Ancient Mesopotamians may have enjoyed some really sophisticated cuisine.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated November 05, 2019

When I was a kid, my mom kept all of her recipes on index cards in a box. It seems antiquated compared to today where the best recipes in the world are just a click away. But even Mom had it easy compared to the Babylonians and Assyrians of about 4,000 years ago. These ancient chefs saved their recipes on stone tablets—and it’s a good thing they went through the hassle. Researchers are currently working to recreate dishes from these cuneiform tablets, the youngest of which are still from about 1730 B.C.

A team of scholars have been diligently attempting to recreate four dishes found on tablets in Yale University’s Babylonian Collection that are said to contain the world’s oldest-known recipes. According to the BBC, their work goes way beyond simply slaving over a hot stove. First, the tablets have to be translated, which is the job of Gojko Barjamovic, a Harvard University Assyriology expert. That tricky step only gets you so far: These chefs likely weren’t considering an audience four millennia into the future, so modern-day chefs are left with a lot of gaps to fill in. The BBC provides one such translation: “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.” Not a gram or teaspoon to be found.

Ancient Assyrian and Sumerian cuneiform carving on stone from Mesopotamia.
| Credit: herraez/Getty Images

Ancient Assyrian and Sumerian cuneiform carving on stone from Mesopotamia.

herraez/Getty Images herraez/Getty Images

Still, many of the culinary traditions in the region—which is now parts of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—are apparently similar enough where they can inform educated guesses on how to fill out the typically four-lines long recipes. “All of the food materials today and 4,000 years ago are the same: a piece of meat is basically a piece of meat,” Harvard Science and Cooking Fellow Patricia Jurado Gonzalez was quoted as saying. “From a physics point of view, the process is the same. There is a science there that is the same today as it was 4,000 years ago.” And once those steps have been taken, they use the oldest cooking trick in the book: deciding if it tastes good.

But probably the most incredible thing is that the researchers say these recipes offer a level of sophistication. Some of the recipes found suggested presentations or played with a diner’s expectations. Spices were combined, and colorful ingredients were used to add flair. And the chefs apparently understood that their food was different than that of other areas. “There is a notion of ‘cuisine’ in these 4,000-year-old texts. There is food which is ‘ours’ and food that is ‘foreign,’” Barjamovic told the BBC. “Foreign is not bad—only different, and sometimes apparently worth cooking, since they give us the recipe.”