The oldest known documented recipes in the world come from the ancient city of Babylon. This topic came into discussion when we were discussing Pache, (pronounced as pah-chay), a brew of sheep offal, which is celebrated as rare Iraqi delicacy, having its origin in early Mesopotamian civilisation.

The Mesopotamian recipe book is the oldest and the first documented cuisine in the world, of which only three Babylonian cuneiform tablets are extant today (housed at the Babylonian Collection of Yale University). It’s a set of cracked tablets engraved by an early civilization’s version of a master chef going back to 1700 BCE. The three Old Babylonian tablets were not written by the same hand, and a physical analysis of the clay shows that it originated from at least two different sources. The tablets all list recipes that include instructions on how to prepare them.

Comparing the Babylonian recipes to what we know of medieval cuisine and present-day culinary practices suggests that the stews represent an early stage of a long tradition that is still dominant in Iraqi cuisine. Boiling the meat into stew with spices and other ingredients was the basic culinary technique. Iraqi Pache is prepared almost in similar ways as are described in the tablets.

The earliest cookbooks found around the world give people today a fascinating look at not only what the people of the time ate but also their lifestyles, mainly of those from the upper class. It’s hard to compare modern Middle Eastern cuisine with its ancient predecessors — for one, the Babylonians appear to have been fond of pork, which is forbidden by Islam and virtually nonexistent in modern Iraq.

YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, c. 1750 BC
YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, circa 1750 BCE: This tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 are meat stews and 4 are vegetable stews. The recipes list the ingredients and the order in which they should be added, but does not give measures or cooking time – they were clearly meant only for experienced chefs. (Image Source: Yale University Library)

Archaeologists have found three small clay tablets inscribed with intricate cuneiform signs, although damaged to different degrees, which provide cooking instructions for more than thirty-five Akkadian dishes. Cuneiform was at first written in the Sumerian language. The recipes are elaborate and often call for rare ingredients. They represent Mesopotamian haute cuisine meant for the royal palace or the temple and also a fairly accurate picture of the standard Mesopotamian diet. 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.

YBC 8958 Old Babylonian Period, c. 1750 BC.
YBC 8958 Old Babylonian Period, circa 1750 BCE: This tablet has seven recipes which are very detailed. The text is broken in several places and the name of the second recipe is missing, but it is a dish with small birds, maybe partridges. (Image source: Yale University Library)

Instructions call for most of the food to be prepared with water and fats, and to simmer for a long time in a covered pot. Ancient foodies seem to have preferred fowl and mutton. Babylonian chefs had easy access to meat, as Mesopotamian farmers had been raising sheep and chicken since prehistory. Meats included stag, gazelle, kid, lamb, mutton, squab and a bird called tarru (believed to mean fowls). Fish were eaten along with turtles and shellfish. Various grains, vegetables and fruits such as dates, apples, figs, pomegranates and grapes were integral to diet. Roots, bulbs, truffles and mushrooms were harvested for the table. Frequently mentioned seasonings included onions, garlic and leeks, while stews were often thickened with grains, milk, clarified butter, fats, beer or animal blood. Salt was sometimes mentioned. Scholars have not been able to identify all the ingredients.

The use of animal intestines is said to have been perfected by the Sumerians, who are credited with the invention of sausages about 4000 BCE. Babylonians made spicy sausages with minced meat, stuffing the mixture into animal intestines to act as skins in approximately 1500 BCE.

The dishes mentioned in these 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 savored these dishes, perhaps on some festive occasion.

The Banquet Scene’ relief panel, 645-635 BCE (Source: The British Museum)

Mesopotamia had its share of legendary feasts. A banquet held in the ninth century BCE. by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, according to records found inscribed on a brick, drew 69,574 guests. Over 10 days they consumed 25,000 lambs and sheep, 500 stags, 500 gazelles, 30,000 birds, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 loaves of bread and thousands of gallons of wine and beer.

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