Cooking in Mesopotamia

February 7, 2014

What was cooking and eating like in Mesopotamia? Last week’s post gave some idea of the range of ingredients used by Mesopotamian chefs. It is not surprising that food in Mesopotamia was heavily spiced, given the evidence that even hunter-gatherers seasoned their food. What is interesting is the variety and sophistication of the cooking techniques.

Meat was typically braised over a large open fire to seal in the juices, then deboned, trimmed of gristle, and cut into smaller pieces. It was then transferred to a large clay pot to simmer in broth and vegetables over a stove, somewhat like we would do with a crockpot. Regulated high heat cooking was done in a smaller metal pan. There are many descriptions for grain dishes cooked in broth and animal fat. Unleavened bread would be flattened and cooked quickly on hot clay surfaces or in ceramic cooking molds. Bread was leavened with beer or some other fermented mixture and baked in a dome oven. Over 200 varieties of bread are mentioned, many of which resemble cakes or pastries. Various shells and baskets made of bread were used as serving containers for meat. Salt was sometimes used for curing meat or fish. Fish might also be cut in thin pieces and dried. Fruits and vegetables might be dried in the sun or in slow ovens devised for this purpose. Since there was a ready supply of heat and sunshine, I wonder if cooks might have had a source of solar cooking, but this is not mentioned in any of my books. While trees were sparse in most of the region, particularly in the south, there was enough scrub vegetation for charcoal, which was produced for cooking.

Fermented dairy products, surprisingly, were unknown, but milk had to be quickly processed in that hot climate. Milk products were usually consumed as cream, buttermilk, or cheese. Butter was clarified.

Culinary records that survive emphasize cleanliness of hands and utensils and the need to wash certain ingredients thoroughly. None of the recommendations on hygienic food preparation are as complex as Jewish dietary laws, but there are indications that cleanliness was a concern. Pork was consumed (as was shellfish), but pigs are described as unclean in their habits, needing special care in raising. There are no explicit food taboos, although it seems that eating dogs or horses would not have occurred to anyone. (Europeans ate both.) There were strictures against eating certain foods on certain days or times of the year, and it is unclear whether this was for religious or other reasons.

The table of the gods will be discussed in another section, but it is worth noting here that foods for the divine epicure were prepared simply. Meat was roasted; bread was basic. It seems that conservatism was the basis for this, the texts mentioning that foods for the gods are prepared according to the old ways. This is interesting to me because Pagans today offer old-fashioned libations to the Goddess: wine, mead, beer, water or fruit juice. It would not occur to me to offer her a cola, and I doubt anyone has ever given her a highball.

Speaking of libations, next week’s post will talk about drinking in Mesopotamia.

Source: The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, by Jean Bottero (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan), University of Chicago Press, 2004.