Drop a tiger into a court-bouillon

Bee Wilson

  • The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia by Jean Bottéro, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
    Chicago, 134 pp, £16.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 226 06735 1

Who was it who invented the first black cakes
Or the uncounted poppy-seed? Who mix’d
The yellow compounds of delicious sweetmeats?

This was one of many questions asked by the poet Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists, a long series of dialogues on food and dining. If Athenaeus, who lived 1800 years ago, couldn’t, how much less equipped are we to answer questions about the way the first cooks cooked? How can we know what people ate in the past? It is hard enough to re-create a meal we had last Tuesday: ingredients are never the same, and we forget how much pepper we added; we can go back to the recipe book, if we used one, but it won’t tell us that we substituted garlic for onions, or that our children picked out all the courgettes before they ate it. At least we have a sense of what kinds of meal we are likely to eat; what our tastes are, how these compare with other tastes, and whether our budget can satisfy them. Accessing the meals of the earliest civilisations hardly seems possible.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t try. One summer, I cooked a supper of dishes adapted from the Roman recipe book of Apicius (which probably dates from sometime before the fourth century AD): a lentil dish, some eggs baked on an asparagus puree (a kind of patina) and cod cooked in a coriander-seed crust. We found it very nasty indeed. It could be that I had cooked the food badly, but this wasn’t obviously so; nothing was burned, and everything was well seasoned. It was the seasoning itself that was the trouble. Both the lentils and the asparagus puree were flavoured with rather sick-making mixtures. The lentils were swamped in honey and vinegar and rue and coriander and Thai fish sauce (a substitute for garum). The lovely green asparagus puree was tainted – it distressed me even as I was doing it – with more fish sauce, and white wine, and more bitter herbs. It is perfectly possible that the quantities of the seasonings were wrong – no quantities are given in Apicius, so I consulted Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger’s Classical Cookbook (1996) – but whatever the amount, the food would have seemed weird to our untrained stomachs. The later Romans, we thought, as we gargled with fizzy water to take the taste away, must have had very odd palates.

Then again, we have little way of knowing what Romans themselves would have thought of Apicius. In Food in the Ancient World: An A to Z, Dalby says that Apicius is useful because he confirms ‘the importance of meat and meat sauces in expensive Roman cuisine, and the use of a range of exotic and costly spices in such dishes’.[*] What Apicius can’t tell us is whether other Roman cooks would have found his advice sensible or strange. Was he more like Delia Smith or Heston Blumenthal (the chef at the Fat Duck and practitioner of molecular gastronomy)? We know that the book was used over several centuries, but we do not know how it compared with other cookbooks, such as that of Paxamus, which hasn’t survived, never mind with the food of cooks who didn’t use recipe books at all. Whoever Apicius was (and it may be that he was an amalgam of various cooks), he was very keen on ‘surprise dishes’, such as ‘whitebait tart without whitebait’ and ‘salt fish without salt fish’, which sounds more Blumenthal than Smith. And what an odd view future archaeologists would get of European food habits in 2005, if all they had to go on was the ever inventive Blumenthal, with his snail porridge, lime foam and deceptively coloured jellies (a red one tasting of orange and an orange one tasting of beetroot).

But for all the problems of interpreting Apicius, historians of Roman food have counted themselves relatively lucky. They can read Seneca on mushrooms; or Pliny on fruit trees; or Galen on the best things to eat for one’s stomach. Compare this with historians of the cooking of ancient Mesopotamia, where the sources are quite maddeningly scanty. ‘We must resign ourselves,’ writes Jean Bottéro, a French scholar who has cornered the field of Mesopotamian food studies, ‘to not knowing everything, let alone knowing it well, and must get used to this cloudy and too often veiled method of observation.’ Until quite recently, it seemed that just two recipes had survived. The first was for a kind of ‘cake’, called mersu in Akkadian, made by mixing some sort of liquid into flour. The second, more detailed recipe was for a court-bouillon for cooking meat. It survived in the form of a father’s advice to his son and reads as follows:

The necessary amount of roasted ferul;
The necessary amount of roasted watercress;
The necessary amount of roasted dodder [a kind of twining plant];
The necessary amount of roasted cumin;
Six litres of water you boil for a long time with (raw) dodder
You add a few grammes of cucumber.
(Cook until) reduced to one litre,
Strain.
Then slaughter (the animal that will be added)
And toss it in (to cook).

