|Questions about the Middle East
What did Mesopotamians eat?
Dr. dig responds:
Normally people ate two meals a day. Except for the rich, most people ate unleavened bread, and drank large amounts of beer (up to one gallon a day). Cow's milk was also drunk, but it quickly turned sour in the hot climate. Because meat was expensive, most people ate cooked vegetable stews. Fish was an important source of protein. Fruits included apples, pears, grapes, figs, quinces, plums, apricots, mulberries, melons, and pomegranates. Pistachio nuts were also enjoyed. Cakes for special occasions were also made with butter, cheese, dates, flour, and raisins.
Mesopotamians ate meat (pigs, chickens, cows, doves, ducks, geese, gazelles, Oryx, ibex, wild bulls, boars, hares, sheep, onagers, (a type of donkey), unleavened bread/flat bread served with olive oil or sesame oil, vegetables, beer (their favorite), cow/goat milk , wine, fish, fruits (grapes, pears, apricots, apples, figs, plums, pomegranates, mulberries, dates, and figs). They also had butter, cheese, dates, and flour, and sometimes made cakes. The spices they had were mustard, coriander, (salt), and cumin. The Mesopotamians loved garlic and onions too.
Ancient Mesopotamian foods
There are several sources you can use to find information on the foods, agricultural practices, and dining customs of ancient Mesopotamia. Most of this information (the credible sources your teacher will accept) is still contained in books. Did you know Ancient Mesopotamia is also credited for the first written recipes?
Some notes to get you started:
"The raw materials of the Sumerian diet...were barley, wheat and millet; chick peas, lentils and beans; onions, garlic and leeks; cucumbers, cress, mustard and fresh green lettuce. By the time Sumer was succeeded by Babylon a special delicacy, truffles, had been discovered that was dispatched to the royal palace by the basketful. Everyday meals probably consisted of barley paste or barley cake, accompanied by onions or a handful of beans and washed down with barley ale, but the fish that swarmed in the rivers of Mesopotamia were a not-too-rare luxury. Over fifty different types are mentioned in texts dating before 2300 BC, and although the number of types had diminished in Babylonian times, the fried-fish vendors still did a thriving trade in the narrow, winding streets of Ur. Onions, cucumbers, freshly grilled goat, mutton and pork (not yet taboo in the Near East) were to be had from other food stalls. Meat was commoner in the cities than in the more sparsely populated countryside, since it spoiled so quickly in the heat, but beef and veal were everywhere popular with people who could afford them...although most beef is likely to have been tough and stringy. Cattle were not usually slaughtered until the end of their working lives...Probably more tender and certainly more common was mutton.
"Mesopotamian food is known from archaeology and written records on cuneiform tablets, including bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian word lists. These sources indicate the importance of barley bread, of which many kinds are named, and barley and wheat cakes, and grain and legume soups; of onions, leeks and garlic; of vegetables including melon, and of fruits including apple, fig and grape; of honey and cheese; of several culinary herbs; and of butter and vegetable oil. Sumerians drank beer often, wine seldom if at all; wine was better known in northern Mesopotamia and in later items. Animal foods included pork, mutton, beef, fowl including ducks and pigeons, and many kinds of fish. Meats were salted; fruits were conserved in honey; various foods, including apples, were dried. A kind of fermented cause is identified in Akkadian texts."
---Food in the Ancient World From A-Z, Andrew Dalby [Routledge:London] 2003 (p. 216)
"Gardens in fertile Mesopotamia flourished, and onions and leeks and garlic were amongst the most frequently cultivated plants. They were grown in the gardens of King Merodach Maladan II of Babylon, and Ur-Nammu of Ur (2100 BC) records that by constructing a temple to Nannar he saved his garden, wherein grew onions and leeks...The cucumber was much cultivated in Egypt in Pliny's day and known in early Mesopotamia far earlier, being recorded as growing in the garden of Ur-Nammu at Ur."
---Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, Don Brothwell and Patricia Brothwell [Johns Hopkins University Press:Baltimore] expanded edition 1998 (p. 109, 124)
"The staple crop of ancient farmers around the world was always grain...In Mesopotamia, the chief crop was barley. Rice and corn were unknown, and wheat flourished on a soil less saline than exists in most of Mesopotamia. Thus barley, and the bread baked from its flour, became the staff of life. Mesopotamian bread was ordinarily coarse, flat, and unleavened, but a more expensive bread could be baked from finer flour. Pieces of just such a bread were...found in the tomb of Queen Puabi of Ur, stored there to provide her spirit with sustenance in the afterlife. Bread could also be enriched with animal and vegetable fat; milk, butter, and cheese; fruit and fruit juice; and sesame seeds....The gardens of Mesopotamia, watered by irrigation canals, were lush with fruits and vegetables...Among the fruits were apples, apricots, cherries, figs, melons, mulberries, pears, plums, pomegranates, and quinces. The most important fruit crop, especially in southern Mesopotamia, was the date. Rich in sugar and iron, dates were easily preserved. Like barley, the date-palm thrived on relatively saline soil and was one of the first plants farmers domesticated...As for vegetables, the onion was king, along with its cousin, garlic. Other vegetables included lettuce, cabbage, and cucumbers; carrots and radishes; beets and turnips; and a variety of legumes, including beans, peas, and chickpeas...Curiously, two mainstays of the Mediterranean diet--olives and grapes...were seldom found in Mesopotamian cuisine...to appreciate Mesopotamian daily life our imagination must breath in the pungent aroma of the seasonings that once rose from ancient stoves and filled the air...Coriander, cumin; fennel, leek; marjoram, mint, mustard; rosemary; saffron and thyme.
Sheep played an important role in the Mesopotamian economy...Like goats and cows, ewes produced milk that was converted into butter and cheese, but sheep were also slaughtered for meat. Beef was in short supply and pork came from pigs Game birds, deer, and gazelle were hunted as well. On farms, domesticated geese and ducks supplied eggs...and from canals and private ponds, came some 50 types of fish, a staple of the Mesopotamian diet. Generally, meats were either dried, smoked, or salted for safekeeping, or they were cooked by roasting, boiling, broiling, or barbecuing."
---Handbook of Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Stephen Bertman [Facts on File:New York NY] 2003 (p. 291-293)
Mesopotamia was much more fertile in ancient times than it is today. Chickpeas and lentils - still important crops in today's Syria, Iraq and Jordan - head on Sumerian listing of foods that grew there. But the cornerstone of the Mesopotamian diet appears to have been the onion far - including leeks, shallots and garlic. Sumerians also ate lettuce and cucumber and apples, pears, grapes, figs, pistachios and pomegranates were widely grown.
The Sumerians also used a wide range of spices and herbs, including coriander cumin and watercress, says Belgian scholar Henri Limet. That indicates, he says that at least the upper classes enjoyed cuisine that was not only varied in its ingredients but refined in its preparation.
Here's one you could actually make. The recipe is for a basic bread -- it's alot like pita bread -- but you can add to it as they often did in Mesopotamia. You could add pieces of dried fruit, such as raisins, dates, or prunes, or chopped nuts. You could also add various spices. The Mesopotamians did not have sugar, so if you want it sweeter, add some honey.
14 oz. flour
1 cup of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Mix the water, flour, and salt together slowly.
Knead the dough and form it into flat round patties.
Cover the dough with a cloth and let it sit overnight.
The next day, bake it in an oven at 350°F for 30 minutes.
For an authentic Mesopotamian experience,
eat the bread with a raw onion!
Thanks to Elizabeth Bissette for these next three, which are taken from ancient cuneiform tables that are currently at Yale University.
1 cup raisins
1 cup dates
Combine butter and honey and mix with the fruit and a little flour into balls. Fry lightly.
Here's one for some cakes:
3 c flour
1/4 c clarified butter
1 c dates
1/3 c feta cheese
1/3 c raisins
Bake [The recipe didn't say how hot or for how long. You might try 350 degrees for about 20-30 min]