Decoded Babylonian recipes reveal ancient tastes

The world’s oldest recipes, eating habits, and even culinary culture have been decoded by Babylonian scholars at Yale. The four dishes, recreated by measuring ingredient portions in a scientifically averaged way, turned out to be different types of lamb stew, and connects culinary traditions in modern Iraq, Iran, and Syria to their Mesopotamian ancestors. 

Aromatic Persian shallot, leek, onion, and garlic join fine-grained salt and meat which—when mixed with water, milk, and barley cakes—gives the cook a tasty stew. How much garlic, how much milk? It’s impossible to ask, because whoever created this staple, reminiscent of pacha, a modern-day soup eaten in Iraq, has been dead for thousands of years. 

When Assyriologists realized that—lying among the thousands of clay tablets carved with cuneiform letters that make up Yale’s Babylonian Collection—there were the intimate details of not only recipes, but food preparation and dialogue on world cuisine, they must have seen an incredible opportunity to gain insight on the everyday world of this ancient civilization. 

Culinary historians and food scientists joined the cuneiform readers in forming a team to decode these ancient eats, and after some trial and error, assembled four recipes for different stews, giving a fascinating insight into the culture of Babylonian and Sumerian kitchens. 

A tasty puzzle 

Three tablets contained the working recipes, with the largest hosting 25 ingredient lists. Their simplicity paralleled someone explaining how to make a hamburger today—the current cultural setting would make it so obvious, but 4,000 years from now the method may be a mystery. 

The first dish, called me-e puhadi, is seasoned with garlic, onion, and a lot of coriander, but the principle component is the melting of sheep’s tail fat in the pot. This base is used to sauté (sort of) the lamb meat. 

Known as alya in Arabic, rendered sheep’s tail was an “indispensable ingredient in Iraq, until around the 1960s,” culinary historian and Medieval Iraqi cuisine expert Nawal Nasrallah said in a BBC Travel piece on the recipes. 

“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,” said Nasrallah. “It is really fascinating to see how such a simple dish, with all its infinite variety, has survived from ancient times to present.” 

Another dish, which the BBC has written down completely in our own language, is called Tuh’u, and contains red beetroots, lamb, coriander, and beer. It’s reminiscent, Nasrallah argues, of Ashkenazi-Russian borscht, or a stew made by Iraqi Jewish communities called Kofta Shawandar Hamudh, which means beetroots and meatballs. 

The last deciphered recipe was like a chicken pot pie, with layers of dough filled with chunks of bird cooked in something like a béchamel sauce. The tablets demonstrated another fascinating cultural development in our history: the recognition of cuisine. 

Foreign food 

“Elamite stew” titles one recipe. Bearing the name of another very early civilization from the time of Babylon and Sumer, and one which would be an almost perennial pain in the backside for conquering kings of Babylon and later Assyria, this stew is based with animal blood, and the texts recognize it in the way which we would recognize something like tacos, or Pad Thai, something which once was foreign but has become a ubiquitous menu item known by all. 

“There is a notion of ‘cuisine’ in these 4,000-year-old texts. There is food which is ‘ours’ and food that is ‘foreign,’” Gojko Barjamovic, chief translator on the team, told BBC. “Foreign is not bad—only different, and sometimes apparently worth cooking, since they give us the recipe.” 

“Mu elamutum” as it’s called, includes dill, an ingredient demonstrative of its foreignness, since dill isn’t used in Iraqi cooking, and isn’t mentioned in any of the Babylonian recipes—which Yale have put online for others to try making

Iranian cuisine on the other hand does use dill, and it is modern-day Iran where the Elamites lived. So trade between the two nations created an understanding of food culture, and an appreciation of different flavors. Archaeologists and scholars have decoded a lot of ancient texts that give us insight into how people lived in the so-called, “black and white era” of history. 

In his book Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek details translations of Babylonian and Sumerian receipts, athletic competitions, and even humor, while ancient Greek scholars decoded the musical notation for the world’s oldest song, the Epitaph of Seikilos. 

Food though, is maybe a little bit more universal than music, sports, or commerce, and in the writings of the Babylonian chefs we find an incredible human connection to the past, enshrined in lamb and coriander. 

By Andy Corbley

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