Watch a 4000-Year Old Babylonian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Harvard

Walk like an Egyptian, but eat like an ancient Babylonian.

While cookbooks containing Mesopotamian fare do exist, to be really authentic, take your recipes from a clay tablet, densely inscribed in cuneiform.

Sadly, there are only four of them, and they reside in a display case at Yale. (Understandable given that they’re over 4000 years old.)

When Agnete Lassen, associate curator of Yale’s Babylonian Collection, and colleague Chelsea Alene Graham, a digital imaging specialist, were invited to participate in a culinary event hosted by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, they wisely chose to travel with a 3D-printed facsimile of one of the precious tablets.

T’would have been a shame to knock the original off the counter while reaching for a bunch of leeks.

While other presenters prepared such delicacies as Fish Sauces at the Roman Table, Buddhist vegetarian dishes from the Song Dynasty, and a post-modern squid-ink spin on Medieval Blancmange, the Yale team joined chef Nawal Nasrallah and a crew from Harvard to recreate three one-pot dishes detailed on one of the ancient artifacts.

Judging by the above video, the clear winner was Tuh’i, a beet and lamb stew which Lassen describes as a “proto-borscht.”

The vegetarian Unwinding Stew’s name proved unnecessarily vexing, while the milk-based Broth of Lamb was unappetizing to the eye (as well as the palate, according to Graham). Perhaps they should have substituted animal blood—another favorite Babylonian thickener.

As one of Lassen’s predecessors, Professor William W. Hallo, told The New York Times in 1988, it’s unlikely the average Mesopotamian would have had the opportunity to tuck into any of these dishes. The vast quantities of speciality ingredients and the elaborate instructions suggest a festive meal for the elite.

In addition to the dishes served at NYU’s Appetite for the Past conference, the tablets include recipes for stag, gazelle, kid, mutton, squab, and a bird that’s referred to as “tarru.”

Next time, perhaps.

And not to quibble with the Bulldogs, but the BBC reports that researchers from the University of Wales Institute are claiming a pudding made from nettles, ground barley, and water is actually the world’s oldest recipe, clocking in at 6000 BC. (Serve it with roast hedgehog and fish gut sauce…)

While the Yale team has yet to share its recipes in a language other than cuneiform, The Silk Road Gourmet has a good guide to various Mesopotamian spices and staples.

via Kottke/Yale

Related Content:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Discover the Oldest Beer Recipe in History From Ancient Sumeria, 1800 B.C.

Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dating Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Thursday June 28 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (6)
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  • Libby Mcfarland says:

    Are these recipes available somewhere to print. I would like to cook them with my students. Thanks, Libby

  • Ayun Halliday says:

    Libby, I looked high and low and couldn’t find em. But perhaps if you email Agnete Lassen, whose Yale profile is hyperlinked above, she may prove willing to help a fellow educator out!

  • Sonya Garza Rapport says:

    I will love to take cute of cooking classes in New York or in Yale of Old or antique world recipies. Once I read about Recipies from Movies and I haven’t been able to find . I will be very happy if you let me know
    Sonya Garza Rapport

  • Zach Woods says:

    Had great fun cooking and eating the Tuh’i (Lamb & Beets) and the Meersu (Date & Pistachio balls dessert). Here are the recipes I came up with after piecing together info in this and other sources – lots of the quantities are to taste / personal preference.

    Babylonian recipes

    Ingredients shopping list

    * 1 cup pistachios
    * 2 1/2 cup pitted dates
    * 1/2 cup shredded coconuts

    * 1 lb Lamb (my guess is either to cut up a shank end of leg or as suggested in the lamb w/ barley and mint boneless lamb steaks – the shank end of leg would offer fat trimmings if we wanted to use that as the fat)
    * Beets (don’t know quantity – they taste good so maybe err on the side of more rather than less?) – plenty is great
    * Salt (I’m betting on kosher salt – I need some as I am running out)
    * Beer (I’m going to look into early beers further – a farmer’s beer (maybe one of the sour ones) might be correct for the period) – Barley beer is probably most accurate
    * Shallots (again don’t know quantity – I usually err on the side of more and they have a relatively delicate flavor so that’s the direction I would go)
    * Arugula (more again? what do you think?)
    * Coriander (fresh is best – often called cilantro when sold fresh) – strangely they list cilantro also below as a finish (garnish) so maybe they mean dried coriander but I say let’s go with fresh in both uses for flavor
    * Semolina or Bulgur Wheat – do you want more of a stew (semolina) or pilaf (bulgur wheat)? fresher on either comes from an Asian market
    * Cumin (I’m thinking freshly ground but they may mean fresh seeds – both are not truly fresh (we would likely have to grow it ourselves for actually fresh) – this should be available in an Asian market)
    * Leeks – probably not a lot needed but ? – 2 maximum
    * Garlic – cooks choice for quantity / flavor – I’m currently out so we need some
    * Carrots – shouldn’t need a lot because this is used as a garnish – 2 maximum
    * Fat – butter (unsalted)? Lamb fat? Vegetable oil? Nut oil? Shmaltz (rendered chicken fat)? Lard?

