Chef Breaks Code to Ancient Recipes : Babylonian Collection Now the Oldest Known to Man


The cuisine of ancient Mesopotamia could be the hottest thing to hit the food world since the discovery of fire. The flurry of scholarly excitement over the first published translation of the oldest known written recipes promises to add a significant chapter to the history of food. It is doubtful, however, that chefs, no matter how desperate for a new wrinkle, will introduce dishes dating to the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon to Manhattan’s trendy dining spots next season.

Recipe tablets from the Yale Babylonian Collection, previously thought to contain pharmaceutical formulas, have been decoded by French Assyriologist and gourmet chef Jean Bottero. The three Akkadian tablets, dating to about 1700 BC, revealed, Bottero wrote in a description of his find, “a cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period. Previously we would not have dared to think a cuisine 4,000 years old was so advanced.”

Herbs and Spices

Various cooking techniques were known, and a complex assortment of herbs and spices was used to flavor a single dish. Garnishes and presentation were so highly esteemed that they were mentioned in recipes that are otherwise not highly detailed. In one recipe, crumbled bread provided a thickening. And, just as modern cooks collect recipes from other regions or countries, the Mesopotamian chefs gave credit to the Assyrians to the north for one stew and to the Elamites from the southwest corner of Iran for another.


Although some of the ingredients are unknown to us today or cannot be translated, the discovery of such ancient recipes is unparalleled. Until quite recently, the oldest surviving collection of recipes was that attributed to Apicius, the Roman gourmet who lived at the beginning of the first century.

Apicius’ “De Re Coquinaria” (“On Culinary Art,” also sometimes translated as “Of Culinary Matters”) had been preceded by other recipe anthologies by the Greeks, but most of these works are lost, according to Bottero, save for a few quotations that were preserved in the work of Athenaeus of Naucratis, who lived in the second century. Athenaeus mentions the names of as many as 20 cookbook authors, but none of their work survived in its original form. And in the Bible, while food is mentioned, there are no conventional recipes.

Largely Vegetarian Diet

“We know that both the Egyptians and the Hittites had developed distinctive cuisines,” said Bottero, a professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. “But we do not, in either case, have a single recipe which would give us a sufficiently detailed picture of how the food was prepared.” Of the 25 Mesopotamian recipes translated by Bottero, 21 are for meat dishes and only four are vegetable preparations, but this proportion is not an accurate sampling of the overall diet, which was largely vegetarian. According to William Hallo, master of Yale’s Morse College and curator of the Babylonian Collection, these recipes were written on tablets prepared by ancient scribes as part of advanced training in cuneiform, a form of writing using pictures and symbols.

The tablets survived and were found, and in 1933, they were catalogued into Yale’s collection. Mary Inda Hussey, who died in 1952, had made hand copies of some of them, and Albrecht Goetze, a Yale professor of Assyriology, tried his hand at deciphering them--”21 entries concerning water of the meat and four on herb”--in an introduction, never published, to Hussey’s work. For a time, the work languished. But at last, Jan van Dijk, who was doing hand copies of other, related tablets for publication by Yale University Press, told Bottero of their existence. They will be published this fall as Volume 11 of the Yale Oriental Series: Babylonian Texts.

Hallo, who is also professor of Assyriology at Yale, said the tablets were very difficult to translate, “and we have the happy accident that Bottero has a special interest.” Some of Hallo’s Yale colleagues, including Benjamin Foster, have dined sumptuously on Bottero’s own modern European cooking at Bottero’s home in Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris.

The code to the tablets was hard to crack. “I thought they were magical texts,” said Foster, associate professor of Assyriology at Yale. Foster respects Bottero for more than his academic expertise. He is a specialist in Provencal cuisine and, Foster said, “one of the best gourmet cooks in France.”


Despite Bottero’s reputation as a chef, he said in a telephone interview that he would not attempt to re-create the recipes, although some business friends begged him to try. “The cook knows many things from having seen people work,” Bottero said. “We can’t identify all the ingredients, many words escape us.” Imagine, he said, if we’d gotten a recipe from Japan with only a list of ingredients and no directions.

