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Example of a lamb stew with vegetables. (Jo del Corro/CC BY 2.0) “Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958. (Laura Kelley) Lamb shanks in a stew. (E4024/CC BY SA 4.0) YBC 4644, a tablet with a Babylonian recipe, ca. 1750 BC. (Yale University Library)

Three Babylonian Recipes From 1600 BC You Can Make At Home Today

Ever wanted a taste of life in an ancient civilization?

The oldest cookbook ever found was made sometime around 1600 BC in the ancient city of Babylon. It’s a set of cracked tablets engraved by an early civilization’s version of a master chef.

There are parts missing, there are words we can’t translate, and the writers didn’t bother to write down any quantities or cooking times. Still, it’s our best chance to get an idea of what it might have been like to sit down for a meal 3,600 years ago.

Cooks at work in the royal kitchens. Relief from Ashurbanipal's palace at Nineveh 7th century BC. (Yale University Library)

Cooks at work in the royal kitchens. Relief from Ashurbanipal's palace at Nineveh 7th century BC. ( Yale University Library )

The Challenges Of Recreating an Accurate Recipe

Ancient cooking, like ancient history, isn’t an exact science. There are bits and pieces we know for sure, and wide berths we have to fill in with our best guesses.

There are certain challenges in recreating a recipe that’s 3,600 years old. Whole parts of some of the recipes have been chipped off the tablets and lost to time, and what we can read is desperately lacking in measurements and cooking times.

Then there are the words. The recipes were written in an ancient form of Akkadian, a language that we don’t fully understand. There are a handful of words that come up time and time again that nobody is completely certain they can translate.

YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, ca. 1750 BC. (Yale University Library)

YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, ca. 1750 BC. ( Yale University Library )

Take the word “Suhutinnu”, for example. It comes up in almost every Babylonian recipe, but we aren’t completely sure we know what it means. We know that it’s a root vegetable and that it’s usually served raw, but whether it’s a turnip or a carrot or something else is anyone’s guess.

Cooking in Ancient Babylon

The Babylonians, it’s believed, were among the first people to turn boiling meat into an art form. It was a hallmark of their cooking style : nearly every recipe started with them stuffing glob after glob of fat into a vat of boiling water.

To the Babylonians, this was such a common way of cooking that they didn’t bother to write down how to do it – and that’s one of the big challenges of recreating their meals. We’re not a hundred percent sure how much water and fat they used. Was this all supposed to come out as a sauce or a soup?

It’s a challenge anyone trying to tackle these dishes will have to figure out for themselves. Nobody knows what the proportions for these recipes are or how long anything’s supposed to be cooked.

Servants back from a royal hunt bearing a hare and small birds. Relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh, 7th century BC. (Yale University Library)

Servants back from a royal hunt bearing a hare and small birds. Relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh, 7th century BC. ( Yale University Library )

The Babylonian Recipes

In this article, we’ve reprinted three recipes from ancient Babylon, both as they appeared on the original tablets and rewritten in the style of a modern recipe.

We’ll leave it to you, however, to experiment with the proportions and the cooking times. Nobody knows for sure how the Babylonians did it – but most likely the cooks just prepared the recipe however it tasted best to them.

Babylonian Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries

 “Leg of mutton, but no other meat is used. Prepare water; add fat; dodder [wild licorice] as desired; salt to taste; cypress [juniper berries]; onion; samidu [semolina]; cumin; coriander; leek and garlic, mashed with kisimmu [sour cream or yogurt]. It is ready to serve.”

Ingredients:

  • Leg of mutton
  • Water
  • Fat
  • Wild licorice
  • Salt
  • Juniper Berries
  • Onion (sliced)
  • Semolina
  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Leek and garlic (mashed)
  • Sour Cream

Example of a lamb stew with vegetables. (Jo del Corro/CC BY 2.0)

Example of a lamb stew with vegetables. (Jo del Corro/ CC BY 2.0 )

Instructions:

Combine wild licorice, cumin, coriander, leek, garlic, and salt in a shallow bowl. Set aside.

Remove any gristle from the sheep fat.

Begin boiling a pot of water over an open flame. While the water is still heating up, add several globs of fat to the water and stir until mixed.

Add the mixture of wild licorice, cumin, coriander, leek, garlic, and salt to the water and bring to a boil.

Wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), flower stalk and leaf stem. (Dcrjsr/CC BY 4.0) This is one of the ingredients in the Babylonian lamb stew recipe.

Wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), flower stalk and leaf stem. (Dcrjsr/ CC BY 4.0 ) This is one of the ingredients in the Babylonian lamb stew recipe.

Add the mutton.

When the meat is cooked all the way through, remove the pot from the heat. Mix sour cream into the broth and serve.

Zamzaganu

“Scatter cut-up pieces of meat in a kettle and cook. Clean some baru and add to the kettle. Before removing the kettle from the fire, strain the cooking liquid and stir in mashed leek and garlic and a corresponding amount of raw suhutinnu.”

Ingredients:

  • Partridge Meat (Chopped)
  • Dates
  • Leeks (mashed)
  • Garlic (mashed)
  • Turnips (sliced)
  • Water
  • Sheep fat

“Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958. (Laura Kelley) This version was made with pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens.”

Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958. ( Laura Kelley ) This version was made with pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens.”

Instructions:

Remove any gristle from the sheep fat.

Begin boiling a pot of water over an open flame. While the water is still heating up, add several globs of fat to the water and stir until mixed.

When the water begins to boil, add the partridge meat and the dates.

When the meat is cooked all the way through, strain the fatty water into a bowl and set aside. Place the cooked meat and dates on a plate.

Dates. (CC0)

Dates. ( CC0)

Add the mashed leeks, garlic, and raw turnips to the water. Use the liquid as a sauce, dolloped generously onto the meat, and serve hot.

Zukanda:

“Meat is used. Prepare water; add fat; dill; suhutinnu; coriander; leek and garlic, bound with blood; a corresponding amount of kisimmu [sour cream or yogurt] and more garlic.”

Our Best Guess of Ingredients:

Lamb shanks in a stew. (E4024/CC BY SA 4.0)

Lamb shanks in a stew. (E4024/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Instructions:

In a bowl, mix the mashed leeks and garlic with lamb’s blood.

Remove any gristle from the fat.

Begin boiling a pot of water over an open flame. While the water is still heating up, add several globs of fat to the water and stir until mixed.

When the water comes to a boil, add the lamb meat, carrots, coriander, and the mixture of leeks, garlic, and blood.

Garlic – this recipe includes lots of it! (CC0)

Garlic – this recipe includes lots of it! ( CC0)

Remove from heat when the meat is cooked all the way the through. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and garnish with slices of garlic.

Top Image: Example of a lamb stew with vegetables. (Jo del Corro/ CC BY 2.0 )Hen with Herbs”. Laura Kelley recreates Recipe 2 from Yale tablet 8958. ( Laura Kelley ) Lamb shanks in a stew. (E4024/ CC BY SA 4.0 ) YBC 4644, a tablet with a Babylonian recipe, ca. 1750 BC. ( Yale University Library )

By Mark Oliver

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia . Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. The University of Chicago Press, 2004. https://books.google.com/books?id=PxnaaTzC8tMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Kelley, Laura. “Some Mesopotamian Ingredients Revealed.” The Silk Road Gourmet . March 16, 2010. Web. https://www.silkroadgourmet.com/some-mesopotamian-ingredients-revealed/

Slotsky, Alice L. “Cuneiform Cuisine: Culinary History Reborn at Brown University. “ SBL Forum . 2007. https://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=703

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