Cuisine of Ancient Persia

Persian cuisine elevates rice to high art, but it wasn’t always so. When the ten-year-old Cyrus II sat down for his first meal in the palace of his father, Cambyses I, around 568 B.C. he probably didn’t eat rice.

As I researched the foods available in ancient Anshan (probably Tel el-Malyan in the modern Iranian province of Fars) to compose that scene, I was surprised to learn (mostly from a chapter by M. Nesbitt, et al. in Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History) that there is virtually no archaeobotanical evidence of rice in the ancient Near East before the first century of the common era. That, 373 grains, was discovered beneath a collapsed floor at Susa’s Ville Royale II. I say “virtually no” because a preliminary report noted a single grain of rice discovered in NW Iran in what may date to the Hasanlu period (750-590 BC); but the final published excavation report did not mention it.

Ezekiel’s description (6th century BC) of trade goods in some English translations of Ezek 27:17 includes rice; but most scholars think that that’s probably not an accurate translation of the Hebrew minnith. Rather, Minnith (ancient Hebrew doesn’t distinguish cap and lower case) may be a town from which a particular wheat came.

Diodorus wrote of rice for the military at 4th century BC Susa (XIX.13.6), which makes a lot of sense to me. Cyrus II pushed the Persian empire as far east as to the edge of India, where trade was nothing new. Those who traveled with Alexander in the fourth century BC described seeing rice cultivation in India (Strabo, Geography, 15.1.18).

I have no proof of it, but I wonder if the food so basic to Persian cuisine for centuries had its introduction during the great days of the early Persian empire, if not with Cyrus himself (6th century BC) then perhaps with Darius I (5th century BC).

As much fun as I’ve had imagining delicious fare both simple and fit for royal celebrations, I got a kick out of ancient Near Eastern scholar Jean Bottero‘s assessment of the ancient culinary texts he studied: so foul as to be only for one’s worst enemies. Yet he noted also that even in the most ancient times, people sought to make food beautiful and delicious… probably much more so than those few texts suggest, and Alice Slotsky put it to the test. Incidentally, Bottero, a highly respected Assyriologist was also trained as a Cordon Bleu chef.

To excellent scholarship, fine food, and good old stories  — Cheers!

Comments

  1. Fascinating! One grain of rice found in NW Iran. Wow. So you think that rice was introduced earlier than the 1st century CE based on the texts that you cited? I’m no expert, but I agree that it does make sense that rice would have traveled easily from India into Persia at that time. I also love the details of Mesopotamian cooking that Slotsky discusses (in part referring to Botero) and the innovations that those ancient people made — makes it seem not so long ago in some ways. SO interesting! Thanks so much for this post!

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