Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mesopotamian "Kippu" in Mint Sauce

So far in our journey through the archaeology of food, we have been examining evidence that has been indirectly inferred by archaeologists. Ingredients, methods of production, and even food preferences can be determined by examining evidence that exists in the archaeological record. Through work done by a few researchers, modern cooks can bring together ingredients used by people of the past and try to put a dish together based on some known cultural methods of descendent populations or items present in the archaeological record. Through a bit of creativity, we can make something that will appeal to the modern pallet while tipping our hats to the ancients.

This all sounds nice, but didn’t any people in the distant past leave behind recipes for the food they cooked? In large part, the simple answer is “no”. A lot of the long-dead people that archaeologists study didn’t see the need to put down in writing how they cook their food, since it would be so culturally engrained that they would assume ingredients and methods are common knowledge. To make matters even trickier is the fact that a lot of these folks didn’t have systems of writing or a high rate of literacy. Additionally, with societal divisions of labor, it’s hard to imagine that the best cooks would also be the most literate and therefore be capable of leaving behind any kind of recipes for us to use in modern times.

If things weren’t complicated enough, archaeologists face a record that’s been looted, partially destroyed, and likely deteriorated. Depending on what materials information was written on (if writing even existed at the time), it is often unlikely that it could have survived to the modern day. As you can see, the prospective archaeological gourmet has a lot standing between them and a tasty ancient meal. Luckily, against the odds, some stone tablets left behind by the Mesopotamians shed light on what people from that society would have eaten.

These tablets give us a wealth of knowledge as to what was eaten by Mesopotamians and how they went about cooking it. As you can probably imagine, a lot was cooked over fire or coals and either stewed or roasted. Mesopotamians apparently enjoyed unleavened bread, small game birds, truffle-like fungus, and a wide variety of foods that we still appreciate today.  The research I read by Bottéro actually included translations of several recipes, although their modern usefulness is debatable.

A big challenge in cooking from ancient recipes is that there is a lot of cultural common-knowledge that has simply been lost. This can include cooking steps that were implied or left out, as the contemporaries of the author wouldn’t need that extra information to successfully make a dish. Another issue is that some ingredients are unknown, as there was no direct translation for the word on the tablet. The best we can do in this case, as is common with archaeology, is make our best efforts at an educated guess. In all possibility, the ingredient may not even exist any longer due to extinction or its falling out of favor and disuse.

Bearing all that in mind, here is the tablet inscription I chose to base this week’s blog on:

"Kippu Stew:

 If you want to cook kippu in a stew, then prepare them as you would agarukku. First, clean them and rinse them in cold water and place them in an open pot. (Is this done to braise them in water?) Then put the pot back on the flame (after the initial braising) and add some cold water to it and flavor it with vinegar. Next, crush (together) mint and salt and rub the kippu with the mixture. After this, strain (?) the liquid in the kettle and add mint to this sauce. Place the kippu back into it. (We assume they will cook for a moment.) Finally, add a bit more cold water and turn the entire mixture into a pot water and turn the entire mixture into a pot (in order to complete the cooking). To be presented and then dished out."

As you can see above, the translator had to make a few guesses in how the Kippu was cooked. Even by reading a recipe, we lack the cultural base to readily interpret it. Still, one thing is clear: the ingredients. “Kippu” was interpreted by the author to be some sort of game bird. Along with that, mint, salt, and vinegar were used. Starting from there, we can get a good feel for how to turn this into something that the modern man can make. The following is my own spin on this recipe, the results of which were simply delicious.

Roasted “Kippu” in Mint Sauce

What you’ll need:
2 Cornish Game Hens
2 Lemons
1 Package of Fresh Mint
2 Cloves of Garlic
2 tsp. of Kosher Salt
2 TBSP Honey
½ Cup Water
1 TBSP Vinegar
5 Leaves of Fresh Sage (Optional)
10 Leaves of Lemon Balm (Optional)
2 TBSP Flour

Alright let’s get started! So I decided that Cornish Game Hens would be the best proxy I could find for Kippu, but you can also feel free to use quail, duck, pheasant, or whatever else you have available for this recipe. Because I’ve got an herb garden in my yard, the mint, lemon balm, and fresh sage were easy to come by, but most stores have fresh packaged herbs available the produce section. Ask your local grocer. You can also use the dried stuff, but the difference in flavor is like night and day. I’ve heard some people even say that using dried herbs is the equivalent of putting pencil shavings on your food, by contrast. If you insist, however, trade out about a tablespoon of dried mint for the fresh stuff and about a teaspoon of sage. If you’re able to find dried lemon balm (good luck!) do the same thing, about 1 teaspoon.

To start off, we’ll want to grind together our mint, garlic, salt, and optional herbs. For this you can use a magic bullet or food processor or even a blender, however I find that the mortar and pestle works well for this. Much like in the grinding of barley for bread, that kosher salt is going to be important for helping break down the herbs. If you’re using dried herbs, add just a little water to the mix, about a teaspoon or two. What you’re left with will be a highly pungent, savory paste that we’ll use throughout the recipe.

Now go ahead and take your thawed “kippu” and rinse it off, making sure to clean out the cavities. Dry it off by lightly patting the skin with paper towels. Next take about half of your green mint paste and rub it all over the game hens, making sure that every part of their little dead bodies are covered, paying special attention to the drumsticks and breasts. Make sure to reserve the other half of your herb emulsion, we’ll need it for the sauce. Cut your lemons into quarters and stuff them inside the cavity of the birds, squeezing some of the juice onto their surface to get just a hint of lemon on the skin.

Preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit and cook them for about an hour in the oven on a broiling pan. Make sure to check the birds with a thermometer before pulling them out. You’ll want the internal temperature of a Cornish Game Hen to be about 170° before it is safe to eat. If your Kippu are at the proper temperature, pull them out and reserve their drippings in a small sauce pot.

Now it’s time to make the sauce! Put the sauce pot on a burner set to a medium heat and add ½ cup water and the rest of the your paste. Once it’s reached a low boil, go ahead and add the honey, making sure to stir the sauce so it dissolves and doesn’t stick to the bottom. Add the vinegar at this point. Finally, let the sauce boil while you mix your 2 TBSP of flour in a cup or small bowl with about ¼ cup of water. Make sure the mixture is a smooth, thin paste with no lumps. Add this mixture to the boiling sauce and keep stirring it gently. At this point, raise the heat on your burner a little (use your own discretion) and wait for the sauce to thicken. Give it a taste and feel free to add more salt, vinegar, or honey as you see fit- it should have a bit of a zip to it. Never serve a bland sauce!

Finally, you’re ready to serve your roasted “Kippu”. Place it on a plate and cover liberally with the sauce. Garnish with mint leaves for a special touch. It’s best to enjoy good food with good company so invite a friend, family member, or that special someone in your life over to enjoy this new twist on an ancient classic. Bon appetit!

Reference for Further Reading:

The Cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia
Jean Bottéro
The Biblical Archaeologist , Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 36-47
Published by: The American Schools of Oriental Research


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! I strongly suggest you try making it. This will definitely be one I cook multiple times.