No, it’s not a Dr Seuss character.
I’m fortunate that I’m able to teach topics that are often not covered in mainstream education. One of them is the early history of the Persian Empire. Oh, sure, none of the kids can pronounce or spell any of the names of the people without the help of complex mnemonics that take half the lesson to get through (Nebuchanezzar, anyone? Alright – how about Udjahorresnet?) and they all seem to think that finding a decent coach company is the main reason why we won’t be going on a school trip to the Iranian site of Pasargadae any time soon, but overall it’s a privileged position to be in.
Like all good ancient history, lots of our knowledge about ancient Persia is made up. Details of heroic feats and daily life have come to us from historians who either had an agenda to push at the time, or had an agenda to push a couple of hundred years later. You can usually tell when a historian isn’t being completely authentic when they quote, supposedly word for word, the private pillow talk that convinced a king to go to war. Of course, Herodotus could have had a time machine and a much more open relationship with Persian king Darius and his wife Atossa than other historians had previously understood, but evidence for that is limited.
Unfortunately, the historian Herodotus is pretty much all we have in terms of writing when it comes to the Persians. As he embellished a lot of his texts with anecdotes and stories, we have to take a lot of what he says about the history of Persia with an entire cellar of salt. Combined with other fragments of text and physical artefacts, though, historians who specialise in non-fiction are at least able to fill in some of the gaps about this ancient civilization (and Daniel, if you’re reading this – for the last time: no – that doesn’t mean you can just ‘make it all up in the exam’.)
However, since this meal isn’t really about the Persians, but rather the people of Babylon who came before them and ‘lent’ their land and people to the Persian empire, I’m not going to go into too much depth about them. Read it here if you’re desperate. What I will say is that Herodotus tells us that “there is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians” and so even if today’s meal wasn’t Persian per se, it’s likely that if a recipe was good enough to write down then it was good enough to ‘adopt’, and so may well have been enjoyed by founding father of the Persian Empire Cyrus the Great 1,000 years later as he and his army conquered Babylon in 539BC. In fact, the Persians seem to have been exceptionally fond of fine dining and consumed such excessive amounts of food that Alexander the Great, when conquering the Persian Empire, found a pillar detailing some of the details of Cyrus’ banquets and was so horrified by the levels of excess and gluttony that he ordered it to be torn down. Problematic as he is, Herodotus also tells us that costs for food for the Persian king Xerxes and his entourage were so enormous that the royal mob risked bankrupting the Greek cities they swept through if they stayed longer than one day.
What I’ve attempted for this post is one of the oldest recipes ever found. It comes from a set of broken tablets from ancient Mesopotamia which the team at the Yale Babylonian Collection have been painstakingly repairing and translating from cuneiform – the oldest form of writing in the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been an easy task. There are words that have no modern day equivalent and whole chunks that are missing. Like many of the recipes that would follow, these read more as inventories of ingredients rather than clear instructions and assume a level of cultural understanding I don’t have. Despite every effort, sometimes a best fit guess has had to be used in order to glean an insight into what these people meant – for example the word suhutinnu, which seems to appear in almost every recipe found, has no description other than an indication it might be some sort of root vegetable as it’s referred to being “dug up”.
The recipe was taken from this blog. It was unclear exactly what meat should be used but Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet has conducted research into the dish’s name ‘Zamzaganu’ and discovered that it may translate as ‘field bird’. I chose guineafowl for the not at all academic reasons that it was currently on special offer, I’d never cooked one before and it sounded more interesting than chicken. The second problem was how to cook it. The recipe just said to ‘cast the meat in a kettle’ (not that kind) but I didn’t fancy de-boning a raw carcass that, even if it was on special offer still cost £6.50, just to boil it to death in plain water and end up with disappointingly bland chunks of meat like Mrs Beeton’s rabbit stew. Since the instructions were vague, I decided to employ some of Daniel’s imagination skills and chose to interpret this as a primarily roasted meat dish. Laura Kelley may agree with this choice as she states “the recipes allow for a great deal of creativity in using what is on hand or in reinterpreting dishes…” I cooked the guineafowl in the oven for just over an hour and after it had been cooked and rested tore it into lumps and placed them in a pan.
To this I added chopped dates, cumin seeds and coriander seeds and fried it all together in the juices of the roasted guineafowl and a little water until a fatty sauce had formed. Once that had been cooked through and the dates were softened, I strained the meat and dates from the sauce and placed it in a bowl. It was then time to work on the Babylonian equivalent of a side dish.
