A Mesopotamia pot
Humans have been cooking for tens of thousands of years, insofar as “cooking” can be taken to mean applying heat to food. In fact, the suggestion has been made by Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham that it was the development of cooking amongst early humans that stimulated the rapid evolution of human brainpower. In reality, though, “cooking” implies a more thought through cuisine, something with methods and processes. At what time did humanity move beyond simply “apply fire” and onto passing on knowledge of food preparation? In short, when and where were the first recipes written down? And what would it be like to try them?
A quick google for “world’s oldest recipe” brings up various less than convincing claims, including this one from the ever-reliable Daily Mail Online. Arguably the internet’s least accurate “news” source is genuinely trying to convince us that the “world’s oldest recipe book” is just 600 years old. That’s even though you may remember a Roman recipe book from over a millennium before that! Yes, apparently the Mail actually believes anything not written in English doesn’t really count. Imagine how they might handle the idea that the very first written recipes (long before they were put in books) came out of the Middle East, even within the borders of what is now Iraq.
Bronze Age Mesopotamia, the area around the fertile Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was the cradle of civilisation, the origin of developments both technological and intellectual that formed the cornerstone of future cultures. In the 18th century BC, the great power in the region was the Babylonian Empire and their famous ruler Hammurabi. Under Hammurabi the first code of laws were written, inscribed in the Akkadian language on stone tablets in the early pictorial alphabet cuneiform.
Hammurabi died around 1750 BC. At around the same time a great number more stone tablets were inscribed in cuneiform script with various other Akkadian writings. These were acquired amongst 40,000 objects becoming part of Yale University’s Near East Collection in 1933, but it took decades for anybody to take a really good look at them. Then, in the 1980s, a French Assyriologist and gourmet by the name of Jean Bottéro decided to take a closer look at what were thought to be pharmaceutical formulas and discovered instead “a cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period“.
It took years of translation work, but in 1995 Bottéro published his findings and translations in Textes Culinaires Mésopotamiens (Mesopotamian Culinary Texts), giving us access to genuine recipes from 3700 years ago. Bottéro, though, councils against seeing these recipe tablets as ancient equivalents of a cookbook that you or I might have in our kitchen: “We would be mistaken to regard these tablets as precursors of our cookbooks, whether written for professional cooks or for interested individuals and propagated among them. In Mesopotamia, only the scribes could read them, to say nothing of writing them. It is of course not impossible that those who could read may have recited these recipes to cooks; but no profession, in any aspect of its technique, is practiced merely through oral instructions. Whether by recall or by habit, cooks knew not only what the formulations in our tablets implied, but also what they passed over in silence, including the amounts of ingredients and the cooking time that were necessary.”
In fact, Bottéro goes further to advise strongly against actually trying to prepare the recipes that he has translated: “Even if we would come to identify all of the ingredients in a recipe and rediscover the special knack that would enable us to prepare it properly as well, chances are that the result would seem to us unpalatable, perhaps appalling, as is generally the case for many authentic (not adapted!) dishes borrowed from exotic cuisines of our own times.” Other, perhaps less narrow minded (did Bottéro not just call foreign food “unpalatable”?), people have decided not to listen to the translator and have a go at the recipes anyway. Even if what we can cook from the tablet is never going to be 100% accurate, tasting it can get us closer to an understanding of civilisation 4000 years ago.
William Sitwell’s excellent A History of Food in 100 Recipes, a superb book that manages concisely and appealingly to give an idea of the whole of culinary history in a readable format, presents one of the Mesopotamian stone tablet recipes at the start of its global food history narrative (the final recipe of the 100 is the “meat fruit” I enjoyed at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal last year!). “The tablets revealed a rich variety of cuisine,” Sitwell writes, “Moreover, a sophisticated mix of skill and artistry and a wonderful breadth of ingredients. Among the tablets, on a piece of clay measuring just 12 by 16 centimetres, is the recipe for kanašû broth.” It is this recipe, then, that I decided to make as an example of the oldest recipe in the world.
Sitwell’s book is not exactly the kind of recipe book where you’re meant to follow all the recipes, he describes it as: “not a recipe book that promises practical cookery, but I hope you nevertheless find it a delicious read”. That is not to say, though, that we shouldn’t try to make the recipes contained within and, indeed, Sitwell seems not wholly to agree with Bottéro when he quotes the latter as saying: “I would not wish such meals on any save my worst enemies”. His choice of the kanašû broth is designed to represent one of the more appealing examples on the Mesopotamia tablets: “The lamb stew is just one of twenty-one meat- and vegetable-based dishes, but it sounds a little tastier than some of the other recipes, such as one for braised turnips that begins: ‘Meat is not needed. Boil water. Throw fat in’.”
