‘The Banquet Scene’ relief panel, 645BC-635BC.

Gazelle Stewed in Broth and Garlic: Would You Try These 3,700-Year-Old Recipes for the Babylonian Elite?

(Read the article on one page)

"A cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period,” is how French Assyriologist and gourmet chef Jean Bottero, who decoded three ancient ‘cookbooks’, described the Akkadian recipes meticulously inscribed in cuneiform tablets.

The Beginning of Fine Cuisine

It may be said that cooking was ‘invented’ when our human ancestors began to control fire. Whilst this occurred in prehistoric times, it was much later that humans began recording their favored meals as recipes. The world’s oldest known ‘cookbook’ comes from Mesopotamia, and is referred today as the Yale Culinary Tablets. This is a group of three clay tablets that are kept in the Yale Babylonian Collection today, and contains cooking instructions for 25 different recipes.

Whilst the provenance of the Yale Culinary Tablets is not known, analysis of the text suggests that the text date to the middle of the Old Babylonian period, i.e. around 1700 B.C., and are probably from the southern part of Mesopotamia. The Yale Culinary Tablets consists of three discrete clay tablets that have been named YBC 4644 , YBC 8958 , and YBC 4648 .

The reverse of YBC 4644.

The reverse of YBC 4644. Photo source:  Ancient History et cetera.

Fit for a Babylonian King?

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.

“Various cooking techniques were known, and a complex assortment of herbs and spices was used to flavor a single dish”, writes Sylvia Carter, LA Times. “Garnishes and presentation were so highly esteemed that they were mentioned in recipes that are otherwise not highly detailed. In one recipe, crumbled bread provided a thickening. And, just as modern cooks collect recipes from other regions or countries, the Mesopotamian chefs gave credit to the Assyrians to the north for one stew and to the Elamites from the southwest corner of Iran for another.”

YBC 4644, recipe 20, can be successfully interpreted as a stew made with lamb, licorice, vegetables and juniper.

YBC 4644, recipe 20, can be successfully interpreted as a stew made with lamb, licorice, vegetables and juniper. Credit: Miles Collins

Savoured Meats – Venison, Gazelle, Lamb and Mutton

The Yale Culinary Tablets provide an indication of the variety of foods the ancient Mesopotamians had access to. For instance, with regards to meat, the ‘cookbook’ includes recipes for venison, gazelle, lamb mutton, and fowl.

One recipe that has been recreated by a modern-day cook, taken from Yale Babylonian Collection 8958, Recipe 2, was made with pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens.” The method of cooking was left to interpretation.

“Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958.

Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958. Credit: Laura Kelley

Instructions for the preparation of pastry (for a kind of pie) can also be found in the second tablet. Common seasonings include onion, garlic and leeks, but some of the ingredients have yet to be identified by scholars. These include a type of bird called tarru, as well as samidu and suhutinnu, both of which were used as seasoning.

Cuisine for Elites

It has been pointed out, however, that the dishes mentioned in the Yale Culinary 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 savoured these dishes, perhaps on some festive occasion.

Who Were They Written For?

Another question of interest is regarding the way the ‘cookbook’ may have been used. In ancient Mesopotamian society, cooks, along with the great majority of the population, were illiterate. Therefore, it would have been quite improbable that the recipes were written by a cook for other cooks to use. Scribes were the ones who were literate, and chances are that the Yale Culinary Tablets were produced by them. The purpose for the production of these tablets, however, will likely remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that ancient Mesopotamian cuisine also influenced the cuisine of other civilizations that came to inhabited that region, including the ancient Persians, the medieval Arabs, and the Iraqis of the modern period

Top image: ‘The Banquet Scene’ relief panel, 645BC-635BC. Credit: The British Museum

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Maiden Tower is the most recognized structure in the Old City of Baku, Azerbaijan.
“At the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, there was raised an 8-storied towered temple (Maiden’s Tower) devoted to seven gods, grandiose for those day… [possessing] seven sacred levels, [and] wall-recessed altars with seven-colored fires burning in honor of the pantheon of gods of Ahura Mazda or Mithra”. - Professor Davud Akhundov.

Human Origins

Detail of ‘God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars’ by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
Although most mainstream scientists and most of the developed world now accept the theory of evolution and the scientifically established age of Earth and the universe, there is still a group of people that resist the status quo and insist, based on a particular literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the Hebrew Bible

Ancient Technology

Representation of an ancient Egyptian chariot.
The wheel can be considered mankind’s most important invention, the utility of which is still applied in multiple spheres of our daily life. While most other inventions have been derived from nature itself, the wheel is 100% a product of human imagination. Even today, it would be difficult to imagine what it would be like without wheels, since movement as we know it would be undeniably impossible.

Ancient Places

The Maiden Tower is the most recognized structure in the Old City of Baku, Azerbaijan.
“At the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, there was raised an 8-storied towered temple (Maiden’s Tower) devoted to seven gods, grandiose for those day… [possessing] seven sacred levels, [and] wall-recessed altars with seven-colored fires burning in honor of the pantheon of gods of Ahura Mazda or Mithra”. - Professor Davud Akhundov.

Opinion

El Caracol Observatory at Chichen Itza (Wright Reading/CC BY-NC 2.0) and Composite 3D laser scan image of El Caracol from above
In 1526, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and found most of the great Maya cities deeply eroded and unoccupied. Many generations removed from the master builders, engineers, and scientists who conceived and built the cities, the remaining Maya they encountered had degenerated into waring groups who practiced blood rituals and human sacrifice.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article