4,000-year-old stew
June 22, 2018 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Teams from Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere recently met up to try recipes recorded on ancient Babylonian tablets, possibly the oldest surviving recipes in the world. “Having an understanding of what the food is supposed to feel and taste like is very important,” says Lassen. “We didn’t know what we were looking for. When we were recreating one of the recipes I kept thinking they were doing this wrong, ‘this is not how I would make this.’ And then when it had boiled for a while it suddenly transformed itself into something delicious.” posted by praemunire (39 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dear Ask Metafilter... I got really drunk in the late Neolithic and left this stew out on the counter for a few millenia...

Soooooo, can I eat this, yay or nay?
posted by Happy Dave at 11:07 AM on June 22, 2018 [37 favorites]


Another good previously, if historical cooking is your bag.
posted by Krazor at 11:14 AM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


Fun! I liked hearing them talk about the "unwinding" name. Warning: video contains cilantro ;)
posted by jessamyn at 11:16 AM on June 22, 2018


That is very, very cool.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 11:17 AM on June 22, 2018


There's cooks out there who have been trying these old recipes. Here's someones Mesopotamian Wildfowl pie also called Bird's Nest pie, I believe.. It is also a recipe my wife tried in 2010 as part of a history and food class and I found my photo of her Bird's Nest Pie.

As I recall the main challenges were trying to find modern equivalents for many of the ingredients.
posted by vacapinta at 11:22 AM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


Fun! I liked hearing them talk about the "unwinding" name.

I think that vegetarian soup is called the Unwinding cuz it helps the ol' bod run smoothly.

Then again, it probably was relaxing to prepare a meal without having to do the Babylonian equivalent of buying lamb meat at the super market.
posted by orange ball at 11:32 AM on June 22, 2018


"They seem obsessed with every member of the onion family"

Me too, Babylonians, me too.
posted by eirias at 11:35 AM on June 22, 2018 [18 favorites]


So cool!
posted by delight at 11:39 AM on June 22, 2018


The British Museum have been uploading cooking videos (link to playlist) and one of them features a 5000 year old Egyptian beer recipe.
posted by sukeban at 11:39 AM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is terrific!

People in historical novels are always eating honey cakes. I want to make a little honey cake.

When I was an archaeology major, some other students made beer from an ancient Mesopotamian recipe for a project and brought it around for everyone to have a sip. It was a liquid the color of ricewater, flocculated, with sediment settling. The stuff smelled like the tail end of a Bud, and the taste was ... an acquired one, I should think. But it was probably no stronger than kombucha, and if it was the coolest, safest thing to drink, I bet you would get used to it pretty quickly.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:42 AM on June 22, 2018


This is so cool.
posted by corb at 12:00 PM on June 22, 2018


Historical recipes aren't much like recipes today. One big problem with understanding historical European food is the recipes don't include quantities of things. Or if they do they contain ludicrously large amounts of spices because they're contained in a description of some Lord's feast and they want to show how rich he is. So we know they may have used, say, black pepper if they had it but not really how much black pepper. Although presumably a lot: we still have a few holdovers from ~18th century Europe, highly spiced things like fruitcake.

Anyway that ambiguity is all for recipes that are only 200-500 years old. I can't imagine trying to go back thousands of years and make any sense of something. Even the ingredients are different, I have to imagine a Sumerian onion is something very different from an enormous sweet Vidalia onion.
posted by Nelson at 12:07 PM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


I love historical recipes and cooking. Any good book recommendations on the topic?
posted by Think_Long at 12:25 PM on June 22, 2018


I want to make a little honey cake.

Countess Elena - as a beekeeper, I can provide you with some excellent contemporary honey cake recipes as I really want the flavor of the honey to shine in any recipe.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:37 PM on June 22, 2018 [14 favorites]


This is super awesome! A perfect fpp for HopefulSummer if you want to add the tag. I would be really curious to try some of this in my own mouth.
posted by stoneweaver at 12:47 PM on June 22, 2018


Give Us The Recipes, Friend Of Bees!
posted by poffin boffin at 1:06 PM on June 22, 2018 [18 favorites]


Think Long: I have the Eileen Power translation of The Goodman of Paris which has a lot of recipes and is merchant class than aristocratic/noble so not full of sugar castles and reassembled swans. One warning though, we once followed a medieval fish pie recipe with the usual medieval spices, ginger, cloves, cinnamon. It was a very expensive mistake than ended up in the trash. Those spices though are still used in authentic mince meat and even in picadillo so it's hard to guess which flavors will be too weird for modern tastes.
posted by Botanizer at 1:55 PM on June 22, 2018


Or if they do they contain ludicrously large amounts of spices because they're contained in a description of some Lord's feast and they want to show how rich he is. So we know they may have used, say, black pepper if they had it but not really how much black pepper. Although presumably a lot: we still have a few holdovers from ~18th century Europe, highly spiced things like fruitcake.

