The oldest known written recipes in the world are three clay cuneiform tablets held by Yale University in their Babylonian Collection. From southern Mesopotamia, the tablets are written in Akkadian and date from approximately 1750 B.C.E.
Although the recipes on these tablets do not contain the detailed instructions we expect in recipes today, they provide a fascianiting and important glimpse into Mesopotamian food, as well as the cuisines that were likely its predecessors, including Islamic and Greek cooking. As only highly educated scribes could have written these tablets, which are extremely complex, it is not likely that these tablets, which Yale likes to refer to as ‘cookbooks’ were meant for ordinary people. They were more likely an effort to preserve culinary practices as they existed at the time, and represent the kind of food enjoyed by the privileged.
How are These Tablets Unusual?
Most of the tablets concerning food we have from this era consists of lists. There are lists of foods delivered and lists of foods shipped, as well as payment records and other business documents. From this we can certainly learn about the standard types of foods the Mesopotamians ate. According to the Yale University Library:
The meats included beef, lamb, goat, pork, deer and fowl – the birds provided both meat and eggs. Fish were eaten along with turtles and shellfish. Various grains, vegetables and fruits such as dates, apples, figs, pomegranates and grapes were integral to the ancient Near Eastern diet. Roots, bulbs, truffles and mushrooms were harvested for the table. Salt added flavor to the food as did a variety of herbs. Honey as well as dates, grape-juice and raisins were used as sweeteners. Milk, clarified butter and fats both animal fats and vegetable oils, such as sesame, linseed and olive oils were used in cooking.
However, we learn little about how they prepared these foods. Not just anybody could produce an inscribed tablet. This was probably work of highly educated scribes. Cooking knowledge would have been passed down verbally, not in written form. Writing was reserved mostly for keeping records.
Therefore these tablets containing recipes, or as close as we can get to recipes, are a fascinating glimpse into the “high cuisine” of the day.
What Foods Were Mentioned?
Here are some of the foods featured:
- Meats are featured such as beef, lamb, goat, pork, deer, and birds, which includes the eggs.
- Fish, shellfish, and turtles.
- Various grains
- Fruits including dates, apples, figs, pomegragantes, and grapes. Various grains.
- Various along with bulbs, and roots.
- Mushrooms and truffles.
- Various herbs for flavoring.
- Honey, dates, grape-juice, and raaisins for sweetening.
Breads feature heavily in the recipes, and also spiced cakes. Beer, of course, is included.
The recipes include brief instructions on both vegetable and meat stews, and bird pies.
The way the recipes are written is nothing like we would call a recipe today. The ingredients and the order they should be added are given, but how much ingredient should be used, and how long the cooking times should be, is not. Some details may be omitted entirely.
Learn more about these fascinating tablets from The Yale University Library, Near Eastern Collection.