Ancient Recipe: Mersu (Mesopotamian, ca. 1750 BCE)

“For me, let them bring in the man of my heart. Let them bring in to me my Ama-ushumgal-anna, the Power of the Date-Palm. Let them put his hand in my hand, let them put his heart by my heart. As hand is put to head, the sleep is so pleasant. As heart is pressed to heart, the pleasure is so sweet.” ~ kunĝar (Sumerian religious song) to Inanna IMG_4747

This recipe is inspired by the “cooking tablets” that form part of the Yale Babylonian Collection, one of the world’s most important and extensive collections of Mesopotamian literature. Sometimes called the earliest written cookbook, the three tablets date from around 1750 BCE, when Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) was ruled by the Old Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi, famous for his ancient law code. “Cookbook” might be something of a misnomer, because these texts were not widely circulated for the purpose of instruction like a modern cookbook. Though the Mesopotamians invented writing itself sometime around 3000 BCE, at no point during their long history could they be considered a literate society. It was only priests and scribes in the employ of kings who mastered the art of reading and writing. These literate elites created texts like the cooking tablets to record the practices of contemporary society for posterity (which worked, in a sense; after all, here I am writing about it almost four thousand years later).

There are only two ingredients in this recipe, and both have a very long history in the Middle East: dates and pistachio nuts. The earliest-known Mesopotamian culture, the Sumerians, were planting date orchards by 3000 BCE, around the same time that they developed writing. Pistachio nuts have been consumed far longer, since at least 6750 BCE, according to archaeological evidence found at Jarmo in northeastern Iraq. Despite its ancient history as a food source, the pistachio is poorly-attested in ancient literature, with only a handful of references, including a passing mention in the Book of Genesis. In comparison, much more was written about the date, perhaps because of its special role in the Mesopotamian diet as one of the few sources of concentrated sugar. Date syrup was used in cooking and to sweeten the sour barley beer that was the Mesopotamian staple. Dates were cheaper and available in larger quantities than honey, the other primary Mesopotamian sweetener.

The importance of dates to the Mesopotamian diet led to the date-palm being regarded as sacred from the earliest times. The Sumerians associated the tree with their fertility god Dumuzid, whose title Ama-ushumgal-anna means “The Power of the Date-Palm.” Dumuzid would be worshipped in this aspect in cities where the date was a major source of industry, while the people of other cities called him by other names reflecting their own economies: the Shepherd, the Rising Sap, the Good Son. Dumuzid’s marriage to the goddess Inanna symbolized the annual date-harvest and storage; Inanna was the date-cellar, Dumuzid the fruit. Their physical union was celebrated with raunchy love-songs like the one quoted above, as well as, according to some scholars, ritual sex (the hieros gamos or “sacred marriage”), with the high priestess of Inanna and the local king acting in place of the deities. Dumuzid’s subsequent death and rebirth represented the miraculous changing of the seasons, and was met with an annual cycle of lamentation and celebration that echoes the worship of many other Near Eastern deities, from Adonis and Attis to Persephone and Jesus.

We know from the Babylonian cooking tablets that there were professional pastry chefs dedicated to the production of mersu. Likely the word was a general term covering confections of varying degrees of complexity. My rendition is a simple one, focused on the nuts and dates themselves. The end result is essentially identical to its likely descendant, a modern Iraqi specialty called madgooga (مدقوقة), which literally means “pounded”, in reference to pounding the dates into paste. There are many variations of modern madgooga, containing both ingredients known to the ancient Mesopotamians (like sesame) and unknown to them (like coconut flakes, walnuts, and chocolate).

I can never eat dates without thinking of a peculiar incident from a Middle Eastern fairytale called The Merchant and the Genie (or Jinni), collected in Medieval times in the original Arabian Nights:

[The merchant] dismounted, fastened his horse to a branch of the tree, and sat by the fountain, after having taken from his wallet some of his dates and biscuits. When he had finished this frugal meal, he washed his face and hands in the fountain.

When he was thus employed he saw an enormous Genie, white with rage, coming towards him with a scimitar in his hand.

“Arise,” he cried in a terrible voice, “and let me kill you as you have killed my son!”

As he uttered these words he gave a frightful yell. The merchant, quite as much terrified at the hideous face of the monster as at his words, answered him tremblingly, “Alas, good sir, what can I have done to you to deserve death?”

“I shall kill you,” repeated the Genie, “as you have killed my son.”

“But,” said the merchant, “How can I have killed your son? I do not know him, and I have never even seen him.”

“When you arrived here did you not sit down on the ground?” asked the Genie, “and did you not take some dates from your wallet, and whilst eating them did not you throw the stones about?”

“Yes,” said the merchant, “I certainly did so.”

“Then,” said the Genie, “I tell you you have killed my son, for whilst you were throwing about the stones, my son passed by, and one of them struck him in the eye and killed him. So I shall kill you.”

Like any good fairytale, this one has a moral: don’t litter.

THE RECIPE 

2 cups of dates, pitted
2 cups of pistachio nuts, shelled

Mash the dates into a smooth paste. You can use a mortar and pestle, a food processor, or just chop them with a knife. Separately, grind or pound the pistachio nuts.

Combine half the ground pistachio nuts with the date paste and mix well. Roll the mixture into small, uniform balls (wet your fingers to make them easier to smooth and handle). Then, take the remaining pistachio nuts and spread them out on a dish or piece of wax paper. Roll each mersu in the ground nuts, patting gently all around to ensure the nuts stick.

THE VERDICT

Dates are good for you. Pistachio nuts are good for you. So even though this is dessert, it counts as a health food, right? Actually, while this recipe has a pleasant chewy texture, it’s nowhere near as sweet as most modern desserts (or some ancient ones; looking at you, Egyptian tiger nut cakes). It’s not my favorite ancient recipe, but it’s so easy I would probably make it again. V out of X.

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