Part of that was probably due to ostentation, but it was also probably because the spices were less potent after 1) being transported for several months to over a year in ambient conditions 2) possibly adulterated and 3) lacking the benefit of a few centuries of selective breeding and agricultural improvements. It is possible that many ancient and medieval recipes don't give specific quantities for spices precisely because the quality and potency of the spices on hand could be so variable.

It is true that culinary fashions change over time, but at the end of the day there are limits to how much (say) ginger, pepper, clove, or other strong spice someone can stand. Many medieval dishes in particular can be prepared anywhere from "lightly spiced" to "reminiscent of a modern curry" and be quite tasty anywhere in that range. It is likely that different ancient and medieval diners had different personal tastes, just as people do today.
posted by jedicus at 2:02 PM on June 22, 2018 [8 favorites]


I love historical recipes and cooking. Any good book recommendations on the topic?

For Roman dishes the best is Sally Grainger's Cooking Apicius. Try the beans in mustard sauce!

For the Byzantine Empire, pretty much the only game in town is Andrew Dalby's Tastes of Byzantium. There's an excellent recipe for roast goat in there, stuffed with onions and garlic.

For Viking Age Scandinavia Serra & Tunberg's An Early Meal is excellent and has great food photography. I can attest to the deliciousness of the boar stew.
posted by jedicus at 2:09 PM on June 22, 2018 [7 favorites]


Surely the birth of a new moniker, the Babylonions.
posted by Therapeutic Amputations at 2:48 PM on June 22, 2018 [4 favorites]


Think Long, I love A Mediterranean Feast, which is more history and anthropology than a cookbook but is also a cookbook. Gloriously multicultural.
posted by clew at 2:57 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing it's called "unwinding" because of certain laxative properties associated with plants in the Allium family.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:14 PM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


The book I was channeling was The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice . It's mostly a history of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam told in terms of their spice trades. But it touches a fair amount on the role spices played in European food and culture. No recipes though, just writing about how spices were used.
posted by Nelson at 3:19 PM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


"I love historical recipes and cooking. Any good book recommendations on the topic?"

Not a book, but Lords and Ladles, which you can stream one season of on Netflix (in the US, anyway), is an RTE show that features three Irish chefs going to Irish castles and cooking a feast from that castle's historical archives, ranging from 1666 to 1902 in the episodes I've watched so far. It's pretty interesting -- they do stuff about acquiring the ingredients as well as the cooking and castle history. Some of it is delicious, some of it is disgusting, and some of it just very absurd to modern sensibilities! (Things that did not actually taste that good, BUT took a bazillion man-hours to make and involved lots of then-expensive ingredients, that today can be acquired cheaply and prepared with labor-saving devices, so nobody eats it anymore because eating the bad food doesn't prove you're super-rich!)

Then the castle's present residents and some of their friends eat it all and discuss it. They do make some substitutions -- they left out eyeballs in one dish -- because they're trying to serve an actual meal to actual 21st-century people. They also make a few substitutions where an animal once-popular as food is now endangered, or similar. But even that's interesting because they talk about it as they do it, how it might change the flavor of the dish or why this thing that was once popular is now considered disgusting or whatever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:10 PM on June 22, 2018 [7 favorites]


I want the honey cake recipes too! (Countess Elena, we must be reading the same historical novels)
posted by alleycat01 at 8:20 PM on June 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


HONEY CAKES FOR THE HONEY FRIENDS
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:52 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


When reading of honey cakes, I always imagine honey stroopwafel.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:55 AM on June 23, 2018


There's a reference in the Talmud (approx 200 CE - 600 CE) that mentions what must have been a commonplace dish: "... foods such as a fish and the egg that's on it". I suspect that it means fish cooked in a batter, which I think would be much earlier than other references to fried fish, but who knows. Maybe it was literally a fish served with an egg poured over it. If it is fried battered fish, though, that's really interesting! Italian Jews were famous for fried fish, which they brought to England and eventually became half of the English working class staple, fish and chips. So who knows - maybe it was one of those foods that everyone knows and nobody documents, until suddenly it's so ubiquitous that you can't help noticing it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:07 AM on June 23, 2018 [4 favorites]


Recipe confusion can happen even more recently. I was recently looking over a notebook of my great aunt’s, with recipes she’d recorded sometime between 1920 and 1940, and more than once the instructions didn’t mention all the ingredients; on asking my mother she said “oh you do X”, even though I am certain she’d never made the recipe herself. Some steps seem so obvious that they don’t get written, and the knowledge can get lost in under a century.
posted by nat at 3:30 AM on June 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


One of the things that impressed me about Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy is how the characters are always eating: roasted squab here, beer and sausage there, no "iron rations" or lembas for Jack, no! Vance was without peer at world-building, and he knew how to set the table.
posted by SPrintF at 4:17 AM on June 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


There's an excellent recipe for roast goat in there, stuffed with onions and garlic.

