

Anonymous said...

Hello Deana, I found your blog thanks to Laura. It is really charming and I'm looking forward to read more. As to Laura's post - really fascinating writing as usual. I'm looking forward to the Mesopotamian cook off!

superblooper said...

I feel like I must have missed something. I am actually making this recipe as I type this and there doesn't seem to be a place to add in the broth (so I just assumed it's used to simmer the barley) or the yogurt. Am I blind?

Anonymous said...

No, superblooper, I can't figure out when to add the broth or yogurt, either. There doesn't appear to be any yogurt in the photo?

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this! I am writing a post about the use of mint in recipes and I came across your post. I'm fascinated by these attempts to resurrect old, old recipes. I find it wonderful that people are trying to figure out how our ancestors - in the Fertile Crescent in this case - were eating. Thanks again!