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: Braised Flamingo (Roman, 5th century CE)

_DSC3235_02“Epicures regard my tongue as tasty. But what if my tongue could sing?” ~ A flamingo in Martial’s Epigrams laments his wasted potential

In case you couldn’t tell from the blog title, I have a special fondness for that marvelous pink monstrosity, the flamingo. Why? Because everything about them is weird. In their pained, awkward movements, they remind me of the borogoves from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky; “thin, shabby-looking birds” who are perpetually “mimsy” (miserable and flimsy). They thrive on lakes of poison where few animals larger than the plankton they eat can survive, striding comfortably through boiling brine and laying eggs inches from gaseous fumes. They have naturally white feathers that change to pink from a diet rich in beta carotene, the same chemical that makes carrots orange. Their outlandish color and unique profile has made the flamingo the icon of American tropical kitsch and the unofficial mascot of Florida, and official mascot of the Bahamas.

But to the Ancient Romans, they were food.

Not that we should imagine Roman storefronts selling flamingo pie, fried battered flamingo bites, flamingo on a stick, etc. Nor should we picture vast leggy herds of flamingos corralled in the Roman countryside, although the poet Martial makes a tantalizing reference to flamingo husbandry in his Epigrams (3.58.14), describing them alongside other exotic livestock on a wealthy man’s farm in Baia (modern Naples). Native to the salt lakes of Africa, the flamingo was eaten in Rome only by those who could afford it. In Roman times, having a roast fenicopterus (“scarlet-wing”) on the table was a status-symbol and a means of flaunting one’s riches. Truly wealthy gourmets ate only the choicest parts, like the brains and tongue. Emperor Elagabalus was even said to offer the costly birds in sacrifice to the gods, when a regular old chicken would have done just fine.

The 5th-century cookbook Apicius, the most complete primary source on Ancient Roman cooking, features a recipe for flamingo in spiced date sauce with a note that “parrot is served the same way”:

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice] to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond [drippings] of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. ~ Apicius 6.231

So what was it like to eat a flamingo? Was the taste really worth the trouble of acquiring the creature, or did Roman patricians eat them for show? Unfortunately the Romans left no firsthand testimony behind, aside from a passing mention in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History that flamingo tongue has “the most exquisite flavor”. And flamingo meat is not exactly easy to come by. The birds are protected by law in the United States (where I live) and in many other countries as well. But we can make a few educated guesses. Like all waterbirds, flamingos have an insulating layer of fat. This means that eating flamingo is likely a several-napkin affair, and that their meat, like duck, is probably rich and dark. For flavor we might look to ducks as well, specifically a wild-caught fish-eater like a merganser or scaup, species usually scorned by modern hunters for their pungent flavor. In a 2009 article describing an increase in flamingo consumption in India, one scientist is skeptical of their popularity: “As a rule, all fish-eating or carnivore birds, the flesh of these birds is stinky. It never tastes good.

We may never know exactly how stinky was the flesh of a Roman flamingo (although it’s worth noting that the flamingo recipe appears in Apicius directly after a technique for removing foul odor from wild birds). And while I don’t want to rule out the possibility of my eating a merganser someday, today is not that day either. I decided to use a store-bought, farm-raised duck; milder in flavor but not too dissimilar from the ducks eaten in Ancient Rome. I also decided to go full ancient-style and buy a duck with the head and feet still on.

_DSC3125Those brown chunks on the plate are pieces of asafetida or hing, a dried plant resin that will stand in for laser root. Also called silphium, laser was so popular in antiquity that the Romans over-farmed it into extinction. Asafetida makes a great substitute because it’s the silphium plant’s nearest living relative. It has a pungent flavor reminiscent of cooked onions, and can be found online and at South Asian grocery stores.

The dried leaves on the plate are rue, a bitter herb which was very popular in the ancient world but today is rarely used in food, except in Ethiopia. I ordered it on Amazon. Use caution if you plan to cook with rue; some people are allergic. If you’d rather play it safe, you can substitute rosemary or sage.

