12 Ancient Foods That We Still Love Today
There are few things humans love more than food. For centuries, humans have been creating new, delicious recipes to enjoy. While we may eat somewhat differently nowadays (after all, I don’t think our ancestors had dino-shaped chicken nuggets laying around), the desire to enjoy our food remains the same.
The vast variety of ingredients and cooking techniques throughout the world has resulted in many culturally important and delicious recipes that have withstood the test of time. Why eat a modern meal when you can eat one that’s been enjoyed for thousands of years? Some of the best recipes you can make today were developed by your ancestors, and they’re just as good today as they were back then.
Baklava is a delicious pastry made from filo, nuts, and sugar. This historical dessert has an unclear origin, but most evidence points to it being invented around 800 BC in the Assyrian Empire. Ancient Assyrians would stretch bread dough extremely thin before adorning it with cinnamon, cardamom, honey, nuts, and other small treats. The ancient Greeks, upon tasting this delicious recipe, decided they could do it better. They are credited with creating phyllo dough to make the layers thinner and flakier, similar to the baklava we have today. It is most popular in Greece and the Middle East.
- Spectacular 2000-Year-Old Pompeii Food Stall Reopens for Business!
- Healthy, Mostly Veg, Food Was Delivered to Bronze Age Mine Workers
Modern baklava comes in different variations, but it still tastes much like the ancient food recipe (Chitrapa / CC BY SA 4.0)
Historians believe that hummus, a delicious chickpea dish, originated sometime in ancient Anatolia, although it is often credited to ancient Egypt. The origin of chickpeas can be traced back over 10,000 years to present-day Turkey, so it was either made there first, or was created elsewhere after chickpeas entered the trade market. Evidence shows that hummus was being consumed in Egypt in the 13th century BC, so some historians believe that ancient Egyptians accessed chickpeas through trade and created hummus themselves. They then traded with the Greeks, who put their own twist on the dish. Although hummus is eaten worldwide, it is most popular among those living in the Middle East.
- A Test for the Taste Buds: The 7 Weirdest Foods in History
- What Egyptians Ate: Did the Cuisine of Ancient Egypt Reflect the Tastes of Today?
Although hummus is quite popular worldwide today, it is an ancient food with possible origins in what is now modern Turkey (Emma Olsson / CC BY 2.0)
If you’ve ever had Rab cake, you know it’s certainly a treat. This delectable spiral-shaped cake is made primarily with maraschino liqueur and almonds, giving it a unique nutty flavor. According to legend, this sweet treat was created on the island of Rab in 1177 for Pope Alexander III after consecrating the Assumption Cathedral. It is believed that nuns and Benedictines from local monasteries created the cake to thank him.
Soon, Rab cakes were made as displays of honor. Residents would cook Rab cake for visiting aristocrats and celebrities to welcome them. Now, Rab cakes are primarily reserved for special occasions such as holidays, weddings, and baptisms. You can find them being enjoyed primarily in Croatia.
Perhaps one of the most intimidating on the list, Hakarl is the name for an Icelandic fermented shark. Sleeper sharks, such as Greenland sharks, are cured using fermentation in dirt and then dried for several months. Its strong ammonia and fish scent make it an acquired taste, but many Icelanders find it to be a delicacy. So much so, that it is considered one of the national dishes of Iceland!
Icelandic people have been eating fermented shark meat since the Viking age, an ancient food indeed (Fry Theonly / CC BY SA 2.0)
Historians believe Hakarl originated in the Viking Age, since sleeper sharks were often used for their fat as a lubricant. The Vikings then had to either discard the rest of the shark or put it to good use by eating it. Since sleeper sharks do not have kidneys, their bodies are filled with waste, so they can’t be simply cooked and eaten. Care must be taken to cure the meat in specific and safe ways, or you could accidentally poison yourself with shark toxins! As a result, Hakarl was born. Be sure to visit Iceland if you’re curious to try this unique snack.
Hakarl, a dried fermented shark meat dish, is an ancient food dating back to the Viking Age, and considered one of Iceland’s national dishes (Bnhsu / CC BY SA 2.0)
Many different cultures have developed their own version of pancakes throughout the years, but the first record of them comes from a really unlikely source. Otzi the Iceman, the world’s oldest mummy of a Chalcolithic man, was discovered frozen in the Alps over thirty years ago. Upon investigation, researchers found his stomach still contained his last meal, which included a combination of red meat and einkorn wheat pancakes.
