Babylonian stew

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.

Elamite Broth

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.

9 thoughts on “Babylonian stew

  1. Interesting – but, as they say themselves, over-simplifying.

    The basic ingredients they list could in themselves imply transformations for us unthinkable, but for them obvious. As a simple example – if I’d only ever be using black garlic, and a recipe would call for it, I’d mark it down as “garlic”. The exceptional time I’d need *raw* garlic, I’d mark it down as “raw garlic”. Somebody not knowing my personal use of nomenclature would obviously get it wrong.

    As another example: “dried barley cakes” could be anything ranging from cooked and then dried compact barley, to, say, the Korean “Meju”, which is a fermented (soy bean) cake (the Noma Restaurant make a meju out of barley)…

  2. Papadum?!?… 😀

    “Unwinding”…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,”

    Papadums are typically served as an accompaniment to a meal or as an appetizer or snack, sometimes with toppings such as chopped onions, chopped carrots, chutneys or other dips, and condiments. Papadum is derived from the Sanskrit word parpaṭa (पर्पट), meaning a flattened disc.

    @Claudio, I was so far totally unaware of ‘black garlic’, but instead very well aware of the differences between European and Chinese Garlic. There is green coriander, and a –totally different– black one, though. If the taste of black garlic is “sweet and syrupy with hints of balsamic vinegar or tamarind”, there luckily is no shortage of tamarind and ‘Balsamico’. In Bavaria I know a spot, where allegedly 900kg(!) of ginger were harvested last year, but am unable to tell of the quality.



    (From: APICII LIBRI X, “Apicius” is a collection of Roman cookery recipes, compiled in the 1st century AD)

  3. wondering here about what the “pumpkin” in this recipe really is pumpkins are from the Americas, could not have been in a recipe from Rome in the 1st century AD

  4. something is blocking my stuff on here….

    Latin “cucurbita” = (prop., a gourd), a cuppingglass (from its form). Id est —in lingua Anlice— a “gourd”, or to be precise, “Lagenaria siceraria”.

    Gourds include the fruits of some flowering plant species in the family Cucurbitaceae, particularly Cucurbita and Lagenaria. The term refers to a number of species and subspecies, many with hard shells, and some without. One of the earliest domesticated types of plants, subspecies of the bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, have been discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC. Gourds have had numerous uses throughout history, including as tools, musical instruments, objects of art, film, and food.

    According to this, which -to point that out- I did not read, the american ones (not the “pumkins” lost in translation) were “drifted” 7000 years ago from Africa (Alexandria?). Which I find rather confusing myself:

    L. Kistler, A. Montenegro, B. D. Smith, J. A. Gifford, R. E. Green, L. A. Newsom, B. Shapiro: Transoceanic drift and the domestication of African bottle gourds in the Americas. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1318678111

  5. These recipes are in common with almost all recipes prior to the late 19th century in that there are no or few measurements given. They were written more as an aide memoire for the cook writing or dictating the recipe or for another experienced cook, possibly an apprentice. It was more of a reminder of how to prepare a particular dish than something to instruct someone who had no experience with it as modern recipes do.

    Sometimes in medieval recipes there will be instructions on how long to cook something (often in the form of something like “as long as it takes to say 4 paternosters (the Lord’s Prayer)).

    Also, the writing down or a recipe presupposes that the cook expected it is literate or has easy access to someone literate. I’m not sure you could reasonably expect a Babylonian royal cook to summon a scribe to the kitchens to read a cuneiform recipe tablet aloud.

  6. “Most people perceive the taste of coriander leaves as a tart, lemon/lime taste, but a smaller group of about 3–21% of people tested (depending on ethnicity) think the leaves taste like dish soap, linked to a gene which detects some specific aldehydes that are also used as odorant substances in many soaps and detergents.”

    Actually, I am a big fan of coriander leaves. Over here you could buy freshly cut ones, which was alright back then. However, refridged for too long, it really does not take ‘genes’ to detect those specific aldehydes, and you simply could use the stuff at all. Note that it is officially OK to take parsley instead, even if that is not the same.


    ‘Allium ampeloprasum’, however, comprises several vegetables, of which the most important ones are:

    – leek, ‘Ackerlauch’ (Allium ampeloprasum)
    – elephant garlic
    – pearl onion
    – kurrat, Egyptian leek or salad leek – (Allium porrum var. aegyptiacum) this variety has small bulbs, and primarily the leaves are eaten.
    – Persian leek (Allium ampeloprasum ssp. persicum) – a cultivated allium native to the middle east and Iran, grown for culinary purposes

  7. Black garlic is not a variety, but a really slow-cooked garlic – i.e. you keep the garlic in moisture-controlled 60°C for several months.

    As several others have pointed out – there is so much being lost here to translation, and to historical practices…

  8. The “no meat is used” immediately reminds me of Jewish dietary laws, which prohibit cooking or serving meat and milk together.

    Or was meat so expensive that it was noted? Even in the royal kitchen?

    Or was there a cultural/medical attitude to eating meat?

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