    Lamb w/ Beets and Bran (Tuh’i)
    Recipe XXII: Lamb with Beets and Bran – Prepare water and fat. Add salt, beer, shallots, arugula, coriander, semolina, cumin and the peeled beets. Add mashed leeks and garlic. Finish with coriander and carrot or parsnip. – I’m thinking the “broth/sauce” should be simmered for a good long time (can’t cook for too long) and the lamb should be pan seared and then cooked for a long time (can’t cook for too long as with many pre-1850 or so recipes) in the “broth/sauce”
    (In this recipe, bran may actually be bulgur wheat. My best guess is that the most likely finish is cilantro and finely sliced or shredded carrots. If bulgur is tried, I think that this could be a delicious pilaf.)

    (In this and other recipes, the type of fat is unknown, it could be butter, or some type of animal fat or even a vegetable or nut oil. Also, the disposition of the dairy product is unknown. They could be moist like a yogurt or sour cream or partially dried like a chaka or even completely dried like kashk.)

    Now, if I were a guest at Ashurbanipal’s banquet – I’d tuck into the Lamb or Beef with Carob first. Maybe I’d make that the Mutton with Licorice and Juniper, or the Lamb with Beets and Bran . . . For dessert, if I had room, I’d pop a few mersu (pounded dates rolled in pistachio nuts and sliced into bite-size confections) for dessert with another sip of fruit wine before bidding my companions farewell for the evening.

    As a reference / comparison

    Lamb with Barley and Mint, XXIII
    (this is Deana’s version of the dish, and the featured photo for the post)
    2 boneless lamb steaks (about 1 pound), trimmed, retaining the trimmings
    1 T soy sauce (preferably shoyu – I used murri sauce which I brewed from a 1000 year old recipe that I will share with you soon… it is THAT GOOD)
    1 T olive oil (although many old recipes use sesame oil— not the roasted kind)
    1 t ground cumin
    1 t ground coriander
    1/4 t black pepper
    2 cloves garlic
    1 cup barley
    4 c stock (lamb, beef or chicken)
    1 c yogurt ( I used the cream on top kind and used the cream layer)
    4 carrots
    1/2 c chopped mint
    4 carrots, cut into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
    Marinate the lamb in the soy sauce for 1/2 an hour. Sauté the lamb in the oil. Remove the large pieces and leave the trimmings in the pot. Stir the barley into the oil and toast for a few moments. Add the spices, garlic. Simmer for 30 minutes until the barley is cooked. Place the lamb steaks in the pan and warm… cooking to desired degree of doneness (I like mine RARE so I only put them in for 5 mintues).
    Add the carrots for 5 minutes, sprinkled over the top. There should be a lovely sauce. Remove the lamb (leave the trimmings out of the dish) and let rest for 5 minutes, then slice.
    Place the carrots in the dish, spoon the barley over carrots, add the sliced lamb and sprinkle with mint.

    Meat with Wild Licorice: ingredients – wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress), cumin, zest of citron, and water. The recipe states to boil six liters of water with wild licorice and cook for a long time. Then it reads that the citron zest should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked

    Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 1 – Mersu by Sasha Martin
    August 5, 2011 by Laura
    The first entry in our Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from friend in the blogosphere, Sasha Martin over at Global Table Adventure. As fate would have it, she was cooking the food of Iraq the same week that I announced the Cookoff and instantly noted the connections between the Babylonian mersu recipe and a confection on the modern Iraqi table. Using only the dates and pistachio nuts in the original recipe, Sasha came up with the glorious treats pictured here. For some of the mersu, she added a coconut* topping as a variation that adds visual interest in the presentation and tastes delicious as well.
    As envisioned by Sasha, mersu combines the natural, unaltered and unenhanced flavors of the dates and pistachio nuts in delicious ways. The dates are ground, mixed with minced pistachio nuts and then rolled into bite-size confections. Delicious as is, Sasha took this an extra step and rolled the date-nut balls in ground pistachio nuts and ground coconut, and arranged them as pictured above.
    1 cup pistachios
    1 cup pitted dates (should be 2.5 as listed at top – 1 is too little.)
    1/8-1/4 cup pistachios, ground for rolling and/or
    1/8-1/4 cup shredded coconut for rolling (optional)
    (Makes 12)
    Blend dates into a paste by pulsing in a food processor. If you prefer the authentic, Mesopotamian preparation techniques, pound and rolling the dates will produce the same results – but take a lot longer and leave your arms sore unless you are accustomed to making bread.
    Then add the minced pistachios and pulse or pound again until integrated and smooth.
    Form into small balls. Sasha leveled the mixture in a tablespoon to make sure they all came out the same, then she rolled them in her hands. About half way through, she washed her hands and the spoon to reduce stickiness. This made a dozen.
    As a finishing touch, roll the date balls in ground pistachios or shredded coconut. The pistachios coating is more traditional, although the coconut is fun. (Make ground pistachios by pulsing a 1/4 cup in a coffee grinder or food processor.) To see this recipe constructed step by step and to catch Sasha’s food and time travel vibe – click here.

  • Gustavo R. says:

    The name of the first recipe, if you think of unwinding as meaning ‘disentangle’, makes me think of “untying knots” or “undoing knots”, as in

    Could it be that the soup was meant to ‘magically’ help people solve problems in their lives, instead of ‘relaxing muscles’?

  • George Abuhamad says:

    I think the lamb broth recipe calls for plain yogurt instead of milk, since the ancient word for yogurts “laban” is used inter-changably in the Near East till today, lamb broth yogurt is still a fairly popular dish in Iraq and Syria.

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