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.


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.


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: Savillum (Cheesecake) (Roman, 1st century BCE)

“Make a savillum thus:  Mix half a libra* of flour and two and a half librae of cheese, as is done for libum [another kind of cheesecake].  Add 1/4 libra of honey and 1 egg.  Grease an earthenware bowl with oil.  When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the bowl and cover the bowl with an earthenware testo [lid].  See that you cook it well in the middle, where it is highest.  When it is cooked, remove the bowl, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back beneath the testo for a moment, and then remove.  Serve it thus with a plate and spoon.” ~ From Cato’s De Agri Cultura (“Concerning Agriculture”), 160 BCE

Savillum is a Roman recipe found in De Agri Cultura, the earliest-known work of Roman prose. It was written by the Roman politician Cato the Elder, a man noted for his devotion to simplicity and love of country life. Fitting its author’s lifestyle, De Agri Cultura is a straightforward instructional manual on farming. Those recipes which appear are just as simple and rustic as savillum.

This is one of several Roman dishes that could be called “cheesecake”, although it lacks a crust on the bottom. I frequently choose to make it for ancient food-themed events and parties because it’s an easy Roman dish to love, as it doesn’t deviate too far from a modern Western palate. It’s amazingly simple, with a batter made from just four ingredients: honey, fresh cheese (ricotta or a farmer’s cheese), flour and egg. After baking, the savillum is topped with a spice that was as well-known to the Romans as it is to us: poppy seeds (papaver). One time I ran out of poppy seeds and used black sesame seeds, and it was just as delicious.

Savillum would have been served at the end of a Roman meal, in keeping with the Roman dining customs that we follow to this day: appetizer, main course and dessert, called gustatio (tasting), prima mensa (first plate) and secunda mensa (second plate). Like many Roman desserts, this recipe makes extensive use of honey (mel), the favorite Roman sweetener. In fact, other than fruits like dates and figs, honey was the only Roman sweetener. Sugar was first refined from sugarcane in ancient India around 350 CE, centuries after this recipe was recorded. Even then, sugar did not penetrate far into the Roman world. Its faraway origin made it too expensive for daily use, and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder writes in the 1st century that sugar is to be used “only for medicinal purposes”, as it was said to soothe stomach pain and other ailments. Presumably if sugar had been more widely available to the Romans, they would have experimented enough to learn how to cook with it.

Honey, on the other hand, was widely available because it could be produced in so many places. The islands of Malta and Sicily were main centers of Roman beekeeping, with one Maltese apiary examined by archaeologists harboring over 100 hives. Romans were well-aware of regional differences creating unique flavors and qualities of honey. The Greek city of Cecropia and the island of Corsica were infamous for their inferior honey, while the Greek cities of Hybla and Hymettus were said to produce the best. In his Epigrams (86-103 CE), the poet Martial uses the reputations of these various honeys to make a metaphor about writing: don’t expect good poetry from lousy material, just as you wouldn’t expect Hymettian honey out of a Cecropian bee.

Romans preserved food in honey, used it in sauces for meat and delicate desserts like savillum, and mixed it with water and spices to make a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage called hydromel (honey-water), although they drew the line at fermenting honey into mead, regarded as the practice of foreign enemies. Like rock sugar, honey was believed to have medicinal properties, and the physician Galen wrote that it “warms and clears wounds and ulcers in any part of the body.” Despite this seeming honey obsession, the Roman diet was still low in sugar by modern standards, and Roman burial remains show strong, healthy teeth.

There are many modern recreations of this recipe, but I use Cathy Kaufman’s reconstruction in her book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006).


The savillum will puff up into a golden brown mound as it cooks, which looks pretty cool but is unfortunately ruined by poking holes for extra honey to soak in. It’s mushy, so serve with a spoon, hot or room temperature.

3 1/2 cups ricotta or farmer’s cheese, drained and densely packed

3/8 of a cup honey, plus another 3/4 of a cup

1 1/4 cup flour, whole-wheat (more authentic) or white

1 beaten egg


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients except the 3/4 cup honey and the poppyseeds. Pour into a deep pie dish or springform cake pan and cook for 1 hour and 40 minutes. When the cake is firm, poke some holes to allow the additional honey to seep in. Top with 3/4 cup of honey and the poppyseeds and bake for 10 minutes more.


This is one of my favorite Roman recipes I’ve tried. You could easily serve it at a modern dinner-party and none would be the wiser. X out of X.

*Sometimes called the “Roman pound”, one libra was actually only .72 of a pound, or 329 grams.