I’d like to try cooking them

I was amused to read that clay tablets, many thousands of years old, containing ancient Babylonian recipes have been decoded, and researchers are trying to prepare the dishes they describe.

The instructions for lamb stew read more like a list of ingredients than a bona fide recipe: “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” But it’s impossible to ask the chef to reveal the missing pieces: This recipe’s writer has been dead for some 4,000 years.

Instead, a team of international scholars versed in culinary history, food chemistry and cuneiform (the Babylonian system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia) have been working to recreate this dish and three others from the world’s oldest-known recipes. It’s a sort of culinary archaeology that uses tablets from Yale University’s Babylonian Collection to gain a deeper understanding of that culture through the lens of taste.

. . .

Of the older three tablets, the most intact is more of a listing of ingredients that amounts to 25 recipes of stews and broths; the other two, containing an additional 10-plus recipes, go further in depth with cooking instructions and presentation suggestions, but those are broken and therefore not as legible.

The challenge was to peel back the layers of history while also maintaining authenticity amid the limitations of modern ingredients.

. . .

“I was really surprised to find that what is a staple in Iraq today, which is a stew, is also a staple from ancient times, because in Iraq today, that is our daily meal: stew and rice with a bread,” Nasrallah said. “It is really fascinating to see how such a simple dish, with all its infinite variety, has survived from ancient times to present, and in those Babylonian recipes, I see not even the beginnings; they already had reached sophisticated levels in cooking those dishes. So who knows how much earlier they began?”

There’s more at the link.

It’s fascinating to trace human history and wanderings through local, regional and international cuisine.  Many people are unaware of just how many influences have helped to shape and form a food culture that they mistakenly regard as unique.

To take just one example in the United States, consider Texas “cowboy cooking”.  It blends food traditions from West Africa, the Caribbean, the Carolinas, Cajun and Creole influences, Spanish and South American dishes, and the uniquely home-grown “cook what you’ve got” approach of frontier settlers, plus modern adulterations of those historical influences, and combines them all into what has become a food tradition in its own right.  A fascinating book on the subject is “The Texas Cowboy Cookbook:  A History in Recipes and Photos“, which devotes a chapter to each of the major influences affecting that cuisine, and offers many authentic recipes.  I’ve made some of them.  They’re delicious!

It’s the best historical treatment of its subject that I’ve yet found, and the photographs in particular (many dating from the era in question) are intensely interesting.  It’s one of my standard reference books for the “Ames Archives” series of Western novels, not just in terms of meals, but the supplies that would be carried and used by travelers, trail drives and the like.  You’ll read a lot more about them in the next Walt Ames novel, to be published in 2020.



  1. We have the Texas Cowboy Cookbook in our collection. I have read it from cover to cover and also make some of the recipes. Sometimes it is just a good consult when making a dish but not following a recipe.

  2. Stews are a step up from roastng as son as you have a fire proof and water tight pot. So why would ancient stew recipes be surprising? Just another example of archeologists lack of empathy and imagination. Ancient people did not have our advantages so they must have been stpid NOoT!

  3. Peter,

    The missus and you need some stew or chili for the norther' blowing into today and the cold on Tuesday and Wednesday.

    Remember, a true red Texas chili has no beans, if you add them it's stew or beans with meat. So if you have chili, fire up the oven and roast some veggies and add some warm to the house.

    Take care and keep goin'

  4. I remember being told by my late Mother, that Fannie Farmer's 1896 THE BOSTON COOKING-SCHOOL COOK BOOK was the first to use standard measures, and that previously cook books tended to have instructions such as "take a sufficiency of…"

    I just looked it up on WIKIPEDIA, and for whatever it's worth they agree with my memory.

    So, the opaque quality of this ancient cook book is by no means unusual.

  5. Those recipes read like those I get from my female relatives. They expected you to know how to cook so a list was good enough.

  6. A warning from someone who's eaten meals cooked from medieval recipes…

    Careful as to seasoning. Olde Tyme seasonings are a tad different from modern taste palettes.

    Case in point: Catalin Pie. Basically a meat and fruit pie, simple so far, but using a poop-ton of anise. Can you say licorice pie, anyone? Without the anise, you have a wonderful hot or cold pie, perfect for evening dining or a summer picnic.

    And as to chili, well, wife wants beans, therefore there shall be beans…

  7. Hmm. On the mobile site, I can see the post title, "I'd like to try cooking them", and below it on the left is a thumbnail of the "Texas Cowboy Cookbook". For a moment, I thought you were delving into cannibal cookery.

  8. I was doing some research on ancient Greece, and picked up some tidbits about how ancient Greeks ate.

    Unsurprisingly, meat was rare (though fish and eggs seemed to be fairly common even for the lower classes). Hard barley bread was a common staple, especially dipped in watered wine to soften it.

    One of the most appalling things described, though, was kykeon, a combination of 'barley gruel, water (or wine), herbs, and goat cheese in an almost shake-like consistency'.

    A goat cheese milkshake? Eurgh…

  9. @Beans;

    Medieval recipes were often heavily spiced to disguise the flavor of meat that was spoiling. This applies especially to recipes for dishes traditionally served in the dead of winter, when supplies were running low.

  10. CSPS – they were also heavily spiced in order to show how rich the people were. We don't have medieval recipes from the average Squire-Joe, we only have recipes from rich folk.

    As to spoiling meat, the Euros preferred, until really the mid to late 1800's, well-hung and aged meat. Which you can get away with in a cool to cold environment. And a lot of salted meats.

    We, in the modern era of refrigeration and freezing, just don't have a good idea how well people ate back then. But they did, especially during the early medieval warming period, when food production was at extremely high levels, to the point it was hard not to be productive.

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