Steven— You should take a look at some of the work that Jean Bottero has done with the Yale Babylonian Tablets—admittedly earlier, but he is the master of Mesopotamia. That said, he has a fairly dim view of the quality of the food. I’m not so pessimistic and have done a bit of research into the area (by no means on the same scholarly level), and have some additional sources to suggest (cited in my book, Cooking in Ancient Civilizations, Greenwood 2006, where you will also find adapted recipes if you needed to do any cooking). Wine would be the preferred drink for elites.
From Edmund I. Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1959:
1.50: Fine flour is appropriate for women and the palace.
1.52: In my budget, there is no place for anyone to bake cakes.
1.59: When a poor man has died, do not try to revive him. When he had bread, he had no salt; when he had salt, he had no bread. When he had a live lamb, he had no meat; when he had meat, he had no live lamb.
1.190: Meat with fat is too good! Meat with suet is too good! What shall we give to the slave-girl to eat?
Slightly afield, Assurnasirpal’s stela records the ingredients for a victory feast in Assyria in 879 BCE. Among the foods recorded (to feed some 70,000 people, at least according to his propaganda):
1,000 barley-fed oxen
200 oxen and 1,000 young cattle
1,000 young sheep
14,000 “common” sheep
1,000 fattened sheep
500 each deer and gazelles
an impressive array of geese, fowls, pigeons, doves, small birds, and several varieties undecipherable
from the original cuneiform
10 homers of eggplant (1 homer = roughly 100 gallons)
10,000 fish (no variety specified), and
10,000 locusts (served on skewers).
3rd Century BCE temple inscriptions at Uruk also help just a bit:
“They will take 486 liters of barley flour and 162 liters of spelt flour, from the mixture of which the cooks will prepare and bake 243 epu.” (A type of bread)
Also, “Offer 1,200 biscuits fried in
oil” along with a cake of dates— maybe like a dried fig torte?
“Let the gods eat roasted meat, roasted meat, roasted meat.. . . After preparing a serving platter made of gold, place on it pieces of roasted meat.”
We have a bit more for pastries: Records from Ur identify cakes “for the palace” as containing 1 sila of butter, 1/3 sila of white cheese, 3 sila of first quality dates, and 1/3 sila of raisins. A sila equaled a little more than three cups. Also, Mersu was a widely known pastry. Different inventories list different ingredients for mersu, so there were many recipes. Mersu always seemed to contain first-quality dates and butter; beyond that, different records list pistachios, garlic, onion seed, and other seemingly incongruous ingredients. Bakers who specialized in this treat were known as the episat mersi, so mersu-making was probably an involved process.
Good luck—it is a difficult area to research.
Apicius-List founders on the occasion of the list's 15th anniversary!
Can anyone point to research done on fine dining in ancient Babylon? More specifically, what luxury foods could have appeared on the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar's table about 600BC? Persian royal menus of the same era would be equally helpful! I realise this stretches the parameters in which our list operates, but any leads appreciated!
Avondale College of Higher Education