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"A cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period,” is how French Assyriologist and gourmet chef Jean Bottero, who decoded three ancient ‘cookbooks’, described the Akkadian recipes meticulously inscribed in cuneiform tablets.
The Beginning of Fine Cuisine
It may be said that cooking was ‘invented’ when our human ancestors began to control fire. Whilst this occurred in prehistoric times, it was much later that humans began recording their favored meals as recipes. The world’s oldest known ‘cookbook’ comes from Mesopotamia, and is referred today as the Yale Culinary Tablets. This is a group of three clay tablets that are kept in the Yale Babylonian Collection today, and contains cooking instructions for 25 different recipes.
‘The Banquet Scene’ relief panel, 645BC-635BC. Credit: The British Museum
Whilst the provenance of the Yale Culinary Tablets is not known, analysis of the text suggests that the text date to the middle of the Old Babylonian period, i.e. around 1700 B.C., and are probably from the southern part of Mesopotamia. The Yale Culinary Tablets consists of three discrete clay tablets that have been named YBC 4644, YBC 8958, and YBC 4648.
The reverse of YBC 4644. Photo source: Ancient History et cetera.
Fit for a Babylonian King?
The ancient cookbooks contain recipes for 21 types of meat dishes and 4 kinds of vegetable ones, almost all of which involved combinations of meat, fowl, vegetables, or grain cooked in broth, which had first been flavored with onions, garlic and leeks. The dishes were slow-cooked in a covered pot to make the food extra tasty.
“Various cooking techniques were known, and a complex assortment of herbs and spices was used to flavor a single dish”, writes Sylvia Carter, LA Times. “Garnishes and presentation were so highly esteemed that they were mentioned in recipes that are otherwise not highly detailed. In one recipe, crumbled bread provided a thickening. And, just as modern cooks collect recipes from other regions or countries, the Mesopotamian chefs gave credit to the Assyrians to the north for one stew and to the Elamites from the southwest corner of Iran for another.”
YBC 4644, recipe 20, can be successfully interpreted as a stew made with lamb, licorice, vegetables and juniper. Credit: Miles Collins
Savoured Meats – Venison, Gazelle, Lamb and Mutton
The Yale Culinary Tablets provide an indication of the variety of foods the ancient Mesopotamians had access to. For instance, with regards to meat, the ‘cookbook’ includes recipes for venison, gazelle, lamb mutton, and fowl.
One recipe that has been recreated by a modern-day cook, taken from Yale Babylonian Collection 8958, Recipe 2, was made with pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens.” The method of cooking was left to interpretation.
“Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958. Credit: Laura Kelley
Instructions for the preparation of pastry (for a kind of pie) can also be found in the second tablet. Common seasonings include onion, garlic and leeks, but some of the ingredients have yet to be identified by scholars. These include a type of bird called tarru, as well as samidu and suhutinnu, both of which were used as seasoning.
Cuisine for Elites
It has been pointed out, however, that the dishes mentioned in the Yale Culinary Tablets were probably not the kind of food that was commonly consumed by the average ancient Mesopotamian. This is due to the fact that the ingredients required for the dishes were not easily obtained by the ordinary person. Moreover, the instructions for the preparation of these dishes are quite elaborate. Therefore, it is likely that it was the elites of Mesopotamian society who savoured these dishes, perhaps on some festive occasion.
Who Were They Written For?
Another question of interest is regarding the way the ‘cookbook’ may have been used. In ancient Mesopotamian society, cooks, along with the great majority of the population, were illiterate. Therefore, it would have been quite improbable that the recipes were written by a cook for other cooks to use. Scribes were the ones who were literate, and chances are that the Yale Culinary Tablets were produced by them. The purpose for the production of these tablets, however, will likely remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that ancient Mesopotamian cuisine also influenced the cuisine of other civilizations that came to inhabited that region, including the ancient Persians, the medieval Arabs, and the Iraqis of the modern period
Bottéro, J., 1987. The Culinary Tablets at Yale. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 107(1), pp. 11-19.
Bottéro, J., 1995. Mesopotamian culinary texts. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns.
Bottéro, J., 2004. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press.
Carter, Sylvia (1985). Chef Breaks Code to Ancient Recipes: Babylonian Collection Now the Oldest Known to Man. LA Times. Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/1985-05-23/food/fo-8362_1_ancient-recipes
Kelley, Laura (2012). New Flavors for the Oldest Recipes. Aramco World. Available at: http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/201206/new.flavors.for.the.oldest.recipes.htm
The Associated Press, 1988. Mastering the Art of Babylonian Cooking. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/03/nyregion/mastering-the-art-of-babylonian-cooking.html
Wiener, J., 2014. Tasty Ancient Recipes from Mesopotamia. [Online]
Available at: http://etc.ancient.eu/interviews/ancient-recipes-mesopotamia/
Yale University Library, 2010. Middle Eastern & Islamic Cuisine. [Online]
Available at: https://www.library.yale.edu/neareast/exhibitions/cuisine.html