This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few months ago when my friends and were planning another themed dinner party, I submitted the idea for Mesopotamia on a whim and it was picked. So I delved a bit into cooking from the Fertile Crescent, where many foods we eat every day originate. There are "recipes" that exist from this time and place, in the form of tablets from Babylon in the Yale collection written in cuneiform. The problem is that these terse "recipes" have certain ingredients that have not been conclusively translated. Perhaps archeology will fill in the gaps. Archeologist Patrick McGovern, for example, used chemical analysis of pottery residue to reconstruct an ancient Phrygian drink and brew something similar for Dogfish Head called Midas Touch.
Jean Bottero published the most complete translation of the Yale Tablet recipes, but interestingly, food bloggers have contested some of his translations. Jean supposedly loved to cook, but perhaps held a French contempt for other cuisines, declaring the Yale Tablet recipes not fit for anyone except his "worst enemies."
It is interesting because a lot of the recipes are for broth and I've been been thinking about the influence French cooking has had on how many people make broths. I sometimes get emails about how I prepare broth and sometimes people are shocked I don't remove the fat from my broth. I leave it in the vast majority of the time.
But in traditional French cooking, which has influenced so much of the Western world, the fat is often removed in various ways such as skimming. This reaches its pinnacle in French consommé, in which egg whites are used to effectively remove the fat. That's cool, but I don't really feel the need to do that at home. I think this is partially because I have been so influenced by Korean food, in which broths are often purposefully cloudy or fatty.
The removal of fat is probably a recent development. The first broths ever made were probably made in the later paleolithic as part of a survival strategy known as grease processing. The very purpose of breaking and boiling bones was to probably acquire extra fat with the added bonus of the savory umami bones impart into liquid. I think a paleolithic human would be horrified by the process of consommé, which involves essentially wasting both the egg whites and a bunch of fat (though if you have a dog at home, they appreciate eating the leftover "fat raft").
Apparently Babylonian broths were similar to paleolithic and Korean broths, in that they were nice and fatty. If you don't like fat, you might call them greasy, but a good cook should be able to design the rest of the recipe in order to make them more balanced.
Similarly, whereas most modern cooks use purified salt, ancient cooks were probably more likely to cook with salted condiments (similar to fish sauce or soy sauce)and other foods like salt-fish or salt-pork. And probably if they were making beer, they were also making other fermented foods like pickles. Unfortunately, the fragments on the tablets don't have much information on the specifics of these things, but I would not be surprised if pickles or salt-cured foods were some of the unidentified ingredients like suhitinnu, though some believe there are spices or even vegetables.
Either way, it was an excuse to whip up some Middle Eastern ingredients that possibly have a long history. Harissa was out, because it relies on peppers, which didn't exist in Babylon since they came to this region of the world through the Columbian exchange. But like how Korea was making kimchi with other Ingrid before the Columbian exchange introduced peppers, it is likely the Babylonians made something like harissa, which is so good because it's essentially a bunch of delicious spices marinating together. I made my regular harissa recipe, but used more garlic and other spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and caraway being the dominant ones (you can see what spices I have on my Trello board). I also made some delicious preserved lemons, though the Babylonians would have more likely had a type of citron.
One ingredient I had a lot of fun with was some tears of mastic I bought in Greektown here. I first had mastic in New York City at a goat ice cream shop (yes, really) called Victory Garden, where they used it to flavor soft serve ice cream. I have a strong affinity for evergreen flavors that evoke both forests and cathedrals, so I was addicted to mastic immediately. It is often sold as "tears", since it is the harvested resin of the mastic tree, and I bought the lowest grade small ones to experiment with. I ground them with a mortar and pestle and made some teas, which are supposed to be very good for your stomach lining, though you have to be careful when adding the mastic to liquid. If you don't add it slowly it literally turns to gum and you realize where humans probably got the idea for chewing gum. There is evidence that ancient humans chewed tree resins. But that doesn't bother me too much, it actually makes a rather nice gum, albeit with a fickle texture. Mastic has a very complex flavor, being both bitter and sweet, but that makes it actually rather perfect for balancing fatty foods.
