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Ancient Mesopotamian Beet Broth

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Time: ca. 1700-1600, BCE | Place: Babylonia (Southern Iraq) | Language: Akkadian (Old Babylonian dialect) | Author: unknown

 

We sometimes take it for granted that important things are written down, but the idea of what is important to document has changed over time. When the Sumerians invented the world’s first writing system—cuneiform—at the end of the fourth millennium, BCE, its uses were relatively limited. The Sumerians lived in ancient Mesopotamia, a region that is roughly today’s Iraq. For them, writing was first and foremost a means of accounting, though it grew to include a broad variety of genres over the following centuries. After nearly a millennium and a half, speakers of newer languages such as Akkadian had appropriated cuneiform for other contexts: personal correspondence, literature, law, prophecies, omens, proverbs, economic transactions, linguistic texts, and more. All of this information was written on clay tablets.

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In many respects, Mesopotamians demonstrated an almost obsessive need to record the surrounding world, and yet recipes and directions for preparing food are surprisingly rare. Until the relatively recent discovery and publication of three tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection, our most ancient example of a Mesopotamian recipe dated to 400 BCE, about 1250 years later than the recipe shown here. This scarcity of recipes does not necessarily mean that they weren’t important – it just means that they might not have been things that required documentation in order to be committed to memory. This may also be related to the intended audience for written documents: domestic food preparation was the work of the housewife and went undocumented, whereas literacy and record-keeping was the work of the professional scribe.

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The recipe. Tablet YBC 4644, Yale Babylonian Collection.

The majority of the recipes on the Yale tablets (there are roughly forty) are instructions for cooking meat by heating it in a pot over fire, in various combinations of broth and animal fat. Occasionally, as in this recipe, the broth could either include or be partially replaced by beer. Beer (kash in Sumerian, shikarum in Akkadian) was a staple of the civilized Mesopotamian diet and appears even in the earliest cuneiform texts. Women prepared beer in the home for family consumption. Some recipes on the tablets include instructions for how to serve the dish. The meat was generally removed from the broth and served separately with bread or pastry, while the broth would either be consumed at the same time or saved for later use.

 

*Introduction and translation of the tablet by Mallory Ann Ditchey, Columbia University *

 

Making ancient Mesopotamian broth in our 2015 kitchen:

Drinking scenes at banquets exemplified by this impression of a lapis lazuli cylinder seal from Queen Pu-abi's tomb in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (British Museum 121545)

Drinking scenes at banquets exemplified by this impression of a lapis lazuli cylinder seal from Queen Pu-abi’s tomb in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (British Museum 121545)

What are these veggies? Several of these translations of ingredients are only approximations – for instance, this word for “beet” is not known from any other text. As this recipe dates to almost four millennia ago, there is a possibility that some of these vegetables have evolved or even gone extinct. Such is the problem with ancient history!

How much? Like many historical recipes, this recipe does not include any specific amounts or measurements. We tried to work with quantities that we usually use for a soup or broth.

Animal Fat? The original recipe uses animal fat, but doesn’t specify what type. We thought that this fat was possibly lamb fat, so we used lamb chops.

Beer from 3500 years ago? It might be surprising for us today, but beer actually dates WAY back. In ancient Mesopotamia, women would make beer at home and people would drink it out of the vat in which it was made. They also had the ancient equivalent of taverns, where people would drink beer away from home and get into all sorts of mischief…

Tuh’u (beet) broth:

Thigh meat is used. You prepare the water. You pour in animal fat. You peel the vegetables. You gather together salt, beer, onion, arugula, coriander, soapwort, cumin, and beet. You crush leek and garlic. You sprinkle coriander on top of the ingredients. Onion… [broken]

(The broken part at the end could fit two or three more words. It may instruct the reader to garnish with raw onions.)

 

Our Reconstruction:

  • 2 onions, chopped loosely
  • 1 beet, chopped in large chunks
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 leek, diced
  • 2 lamb chops, chopped into cubes
  • 1 bottle of beer (12 oz)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • Fresh coriander leaves
  • Arugula
  1. Chop the onions and beet loosely. If you have some of the beet leaves, keep them aside to add some later. Dice the leek and mince garlic (we didn’t really know what “crush leek and garlic” meant, so we diced them to small pieces).
  2. In a large stockpot, heat olive oil and add the cubed lamb chops and brown them so that they release juices that will flavor the broth. Add leek, beet, garlic, and onions and sauté.
  3. Once vegetables are soft and meat is browned, pour in the bottle of beer. Add enough water to cover all of the ingredients. Stir in the salt and cumin, and cook the broth on a low flame for about an hour. Coriander and arugula should be added at the end, so that they will still be fresh and green.

The soup tastes better after simmering for a while.

So how good was this ancient broth? Jordan thought it was amazingly savory and tasty, but Alma and Mallory didn’t try it because they’re vegetarians. The beer adds a nice fermented flavor that we wouldn’t have thought to use! To alter the flavor of the soup, vary the type of beer.

Find out more!

Our leftovers from this post:

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'Ancient Mesopotamian Beet Broth' have 2 comments

  1. June 20, 2015 @ 4:56 am lightnin hopkins

    Considering intimate issues such as food esthetics in an historical perspective is fascinating. Any thought on the beer? If only I had some Mesopotamian pint to ponder with…

    Reply

    • July 5, 2015 @ 9:05 pm Jordan Katz

      Thanks for your comment! Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) published an article in 2010 entitled, “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?” It had a recipe for ancient beer. Email us if you’d like us to send you the text!

      Reply


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