As a piece of writing, this has a brutal beauty. But as a recipe, it has its limitations. What is the necessary amount of roasted dodder? And how can you cook a whole animal in a single litre of water? And, while we’re at it, what animal? Judging from some surviving Mesopotamian literature, there were many possibilities:

Wild oxen, red deer, elephants, fallow deer,
gazelles, bears, wild sheep and rams.
Lynxes, foxes, wild cats, tigers, mountain
sheep, water buffaloes, monkeys.
Thick-horned fat cattle that bellow,
Cows and their calves, wild cattle with
wide-spread horns, led by blue ropes,
Ewes and lambs, goats and kids, romping and fighting.
Large kids with long beards, scratching with their hooves.

All these are mentioned as good things to eat in the Sumerian Marriage of Sud, which describes a splendid wedding feast. But it is hard to know how seriously to take this taxonomy of beasts. Certainly, it would be quite tricky to drop a tiger into a court-bouillon. But at least it gives us a little more information on the wide range of meats that were eaten in Mesopotamia. A description of a legendary Mesopotamian banquet, given by the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) for nearly 70,000 people, includes ‘1000 barley-fed oxen, 1000 young cattle … 14,000 common sheep, belonging to Istar my mistress … 1000 lambs, 500 deer, 500 gazelles, 1000 large birds, 500 geese, 500 fowls, 1000 suki-birds, 10,000 fishes and 10,000 locusts’ (10,000 locusts divided between 70,000 wouldn’t go very far). As for flavourings, we read of dates, figs, honey, pistachios, oil, cumin, aniseed, bitter almonds, garlic and onions.

The problem with such lists is that they don’t tell us how the seasonings were used. Was the garlic fried or raw? Chopped or whole? A little or a lot? A comic Mesopotamian work from the first millennium BC, which mentions an amusing concoction of garlic with ‘mule dung, chopped straw and sour milk’ – a joke whose point was surely mislaid several hundred years ago – leaves us none the wiser. As Bottéro says, to discover the how as well as the what of cooking, we need recipes. Therefore, it must have been a cause for great excitement among scholars of Mesopotamia when Bottéro himself discovered that three cuneiform tablets in the cabinets of the Yale Babylonian collection contained some 35 recipes. Here, Bottéro says, were the ‘oldest known recipes’, allowing us to make ‘a rather prodigious leap of two thousand years backwards: two thousand years before Apicius!’ – whose book, whoever he was, has so often been called ‘the first cookbook’. What’s more, the food described seemed both sophisticated and appealing.

The first cuneiform tablet, Tablet A, contains 25 recipes for broths, mainly different kinds of meat cooked in a fatty liquid with something piquant and fresh added at the end, such as mashed leeks and garlic or mint – a bit like adding gremolata at the end of an osso bucco. The style of the recipes is still rather laconic: ‘Gazelle broth. Other meat is not used. Prepare water, add fat, salt to taste; onion, samidu, leek and garlic.’ The third tablet, Tablet C, is even more elusive, containing three recipes: two for birds, using vinegar and beer for flavourings, one for porridge, all rather hard to decipher. But it is Tablet B that excites Bottéro, for these recipes – seven of them – are both detailed and appealing enough to entice the most gastronomic Frenchman (by contrast, Bottéro has written elsewhere, a little melodramatically, that he would not wish the meals in Tablet C ‘on any save his worst enemies’). There is a pie, made from small birds with their gizzards and entrails, stewed with onion, garlic and leek and served in a pastry crust, enlivened at the last minute with a relish of leek and garlic. Another dish on this tablet, for pigeon, sounds remarkable. The pigeon’s body is cooked in a rich broth made from its own innards, then rubbed with garlic and served with greens and vinegar. Its legs are roasted and served in dough alongside. The broth is kept for another occasion. You would not want to eat such food every day, perhaps, but it has none of the silliness of Apicius. Every stage has its own logic, and the recipe is precise and full of grace notes – the removal of gristle, the need to wipe the pigeon after removing it from the pot. There is an obvious balance between savouriness from the pigeon, sourness from the vinegar and bitterness from the greens. This is intelligent cooking.

The quality of the recipes on Tablet B makes it all the more frustrating that there aren’t more. Bottéro’s book – his attempt to popularise a subject he has been writing about for more than twenty years – is full of laments and disclaimers. ‘We can never recover the taste, much less the true taste, of this rich and appetising cuisine, whose refinement and brilliance we can only imagine,’ he grieves. His book, he insists, is neither a cookbook nor an ‘exhaustive, scholarly study of eating and drinking’, because neither project is possible. The only way to write about this subject is anthropologically. Many of the best sections of the book cover ritual, particularly involving the food of the gods and the food of the dead. The Akkadian deities were well fed. They were given grilled meats, beer and, most particularly, bread, thirty loaves of spelt and barley per god per day, according to one source.