Researchers believe the ancient pancakes were similar to our pancakes today, thanks to the charcoal that was still present on them, suggesting they were cooked over a flame. After Otzi, the most recent record of pancakes in history comes from the ancient Greeks, who also loved the flat breakfast food. They would create the batter from flour and cook it over a clay griddle, which was placed over a fire. They would then eat the pancakes with sesame seeds and honey for sweetness. Years later, the Romans would tweak this recipe to include eggs and milk to create a fluffier pancake.
Nowadays, pancakes of all types are enjoyed worldwide. From crepes in France to buttermilk pancakes in the US, you really can’t go wrong with this breakfast food!
Pancakes are one of the ultimate ancient foods, with over 5,000 years of history. Historians found einkorn pancakes in the stomach of Otzi the Iceman, circa 3200 BC. (Vasiliy / Adobe Stock)
Kishkiyya (Hangover Cure Stew)
Kishkiyya is a delicious ancient Iraqi stew that is nicknamed the “hangover cure stew.” Allegedly, eating this stew the day after a fun night out is a way to “cure” your hangover with the warmth, nutrients, and comfort this stew provides. This stew originated over 1,000 years ago during the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad. “Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens,” the world’s oldest Arabic cookbook, contains the recipe for this magic meal.
The original recipe contains lamb (on the bone), onion, chickpeas, galangal, vegetables, several herbs and spices, and kishk, a Middle Eastern wheat and yogurt paste. Those wanting to make the stew today could easily substitute plain yogurt for this, as well as any meat if you don’t have easy access to lamb. If you want an authentic version, you can still find it throughout the Middle East in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. Even if it doesn’t cure your hangover, you’ll still be thankful to eat it!
To some, atole is the best treat you can eat on a cold winter day. This ancient meal is a warm, porridge-like beverage made with masa (ground corn) and water. Atole originated in Central America thousands of years ago and was likely considered the easiest way to consume large amounts of corn at once. It was a common beverage to drink in the morning to provide energy for the day.
Now, there are many different versions of atole to be enjoyed. Champurrado is the chocolate version of the drink, combining Mexican chocolate with thick, creamy masa. You can also add honey, fruit, and even alcohol to it to spice it up a bit. For the most authentic versions, you can find it at restaurants, food trucks, and street vendors throughout Mexico.
Variations of atole can be found through Mexico, but this ancient food dates back thousands of years (Cristina Zapata Pérez / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Greek and Roman Cheesecake
The Cheesecake Factory has the Greeks to thank for this one. Cheesecake can trace its origins back over 2,000 years to ancient Greece! Although cheese itself existed long before this, ancient Greece has the first recorded use of cheese to produce a cake. They combined soft, mild cheeses with flour and honey to produce the first cheesecakes known to humanity. Ancient Greeks who made and consumed cheesecake believed it was a good source of energy, and ancient records reveal that it was even served to athletes in 776 BC at the first Olympic Games.
When Rome conquered Greece, they took that delicious cheesecake for their own. They began to experiment with the recipe and tweaked some of the ingredients. Often, the Romans would use crushed cheeses (such as ricotta) and add eggs to the batter as well. Adding eggs made the cake thicker and spongier than the previous recipe, which only used flour. The mixture would then be baked under a hot brick and served fresh. You can still find this version of cheesecake across Europe, though today’s modern cheesecake experts are often found in the United States in New York.
Cheesecake was served at the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, so now you can feel like a champion as you polish off that last piece! (Quinn Dombrowski / CC BY SA 2.0)
If you love pasta, you’ll love testaroli! Testaroli is considered the oldest version of pasta in ancient Italy. Testaroli was invented by the Etruscan civilization of Italy around 1,200 years ago, and it is still common in the Lunigiana region of Italy. This ancient food is made with a batter that is poured onto hot stone to cook, like terracotta. This cooking method is how the pasta got its name, since “testo” refers to a flat cooking surface made from terracotta.