THE RECIPE

Parboiling before roasting as described in Apicius is a good technique that I have used on duck before. It tightens the skin and renders out a lot of the fat so that it doesn’t become a greasy, splattery mess in the oven. Presumably the same could be said of flamingo (where did the Romans find a pot, and an oven, big enough? How did they deal with the neck and the legs?)

I washed and dried my flamingo substitute and trimmed off the extra fat, claws and wingtips. Then I poked holes in the skin all over with a fork to help the fat leak out during cooking (I remembered this from modern roast duck recipes).

Next I brought a large pot of water to a boil and put my whole duck in head first, together with a large pinch of salt, a quarter cup of white wine vinegar and about half a bunch of fresh dill. While my duck was boiling, I reduced one and a half cups of grape juice in a saucepan and added a cornstarch slurry to thicken it (only semi-anachronistic. The Romans didn’t have corn, but they did use starch powder extracted from raw wheat). I lifted my duck out of the boiling water and into a roasting pan with a rack after 25 minutes.

I was confused by Apicius‘s instruction to “finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander [cilantro].” Roasted leeks, sure, but it doesn’t make sense to roast a bunch of fresh herbs, so I guessed that some sort of preparation was being implied. I chopped the cilantro, mixed it into the thickened grape juice and basted the duck with the mixture before putting it in the oven at 350 degrees. I didn’t have room for the duck and the leeks together, so I put them in separate pans.

Now it was time for the sauce. Like all ancient cookbooks, Apicius doesn’t use precise measurements, so I mixed together my spices through a combination of gut instinct, taste-testing, and the silent guidance of the Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods. I tried to keep everything equal, using half a tablespoon each of asafetida, powdered cumin, powdered coriander, dried mint, dried rue, and black peppercorns, plus 3/4 of a cup finely-chopped dates and a splash of white wine vinegar. I mashed everything with a mortar and pestle until I had a thick, gummy brown paste._DSC3166_01

My duck cooked for about 45 minutes, and I turned the heat up to 450 for the last ten minutes to brown the skin. Once the bird was out of the oven, I added the drippings to my paste and heated it in a saucepan. This step is important to mellow the flavor of asafetida, which is pretty nasty raw. Apicius says “thicken”, but the sauce was already so thick I actually added water to it, which didn’t really help. I realized after the fact that the Romans probably used fresh rue and mint leaves in this recipe instead of dried, which would have added more moisture. My sauce had the consistency of jam, and in the end I had to spread it on the duck with the back of a spoon rather than pouring it on top.

_DSC3209_02THE VERDICT

I tend to make a “Hmm!” noise of curiosity when I taste something unusual that isn’t exactly good or bad. My boyfriend told me that all he heard from the kitchen at this point was one “Hmm!” after another. The sauce is really the star of the show here. The combination of flavors was bold, complex, and totally unfamiliar: truly Ancient Roman. I could taste each ingredient separately. First came the sweetness of the dates and the punch of the asafetida, then a tea-like bitterness from the rue, a hint of coriander and cumin, and the bite of black pepper at the very end. (The only flavor that seemed to get lost was the mint). It was overpowering on its own, but in small quantities balanced the milder flavors of the duck and the leeks quite nicely. I could see why a strong-tasting sauce might be necessary on a strong-tasting meat like flamingo.

I may never know what a real Roman flamingo tasted like, but now I have some idea. Next time I’ll try using fresh herbs and whole seeds and a bit less asafetida (or more mint) in the sauce. Overall, a surprising and interesting dish. VII out of X.

POST SCRIPTVM: This was my first time eating a duck’s head, and it was AMAZING. Especially the brain. Now I know what Elagabalus was talking about.

POST POST SCRIPTVM: FELIX IDES MARTIAE, everyone. What better day to post my first ancient recipe?