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The world’s oldest-known recipes decoded

A team of international scholars versed in culinary history, food chemistry and cuneiform studies has been recreating dishes from the world’s oldest-known recipes.

The instructions for lamb stew read more like a list of ingredients than a bona fide recipe: “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” But it’s impossible to ask the chef to reveal the missing pieces: This recipe’s writer has been dead for some 4,000 years.

Instead, a team of international scholars versed in culinary history, food chemistry and cuneiform (the Babylonian system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia) have been working to recreate this dish and three others from the world’s oldest-known recipes. It’s a sort of culinary archaeology that uses tablets from Yale University’s Babylonian Collection to gain a deeper understanding of that culture through the lens of taste.

“It’s like trying to reconstruct a song; a single note can make all the difference,” said Gojko Barjamovic, pointing to the paperback-sized tablets under glass at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Barjamovic, a Harvard University Assyriology expert, retranslated the tablets and put together the interdisciplinary team tasked with bringing the recipes back to life.

A team of scholars are recreating ancient recipes from cuneiform tablets (Credit: Credit: Yale Babylonian Collection)
A team of scholars are recreating ancient recipes from cuneiform tablets (Credit: Yale Babylonian Collection)
Three of Yale’s tablets date to around 1730BC, and a fourth is from about 1,000 years later. All of the tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, which includes Babylon and Assyria – what is today the regions of Iraq south of Baghdad and north of Baghdad, including parts of Syria and Turkey. Of the older three tablets, the most intact is more of a listing of ingredients that amounts to 25 recipes of stews and broths; the other two, containing an additional 10-plus recipes, go further in depth with cooking instructions and presentation suggestions, but those are broken and therefore not as legible.

The challenge was to peel back the layers of history while also maintaining authenticity amid the limitations of modern ingredients.

“They’re not very informative recipes – maybe four lines long – so you are making a lot of assumptions,” said Pia Sorensen, a Harvard University food chemist who worked, along with Harvard Science and Cooking Fellow Patricia Jurado Gonzalez, on perfecting the proportions of ingredients using a scientific approach of hypothesis, controls and variables….[ ]

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