After cooking, testaroli is often tossed in pesto sauce, olive oil, garlic, and cheese. Because of the way it is cooked, this pasta has also been referred to as a type of crepe before being cut into bite-sized pasta pieces. Some ancient recipe books specify that the more you cook testaroli, the closer it gets to flatbread and the further it gets from pasta.
This ancient food comes to us by way of the Etruscans. This proto-pasta was cooked on flat terracotta (Francesca Longo / CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Nian Gao is a sweet, sticky rice cake cooked to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This treat originated around 480 BC during the Zhou Dynasty. The origin of Nian Gao is unclear, although there is a fascinating story behind it. According to the kitchen god legend, families would leave Nian Gao out for the kitchen god at the end of the year. If the kitchen god wanted to make a bad report to the Jade Emperor about the family, he would be unable to because his mouth would be so sticky.
Nian Gao is made with glutinous rice flour, sugar, and ginger. You can also incorporate dried Chinese dates into the recipe for some extra decoration and flavor. It is most common in northern China during the Chinese New Year.
Nian Gao is an ancient Chinese dish dating back to 480 BC. It’s now commonly eaten at Chinese New Year (Kirk K / CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Yes, you read that right! Popcorn actually has an extremely long history behind it! Popcorn is believed to be one of the earliest ways ancient people ate corn. Humans originally started to cultivate corn around 9,000 years ago in Central and South America. In 2012, archaeologists discovered ancient corn cobs with puffed kernels that they estimated to be around 6,700 years old.
Ancient civilizations likely left corn out to dry before cooking it, which would result in hot, popped corn perfect for crunching. In addition to eating popcorn, Aztec Indians used to use popcorn as part of their sacred ceremonies by incorporating it into their headdresses, jewelry, and ornaments.
Popcorn is now enjoyed worldwide, but the United States now has the highest popcorn consumption per year!
Ancient Americans were also munching on popcorn more than 6,000 years ago, although with so many different ancient food varieties of corn, it may have looked and tasted differently (TimLewisNM / CC BY SA 2.0)
Believe it or not, the tamales you enjoy from your local food truck have a history that dates over 7,000 years ago! This traditional Mesoamerican dish is made of masa, a dough created from ground corn, and stuffed with meats and vegetables. The combination is steamed inside giant leaves, such as corn husks or banana leaves, to produce a delicious, flavorful treat. Today, it is primarily enjoyed in Mexico.
Tamales were first made sometime around 5,000 BC and were historically cooked and eaten by many groups, including the Aztecs and the Maya. Tamales were a perfect meal for soldiers and travelers because they could be easily carried in their leaves and eaten much like you would any other hand-held food. The giant leaves also helped to preserve the tamales, which meant they could be carried over long distances without issue.
Tamales: This ancient food has been making mouths water across the Americas for over 7,000 years (kinwart / CC BY 2.0)
Dinner Served: Ancient Style
Although some of these recipes have changed over time, the basic ideas behind them are still the same. Even if we now use maple syrup on our pancakes instead of honey, or cream cheese instead of ricotta in cheesecake, we can still bond over these recipes the same way our ancestors did. The next time you steam some tamales or scoop some hummus, remember and appreciate the work ancient civilizations put in to create them in the first place.
Top image: Humans have been bonding over popcorn and beer for centuries. What other ancient foods are we still eating today? Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
Hartevelt, E. (November 10, 2018). 23 Ancient Recipes that are still around today. TheRecipe. Available at: https://www.therecipe.com/ancient-recipes-still-around-today/
Mandal, D. (August 22, 2022). Fascinating Oldest Historical Foods still eaten today. Realm of History. Available at: https://www.realmofhistory.com/2022/08/18/9-oldest-food-recipes-history/
Shanks, J. (March 3, 2020). World's Oldest Foods. The Modern East. Available at: https://www.moderneast.com/foodie/food-news/worlds-oldest-foods-215414.html
Thorpe, J. R. (May 24, 2016). 7 of the oldest recipes in history. Bustle. Available at: https://www.bustle.com/articles/162789-7-of-the-oldest-recipes-in-history
Winchester, A. (November 4, 2019). The world's oldest-known recipes decoded. BBC Travel. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20191103-the-worlds-oldest-known-recipes-decoded