Like French cuisine, Sumerian cooking was founded on bread. The cuneiform character for ‘eating’ is the sign for ‘mouth’ with the sign for ‘bread’ inserted into it. In Akkadian, akâlu meant ‘to eat’ and akalu meant ‘bread’. From archaeological records, it seems that the ancient Mesopotamians made more than three hundred kinds of bread, leavened and unleavened. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, when Enkidu learns how to eat like a human being (rather than merely sucking the milk of wild beasts), he first learns how to eat bread. ‘Eat bread, Enkido, the glory of life.’

In some ways, this insistence on bread tells us more about the cuisine of Mesopotamia than any number of elaborate recipes for pigeon. Bread marks the point at which agriculture becomes civilisation. It marks us out from the hunter-gatherers. Any cuisine founded on good bread has a kind of integrity, just as it is a sign of our decadence that we veer between sliced loaves from Asda for nine pence and the bread-free misery of Atkins. Bread is still the fundamental food in Mesopotamia; or it was before the depredations of Baathists and Bushists reduced many Iraqis to state hand-outs of rice followed by humanitarian packages of strawberry jam and crackers with peanut butter, or gleaming boxes of Kraft-brand junk (Kraft is currently trying to strengthen its foothold in Middle Eastern markets; it is very big in Egypt).

In her rich and elegiac Iraqi cookbook, Delights from the Garden of Eden, Nawal Nasrallah recalls the time, before the 1960s, when almost every Iraqi household had their own tannour or bread oven, often installed on a roof terrace.[†] The typical leavened Iraqi flatbread – khubuz al-Tannour – is as ancient, she surmises, as ‘the Sumerian civilisation itself’. As a child, she remembers being cautioned never to tread on bread, or throw it away. Throwing bread away is haraam – ‘forbidden’. If you found a piece of bread on the ground, you should pick it up and kiss it. Nasrallah recalls the many uses of bread in Iraq: as a utensil for scooping food off a dish; as a treat for children, spread with clarified butter and sprinkled with sugar; as a token of the ‘fulfilment of a vow’, wrapped around fresh green herbs and given to neighbours; or in a stew, when stale, in a tamarind or pomegranate sauce. ‘A meal is not complete without the warm and crispy rounds of bread’ – Iraqi flatbread is crustier than pitta, and sometimes has slashed tops. The making of this bread, Nasrallah suggests, has ‘undergone little change over the centuries’. Admittedly, she didn’t start making it herself until she moved to the States.

Bottéro ends his book by saying that we ‘are forced to abandon the hope of ever truly communing with the ancient Mesopotamians’. No one, he writes, will be able to identify from a distance of 35 centuries ‘the authentic flavour and quality of the scores of ingredients that were used in these culinary creations’. He clearly thinks that we can recover something, or he wouldn’t have written so much about the subject. But what he thinks we can recover seems irritatingly banal: ‘Might we not taste something like what the Mesopotamians ate in the accomplishments of that “Turco-Arabic”, “Lebanese” or “Middle Eastern” cuisine (however it is called) that is available to us?’ If you had asked me what Mesopotamian food would be like before I read this book, I would have guessed that it bore some resemblance to some of the food of the Middle East. The interesting question is what kind of resemblance – a question that Nasrallah answers much better than Bottéro.

For her, the three Yale tablets show a continuity not with some amorphous ‘“Middle Eastern” cuisine (however it is called)’ but, specifically, with the food of Baghdad, this ‘navel of the earth’, whether medieval or modern. She finds Mesopotamian echoes in ‘our love for bread and the thoroughly traditional pacha’ – a dish made from the boiled head, stomach and feet of sheep – ‘dishes that have been simmering in our pots all these centuries’. She remembers her mother preparing a sheep’s head for the pacha, banging the nose to extract the mucus before cooking (her mother told her to watch for the ‘white worm’ of snot); and found exactly the same procedure in a 13th-century cookbook. This pacha is also like the oily meaty broths on the Yale tablets. In the Mesopotamian stew recipes, however incomplete, Nasrallah sees ‘the beginnings of a long tradition’: ‘In them I see the meat and vegetable stew dishes, cooked with different cuts of meat, enriched with fat of sheep tail, thickened with various agents, and flavoured with lots of garlic and onion. These stews, along with a side dish of rice, are still a staple in modern Iraq.’ Or were, before even the side dish of rice became scarce.

[*] Routledge, 408 pp., £14.99, May 2003, 0 415 23259 7.

[†] Author House, 664 pp., $41.95, February 2003, 1 4033 4793 x.