Certain ingredients are, indeed, impossible to guess at. Suhutinnu and samidu, heavily relied upon in the recipes, were probably members of the onion family, Bottero said. As for surummu, another staple of the cuisine, Bottero wrote succinctly, “we know nothing.”

Even if contemporary cooks could arrive at an approximation of the recipes, they might relish the finished product only as a curiosity, for these ancient peoples were exceptionally fond of fat and often used no salt in their cooking. Then, too, directions require a certain amount of guesswork by the modern-day cook who is not familiar, for instance, with exactly what it meant to the Mesopotamians to “prepare water.”

In Bottero’s article, translated from the French, he hypothesized: “The name of each dish is preceded by the generic term me which literally means water but in this context signifies something similar to bouillon, stew or possibly a sauce. . . . If we knew the strength and consistency of the liquid in its final form we would better understand what me means.”

Said Hallo: “They were writing-happy. They committed everything to writing. But they were laconic. Much is left to the imagination.”

In the translation of Bottero’s article, it is noted that the style of the recipes is “extremely compressed, reminding one of the cookbooks written for professional chefs in our own era, such as the ‘Guide Culinaire’ by Auguste Escoffier.”

Other Tablets to Translate

The Yale collection, one of the five largest Babylonian collections in the world and the largest in this country, contains 40,000 pieces, of which about 30,000 are inscribed tablets, housed in a dehumidified environment to approximate the dry climate of Iraq. Such a wealth of material causes speculation that perhaps other tablets, at Yale or elsewhere, formerly thought to contain formulas for medicines or herbs, will reveal recipes when a scholar with an interest in culinary arts eventually takes a crack at them.

Even before Bottero decoded the text of the recipe tablets, Hallo said, a great deal was known about the foods in the Mesopotamian diet, because tablets bearing lists of staples and information that amounted to a farmer’s almanac had been translated. We know, for example, how much seed grain was planted per acre. Date palm was enthusiastically cultivated. Wine making and the cultivation of barley for beer flourished. Also surviving are records of the meager rations allotted to workers--about a quart of barley a day for men, half that for women and still less for children, and minuscule amounts of only six other foods.


But meat, Hallo said, “was a rare item, confined to festival occasions.” Animals were considered useful primarily for hide, milk, wool, the pulling of carts and war chariots and for dung, the universal fuel. The elite ate some meat. When sacrifices of animals were made, members of the priesthood and some lucky lay people could feast on the meat. Entrails were not considered edible, Hallo said, but “the liver, lungs and intestines were used to foretell the future.” The color of the liver, for example, supposedly predicted sagacious appointments and the outcome of battles.

Upper-Crust Delicacies

It is thus reasonable to assume that the recipes that have been translated by Bottero were for delicacies for the upper crust. The ability to write and read in itself constituted a profession, and it took years of subsidized leisure and patient practice to master the largely ideographic writing system. There was no alphabet.

This inconvenience leads to dissension over some details. For example, Hallo said, some other scholars translate as fresh fish what he translates as smoked fish. There is room for disagreement, because in cuneiform, a single sign stands for an entire word and several different readings may be possible. But, Hallo said, besides the contextual evidence, common sense dictates that “in a climate like that, in these quantities, fish by the thousands would not last long enough. There were not enough people to consume it before it spoiled.” So he holds that the fish was smoked.

“We are frustrated by the laconic text and the economy of wording,” Hallo said. But, he added, many examples exist; this aids in educated guessing.

Of one recipe for preparing fowl, Bottero wrote that many steps are taken “to produce one dainty. If the goal had been simply to cook them, it would have sufficed to have thrown the birds on the fire. Instead we see a cooking method which has been adapted to different techniques of preparation, numerous utensils used, each with its own purpose, and complex combinations of foods, especially seasoning. Even though the seasonings combined are complementary, some dishes call for as many as 10 of them. The Mesopotamian taste does not seek unseasoned food, nor does it savor each flavor separately. A different goal, in my opinion a superior goal, is sought--the savor of the combination of all the ingredients’ flavors.

“Finally, note the great attention paid to the garnishes. All of the features of Mesopotamian cookery point to a serious interest in food on the part of the guests, which we are surely entitled to call gastronomy. They reveal a level of technical skill, a professional dedication, actually a complex and detailed art practiced by the cooks and other kitchen workers.”