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.

Ancient Recipe: Parsnip Fries with Wine Sauce (Roman, 5th Century CE)

“Then there is the carrot. ‘This vegetable,’ says Diphilus, ‘Is harsh, but tolerably nutritious, and moderately good for the stomach; but it passes quickly through the bowels and causes flatulence. It is indigestible, diuretic, and not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, on which account it is called a love-philtre by some people.” ~ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae [The Philosophers’ Dinner-party], 2nd century CE 

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The Ancient Romans didn’t eat fries in cones of wax paper, but they should have.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: carrots are orange, parsnips are white. But it wasn’t always that way.

From a botanical standpoint, the two plants are different enough to keep them out of the same genus (they belong to Pastinaca and Daucus, respectively). Most modern people simply use color to tell them apart. But ancient people tended not to differentiate between these two tapered, edible roots, in spite of the fact that parsnips seem to have been first cultivated in northern Europe and carrots in Persia. In Old English, for example, both were called by the same name, moru. The Romans had two different words but used them interchangeably, just as the roots were used interchangeably in their cuisine. Apicius, the compendium of all things Roman and culinary, offers recipes for carotae seu pastinacae, carrots or parsnips. The ancient confusion hints at the carrot’s biggest secret: it wasn’t always orange.

Farmers selectively breed their crops, encouraging desirable traits like size, productivity, and sweetness to create new cultivars and strains. Our modern food plants have been genetically manipulated for so long by human beings that they look extremely different from their ancient ancestors (who says GMOs are a recent phenomenon?) Ancient fruits and vegetables had more of the “bad” qualities that have been bred out in the centuries since: you can bet that the Romans never heard of a seedless grape. Color is a trait that can be selected for just like any other, and Roman carrots, in addition to being smaller and less sweet than our modern ones, only came in purple or a very parsnip-like white. So where did orange carrots, rich in the same beta-carotene that gives everything from pumpkins to flamingos their color, come from?

Scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the purple carrot resulted in the first yellow carrots around the 11th century, which was then selectively bred to create our modern orange. A popular legend asserts that orange carrots were developed in the 17th-century Netherlands as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange in that family’s name refers to the French principality of Orange, a transformation of the Latin place-name Aurasio that came to be associated with both the color and the fruit. But should we believe the carrot-as-political-tribute story? Maybe. It’s true that the Netherlands was known for its carrot production in the 17th century. It’s also true that a century later, “carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative” by the Dutch Patriot party who forced out the House of Orange. But whether the orange carrot was actually developed in tribute to the House of Orange is unknown, though it’s the kind of unqualified claim that frequently gets presented as fact in places like tourist guides and bar trivia.

All this means that when reconstructing a Roman recipe in your modern kitchen, orange carrots are to be avoided at all costs, but parsnips or carrots in other colors will do just fine. The Roman love for both vegetables is well-documented. In the first century BCE, they were demanded as tribute from the tribes of Germany by the Emperor Tiberius; two hundred years later, the Roman-Greek writer Athenaeus records their health benefits in the text quoted above, including the ability to rouse sexual desire in men.* Any aphrodisiac qualities attributed to carrots and parsnips by the Romans are likely due to their phallic shape. In ancient medicine, this was the plant’s “signature”, the physical resemblance between a plant and the part of the human body it could cure or affect. This belief continued well into the Medieval period, when for example walnuts were believed to be good for brain health because a walnut looks like a tiny, wrinkled brain.

In this simple and delicious recipe from the Roman cookbook Apicius, the roots are fried in olive oil and dressed with a pungent savory/salty sauce called oenogarum, a reduction of red wine, fish sauce (garum) and pepper. We might consider this recipe an antecedent of French fries with ketchup. The parallel is a surprisingly close one; the South American potato would eventually dethrone the parsnip as the favorite starchy vegetable in Europe, while ketchup arose from the same origins as Roman garum.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 large parsnips or (non-orange) carrots
  • Enough olive oil to fill a pot about two inches deep
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1/6th of a cup fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ground black or long pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Wash and peel the parsnips and cut them into small pieces. I did half-circle wedges, but you could also try a traditional French fry shape. Dry the parsnip pieces thoroughly with a paper towel.

 

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This is what happens when you put moist, fresh vegetables into hot olive oil. Be careful!

Fill a pot with olive oil up to around two inches and raise the heat to medium-high. After a few minutes, drop a small piece of parsnip in to test if the oil is hot enough to fry. When the oil is ready, fry the parsnips a few pieces at a time (they are moist and will produce a lot of bubbles). Move the parsnips around with a wooden spoon or other tool to prevent them sticking.

 

When the parsnips are golden brown on the outside, remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Next, make the oenogarum. Bring the red wine to a low boil in a saucepan. When it has reduced by about one-third, add the fish sauce and pepper. Mix the cornstarch and about half a cup of water into a slurry in a separate bowl, Slowly add this to the wine while stirring with a spoon to prevent clumping. Reduce the mixture another third. The end result should have the consistency of barbecue sauce, thicker than water but liquid enough to pour.

Serve as you would French fries and ketchup, with the wine-sauce drizzled on top of the parsnips or on the side for dipping.

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These pastinacae are ready to prompt men to amatory feelings.

VERDICT

I feel like with every ancient recipe I make, I claim that it’s the best one ever. I’d better start on that rose-and-lamb-brain patina, or the dish invented by Emperor Vitellius that contained fish semen. This one really is good though! The parsnips are soft on the inside and crunchy outside, and the oenogarum has a powerful blend of flavors that provide the salt and other seasoning. I wouldn’t want to eat the oenogarum on its own, but it’s perfect when balanced against the bland starchiness of the parsnips. This is one of the first Roman recipes I could genuinely imagine someone ordering from a modern restaurant (or a food truck, for that matter, which inspired the photo above). X out of X.

* The aforementioned Emperor Tiberius was accused by his enemies of the most extreme sexual perversion. One wonders if his documented love of a vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac is purely coincidental.