An absolute staple of Mesopotamian food appears to have been garlic and leeks, with most recipes found including these ingredients in some form or another. It’s amazing, actually, just how much garlic is mentioned in the tablets and so I became a bit blind to how much I was adding – it was like each time I read the word ‘garlic’ I thought I had to add to another clove, forgetting that I was reading about multiple recipes and techniques, and not just the one I was working on. This recipe called for mashed leeks and garlic to be cooked in the sauce of the meat, which sounded brilliant. The trouble was that I had become so emboldened by how well it was all going I ended up mashing about five or six cloves of garlic before I realised that I’d gone quite mad and just because the texts mentioned garlic a lot, didn’t mean they added that much to individual dishes. It was too late by this point and although the mashed leek and garlic looked strong and punchy it also smelt strong and punchy. Very punchy. To this I added slices of raw turnip – the suhutinnu mentioned earlier – and let it all cook for a few minutes.
That was it. The recipe gave no indication of whether the meat should be added back to the greens or not. Luckily for me, this fantastic blog gave me an insight into how Cyrus the Great might have enjoyed this meal if did survive the centuries between its creation and his conquest of Babylon. It would appear that dishes were served separately in the palaces of Cyrus, with meat, bread and vegetables all being brought out on individual platters from which guests could help themselves. I therefore decided not to add the guineafowl back to the bowl, but serve it as its own dish.
To finish off the Babylonian banquet I added a final staple of all ancient dinner tables: bread. Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria states that there were four varieties of bread that were consumed in the ancient kingdom. The most common and widely eaten was a flatbread made of barley flour and would have almost certainly been consumed at the palaces of Persian royalty centuries later too: on Cyrus’ dining pillar that had so offended Alexander the Great there was a list of provisions for the king’s table, among which was barley flour. The flatbreads were likely cooked on griddles over open flames, or in domed clay ovens. I compromised and employed the same technique I used for my Anglo-Saxon bread: dollops of barley flour mixed with water on a griddle pan with a wok placed over the top to encourage some element of leavening from the steam.
After a few minutes, the barley breads were done. I placed the various elements of the dish into individual bowls and summoned my husband with all the imperiousness of a Persian king.
Sod Cyrus, I was ready to invade Babylon myself when I plated it up. My husband liked it so much he’s taking the leftovers to work (not the leeks and garlic – we need him to keep his job.) If you get the quantities right there was nothing about this that was unpleasant and in fact most of it was absolutely delicious. I could see why the Persians kept it!
The guineafowl was very flavoursome, probably because it had been roasted before being fried with the dates and spices and the dates were sticky and sweet, but not overbearing. The coriander and cumin worked particularly well too. Each fork was a sticky, treacly mouthful – the only criticism I had was that it was slightly drier than I’d like, possibly because of the double cooking. I’d drizzle oil over it and baste the meat during the roasting stage next time – the only reason I didn’t this time round was to try and be as authentic as possible since the recipe didn’t mention using oil at all.
Obviously, the leeks and garlic were very, uh, garlicky but even so still delicious. The turnip was a bit odd because it was pretty undercooked, but I just ate around the slices. Because the leeks had been mashed with the fat from the meat it wasn’t an insipid side dish but almost rich enough to be a meal on its own – you could taste traces of fat and cumin and occasionally a touch of date syrup would trickle through too. In fact this was probably the part I enjoyed the most.
The barley cakes were excellent at mopping everything up once it was finished. The barley flavour gave a more nutty finish than wheat flour, which went well, and the fact they’d been grilled meant that the chargrilled parts added yet more flavour and texture.
I know I employed some of Daniel’s technique of ‘make it up and hope the examiner doesn’t realise’ when approaching this dish, but it was really tasty. Even if this Babylonian meal had been lost to time by the time the Persians rolled into town, I can absolutely see why flavours and combinations such as these survive in much of the foods consumed in the Middle East today.
8 – 10 dates
2 – 3 cloves of garlic
5 dessert spoons of barley flour
- Brush the guineafowl with a little olive oil. Roast at 190 degrees for 75 minutes, basting frequently.
- While the bird is cooking, chop and quarter the dates.
- When the guineafowl is cooked, tear the meat from the bones and place in a pan. Pour the fats from the baking tray into the pan and add the dates and cumin and coriander. Add a little water to the pan and cook until the dates are soft and sticky. You may need to add more water as it cooks.
- Strain the liquid and place the meat, dates and spices to one side, cover with foil to keep the heat in. In the pan of liquid, mash the leek and garlic and add slices of the turnip. Cook together for 10 minutes.
- While the leeks cook, mix the barley flour with enough water to form a thick paste and pour dessert spoon sized disks of the paste onto a hot griddle pan. Cook the dough disks on each side until cooked through (about 5 minutes per side).