Atorina Zomaya, the spirited founder of Assyrian Kitchen, is making ancient foods a modern phenomenon. As part of the Chicago-based interactive cooking project, Zomaya hosts popular cooking classes with Assyriologists from the University of Chicago to share 6,000 years of Assyrian culinary tradition with her students. Zomaya’s site also features ancient (and updated) recipes, and her store Buried Cheese will open in the North Shore this summer.
This Chicago native wants the local culinary scene to know that Assyrians, descendants of one of the oldest civilizations in the world dating back to 2500 BC in Mesopotamia, still exist, and their food is both ancient and delicious.
Zomaya sat down with Chicago to discuss what we can learn from the past and how she makes the ancient new again.
What sparked your dive into researching the world of ancient recipes?
Assyrian Kitchen began with just a genuine desire to know how to prepare our culture’s food while living the professional city life. Growing up it was always grandma and mom in the kitchen, and cooking wasn’t something I was encouraged to learn. My peaked interest in cooking was met with, “Don’t you want to be a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer?”
In a way, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole on this path of investigating our ancient foods, and I’ve became so fascinated with the idea that there is a huge connection between meals eaten by Assyrians 6,000 years ago and the meals enjoyed in modern Assyrian homes today.
I never thought people would be interested in learning how to cook authentic ancient foods that Assyrian families enjoy daily. But I’ve found that sharing our food is one of the best gateways into saying, here are the fun, delicious things about my culture.
The Yale Tablets are the world’s oldest cookbook. What have these three clay tablets taught the world about ancient diets?
Assyrian kings recorded details of their lives on tablets that would often be found on the walls of an entrance to a palace. These very self-absorbed kings, through their vanity, preserved a window into the history of food and its preparation in ancient Mesopotamia.
The Yale Tablets, which are housed at Yale University, include Akkadian cuneiform [an ancient writing system] that describes 40 recipes dating back to 1700 BC. The recipes were for master chefs in the royal court—mere lists of ingredients with minimal instruction.
Today, we often look back at the ancient world and wonder, were the ancients really as evolved as we are in terms of diet? Jean Bottero, a French Assyriologist who was also an accomplished gourmet chef, says the answer is yes. Their advancement in combining refined flavors and elements into rich dishes was unique, and they had an obsessive love of onions that continues to this day in Assyrians.
Describe to us the connection between the old and the new in Assyrian food.
Throughout my culinary journey, I became fascinated with how little Assyrian food has changed over 6,000 years. The ancient Assyrians’ cooking still resonates today in our meat pies, kibbeh in its many forms, kipteh (meatball stew), dokhwa (dried yogurt and meat soup), girdu (sour yogurt & rice pudding), hareesa (boiled wheat with meat), flat breads, and many more dishes.
You can say it is a cultural food heritage with a natural, healthy focus on vegetables and grains, such as barley, once an ancient form of currency, as well as herbs, fermented dairy products, and pickles.
What are some examples of these ancient foods that you could find Assyrians enjoying today?
We can see the influence our people picked up as they fled to countries like Iran, Syria, or even America to escape persecution. The meat pie, similar to the popular Turkish pide, was at the time made with fowl, shallots, roasted dill seeds, and other ingredients. Though it’s been adapted, Assyrians eat this even today.
Another favorite of the ancients was kibbeh. Whether it is cooked in a tomato stew, as a fried meat-stuffed torpedo, or a flat pie filled with meat and pine nuts, kibbeh was enjoyed by the ancient Assyrians. Kibbeh pots were used by ancient Assyrians, and the word kibbeh itself is an ancient Akkadian word that was introduced into Aramaic, two of the root languages for modern day Assyrian.
Where in Chicago can diners find authentic Assyrian food?
For Assyrian food, like other Middle East cuisines, you have limited options in the city, and they don’t serve the traditional dishes that we cherish as families. There is Zaytune Mediterranean Grill, or Larsa’s in Skokie, where you can find some unique dishes.
I hope one day I see an authentic Assyrian restaurant in Chicago, so I have one place I can to point to, to say this is us, this is our culinary heritage on a plate. But to really taste our food, you need to make your way into the heart of an Assyrian family, which is the dining table.
You have a sold-out Ancient Cooking class with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute on April 1 at the Lakeview Whole Foods—with more to come this summer. What can people expect to learn?
An Assyriologist will be on board to explain ingredients and tools, as well as pickling and fermentation in the ancient world. I’m in charge of cooking and instructing on how to prepare various ancient foods.
But, Ancient Cooking classes aren’t just about making a dish. It’s almost like recreating the experience of entering an Assyrian home. Tea is always on, and the table has pots stuffed with figs, dates, and walnuts. If you come to my parent’s home, you will find exactly the same thing. There is food everywhere. Guests are literally attacked by food, and that’s the generosity of our culture, we want you to feel love through food. You will be overfed, you will be loved, and if you don’t eat the food, it is an insult.
ISIS and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria have caused the mass displacement of Assyrians since 2014. How do Assyrian Americans provide hope to people back in the homeland?
I have a cousin who runs an Assyrian food truck in Washington and the lamassu [a deity with a human head and animal body], which is a really significant cultural icon, is a part of their branding. You know, the Assyrian people are scattered throughout the world and often in sad situations, like what is happening in Iraq. Our ancient relics, like lamassu and Nimrud [an ancient Assyrian city], are being destroyed by people with no respect for anything. So when you see any Assyrian relic celebrated, people who are enduring a genocide back home still feel that somewhere in the world our culture is continuing on.
I hope Assyrian Kitchen can give hope and strength to Assyrians facing war and displacement today. If you know our story as a people, we have always had the short end of the stick with genocides. Even today, there is a genocide going on, and it is falling on deaf ears once again. But you can’t give up hope, and I feel that sharing our culinary history is just one way that our people can still have feel that love and warmth in their lives.