Mesopotamia is considered to be home to one of the first civilizations and it decisively shaped world history. Now thanks to some of the oldest culinary recipes, inscribed on clay tablets, we now know what they liked to eat and even what their meals tasted like. An interdisciplinary team is now recreating their dishes for the first time in almost 4000 years.
Mesopotamia was located in what is now Iraq, and parts of Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. The Babylonians came to dominate this area in the mid-2 nd century BC and, like other Mesopotamian cultures, were literate and made detailed records on clay tablets. Among these tablets are the world’s oldest known cookbooks.
There are four tablets that contain recipes, they are deposited at the Yale Babylonian Collection in the Yale Peabody Museum, in New Haven Connecticut. National Public Radio quotes Gojko Barjamovic of Harvard University, saying that “Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 BC”. The fourth one is from the Neo-Babylonian period dating from about 750 BC. They were discovered at the start of the 20 th century.
It was once thought that the texts were medical in nature. It was only in the 1940s, that a scholar, named Mary Hussey suggested that they were recipes, but she was largely ignored at the time.
In the 1980s, the French scholar Jean Bottéro demonstrated that the tablets were instructions on how to prepare meals. He was the first to make meals from the recipes. However, his experiments were less than successful as he worked alone and not all the instructions in the tablets were deciphered.
‘The Banquet Scene’ relief panel, 645BC-635BC. Credit: The British Museum
One of the tablets, according to Lapham’s Quarterly , “is a summary collection of twenty-five recipes of stews or broths with brief directions”. Two of the others, from the Old Babylonian period, have fewer recipes but give more instructions and directions. The three tablets from the Old Babylonian period are all damaged. Why the recipes were compiled is a mystery, but we know from a cuneiform text, The Infernal Kitchen, that the Babylonians had menus and elaborate feasts.
Gojko Barjamovic, who is an Assyriologist and an expert on cuneiform put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to improvements in the decipherment of cuneiform they were well-positioned to recreate the meals of the Ancient Babylonians. Among the team members are a food historian, a food biologist, a chef, and a cultural historian.
Links with Modern Cuisine
The recipes reveal both a concern with the seasonality of ingredients and an interest in combining and presenting components that presumably also went into actual cooking. The recipes deciphered from the 4000-year-old tablets are not dissimilar to the lamb stews seasoned with herbs and spices in Iraqi cuisine. Modern Iraqi stews appear to be the ‘direct descendants of the Babylonian versions found on the culinary tablets’ according to the Lapham Quarterly .
However, it is very difficult to recreate the recipes, because the tastes, aesthetics, and ways of cooking, change over time. In addition, the recipes did not provide the quantities of the ingredients used in making the meals, which is essential to any recipe. The interdisciplinary team adopted an experimental approach as they endeavoured to recreate Babylonian meals.
They were helped by the fact that the basic chemical processes of cooking are the same. National Public Radio quoted Barjamovic, “there are certain aspects of the human palate which are not going to change, which biologically we remain the same”. However, the specialists can never be sure that the meals they are making are exactly the same as what was made almost 4000 years ago.
Cooks at work in the royal kitchens. Relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh 7th century BC. ( Yale University Library )
Stew Made from Blood
So far, the interdisciplinary team has made three meals from the instructions on one of the Old Babylonian tablets. Among the meals that have been prepared by the specialists was a vegetarian stew. There was also a recipe for a beef broth which is somewhat similar to a stew made by the Jewish community in Baghdad until their expulsion. The Babylonians appear to have used beer in their cooking rather like many Northern European recipes.
One of the most curious recipes was for a stew known as an Elamite broth. This was a meal that was named after a region in modern Iran and may show that Babylonian cuisine was influenced by other cultures’ cuisines. One of the ingredients of this lamb broth is blood, something which is not a common ingredient in modern cooking.
Naturally, the team tasted what they cooked and Barjamovic explained that the food was not as exotic as we may imagine. Some interest has been expressed in the recipes by professional chefs. The results of the study have been published in a chapter of the book ‘From Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights of the Yale Babylonian Collection’
Top image: Babylonian relief carving. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan