Cambridge University Professor Cooks 4000-Year-Old Recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, and Lets You See How They Turned Out

Those of us who’ve ded­i­cat­ed a por­tion of our iso­la­tion to the art of sour­dough have not suf­fered for a lack of infor­ma­tion on how that par­tic­u­lar sausage should get made.

The Inter­net har­bors hun­dreds, nay, thou­sands of com­pli­cat­ed, con­trary, often con­tra­dic­to­ry, extreme­ly firm opin­ions on the sub­ject. You can lose hours…days…weeks, ago­niz­ing over which method to use.

The course for Bill Suther­land’s recent culi­nary exper­i­ment was much more clear­ly chart­ed.

As doc­u­ment­ed in a series of now-viral Twit­ter posts, the Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of Con­ser­va­tion Biol­o­gy decid­ed to attempt a Mesopotami­an meal, as inscribed on a 3770-year-old recipe tablet con­tain­ing humankind’s old­est sur­viv­ing recipes.

As Suther­land told Bored Pan­da’s Liu­ci­ja Ado­maite and Ilona Bal­iū­naitė, the trans­lat­ed recipes, found in Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: High­lights of the Yale Baby­lon­ian Col­lec­tion, were “aston­ish­ing­ly terse” and “per­plex­ing,” lead­ing to some guess work with regard to onions and gar­lic.

In addi­tion to 25 recipes, the book has pho­tos and illus­tra­tions of var­i­ous arti­facts and essays that “present the ancient Near East in the light of present-day dis­cus­sion of lived expe­ri­ences, focus­ing on fam­i­ly life and love, edu­ca­tion and schol­ar­ship, iden­ti­ty, crime and trans­gres­sion, demons, and sick­ness.”

Kind of like a cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion Martha Stew­art Liv­ing, just a bit less user friend­ly with regard to things like mea­sure­ments, tem­per­a­ture, and cook­ing times. Which is not to say the instruc­tions aren’t step-by-step:

Stew of Lamb

Meat is used. 

You pre­pare water. 

You add fat. 

You add fine-grained salt, bar­ley cakes, onion, Per­sian shal­lot, and milk. 

You crush and add leek and gar­lic.

The meal, which required just a cou­ple hours prep in Sutherland’s non-ancient kitchen sounds like some­thing he might have ordered for deliv­ery from one of Cam­bridge’s Near East­ern restau­rants.

The lamb stew was the hit of the night.

Unwind­ing, a casse­role of leeks and spring onion, looked invit­ing but was “a bit bor­ing.”

Elamite Broth was “pecu­liar but deli­cious,” pos­si­bly because Suther­land sub­sti­tut­ed toma­to sauce for sheep’s blood.

It’s an admit­ted­ly meaty propo­si­tion. Only 2 of the 25 recipes in the col­lec­tion are veg­e­tar­i­an (“meat is not used.”)

And even there, to be real­ly authen­tic, you’d have to sauté every­thing in sheep fat.

(Suther­land swapped in but­ter.)

via Bored Pan­da

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her iso­la­tion projects are sour­dough and an ani­ma­tion with free down­load­able posters, encour­ag­ing the use of face cov­er­ings to stop the spread of COVID-19. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Octagon says:

    Deli­cious, I’m sure, but please cor­rect “Let’s you see…” in the head­line. :-)

  • Sam Wallace says:

    To be clear, this is an excerpt of “Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks” which cov­ers quite a bit of the con­tents and con­text of the Yale Baby­lon­ian col­lec­tion with a focus on their tablets, not just those sec­tions hav­ing to do with recipes. The major­i­ty of the culi­nary sec­tion is in this arti­cle. There are addi­tion­al bits giv­ing illus­tra­tions of seals and oth­er depic­tions of food­ways as well as oth­er sec­tions that I am inter­est­ed in, so I am pleased with my pur­chase of the book. A par­tic­u­lar­ly nice touch is the way the tran­scrip­tion and trans­la­tion is col­or-cod­ed and pre­sent­ed in par­al­lel.

    If you are only inter­est­ed in the recipes, though, just enjoy the arti­cle or per­haps pur­chase “The Old­est Cui­sine in the World” which, though there are some flaws, is more focused. I have both and enjoy the per­spec­tive each pro­vides.

  • Laura Kelley says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Bot­tero was mis­tak­en about many of the ingre­di­ents and prepa­ra­tion. Of foods from the Yale tablets. He ignored a great deal of exist­ing schol­ar­ship, and also pro­ject­ed Euro­pean ideas onto the recipes. Blind­ly fol­low­ing him is not going to pro­duce ancient Mesopotami­an food.

    In 2011, I did a great deal of work on this sub­ject, held an ancient Mesopotami­an cookoff, and pub­lished on the Silk Road Gourmet, and in Sau­di Aram­co World.

    The “recipes,” real­ly are fla­vor guide­lines that can be used to con­struct a wide vari­ety of dish­es, depend­ing on what the rel­a­tive pro­por­tions of the ingre­di­ents are.

    Those inter­est­ed a re-imag­ing of the recipes will yield, should con­sult the sources men­tioned above.

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