Cuisine of Mesopotamia

January 31, 2014

Photo Luigi Chiesa

Surprisingly little is discussed about the enjoyment of food in ancient Mesopotamia, even though a rather extensive culinary record is extant. Once the Akkadians and Sumerians of this region began practicing irrigation, the rich soils and hot climate yielded a rich abundance of food that persisted for three millennia. At one time it was believed that agriculture began in this region. We now know this is not true, but the diversity and surfeit of human produced food, as well as the complexity of food preparation, is truly remarkable.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about food, feasting, and drink in Mesopotamia. Most of the information presented here comes from Jean Bottero’s 2004 book The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. As Bottero notes, all societies develop “routines and rituals, perhaps even myths, to regulate the use of food, indeed, to confer a value upon food that goes beyond the mere consumption of it…”

Here is the menu for a feast ordered by Assyrian King Assurnasirpa II (northern Mesopotamia circa 850 B.C.E.) to celebrate the conclusion of a large construction project. This feast was prepared for 69,570 people and included the king’s staff, the population of the city, guests invited from outside the city, plus all the workers who had participated in the project–and of course, all the gods.

1,000 oxen
1,000 calves and young lambs
14,000 sheep and 200 oxen “from the flocks belonging to Ishtar, my mistress”
1,000 fattened sheep
1,000 lambs
500 deer
500 gazelles
1,000 large birds
1,000 geese and other fowl
2,000 suki and qaribe birds (don’t know what those are)
10,000 pigeons
10,000 doves
10,000 small birds
10,000 fish
10,000 locusts
10,000 eggs
10,000 measures of beer
10,000 skins of wine

Photo Bohringer Friedrich.
Photo Bohringer Friedrich.

quantities of barley, wheat, sesame, carob, garlic, onions, lentils, turnips, milk, pomegranates, grapes, pistachios, almonds, figs, dates, roses, cumin, aniseed, watercress, and various other foods and spices which cannot be translated.

Sounds like quite a party! Next week I will discuss how all of this food might have been prepared.

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