An international team of food scientists, culinary historians and cuneiform experts have recreated the four oldest known recipes found on cuneiform tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection. The three oldest tablets date to the Old Babylonian period, around 1730 B.C., the fourth to the Neo-Babylonian period about a thousand years later.
There are multiple recipes on each tablet. One of the oldest three lists a collection of 25 stews, mostly ingredients with brief instructions for preparing the food. The other two have more detailed recipes, but the quantities are rarely noted. Each of the tablets has suffered damage over the millennia, making it even harder to figure out to cook authentic ancient Babylonian dishes.
The tablets have been on display for years but the old translations of the cuneiform were in need of reinterpretation to make them work in a kitchen. The culinary experts and cuneiform scholars collaborated to identify some of the herbs and other ingredients in the recipes, and then through a process of trial and error, they were recreated this spring in preparation for a tasting symposium hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.
The Yale-Harvard team wanted to keep as closely as possible to the original dishes, an ambitious goal considering how sparse some of the surviving instructions are and damage to the tablets themselves. The availability of ingredients was also a challenge.
The Yale-Harvard team prepared three recipes which were all from one tablet: two lamb stews — one with beets and one with milk and cakes of grain — and a vegetarian recipe enriched with beer bread.
The variety of ingredients, complex preparation, and cooking staff required to create these meals suggest that they were intended for the royal palace or temple — the haute cuisine of Mesopotamia, says Lassen. Few cooks were able to read cuneiform script, she adds, hence the recipes were most likely recorded to document the current practices of culinary art.
“This event gave us the opportunity to really connect with the people from that time,” says Graham. “By experiencing some of the processes that they would have used to cook these recipes and to taste the flavors that were prominent and popular then, you feel closer to the culture and the people, and I think that helps us to tell their story. It is interesting to think of all the tools we are aided by now and how cooking these recipes is so much easier for us than it was for them.” […]
While some of the Babylonian recipes were attempted prior to the event, one was new to the team and was prepared for the first time at the event. Called the “unwinding,” it is a vegetarian stew made with leek and onion. Lassen says that there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this name, but that one hypothesis suggests it has to do with one of the stew’s ingredients, dried lumps of crushed grains that were “almost like hard cakes that you add to the stew and then it melts into the stew,” says Lassen. “That could be ‘unwinding.’ It could also simply be a more literal word for a comfort food.”
“Making a stew is a very basic human thing and I think that is one of the reasons that we really went into this project,” says Lassen. “There is something really human about eating and food and tasting things, and that’s what we wanted to explore by recreating these recipes. Maybe not entirely as they as they would have prepared it — maybe our ingredients taste a little bit different — but still approximating something that nobody has tasted for almost 4,000 years.”
If you’d like to try your hand at Babylonian cuisine, here are the four recipes translated from the cuneiform.
Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. (You add) kurrat, cilantro, salt as desired, leek, garlic. You pound up dried sourdough, you sift (it) and you scatter (it) over the pot before removing it.
Stew of lamb
Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. [You crush] (and add) leek and garlic.
Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. Dill, kurrat, cilantro, leek, and garlic bound with blood, a corresponding amount of sour milk, and (more) garlic. The (original) name (of this dish) is Zukanda.
Leg meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You sear. You fold in salt, beer, onion, arugula, cilantro, Persian shallot, cumin and red beet, and [you crush] leek and garlic. You sprinkle coriander on top. [You add] kurrat and fresh cilantro.