Ancient Syrian date pastries
There’s no denying that I have a sweet tooth. Whether I am at home or abroad, I am always in search of desserts. From croissants to baklava, I’ve sampled many delicious dishes—but never before one from Bronze Age Syria.
For this dish, I journeyed back in time—to an ancient recipe from the site of Mari, Syria (c. 1775–1761 B.C.E.), and also back into the BAS Library to an article written by scholar Adam Maskevich.* With a love for both the ancient Near East and cooking, Maskevich undertook some experimental archaeology. Using the work of the late Assyriologist Jean Bottéro, who translated numerous Babylonian recipes, Maskevich created a recipe for mersu, an ancient type of “cake” that involved mixing flour with a liquid (water, milk, oil, beer, or even butter).1 Various inclusions (dates, pistachios, figs, raisins, and spices, such as cumin and coriander) were sometimes added. An exact recipe for mersu doesn’t exist, but archaeologists have been able to reconstruct it indirectly from administrative sources, such as the delivery notice from Mari during the reign of King Zimri-Lim:
Although no details are given—in this text or in others—about how to cook mersu, we learn that it was mixed in large pots and often prepared by specialists in Mari. We see that it varied by ingredients and came in different shapes and sizes.
Using this list from Mari and Maskevich’s recipe as my basis (modifying the latter only slightly), here is what I cooked up:
Makes about 20
½ pound (8 oz) dried, pitted dates, finely chopped
½ cup water
¼ cup (1 oz) pistachios, shelled and finely chopped
3 cups flour (I used wheat, but you could use barley for authenticity)
1 cup chilled butter, cut into small cubes
5 tablespoons milk
1) Put the dates in a small pan and add water. Cook over medium heat until a thick paste forms, stirring often (about 5–8 minutes).
2) Mix in pistachios. Set this aside to cool.
3) Mix flour and butter together until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk slowly until dough holds together. Cover dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4) Break off a 2-inch piece of dough and roll it in your hands until it becomes pliable. Shape into a ball. Make a hole in the ball’s center with your thumb and pinch the sides between your thumb and index finger to enlarge the hole.
5) Take some of the cooled date paste and fill the hole three-quarters of the way. Pinch the edges of the dough together and roll into a ball.
6) Place on a baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough and bake for 25 minutes in an oven preheated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
I hope this ancient dish gains some new fans. Enjoy!
Based on Strata: “BAR Test Kitchen: Ancient Syrian Date Pastries” from the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
1. Jean Bottéro, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 23.
2. Bottéro, Oldest Cuisine, p. 23; text from Madeleine Lurton Burke, Archives royales de Mari: Textes administratifs de la salle 111 du Palais (Paris: Geuthner, 1963), no. 13.
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