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BAR Test Kitchen: Unwinding with the Ancient Babylonians

Photo: John Gregory Drummond.
Babylonian Unwinding Stew

There’s nothing better than a steaming hot bowl of soup on a chilly fall day. While the residents of ancient Mesopotamia did not experience cold as some of us do, they could appreciate the comfort a warm bowl of soup brings after a sickness or on a cold, rainy day. For this round of BAR Test Kitchen, we’ve recreated Babylonian Unwinding Stew. In this case, “unwinding” doesn’t necessarily refer to relaxing after a long day, although that interpretation isn’t outside the realm of possibility as comfort dishes similar to this stew are known from the medieval period. “Unwinding” in our case refers to what sourdough does when added to the mixture.1 comes to us from the same source as a previous BAR Test Kitchen treat—Tuh’u Stew.a Both were originally recorded on the best preserved of four culinary tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection: Tablet 4644. It’s unclear why these recipes were originally recorded. When first cataloged in 1911, it was assumed that the tablets actually contained pharmaceutical recipes, not food recipes. It was not until the early 1980s that the true nature of the tablets and their recipes was determined by French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro.

BAR made a few changes to the ancient recipe. Instead of sautéing the leeks, garlic, and salt in animal fat, we used plant fat (olive oil). To make up for the lack of animal product, we used chicken consommé instead of water. (To make this dish vegetarian, you could use water or vegetable broth.) Finally, we purchased a loaf of sourdough instead of making it from a starter. Feel free to bake your own bread if you would like to use it to complete this ancient comfort food recipe.

A note on the leeks—the word used here is šuhutinnū, which can mean kurrat or spring leek. If you cannot find spring leeks, garlic chives are a similar alternative used in East Asian cooking and can easily be found in specialty shops.

Overall the soup’s taste fits the name of “unwinding” and could easily serve as a pleasant comfort food. The leeks also provide an interesting onion flavor. Enjoy!—J.D.

Unwinding Stew

Ancient Recipe

“Unwinding. Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. (You add) kurrat, cilantro, salt as desired, leek, garlic. You pound up dried sourdough, you sift (it) and you scatter (it) over the pot before removing it.”2

BAR’s Variation

2 spring leeks, chopped

½ bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups chicken consommé

1 tablespoon salt

1 loaf of sourdough bread, ground

Instructions: Sauté leeks, garlic, and salt in olive oil for 3–4 minutes, until the drippings start to brown. Add cilantro and then sauté for another 1–2 minutes. Add in consommé and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Grind sourdough (about one handful per bowl) and add to the pot just before removing from heat. Add more sourdough to taste once soup has been poured.

Notes:

1. Gojko Barjamovic, Patricia Jurado Gonzalez, Chelsea A. Graham, Agnete W. Lassen, Nawal Nasrallah, and Pia M. Sorensen, “Food in Ancient Mesopotamia: Cooking the Yale Babylonian Culinary Recipes,” in Agnete W. Lassen, Eckart Frahm, and Klaus Wagensonner, eds., Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights of the Yale Babylonian Collection (New Haven, CT: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, 2019), p. 123.

a. Megan Sauter, “BAR Test Kitchen: Eat Like an Ancient Babylonian,” BAR, May/June 2017.

2. Barjamovic et al, “Food in Ancient Mesopotamia,” p. 123.

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