A meal from ancient history, decoded, and the scholar who sleuthed the recipe discusses it in a brief interview:
What did a meal taste like nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia? Pretty good, according to a team of international scholars who have deciphered and are re-creating what are considered to be the world’s oldest-known culinary recipes.
The recipes were inscribed on ancient Babylonian tablets that researchers have known about since early in the 20th century but that were not properly translated until the end of the century.
The tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum. Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C., according to Harvard University Assyriologist and cuneiform scholar Gojko Barjamovic, who put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. A fourth tablet was produced about 1,000 years later. All four tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, in what is today Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
For a long time, says Barjamovic, scholars thought the tablets might be medical texts. In the 1940s, a researcher named Mary Hussey suggested the writing was actually recipes, but “people really didn’t believe her” at the time, he says.
“The tablets all list recipes that include instructions on how to prepare them,” the authors write in a piece about their work published in Lapham’s Quarterly earlier this year. “One is a summary collection of twenty-five recipes of stews or broths with brief directions. The other two tablets contain fewer recipes, each described in much more detail. ”
The researchers write that the “stews represent an early stage of a long tradition that is still dominant in Iraqi cuisine” — specifically, aromatic lamb stews “often slightly thickened, enhanced with rendered sheep’s tail fat, and flavored with a combination of spices and herbs and members of the Allium family, such as onion, garlic, and leek. These seem to be direct descendants of the Babylonian versions found on the culinary tablet with stew recipes.”
So far, the cooking team — which also includes a food historian, a curator, a chemical biologist specializing in food, a professional chef and an expert on cultural heritage — has re-created three stews. “One is a beet stew, one is vegetarian, and the final one has lamb in it,” says Barjamovic…