The small mastic tears I use
I decided to make a goat leg since I had one in my freezer. I hadn't cooked one in a long time, so I googled for some recipes and found one that suggested marinating in beets in order to give an attractive red color. I thought I'd go one further and use the beets for the acidic component of the marinade as well by using some Scrumptious Pantry pickled beets I had in the fridge. Full disclosure is that Scrumptious Pantry invited me to the Localicious event at the Chicago Good Food Festival, but I've been buying their excellent products from the Green Grocer since I started shopping there. At Localicious I sampled many good local foods, like the genius Billy Sunday deviled eggs that had liver mousse whipped into the yolk, and cider from Red Streak. While I was getting some locally cured ham from the chef at Big Jones, my friend and I bumped into a man and we promptly apologized, only to realize it was Sandor Katz, who is largely considered a fermentation god. I love my copy of his Wild Fermentation. We chatted a bit and various things, including the excellent practice of marinating meat in pickles, which he has also tried with good results. God knows what marinating meat in pickles does, I get the impression that pickle juice is a much more complex in its actions than plain lemon or lime juice.
The rest of the goat leg marinade was Midas Touch beer, Wild Blossom mead, and good olive oil. The next day I made my spice/aromatic mixture, which was plenty of shallots, olive oil, garlic, preserved lemons, pistachios, sesame seeds, mastic, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, black pepper, fish sauce, cumin, dates, and fig vinegar processed until smooth and rubbed all over the leg. I braised the leg in the marinating liquid diluted with duck stock for a couple of hours. It was delicious- tender, red, meaty, earthy, slightly sweet, and highly aromatic. I served with some full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with sumac.
Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
I wish I could give exact ingredients to my recipes, but I usually improvise when I cook. I didn't grow up with fancy food- I loved Hot Pockets, Lunchables, Chick File A, and Kraft Handy Snacks. But I was lucky enough to spend a lot of my childhood outside in the woods. I think that helped me develop a "nose" for flavor, and flavor is as much about the nose as the mouth. I have found memories of sweet honeysuckle, crisp wild chives, pungent tulip trees, balmy pine needles, and the fragrant vines of wisteria. When I have my own children, I hope they can be as exposed to things like these as I was, as I think they are not just important in giving children an appreciation of nature, as to give them other sensory experiences that can help them appreciate many other things that draw on nature for inspiration later in life. If you didn't grow up in such an environment, I think educating yourself about flavors and just trying lots of diverse and interesting foods can help you learn to improvise. As far as educating yourself about flavor, I started a book recently called Taste What You're Missing which is written by a food developer who had to develop her palette as an adult on the job, and so far it's pretty good. Also, have plenty of spoons so you can taste while you are cooking and adjust. I tend to use at least seven different spoons a day, which makes me feel very glad I now have a dishwasher.
Something I've been thinking about lately are poverty foods. Paleolithic people did not usually engage in food storage, but with the advent of the neolithic, people starting keeping a larder that could help them survive. Cured, pickled, canned, confited, salted, highly spiced, and dried foods are legacies of this heritage. Some would argue that many hunting societies like the plains Indians or the Inuit also ate dried meat and that's true (though they knew they needed at least some fresh meat to prevent disease), but it's a good example of why hunter-gatherers are not models of the paleolithic.
Many such foods are popular among paleo dieters from jerky to canned sardines. I wouldn't argue that all of these foods are bad, but I have had to eliminate many of them from my diet and if you are on a paleo diet and continue having problems, perhaps they are worth eliminating. Studies on them are mixed. The regions that rely on them in very high amounts like Koreans (who eat massive amounts of pickled/salty/spicy foods) and those who live in Assam in India (VERY spicy and hot foods) have high rates of GI cancers. Perhaps the dose makes the poison though. For example, spicy foods have also shown to be cancer fighters! That's confusing!
Either way, I think fresh foods are always better and if you are in the process of healing you might want to try to eat only fresh to avoid things that sick people can be sensitive to like oxidized fats and histamines. I think emphasis on fresh foods is one reason that people often initially do well on raw diets.
I eliminated spicy foods when I started paleo because of their association with heartburn, which I suffered from. I now eat spicy foods a few times a week and haven't had problems so far, perhaps because my stomach isn't so inflamed by other crap. But recently I fell in love with a heavily spiced tea and was drinking it daily. If I didn't know that spices could be a problem I might not have realized it was causing me trouble.