This particular recipe, however, does not begin in a terribly different way. As Bottéro translates it, the tablet reads: “Kanašû. Leg (of mutton) (?) meat is used. Prepare water; [add] fat, […], samidu, coriander (?), cumin (?), and kanašû (a kind of edible plant). Assemble (all the ingredients in the cooking vessel) and sprinkle with crushed garlic. (After cooking), blend into the pot šuḫutinnû and mint […].”
One of the really interesting things about this recipe is that is shows you just how far back not only the idea of reliable flavour combinations goes, but also the specific traditional flavour combinations that we know to this day. Leg of lamb and mint would not look at all out of place on any modern menu, while cumin and coriander are still typically used when pairing spices and lamb. (I am aware that lamb is not going to have the exact same flavour and texture as mutton, but is a near enough equivalent to be used here).
However, as you can see both from this translation and from the tablet in the picture above, there are elements of the recipe that are missing or damaged, while some of the Akkadian text has not been fully translated or has been translated in such a fashion that the solution remains in question. In the case of the former, the style in which the recipes are written sticks closely enough to a formula that Bottéro was able to fill in a lot of the missing pieces by matching them to the equivalent words and phrases in other recipes. As many of them begin “meat is (or isn’t) used, prepare water, add fat”, then this is probably the opening to this recipe, even if only part of the phrase “add fat” is actually present. The latter, though, presents a greater problem as certain words or ingredients do not have a properly adequate translation into English, in particular kanašû, samidu, and šuḫutinnû.
Laura Kelley, writer of The Silk Road Gourmet blog and book on the subject of various Asian cooking traditions, has experimented much more than Bottéro himself with cooking from the Mesopotamian tablets and has her own ideas about what some of these ingredients represent, not all of which agree with the translator’s ideas. According to Kelley, our recipe, Recipe XXIII on the first tablet, could be written as such: “Lamb With Wheat (Couscous) and Mint: Ingredients and method: Prepare water, add fat and couscous. Add semolina, coriander, cumin and yogurt or sour cream. Assemble in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed garlic. Then blend in carrots or parsnips and mint.”
Where she got yoghurt from I’m not really sure as there is no indication of such on the tablet, although other recipes in the series do use some kind of indeterminate dairy product that is probably a form of cream. I chose to ignore this extraneous ingredient, but what about the rest? Well, according to Kelley, kanašû is equivalent to couscous, samidu is semolina, and šuḫutinnû is either carrot or parsnip. How true is this?
The main debate and matter of disagreement between Kelley and Bottéro is in the matter of samidu. All of Bottéro’s translations suggest this corresponds to something akin to an onion or shallot in modern cooking, but to Kelley it is much more likely to refer to some kind of fine powder. “When I first read Textes Culinaires Mésopotamiens, I remember being disappointed that one of the greatest kingdoms on earth apparently had such dull food,” Kelley writes, “Why, I wondered, when they had contact with civilizations all around western Asia, the Levant and North Africa, possibly even southern Asia, would they eat so many onions?…Bottéro assumed that it [samidu] was in the allium family, which includes onions, garlic, chives and leeks. Looking to modern languages, however, I found that in Hebrew and Syrian, semida means ‘fine meal’ and, in Greek, semidalis is used to denote ‘the finest flour.’ According to the University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary, semidu is also defined as semolina”.
Specifically identifying samidu as modern semolina may not necessarily be a perfect match, but Kelley is right that there is a definite etymological link. Moreover, seeing how these recipes were cooked in a sort of stock, it is easy to believe some ‘fine meal’ may have been added to thicken this into a sauce, much like we would use cornflour today. Sitwell seems to agree, suggesting: “samidu, for instance, was either semolina or fine white flour used for thickening,” so I opted for using cornflour.
On to kanašû, then, the core ingredient of the dish. While Kelley’s recipe mentioned couscous at this point, her glossary of Mesopotamian ingredients suggests something else. Kelley points to how Bottéro does not translate the term (although, as you can see in the recipe above, he does add the truly vague note “a kind of edible plant” to his translation), but she here identifies kanašû as: “Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), also known as farro in Italian. Emmer a proto-wheat or awned-wheat that was one of the first domesticated crops. Emmer is one of the ancestors of spelt (Triticum spelta).” Sitwell refers to it as “not dissimilar to durum” and encourages thinking of it: “as a lamb casserole cooked with pearl barley.” I felt, therefore, that it would feel more authentic to use spelt in my version of the recipe than the couscous suggested by Kelley.
The last untranslated ingredient, šuḫutinnû, is referred to elsewhere in the tablets as “dug up”, leading to the suggestion that it probably represents a root vegetable. Sitwell describes it as “like a carrot or parsnip”. The ancestors of modern carrots can be traced back thousands of years to the Middle East, although they were not selectively cultivated until later and the orange colour (as opposed to purple or black or even white) is a product of selective breeding from the Dutch in the 1700s, so carrots felt like the closest approximation for šuḫutinnû that is still widely available.
That’s the ingredients covered, but what about the method. The tablets give scant detail on how actually to prepare the dish, but Sitwell suggests that many ancient Mesopotamian techniques are not all that different from now: “Recipes variously call for slicing, squeezing, pounding, steeping, shredding, marinating, and straining. So even way back in the days when countries had eleven letters to their name, when people were inventing the wheel, reading the livers of chickens and believing that when you died you went underground and ate dirt, cooks were doing pretty much what most still do today”.
For Bottéro the significant methodological element of the recipe tablets is the fact that recipes are cooked in liquid: “Cooking in water was not just an innovation, but also, in terms of taste, incontestably a step forward. For the powerful, but unrefined and uncomplex flavour drawn from roasted food by the fire, it substituted the richness and diversity of tastes that may be imparted by the cooking milieu, the ‘stock’ that may be infinitely enriched and modulated.” In the eyes of Bottéro, this introduction of stock represents the dawn of “true cuisine”.
Bottéro points to a process in which fat was added to water, along with “secondary parts of the same animal whose meat was being cooked”, to create a stock or cooking broth, to which were added “a certain number of mineral, plant, or animal products, natural or prepared, which played the role of our condiments and spices”, in this case, the kanašû, coriander and cumin. As for the meat: “They liked to begin with a fairly short pre-cooking in an apparently dry cauldron, in order to ‘sear’ the meat”, then this would be added to boil in the broth: “for a more-or-less long time, in order to finish the cooking.”
This all seems eminently cookable and, indeed, quite nice. Kelley, however, objects to Bottéro’s focus on broth, asking: “Is broth all there is?” She points to how he is looking at the Mesopotamian tablets through the lens of Western cuisine and how many cooking methods and recipes in the region today continue to be flexible with the outcome of using the same ingredients: “I don’t think that any of the recipes translated by Bottéro are broths,” she writes, “Rather, they are general guidelines for the flavors of dishes that range from koreshes, curries and soups to braised meats and dry pilafs – it all depends on the relative proportions of liquid and solid ingredients. Amounts of ingredients are almost always absent, so the exact dish prepared is left up to the cook.” Having said that, her objection feels mostly semantic, an issue with the word “broth” more than anything, as her suggested method is not too different from that described by Bottéro.
On the food history blog lostpastremembered, when Kelley was guest writer, the blog’s author Deana Sidney cooked a version of Recipe XXIII to Kelley’s suggestion, the method of which was: “4 carrots, cut into ribbons with a vegetable peeler. Marinate the lamb in soy sauce for 1/2 an hour. Saute 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 minutes). 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 the carrots, add the sliced lamb and sprinkle with mint.” Despite Kelley’s objections, then, this seems a pretty similar method to Bottéro’s.
I began with around 400 ml of chicken stock that I had already made previously to serve as the water/fat/broth to cook my Mesopotamian meal in. Having soaked 150g of spelt, I added this and then ground a teaspoon each of cumin seeds and coriander seeds with a pestle and mortar, adding these to the stock and spelt, which I then simmered for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, I seared the lamb in a frying pan, browning it around the edges. After simmering the spelt I added this to the pot for a further five minutes, before also adding three cloves of crushed garlic and two large carrots, peeled and sliced for a final five minutes. Finally, I served all of this with a garnish of torn, fresh mint leaves. And that’s it. The oldest recipe in the world.
In the end I guess I must have to count ourselves amongst Bottéro’s worst enemies, because this was entirely satisfying. It’s not haute cuisine, but it was hearty, tasty fare with a set of ingredients and flavour pairings that have clearly stood the test of time. It’s hard to know how life would have been for the average Mesopotamian over three and a half thousand years ago, or even more so the ordinary ancient Brit, but I can certainly say that if I’d been among Hammurabi’s ruling class I’d have been quite happy to eat like this all the time.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: It had never occurred to me that lamb and mint might go back so far. I enjoyed this stew; spelt has a great flavour and texture of its own that really helped, where other grains might have just added bulk. Also, I didn’t know carrots were so old! An educating and tasty recipe 🙂