Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Honoring Mother's 'Day', Sumerian Style:

And Breakfast of Makhlama for Mom

مخلمة بالبتيتة

In the third millennium BC, a Sumerian young man, whose name was Ludingirra, sent a letter to his Mom, who lives in Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city south of today's Baghdad. This ancient Sumerian record was written in cuneiform on a clay tablet. It was composed in the form of a poem. The following text is based on Samuel Kramer's History Begins at Sumer (pp. 333-35).     

Addressing the courier, Ludingirra says:

Royal Courier, ever on the road,
I would send you to Nippur, Deliver this message.
I have traveled a long way,
My mother is troubled, unable to sleep.
She, in whose chamber there is never any angry word,
Keeps asking all travelers after my welfare.
Put my letters of greeting into her hand.

And since the courier had not met his mother before, Ludingirra gave him five signs to identify her. Although admittedly none of these signs would be the equivalent of today's Driver's License ID for instance, they do certainly portray a loving image of an ideal mother. Here are some excerpts:  

A detail (Museum of fine Arts, Boston)
Her name is Shat-Ishtar,
A figure that is radiant,
My mother is a bright light of the horizon, a mountain deer,
The morning star shining bright,
An angel of alabaster, set on a lapis lazuli pedestal,
My mother is rain in its season, water for the prime seed,
A rich harvest.
A garden of plenty, full of delight,
A well-watered fir tree, adorned with fir cones,
Fruit of the New Year, the yield of the first month,
My mother is a feast, an offering full of rejoicing,
A New Year offering awesome to behold.
A dancing place made for much joy,
A lover, a loving heart, whose joy is inexhaustible.

The letter ends with:
"Ludingirra, your beloved son gives you greetings."


A limestone relief I first saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It depicts a deportation scene of captive women from Babylonia. Defying the threatening stick of the enemy guards at the far right of the image, the mother dared stop to give her child a sip of water. A humanizing tender spot in the midst of cruelty.
Breakfast of Makhlama for Mom
مخلمة بالبتيتة
Iraqi Omelet

Makhlama is what is known in other Arab countries as 'ujja/ 'agga (and other variants)  and in the Western world as omelet. It is a dish with a long history. The extant medieval Arabic cookbooks include a generous number of omelet recipes, with and without meat. When made into a disc, they called it 'ujja mudawwara (عجة مدورة); and when scrambled it was called 'ujja mubahthara (عجة مبحثرة) or makhluta (مخلوطة). When the eggs were left on top, sunny side up, the omelet was called narjisiyya (نرجسية), i.e. looking like narcissus flower, with its colors of yellow, white and green (of herbs used). According to a recipe, the yolk was poked with knife, and lightly mixed with the white to give it a marbled look.
Here is a very interesting recipe from Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's 10th-century cookbook كتاب الطبيخ (Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, my English translation, Chapter 73):

Iraqi leeks (Kurrath), photo: Kok Robin, Rotterdam
Slice the meat and chop it to pieces, but do not make them too small. Use some suet with it, too. Cook the meat with the green stalks of fresh onion and table leeks (kurrath, somewhat similar to garlic chives), leave them whole. Spread the stalks on top of the meat. Season the meat with salt, olive oil,  a bruised piece of cassia and another of galangal. Add as well coriander seeds and a small amount of cumin if wished.

Break eggs on the [spread] meat, enough to cover the whole face of the frying pan, which by the way, should be of stone. Let the eggs look like eyes.

Put the pan as it is on a reed tray and insert a sprig of rue in the midst of the yolk of each egg. Drape the pan with a big thin sheet of bread (lavash bread, markouk) making a hole in the middle as big as the circumference of the pan. This is to hide the blackness of the outside of the pan when it is presented at the table.

Rue plant 

(A note on rue: Despite its unpleasant taste and smell, this herb was essential in medieval dishes as garnish because they believed that it had the power to combat flatulence and that chewing it after eating onion and garlic helped remove the unpleasant breath they cause. But they had it in extreme moderation.    

Today in Iraq we still cook this egg dish pretty much the same way, with and without meat. It makes a very convenient side dish or a sandwich for brunch, light supper, or a picnic lunch. The recipe I choose here is the vegetarian version with cubed potatoes and herbs. The version with spinach is equally tasty (recipe in my Delights from the Garden of Eden, p. 192).      
The recipe for Iraqi Omelet with Potatoes and Herbs is available in my website.

So here is to all mothers, past, present, and future!