And one can still find goat cooked in a similar manner in Greece (I'm feeling peckish).
posted by ersatz at 11:16 AM on June 23, 2018


This is my absolute favorite recipe. I make this all the time. You absolutely do not need the caramelized apples, though if you want to, they're pretty great, but this recipe is awesome all on its own.

Honey Cake with Caramelized Apples
adapted from a recipe by Mrs. Dina Lili Sziewicz of Melbourne, Australia

4 eggs
2 c sugar
1 c canola oil
2 c honey
2 c self rising flour (see tip)
2 c regular flour
2 tbsp cocoa
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
2 c boiling water
Caramelized Apples (included below)

Method:

Preheat oven to 350. Beat eggs and sugar until creamy. Add oil and honey and beat until incorporated. In a separate bowl, mix flours, cocoa, cinnamon and baking soda. Add wet ingredients and mix well. Pour boiling water into the batter and mix by hand. Pour into greased round pans (see note) and bake for about 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.

TIP: If you don’t have self rising flour, add 2 tsp salt + 3 tsp baking powder to a measuring cup, and add flour until you measure 2 cups.

NOTE: I prefer to bake this cake in round pans, it makes for a prettier presentation when topped with caramelized apples. Place 3 round pans on a cookie sheet in case some of the batter spills over. Burnt honey cake on the bottom of your oven is not pretty and smells awful :) If 3 cakes is too much for you, bring one as a hostess gift, or just halve the recipe.

PLAN AHEAD: This recipe freezes really well without the apples. Wrap well with 2 layers of saran wrap.

VARIATION: Try placing your honey caramelized apples on the bottom of the cake (this works great in a bundt) for a sunken apple and honey cake.

Caramelized apples
2 tbsp unsalted butter or margarine
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 large firm apples
pinch of cinnamon
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp apple juice or water

Core apples and peel if desired. Slice into 1/4″ wedges. Melt butter and sugar over low-medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture is bubbly, about 1 minute. Add apples and lemon juice and cook over medium heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Add in the cinnamon. Mix the cornstarch with the apple juice or water and add to the pot. Continue cooking until the liquid thickens.

NOTE: Be sure to use firm apples such as Braeburn, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Fuji or Gala. Softer apples will fall apart during cooking.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:28 PM on June 23, 2018 [15 favorites]


Thanks for the Lords and Ladles recommendation Eyebrows McGee. Watched the first episode last night and it's great! Actually bought Netflix to do it; my, um, usual sources don't do well with a show this niche in interest. Too bad, there's two more seasons that were broadcast in Ireland but aren't on Netflix and I couldn't find alternate sources. It may be streamable from RTE if you have an Irish IP address / VPN exit.

Anyway it's a delightful show. Kind of like Chopped with the "here's some bizarre ingredients; good luck!" Only instead of a timed competition it's cooperative and everyone gets to have more than a bit of fun. Nicely produced too.

I could imagine this show's format working great for Babylonian recipes.
posted by Nelson at 6:36 AM on June 24, 2018


Am I the only person here who, when reading an article (by which I mean the lead link in the post) discussing "possibly the oldest surviving recipes in the world," expects to see some effing recipes? I understand that a cuneiform recipe will look a tad bit opaque to the modern eye, but otherwise this article is only worthwhile for participants' parents and grandparents, who can stick it up on the fridge. And they clearly *did* come up with modern interpretations of the recipes, because the Fine Article mentions it. Bah.

On a separate subject, thanks all for the pointers to historical food blogs.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:36 PM on June 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Not a book, but Lords and Ladles, which you can stream one season of on Netflix (in the US, anyway), is an RTE show that features three Irish chefs going to Irish castles and cooking a feast from that castle's historical archives

You assume that Netflix has the best algorithm in the game, yet this show never once appeared in any of my recommendation streams. A travesty!
posted by Think_Long at 5:35 AM on June 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Lords and Ladles, I found this the other day.
posted by redrawturtle at 11:50 PM on June 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Give Us The Recipes, Friend Of Bees!

meanwhile
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:10 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


Not as old as many of the others here but The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened

Enjoy the cock ale!
posted by rough ashlar at 3:14 AM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


Historical recipes aren't much like recipes today. One big problem with understanding historical European food is the recipes don't include quantities of things.

Most cookbooks over a hundred years old don't include quantities. They were considered to be either obvious or to taste. Most chefs writing cookbooks today hire someone to help them determine what quantities of ingredients they use in their own recipes! Have you ever noticed that most cookbooks don't have a table of contents? I'm convinced this is because in most chef's minds a reader could simply skim the dish names and descriptions and pretty much know the recipes. Similarly, chefs often don't know the cooking times except in the most general sense for their dishes. They rely on taste, sight, sound, smell, touch cues to estimate done-ness. This is a rather long way of saying that historically it's our reliance on quantities and times that's strange.
posted by xammerboy at 10:47 PM on July 5, 2018


« Older The Warrior Pose   |   Queer Love In Color Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments