food and drink


food and drink
   The diversity of the diet of an ancient Mesopotamian depended in large part on his or her income and social class. In general, poorer folk, who made up the vast bulk of the population, consumed mainly food products made from cereals (grains), with a few vegetables and fruits to break the monotony. The poor only occasionally ate meat, which was expensive, with the exception of birds and other game, which people hunted in some areas. Well-to-do households - those of kings, courtiers, army officers, priests, and so on - could afford to eat meat on a regular basis. The wealthy could also afford full-time chefs and other kitchen staff to prepare varied, complex, highly appetizing mealtime fare.
   Whether rich or poor, all Mesopotami-ans ate at least some bread and porridge, the chief products made from grains. The principal grain was barley, while emmer wheat and rye were available in smaller quantities. The simplest, cheapest kind of bread was flat and unleavened as well as coarse because it was made from crudely milled flour. Breads made from better-milled, finer flour were available but more expensive. Archaeologists found pieces of the latter variety of bread in the tomb of a queen of the Sumerian city of Ur. The more pricey breads sometimes had animal fat, milk, sesame oil, or fish oil added to the dough for extra consistency and taste or even mixed in fruit juices, fruit pieces, and/or cheese.
   A fairly wide variety of vegetables and fruits were available, although some grew poorly or not at all in some areas, depending on the amount of rainfall. The most popular vegetables were onions and garlic, which people of all classes used in a wide variety of dishes. Also eaten when and where they were available were lentils, peas, cabbage, carrots, radishes, beets, and other vegetables. Common fruits included dates, from the date palm; apricots; apples; cherries; figs; plums; quinces; and nuts. The date palm also provided the most common food sweetener - date juice - as sugar was unknown and honey had to be imported (and was therefore expensive) because the Mesopotamians did not raise bees, as the Egyptians did.
   For those who could afford to eat meat on a regular basis, mutton and pork were popular choices. Beef was more expensive and eaten less often because Mesopotamia had limited ranges of meadowland to support herds of cattle. Ducks, geese, game birds, gazelle, and deer were also consumed often in well-to-do households and on occasion in poorer ones. Because there was no refrigeration, raw meat did not keep long in Mesopotamia's hot climate and therefore had to be preserved; salting, drying in the sun, and smoking were the standard methods. Much more common in poorer homes - although wealthy people ate them too - were fish, of which more than fifty varieties were known in the region. Fish were also the source of a tasty sauce used to spice up many dishes. (Among the other common spices were mustard, coriander, cumin, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme.) Animals like sheep, goats, and cattle also provided dairy products, including milk, butter, and cheese.
   As for drinks, by far the most popular in the region was beer, made mainly from barley. In fact, some scholars think that beer making may have predated bread making in Mesopotamia. There was even a goddess of beer brewing, Ninkasi, and an often-repeated proverb, with words to this effect: "He whodoesnot knowbeerdoes not know what is good." More than seventy different kinds of beer were known, which varied considerably in strength, clarity, bitterness, sweetness, and so on. Wine was popular, too, but was much more expensive. Local grapes grew well only in the highlands, mostly in northern Assyria, prompting a common nickname for wine, "mountain beer"; so most wine had to be imported from Syria or Palestine and appeared mainly on the tables of the well-to-do.
   Because of a fortunate archaeological find, a fair amount is known about ancient Mesopotamian cooking and recipes. The discovery consisted of part of a cookbook belonging to, and perhaps written by, the chief chef of the king of Mari, a city on the upper Euphrates. Dating to about 1700 b.c., the text contains thirty-five recipes and lists hundreds of individual ingredients. Among the dishes described are gazelle broth, lamb broth, and Assyrian stew. Each main dish was accompanied by several side dishes and garnishes, including fresh greens and vinegar, similar to a standard modern salad. The chef used sesame seed oil or linseed oil as a cooking medium. It also appears that kitchens in well-to-do households, like that of Mari's ruler, were staffed mainly by men, although women were likely the main cooks in poorer homes.

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

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