The world’s oldest recipe collection
The invention of gastronomy did not take place in the Egypt of the first pharaohs, nor in the ancient Chinese civilisation on the Yellow River, nor in the early Indus culture. According to all we know today, it occurred in the 18th century BC in Babylon under King Hammurabi. The evidence that allows us to speak of an actual “haute cuisine” in view of the palace and temple cuisine of the land on the Euphrates and Tigris is indeed impressive. With the “Yale Culinary Tablets” we possess the oldest collection of recipes in the world. It is, as it were, a cookbook in cuneiform tablets, from which we can infer the existence of a fully developed gastronomic culture with specialised cooks, sometimes distinctly noble products and a multitude of forms of preparation.
The fact that this happened in this place and at this time has several reasons. For one thing, Babylonia lies in the region of the “Fertile Crescent”, which is often called the “cradle of human civilisation”. Here, man becomes sedentary. Not only does he domesticate plants such as wild cereals and is thus able to practise agriculture. After overhunting the local gazelle population, he tames wild animals such as dogs, sheep, goats, wild boar and aurochs for the first time. The region’s “hydraulic culture” also benefits enormously from the Euphrates and Tigris. The rivers provide drinking water and protein through fishing and shellfish beds, they bring goods, people, ideas. Above all, they make the surrounding land fertile through periodically recurring floods.
The world as a restaurant for the gods
Not a bad start, but another thousand years would pass in the advanced civilisations of Mesopotamia before gastronomy was born. Then, in the 18th century BCE, King Hammurabi succeeds in reuniting the various kingdoms of the region. The charismatic ruler, who was to become immortal as the King of Justice with the Codex named after him, turns the former small town of Babylon into the towering metropolis of the Ancient Near East. It is a new city for a new god named Marduk. In his honour, massive temples are erected as his dwelling place.
Hamurabi, like no ruler before him, is absorbed in the central role prescribed by his culture: providing the gods with food and drink. For according to a central Mesopotamian creation myth, the emergence of man owed itself solely to the need to feed the gods with food and drink. In fact, the name Babylon comes from Babili, the gate of the gods. In other words, for Marduk and his minor gods, Babylon was their favourite pub.
The birth of gastronomy
It is this cultic function of food and drink in Babylon that leads to the birth of gastronomy around 1750 BC. Even if a large part of the food was not consumed, but sacrificed in ritual by the priestly caste in the enormous temple complexes: In the palace of the king, who by his function was himself accepted into the circle of the gods, cooking was hardly less elaborate. And it is also the cultic function of the food that has ensured that at least 35 recipes of this temple and palace cuisine of Babylon have been handed down on three cuneiform tablets. For this was knowledge for rulers and priests, not a guidebook for cooks who were unable to read.
But what was cooked for gods and kings almost 4,000 years ago? 21 of the 25 recipes handed down on plate 4644 are in any case prepared with meat – including beef, lamb, goat, pork, deer and wild fowl. Four are vegetarian. They are often combinations of meat with vegetables and cereals soaked in broth. Fats play an important role, onions and their relatives garlic and leeks are almost ubiquitous. Salt, herbs and spices are also used. From these and other sources we know that freshwater and saltwater fish as well as turtles were also consumed. In addition, different types of cereals, vegetables, mushrooms and of course fruits such as apples, figs, dates, grapes and pomegranates.
Cooks and preparations 4,000 years ago
We have knowledge of about 20 kinds of cheese, 100 variations of soup and 300 kinds of bread. The chefs of the time mastered drying, smoking and fermenting food. Fruits were preserved in honey. Food was prepared in milk, clarified butter, vegetable fats such as olive or sesame oil. Sweetening was done with honey, sultanas or boiled grape juice. For simple occasions, beer was served, for important occasions, precious wine from the north.
None of the (exclusively male) cooks called “Nuhatimmu”, who were pronounced experts, have been handed down to us by name. However, the cuneiform texts twice mention the local origin of foreign recipes. In style, all recipes, most of which contain only two to four lines each, are extremely sober. Nevertheless, as the French Assyrologist Jean Bottéro writes, “it is a cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry. All the characteristics of Mesopotamian cuisine point to a serious interest in food on the part of the diners, which we may certainly call gastronomy.”
In the Ancient Orient, “haute cuisine” was created as food and drink for the gods. It will remain associated with the Orient for thousands of years. But one of Hamurabi’s subjects, according to all we know, was a man named Abraham. He was inspired by many of his king’s legislative initiatives, but he rejected his king’s idolatry. The birth of luxury and the criticism of it have the same roots.
The plate: Lamb stew
As in all episodes of the series “The History of Cookery in 100 Plates” (more on the project here), we want to present one dish in more detail. The “lamb stew” is found on plate 4644, according to Jean Bottéro the translation of the recipe reads: “No other meat is used. Take water, add fat, dodder as desired, salt to taste, onion, samidu, coriander, leek and garlic, on the fire. From the fire add pressed kisimmu. Cut the meat and serve.” Laura Kelley interprets dodder as wild licorice, samidu as a type of flour, and kisimmu as a cheese- or yogurt-like dairy product.
Featured Image: Austen Henry Layard: Artist’s impression of Assyrian palaces, from a sketch by James Fergusson. In: The Monuments of Nineveh, Vol 2, 1853. Quelle: British Museum.
Cuneiform tablet: Yale University Library, Yale Babylonian Collection.
Codex Hammurabi: Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photographer: RamaGypsum reliefs banquet scene, royal kitchen as well as soldiers: The British Museum.
Lamb stew: Stefan Pegatzky/Time Tunnel Images
Jean Bottéro: The Oldest Cuisine in the World. Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago 2011.
Laura Kelley: Some Mesopotamian Ingredients Revealed. silkroadgourmet.com 2010.
Stefan M. Maul: Bier und Wein für die Götter. In: Damals. Das Magazin für Geschichte und Kultur 7, 2008, S. 26-31.