Eat Like The Ancient Babylonians: Researchers Cook Up Nearly 4,000-Year-Old Recipes

Nov 16, 2019
Originally published on November 16, 2019 8:05 pm

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.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Barjamovic about the research. A transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity, follows.


Interview Highlights

Can you give us an idea of what's in these stews?

The area that is today Syria, Iraq and Turkey [is] ancestral to many of the ingredients that we use in our cooking today. And something [like] 50 percent of the calories that you will have been eating over the last 24 hours, I bet, will have come from vegetables or animals that were first domesticated in this area.

Why have these recipes taken so long to come to light?

Well, people don't expect ancient texts to be food recipes. They were known since the 1920s, really, but were thought to be perhaps medical texts, stuff like that. It was really only Mary Hussey, a scholar from Connecticut, who suggested that they might be recipes [back in the 1940s]. And people really didn't believe her until a French author and scholar [French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro] in the 1980s was asked to write an encyclopedic article about cooking in the ancient world. He had heard about this rumor that they might be recipes. So he went to Yale and found out that they were. And of course, being a Frenchman, he started working on them.

So have you tasted any of the recipes?

Yes, I've cooked these many times now. And the big difference between our French colleague, Monsieur Bottéro, and the way that he could handle these texts in the '80s and now is that we have a somewhat greater knowledge of, first of all, the ingredients listed in the texts themselves. We quite simply understand many of the words better than he did. But secondly, and more importantly, we're working together as a team and he worked alone.

Are they good?

Yes, they are, I would say — some of them. Which is interestingly a conclusion that is different from our French colleague. He privately acknowledged that he didn't really like much of the food that he was cooking — which might have something to do with his cultural background. Or the fact that our recipes are a little bit different and have moved on a little bit [thanks to a greater knowledge of Babylonian ingredients]. That is, I guess, an open question. [The food is] not as foreign as you might imagine. And there are some basic elements that we share with this kind of cooking. And there are certain aspects of the human palate which are not going to change, which biologically we remain the same.

Any big-name chefs express an interest in making the recipes or putting them into restaurants?

Big name? No. Small name? Yes. All over the place, there are lots of people who are contacting me these days and asking whether, you know, one would be interested in collaborating on having this presented in a restaurant.

So .... red or white [wine]?

These people are beer people. In fact, lots of the recipes contain beer. The Assyrians would have had wine with the food, I think. The best of the stews we're cooking is a red beet stew, and it has nice sour beer in it.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We're not sure if they ever tested them on Babylonia's top chef, but a trio of 4,000-year-old recipes have been deciphered by a team of international scholars. Their cookbook are some Babylonian tablets that were first discovered in the 1920s and '30s but were not properly translated until the end of the century. Harvard's Assyriologist Gojko Barjamovic put together the cooking team. He joins us on the line. Dr. Barjamovic, thanks very much for being with us.

GOJKO BARJAMOVIC: My pleasure.

SIMON: What do you got in the oven for us?

BARJAMOVIC: Three stews at the moment - one is a beet stew. One is a vegetarian. And the final one has a lamb in it.

SIMON: Can you give us an idea of what's in these stews?

BARJAMOVIC: The area that is today Syria, Iraq and Turkey are ancestral to many of the ingredients that we use in our cooking today. And something - about 50% of the calories that you will have been eating over the last 24 hours, I bet, will have come from vegetables or animals that were first domesticated in this area.

SIMON: Why have these recipes taking so long to come to light?

BARJAMOVIC: Well, people don't expect ancient texts to be food recipes. They were known since - yeah - the 1920s really but were thought to be, perhaps, medical texts and stuff like that. It was really only Mary Hussey, a scholar from Connecticut, who suggested that they might be recipes. And people really didn't believe her until a French author and scholar in the 1980s was asked to write an encyclopedic article about cooking in the ancient world. He had heard about this rumor that they might be recipes. So he went to Yale and found out that they were. And, of course, being a Frenchman, he started working on them.

SIMON: (Laughter) So have you tasted any of the recipes?

BARJAMOVIC: Yes. I've cooked these many times now. And the big difference between our French colleague Monsieur (unintelligible) and the way that he could handle these texts in the '80s and now is that we have a somewhat greater knowledge of, first of all, the ingredients listed in the texts themselves. We quite simply understand many of the words better than he did. But secondly and more importantly, we're working together as a team. And he worked alone.

SIMON: Are they good?

BARJAMOVIC: Yes, they are. I would say some of them, which is interestingly a conclusion that is different from our French colleague.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BARJAMOVIC: He privately acknowledged that she didn't really like much of the food that he was cooking (laughter), whether that has something to do with his cultural background or the fact that our recipes are a little bit different and have moved on a little bit is, I guess, an open question.

It's not as foreign as you might imagine. And there are some basic elements that we share with this kind of cooking. And there are certain aspects of the human palate, which are not going to change, which biologically will remain the same.

SIMON: Any big-name chefs expressed an interest in making the recipes or putting them into restaurants?

BARJAMOVIC: Big name - no. Small name - yes, all over the place. There are lots of people who are contacting me these days and asking whether, you know, one would be interested in collaborating on having this presented in a restaurant.

SIMON: So red or white?

BARJAMOVIC: Oh, I get it. These people are beer people. In fact, lots of the recipes contain beer. The Assyrians would have had wine with the food I think. The best of the stews we were cooking is a red beet stew. And it has nice sour beer in it.

SIMON: Gojko Barjamovic, who's a Harvard Assyriologist, thanks so much for being with us. And bon appetit.

BARJAMOVIC: Thank you - and my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.