Home

On Wednesday I cooked from what I then said was the oldest recipe in the world, a 3700 year old instruction for a mutton and spelt stew carved on a stone tablet in Mesopotamia. Could there, though, be recipes even older than this?

My inspiration for using the Mesopotamian recipe that I did came in part from William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes, a book in which that particular recipe comes in at number 2. So, what is Sitwell’s earliest recipe? It is from a couple of hundred years before the Mesopotamian tablets and is for Ancient Egyptian bread, based on the wall paintings in the tomb of Senet, the only known tomb of a woman in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom.

The paintings in the tomb of this wife (or mother) of an Ancient Egyptian vizier are remarkably well preserved and depict scenes of hunting, farming and food preparation, including all the processes involved in baking bread. “The images were not of course intended to instruct the household cook,” Sitwell writes, “But to help the departed soul have some decent, freshly baked bread baked in the afterlife. Yet it is a foundation that has informed bread-making for thousands of years.” While it is interesting to see depictions of crushing grain, grinding flour and kneading dough, this does not exactly constitute a written recipe as such.

Even within the cuneiform carvings of ancient Mesopotamia, there is one possible “recipe” that even pre-dates the tablets translated by Jean Bottéro and it’s in a religious poem. Dating back to 1800 BC (around a century before the Bottéro tablets), this Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess, contains the lyrics:

“You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.”

It is quite possible that this hymn could be followed as a recipe, such is the slightly bizarre level of detail that it offers. However, unlike the tablets of a century later, its principle reason for existence does not appear to be to tell people how to make the beer, but to praise its maker. Therefore, I stand by my assertion that the recipe I cooked from on Wednesday is the earliest recipe of any we now know about.

That is not to say that it is the earliest recipe ever written, however, and it could even have been found already. If there is one thing that we can learn from Jean Bottéro, it is that archaeological discovery is not just limited to digging up ancient treasure physically, but can involve simply looking properly at what we’ve already got.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s