Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cookbook: Sumerian Garlic Butter


Being a man of many unsuspected passions and interests, dear reader, one of my favourite pastimes is Linguistic Archeology, i.e. the scholarly hobby which digs for charming historical anecdotes in the hidden layers and timeless stratifications of language. Of course you still don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, but I can illustrate. Here we go for a fun one: guess how we know that Basque is one of the very oldest languages still spoken today? Well, we know so because the Basque word for Axe (Aizkora) goes back to the word for Stone (Aitz). Which implies that the language in its present form was already well developed and (nunca mejor dicho) petrified, in the good old days when axes were still generally made from stone. And that is, as you all know, a while ago…

Even in the kitchen we can enjoy this fascinating line of study. One of the oldest words which we still use today corresponds to one of the most humble seed crops known to gastronomy: Sesame. Yes, indeed, I am talking of those tiny little seeds which you regularly find on your Sunday morning bun and on top of the Abominable Hamburgers you order in fast food restaurants. Few people are aware of this, but sesame is the oldest oilseed crop known to humankind. Remains of the gorgeous little grain have been found in Mesopotamian excavations dated tentatively to 3,500 BC. And not only that, but the word itself has been in use for at least 4,000 years. It goes back, by way of many linguistic loans and permutations, to the Babylonian shamash-shammu, meaning ‘oil seed’, which in those happy days was written with the same cuneiform characters as the even older Sumerian Shi-gish-i. Now ain’t that something?

Nothing in nature or culture happens without reason. Hence there are good grounds for the timeless popularity of this tiny little seed, because – in the kitchen as in other departments of human activity – it is not the size that matters, but what you do with it (and in the case of cooking, that clich√© is actually true…). Sesame is one of the most precious victuals mankind ever discovered. When pressed it produces a precious, tasty oil; it is decorative on buns and burgers; it can be turned into exquisite pastry; it gives us tahini paste which is all at once rich and healthy, it… Aah, I could go on forever! But let me not waste more time than strictly necessary.

Today I merely want to teach you how to improve your everyday garlic butter by means of sesame seeds. It is a magic trick, which nevertheless corresponds wholeheartedly to the well-known slogan of this cookblog, i.e. ‘Please through Ease and Impress by Simplicity’, and which – giving honour where it is due to the distant ancestors who bequeathed this prize to us – I have decided to dub

Sumerian Garlic Butter

About an hour before you plan to mix it, take the butter out of the fridge so that it may soften up a little. I find that 25 grams per person is usually sufficient, but since this fine spread does not spoil all that quickly, you may wish to make a little more for the day after. Put the butter immediately in the bowl you mean to mix it in. It will save you some unnecessary fumbling with soft, sticky butter and paper napkins.

Once you set to work, toss into the bowl a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. Then locate the smallest clove in a bulb of garlic, cut it in half, and peel and pound only one of the halves. I cannot stress this enough. Raw garlic was first invented by the Goths who took Rome; it is extremely sturdy, aggressive, and indomitable. And once it is within the walls, so to speak, you will never get rid of it again. So when it comes to garlic butter, you must always aim to err on the parsimonious side with the garlic. There must be a hint of the famous taste, not a tsunami of the forceful flavour.

Once you have shoved the pounded garlic from the cutting board into the butter, it is time to add the green herbs. Here the rules are rather simple. You can toss in whatever you have available, in whatever shape it comes. Naturally, fresh herbs are always to be preferred, but dried will do just as well (and garlic butter is a fine occasion to clean up the herb cabinet and get rid of the jars that have been sitting there, unused, forever!) As for quantities, observe this golden rule: the stronger the taste, the less you add. Thus you must be extremely careful with thyme and sage; you ought to be cautious with oregano and basil; dill and tarragon may be used freely; and you cannot go wrong with parsley and chives. I’m sure you get the idea.

Now for the sesame seeds. Whether you bought them white and raw or pre-roasted and tan, you have to roast them before use. This is not difficult, but it is delicate. Get a small, clean frying pan. Put it on a low flame. Now put in roughly two tablespoons of sesame seeds. NEVER EVER put oil into the pan!!! We are toasting here, not frying; and if you do add oil, the seeds will stick to the bottom and to each other and to the stirring spoon and before you know it the whole bundle becomes a sticky mud of dirty overcooked bird feed.

Now stay where you are and be patient. Every so often, toss the seeds around by moving the pan in a circle by the handle. You can even make the ‘pancake’ movement in a modest way. Very slowly (if the heat is not too high) you will see the colour of the seeds change from pale to ochre. If a lot of seeds start to pop your fire is too high. If no seeds pop at all, you may want to turn the heat up a notch. Do not cover the pan with a lid. You will lose visual control if you do. Before you know it, you’ll be burning the seeds. Note that, if many of the seeds turn black, you must immediately remove the pan from the fire. You’ve gone too far too fast.

Now, to know when the seeds are properly toasted takes a little experience. But the idea is that the colour turns to a nice hue between red and dark brown, and that there will be that chestnutty smell hovering in the air, emanating from the pan. Once you think you’re done, empty the pan onto a saucer, let the roasted seeds cool down, then add them to the butter, setting a small pile aside for decoration if you wish.

We are practically done. Take a sturdy fork, and start mashing and mixing the butter. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl! Once everything is well mixed, put your Sesame Garlic Butter into a nice bowl, drop the remaining seeds on top, cover and put in the fridge until two hours before serving. I promise you will be most pleasantly surprised.

This Sumerian Garlic Butter may be used for many purposes, but my two favourites are simply to spread it on slices of French Baguette, as an appetiser, or to put a nice spoonful on top of a fried steak (but better let your guests do so themselves, it’s fun!)

PS: the Sumerians probably made this yummie dish with goat butter. If you want to be authentic, go right ahead. I must warn you, however, that this is an ‘acquired taste’.


  1. I studied linguistics for two years and share your fascination with linguistic archaeology. It intrigues me to know how and when language evolved into its current state. That said, I like sesame seeds too - we use the quite often in our cooking :)


  2. OK. So I have a nice one for you: why is it that Scipture tells us Eve was created from a rib of Adam? That's a Sumerian one as well, I believe. And absolutely charming.